Separation Of Church And State: Essential To Religious Liberty

My fellow UL contributor Louis DeBroux makes an argument about the separation of church and state that is fairly common on the right, but it’s one that constitutes both a misstatement of history and a misunderstanding of what religious liberty is all about.

First, on the historical side, Louis makes this contention:

A study of American history shows that the Founding Fathers were heavily influenced by religion. Jefferson, often accused of being an agnostic or atheist, was likely a Deist; but regardless, he was a believer in God and in Jesus Christ. After all, this is the man who penned the Declaration of Independence, who so eloquently opined the concept that all men are “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights”. If that were too ambiguous, Jefferson also wrote “And can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are of the gift of God? That they are not to be violated but with His wrath? Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just; that His justice cannot sleep forever.”

Jefferson understood that our liberties come from God, and that if they do not come from God then they are granted by government, and can be taken by government at their pleasure. That philosophy then usurps man of his unalienable rights, and government then grants rights at the whim of the majority, which is nothing more than mob rule.

Our second president, John Adams, rightly noted that “We have no government armed with power capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion. Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”

While the quotes are accurate, what they don’t show is that the Founders were in fact more influenced by the writings of men like John Locke and Algernon Sidney than they were by anything in the Bible. Jefferson’s most famous phrase “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness” came from Locke’s “Life, Liberty, and Property,” for instance. More importantly, at the time of the American Revolution, the natural rights tradition that the Founders relied upon owed more to the Greeks than it did to Christianity or theology:

In reality, neither Jewish nor Christian traditions know anything of the ideas of natural rights and social contract found in Hobbes, Gassendi and Locke. That’s because those ideas were inspired by themes found in non-Christian Greek and Roman philosophy. Ideas of the social contract were anticipated in the fourth and fifth centuries BC by the sophists Glaucon and Lycophron, according to Plato and Aristotle, and by Epicurus, who banished divine activity from a universe explained by natural forces and taught that justice is an agreement among people neither to harm nor be harmed. The idea that all human beings are equal by nature also comes from the Greek sophists and was planted by the Roman jurist Ulpian in Roman law: “quod ad ius naturale attinet, omnes homines aequales sunt” — according to the law of nature, all human beings are equal.

Moreover, the Founders own religious beliefs are far more orthodox that religious conservatives would like to believe. Jefferson, for example, was a Diest who believed in a Creator who played absolutely no role in the affairs of the world, and considered much of the New Testament to be mere superstitions, which is the reason he created his own version of the teachings of Jesus which completely deleted any reference to his being of Divine origin.

And Jefferson wasn’t alone. John Adams signed a treaty with the pirates of Tripoli that contains this famous phrase:

As the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion; as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion, or tranquillity, of Mussulmen [Muslims]; and, as the said States never entered into any war, or act of hostility against any Mahometan [Muslim] nation, it is declared by the parties, that no pretext arising from religious opinions, shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries.

And, Adams and Jefferson weren’t alone:

[H]ow about the tenth president, John Tyler, in an 1843 letter: “The United States have adventured upon a great and noble experiment, which is believed to have been hazarded in the absence of all previous precedent — that of total separation of Church and State. No religious establishment by law exists among us. The conscience is left free from all restraint and each is permitted to worship his Maker after his own judgment. The offices of the Government are open alike to all. No tithes are levied to support an established Hierarchy, nor is the fallible judgment of man set up as the sure and infallible creed of faith. The Mohammedan, if he will to come among us would have the privilege guaranteed to him by the constitution to worship according to the Koran; and the East Indian might erect a shrine to Brahma, if it so pleased him. Such is the spirit of toleration inculcated by our political Institutions.”

Was Tyler too minor a president to be considered an authority on whether the U.S. is a Christian republic or not? Here’s George Washington in a letter to the Hebrew Congregation of Newport, Rhode Island in 1790: “The citizens of the United States of America have a right to applaud themselves for having given to mankind examples of an enlarged and liberal policy — a policy worthy of imitation. All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship. It is now no more that toleration is spoken of as if it were the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights, for, happily, the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens in giving it on all occasions their effectual support … May the children of the stock of Abraham who dwell in this land continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other inhabitants — while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree and there shall be none to make him afraid.”

What this history makes clear is this; while the Founders were religious men in keeping with the customs of their times, there is simply no evidence to suggest that they intended to create a nation whose government played any role at all in the religious lives of it’s citizens.

And that get’s us to the second mistake that Louis makes, confusing religious liberty and government neutrality with some alleged hostility toward religion:

So what has separation of church and state, the removal of religion from the public sphere, wrought? We now live in a nation where prayer and religious displays are largely banned in public settings; where public indecency laws are suspended in California for the Folsom Street Fair, so participants can march through the streets in bondage and fetish gear in various degrees of nudity. Yet there can be no prayer in public schools. The National Endowment for the Arts issues grants to “artists” whose “art” include pictures of the Virgin Mary smeared with dung, or “Piss Christ”, which is a crucifix immersed in urine. Yet high school valedictorians are relieved of that honor if they dare acknowledge Christ in their speech. Strippers and pornography are now protected by free speech laws. Religion is not.

Without addressing each of the incidents that Louis cites here, I will say that there’s a difference between, say, government funding of art that some find offensive and Supreme Court decisions such as Engle v. Vitale (which banned prayer in public schools), Epperson v. Arkansas (which struck down a law banning the teaching of evolution), Edwards v. Aquillard (which held that the teaching of so-called “creation science” is unconstitutional), and County of Alleghany v. ACLU (which held that nativity displays on public property were impermissible as an establishment of religion).

The first is wrong because the Federal Government has no business funding art of any kind, regardless of whether or not someone finds something offensive. The Supreme Court cases, though, represent the correct response to an undue imposition of religious belief into the public square. It’s wrong to forcibly expose children to prayer in schools because that diminishes the religious liberty of non-Christian, or in the case of the Engle case non-Protestant, children. It’s wrong to ban a perfectly valid scientific theory on human orgin from the classrom, or to force it to share time with a non-scientific theory based solely in religion, because that diminishes the religious liberty, not to mention the ability to learn, of every student in the class. And, yes, it’s wrong for the government to put up purely religous holiday displays because that constitutes an improper recognition of specific religious beliefs by an entity that should remain neutral on issues like the divinity of Christ.

It’s worth quoting at length from the January 1802 letter where Jefferson used the phrase that has become a battleground:

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, and 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 and state. [Congress thus inhibited from acts respecting religion, and the Executive authorised only to execute their acts, I have refrained from presenting even occasional performances of devotion presented indeed legally where an Executive is the legal head of a national church, but subject here, as religious exercises only to the voluntary regulations and discipline of each respective sect.] Adhering to this expression of the supreme will of the nation in behalf of the rights of conscience, I shall see with sincere satisfaction the progress of those sentiments which tend to restore to man all his natural rights, convinced he has no natural right in opposition to his social duties.

The separation of church and state, Jefferson recognized, went both ways. It protected the church from being interfered with by the state, and it protected the state from becoming the thing that the Founders feared as much as political tyranny, a means by which the church can impose its beliefs on society as a whole at the point of a gun.

Religion, Jefferson and the other founders believed, was a wholly private matter that the state had no business being involved in. That’s why religious liberty exists.


The views and opinions expressed by individual authors are not necessarily those of other authors, advertisers, developers or editors at United Liberty.