The Separation of God and State?

Virtually every week there is some outrageous story of an alleged violation of the separation of church and state. They’re becoming so frequent that they are often met with a collective yawn.

The crazy thing about all this is how removed this is from the clear intent of the founders themselves—as seen in their documents, in their actions, in their words, etc.

A lot of times when the pro-religious freedom side fights back, we win. (That’s because the constitution and the history is on our side.) But that takes a lot of courage and energy. And many people would rather just go with the flow and turn the other cheek, which is understandable. Yet over time, we find our liberties being chipped away piece by piece.

Liberty Institute of Plano, Texas is one of those groups that fights for Christian expression in the public arena. They reported just the other day (May 9, 2013) on a victory of some brave high school cheerleaders, standing up for religious freedom.

Kountze, Texas has a population of 2,123 according to the 2010 census. The high school cheerleaders in this small town in the eastern part of the state have had the custom of writing encouraging Bible verses on the banners the players would run through.

But the Freedom From Religion Foundation (based in Wisconsin) complained and threatened to sue, so last fall the superintendent stopped the practice. But with the help of Liberty Institute, the cheerleaders won a victory in court to resume the practice. The legal group noted, “Liberty Institute is proud of these young women for taking a bold stand.”

Stepping back, let me ask a question in this case: Where’s the church? Where’s the state?

Why is it that any sort of Christian expression in the public arena is not allowed, but virtually every other expression is allowed?

There is no question that we can find lots of evidence that the founders wanted the separation of the institution of the church from the institution of the state. They did not want to have a national state-church, as was most often the case in Europe.

They saw the persecution that was often meted out to dissenters in such a scenario. Here in America the various denominations were forced to work with each other to prevent that from happening. They said in the first right listed in the Bill of Rights there would be no establishment of religion by the federal government and no denying the free exercise of religion. Thus, a separation of the institution of the church from that of the state, at the federal level.

But there is zero, zip, nada evidence for the idea that they wanted us to have the separation of God and state—which is what we have in effect today.

The very men who gave us the Bill of Rights asked President Washington to declare a national day of thanksgiving (to God) for the right to peaceably create our government. Washington complied, and he made his proclamation on October 3, 1789. There’s even an oblique reference to Jesus (“the ruler of the nations,” based on Psalm 2 and Revelation 12) in that proclamation.

It was understood for the first 150 years of American history under the constitution that the establishment clause did not mean to separate God and state—which is what we have now, in effect.

Changes of interpretation began in 1947, when the Supreme Court took an obscure letter from Thomas Jefferson and used that letter to the Baptists of Danbury, Connecticut as the final arbiter of what the establishment clause meant.

On January 1, 1802, Jefferson wrote them, “Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between man and his God, that he owes account to none other for faith or his worship, that the legislative powers of government reach actions only, and not opinions, I contemplate with solemn 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 and State.”

First of all, why should Jefferson be the final arbiter of what the establishment clause means? Jefferson was in France when the constitution was written. He was back in the US when the Bill of Rights were written, but he wasn’t there directly participating in the process. Why wouldn’t Madison or Washington or Fisher Ames (who wrote the final wording of the first amendment) be better sources to turn to? Second, such a wall was intended to protect everyone—including believers.

Interestingly, even if the Supreme Court were correct to make Jefferson the final arbiter of the understanding of the first amendment, then Jefferson himself violated the separation of church and state in the very letter that gave us the phrase.

How so? He ends the letter asking them to pray for him as he will commit to pray for them: “I reciprocate your kind prayers for the protection and blessing of the common Father and Creator of man, and tender you for yourselves and your religious association, assurances of my high respect and esteem.”

That’s ridiculous. It’s about as ridiculous as saying the constitution is unconstitutional because it mentions God in the signature part. It says that it was “done in the year of our Lord” 1787.

It’s about as ridiculous as saying cheerleaders in a small Texas town can’t have Bible verses on their run-through banners.