Church & State

Many Americans seem confused when it comes to the issue of religion and government. For example, James T. Meeks, candidate for mayor of Chicago, doesn’t understand why his church can’t support his candidacy. Delaware senatorial candidate Christine O’Donnell publicly questions the concept of a “wall of separation between church and state.” Various faith-based groups consistently seek to supplant science curriculum with teachings of creationism or intelligent design. These instances, along with countless more, illustrate a pervasive confusion surrounding the nation’s principle of separating church and state as well the significant benefits of doing so to both entities.

Constitutional Origins

The founding of the United States was a truly remarkable moment. It was the first nation in human history to assert that the authority for governing was derived directly from the people, not the divine right of kings. The influences of the enlightenment including notions of natural rights and a limited secular state inspired many of the founding fathers. It was a new and untested idea that religion did not need or want the support of the government and that the state would benefit from dedication to freedom of conscience.

It is important to remember that the philosophy did not initially match the reality. While early settlers fled the grip of religious persecution many sought to simply establish their own theocratic communities. Both the Virginia and Massachusetts Bay colonies passed laws against blasphemy under penalty of death. By the time the U.S. Constitution was adopted in 1787 many states had established churches, and Massachusetts retained an establishment of religion in general until 1833. These officially established churches would often tax all citizens, prevent non-members from holding public office, and even prosecute dissenters.

People were embittered by state sponsored religious sects trampling on the rights of citizens. When Thomas Jefferson used the language of “unalienable rights endowed by our Creator” in the Declaration of Independence, he was appealing to the prevailing view of religious pluralism and acceptance. It is therefore remarkable and instructive that the U.S. Constitution contains no mention of Christianity or Jesus Christ, despite attempts made by delegates at the Constitutional Convention. Clearly, the nation was founded with a principle, guaranteed by the bill of rights, of freedom of conscience. This view has been upheld throughout our legal history and is best summarized by Justice John Paul Stevens:

“When the underlying principle has been examined in the crucible of litigation, the Court has unambiguously concluded that the individual freedom of conscience protected by the First Amendment embraces the right to select any religious faith or none at all.”

A Wall of Separation

Some interpret the establishment and free-exercise clauses of the first amendment to mean simply that that federal government has no business getting involved with religion. However, people must be protected from religion, just as religion must be protected from government. The prominent metaphor for this topic was introduced in Jefferson’s church and state phrase from an 1802 letter to the Danbury Baptist Association:

“Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, & not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should ‘make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,’ thus building a wall of separation between Church & State. [emphasis added]”

Jefferson did not author the Constitution or first amendment, but he articulated a distinct idea supported by the nation’s founding that citizens should not be compelled to support religion or be subjected to its requirements in the public sphere. This wall of separation metaphor is important to understanding why tax-exempt churches should not become vehicles for partisan politics, why children should not be required to engage in prayer in public schools, and why religious tests for office are detrimental to the freedom of religion.

There are several criticisms and concerns with the metaphor. Many people fear that the erection of a wall would separate religious influences from public life  and potentially stifle the development of morality and civic virtue. They also worry that it empowers government to define and, thus, restrict the place of religion in society thus silencing the religious voice in the public square. They do not necessarily support religious establishment, but argue for equal treatment without government inhibition.

If properly applied, there is little to worry about with the metaphor. In fact, the separation ensures the avoidance of majority oppression and promotes a free market of religious activity. Ultimately, the coercion of the state is not an effective method for inculcating faith and ultimately insincere belief cannot lead to salvation or other positive religious outcomes.

Lastly, society should certainly avoid privatizing issues of conscience and should encourage all citizens to speak their minds in public. We must equally honor the ability for all people to discuss important questions of life, meaning and personal values. That does not mean, however, that religious belief can receive preferential treatment or be immune from the same standards of analysis and criticism inherent to political debate.

