The Founders’ View of the Role of Church and State Part I

There is no question that religion has played a significant role in the history of the United States. One can see its influence in the public square today. For example, “In God We Trust” is stamped on U.S. currency. “One Nation Under God” is part of the Pledge of Allegiance to the American Flag.The Ten Commandments are posted inside the Supreme Court. And Congress asks the president every year to declare a National Day of Prayer. These public acknowledgments of religion by the government apparently do not violate the Establishment Clause of the Constitution. Unfortunately, an increasing number of people think that these examples violate the “separation of church and state” principal found in the Constitution This could not be further from the truth. The Founders’ view needs to be reiterated again and again if we are to reclaim the Constitutional foundation of the country, and the freedom it affords us. Not only is the “separation of church and state” not in the U.S. Constitution, but the phrase itself was taken out of context. The founders of this country created the First Amendment to protect the freedom of religion while prohibiting the government from establishing its own. The phrase “separation of church and state” was first used as legal precedent in 1947 in the case of Everson V. Board of Education. Justice Hugo Black wrote, as quoted in the Wall of Separation , by Frank J.Sorauf:

Neither a state nor federal government can set
up a church. Neither can pass laws which aid one
religion, and all religions, or prefer one religion
over another. Neither can force nor influence a
person to go to or remain away from church against
his will or force him to profess a belief or disbelief
in any religion… Neither a state nor the Federal
government can, openly or secretly, participate in
the affairs of any religious organizations or groups
and vice versa. In the words of Jefferson, the
clause against establishment of religion by law
was intended to erect ‘a wall of separation between
church and state’… That wall must be kept high and impregnable.
We could not approve the smallest breach (19-20).

One may get the impression that the “separation of church and state” has a solid legal constitutional foundation. However, the origin of the phrase is not in the constitution nor in the Bill of Rights. Furthermore, Thomas Jefferson, the man who said it, wasn’t at the constitutional convention in 1787, as John Eidsmoe points out. He wasn’t even part of the ratification process because he was serving as U.S. Minister to France at the time. Jefferson made his famous statement about church/state relations thirteen years after the constitution was approved.
He said,

I contemplate with solemn reverence the act
of the whole American people that their
legislature should ‘make no law respecting an
establishment of religion or prohibiting the
free exercise thereof,’ thus building a wall
of separation of Church and State” (242).

Eidsmoe further stipulates that Jefferson borrowed the now-famous metaphor from the famous Baptist minister, Roger Williams, whose denomination was shared by the people Jefferson was addressing at the time. Williams wrote,

When they have opened the gap in the hedge
or wall of separation between the garden of
the church and the wilderness of the world,
God hath ever broke down the wall itself,
removed the candle stick, and made his garden
a wilderness, as at the day. And that there fore
if he will eer please to restore His garden and
paradise again, it must of necessity be walled
in peculiarly unto Himself from the world (243).

If this is true, the modern interpretation of protecting the state from the church is wrong. It should be the other way around. The church needs to be protected from the state. Eidsmoe goes on to say that Jefferson used the term ‘state’ to refer to the federal government. Jefferson never thought that the states themselves should be separated from religion, as we understand it today. For evidence, he points to Jefferson’s second Inaugural address:

In matters of religion I have considered that
its free exercise is placed by the constitution
independent of the powers of the General
Government. I have therefore undertaken on
no occasion to prescribe the religious exercise
suited to them, under the direction and discipline
of the church or state authorities acknowledged
by the several religious societies (243).

Jefferson expounded on the belief later on in life when he wrote:

I consider the government of the United States
as interdicted by the Constitution from inter-
meddling with religious institutions, their doctrines,
disciplines or exercises. This results not only
from the provision that no law shall be made
respecting the establishment or free exercise
of religion, but from that also which reserves
to the states the powers not delegated to the
United States. Clearly, no power to prescribe
any religious exercise, or to assume authority
in religious discipline, has been delegated to the
general government (243).

According to Eidsmoe, Jefferson indicates that “the wall” means that the church is not under the power of the federal government because, under the Constitution, the government was not given any such power. “It does not mean that the states and the churches could not interact with one another” (244).

As for Jefferson’s beliefs on the role of a particular state in religion, he wrote:

The rights of conscience we never submitted,
we could not submit. We are answerable for
them to our God. The legitimate powers of
government extend to such acts only as are
injurious to others. But it does me no injury
for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods,
or no god. It neither picks my pockets nor
breaks by leg” (as quoted in Regulating Religion
by Catharine Cookson, pg 83).

Many have interpreted Thomas Jefferson’s views as being against religious freedom because of his use of the phrase, “separation of church and state,” yet, as Robert L. Cord points out in his book, Separation of Church and State: Historical Fact and Current Fiction,” These historical facts indicate that Jefferson…did not see the First Amendment and the Establishment Clause requiring complete independence of religion and government” (45). In fact, Jefferson felt the need to protect religious liberty was so great that in 1779 he introduced a bill in the Virginia General Assembly known as “A Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom.” It guaranteed religious freedom as a natural right, and Jefferson, himself, felt that this was one of the most important accomplishments of his career. He, as William Bennett noted in his book, Our Sacred Honor, had this listed, along with his writing of the Declaration of Independence and his founding of the University of Virginia, on his tombstone.

In light of this historical evidence, the First Amendment to the Constitution has a different interpretation than the one put forth by the most famous court opinion on the subject. We will discover that as we examine the text itself in the coming weeks. But for now, we know that our Founders did not view the free practice of religion as a threat. They feared a government that would seek to infringe that freedom

Bennett, William J. ed. Our Sacred Honor: Words of Advice from the
Founders in Stories, Letters, Poems, and Speeches. New York: Simon & Shuster, 1997.

Cookson, Catharine. Regulating Religion: The Courts and the Free Exercise
Clause. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.

Cord, Robert L. Separation of Church and State: Historical Fact and Current
Fiction. New York: Lambeth Press, 1982.

Eidsmoe, John. Christianity and the Constitution: The Faith of our Founding
Fathers. Grand Rapids. Baker Books, 2000.

Sorauf, Frank J. The Wall of Separation: The Constitutional Politics of
Church and State. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1976.

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About Katherine Wacker

Katherine Wacker is currently a reviewer for Bethany House Publishers, and Howard Books. She is a Craftsman graduate of the Jerry B. Jenkins Christian Writer’s Guild. She holds a B.A in History from San Diego State-Imperial Valley Campus. In her spare time she likes to read books, watch sports, and do jigsaw puzzles. She lives at home with her parents and three dogs, Charlie, Roscoe and Daisy.
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