Church & State Issues

Unfortunately, there are those who not only worry for the oppression of religion but seek the advancement of their religious beliefs at the expense of their fellow citizens. Ironically, many of these same individuals then vehemently protest either the public criticism of their beliefs or the rights of other religions to establish places or worship or practice their faith. Here are several of the prominent issues society faces regarding church and state:

  • Tax-Exemption: By virtue of being granted tax-exempt status by government, like all other non-profit organizations, churches may not endorse or oppose candidates. Clergy are permitted to address public policy concerns such as abortion, gay rights or the death penalty. They are not, however, allowed to use their voice or resources to support partisan politics while maintaining their tax favored status.
  • “Faith-Based” Initiatives: This program, started by President George W. Bush, funnels taxpayer dollars to religious social service providers. Unfortunately these groups are not proven to be more effective than secular counterparts and often end up proselytizing and discriminating in hiring, all with public funds. Further, government funding brings regulation and threatens the independence of religious institutions.
  • Freedom of Religion: Government may not compel people to take religious oaths for public office or oaths of affirmation such as “so help me God.” Likewise, government should be neutral on faith and not promote sectarian prayers (or in some cases any prayers) for legislatures or school-boards. Also, the government can erect holiday displays as long as they celebrate the secular rather than religious significance or origins.
  • Definition of Marriage: There are a wide variety of stances on the issues of marriage and sexuality and the narrow interpretation of any religious tradition should not dictate policy for all. Houses of worship are free to limit marriage on whatever theological grounds they choose. Public policy regarding marriage, however, should be based on sound discourse and pluralistic realities of our society.
  • Religion in Schools: The classrooms of public schools are not the proper place for school-sponsored worship due to the variety of religious and philosophical backgrounds represented. Further, teaching religious doctrines like creationism or intelligent design constitutes religious endorsement. Also, religion can be taught in public schools but it must be from a secular, objective perspective.
  • School-Vouchers: Taxpayers should not be required to subsidize indoctrination of children. Therefore school-voucher programs must ensure families are truly free to use them at a variety of secular and religious schools. Religious organizations supporting schools should provide for their funding without taxpayer subsidy.

These issues and others are complex and often require nuanced and detailed discussion. For a better understanding of the issues related to the separation of church and state in society please visit

Note, however, that separating church and state does not relegate conscience to the confines of privacy. Issues like abortion and stem-cell research require us to discuss religious convictions and debate ideas in the public sphere. How can we come to public policy decision about stem-cells without debating the person-hood of a zygote or the consistency with In Vitro Fertilization (IVF) policy? The separation of religion and government does NOT mean the separation of conscience and politics.

A Christian Nation

The United States Constitution is clearly a secular document that does not support the common claim that America was founded as a Christian nation. Many of the founding fathers were even professed deists who rejected tenants of Christianity and a personal intervening god. A 1797 U.S. treaty with Tripoli specifically stated that “the government of the United States is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion…”  James Madison best described the reasoning of why establishment of religion was a bad idea in Memorial and Remonstrance:

“During almost fifteen centuries, has the legal establishment of Christianity been on trial. What have been its fruits? More or less in all places, pride and indolence in the Clergy, ignorance and servility in the laity, in both, superstition, bigotry and persecution.”

All state constitutions do mention a creator and eight even prohibit atheists from holding office (although the Supreme Court holds those provisions unenforceable), yet they all contain protections of religious liberty like the first amendment. While most Americans currently identify as Christians, there could be a point in the future where most Americans identify as Buddhist, Muslim or irreligious.


Consider the situation in early 2006 when an Afghan citizen named Abdul Rahman converted from Islam to Christianity and was sentenced to death for apostasy. This happened because Article 3 of the new Afghan constitution stated that “no law can be contrary to the beliefs and provisions of the sacred religion of Islam.” While Mr. Rahman’s life was saved by an international outcry, the lesson in religious ties to the state are unavoidable.

We should protect our national openness to people of all faiths or none since so many people in the world suffer from religious oppression. The religious liberty oriented organization Americans United for the Separation of Church and State sums up this wonderful aspect of our democracy:

“Our government is neutral on religious matters, leaving such decisions to individuals. This democratic and pluralistic system has allowed a broad array of religious groups to grow and flourish and guarantees every individual American the right to determine his or her own spiritual path – or to reject religion entirely. We should be proud of this accomplishment and work to preserve the constitutional principle that made it possible – separation of church and state”

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