Four Dangerous Ideas, Part Two: Separation of Church and State

The ConsitutionThe separation of church and state is also established in the first amendment to the Constitution. It grew out of the colonists’ experience with state-run churches. In Europe, the political rulers had authority over the church. Only one church organization was allowed, and people who dissented were subject to legal persecution. Thus the Constitution included the separation-of-church-and-state clause to avoid this sort of heavy handed political repression of religious freedom.

Since that time, however, the separation of church and state has been reinterpreted as a separation of religion and state. This has since devolved into a prohibition against any acknowledgement of the spiritual in any governmental entity. Clearly this was not the intention of the original founders. If that were the case, then there would be no mention of God in the founding documents. Appeals to God were, in fact, common in the founding of this country.

This change is primarily a response to the growth of a politically powerful atheistic segment in society. The growth of this segment is the result of the slow but steady increase in materialistic and naturalistic philosophy in the West—basically a denial of spiritual realities.

Many of the touch points where this battle is being fought are, for the most part, not particularly significant: for example, debates on who can pray in school and when; debates on what sorts of documents can be publicly displayed; and so on. How these particular issues play out do not seem to be too significant for our cultural life, but the general trend and the drive behind the battles are very damaging.

Effectively, separation of church and state has restricted the kinds of issues that can be raised in public discourse. Only issues that deal with worldly material needs are allowed. We constantly harangue over taxes and budgets. We debate about fair labor laws and immigration. National security is contrasted with civil liberties. All of these aspects of our public life deal with our mundane interests and needs. Missing is any discussion of the fact that man is not just a material being. Instead, that man is purely material is assumed without debate in the public sphere. The assumption tacitly implies that the things of importance are material: the types of problems that we have are purely material; solutions to problems are to be accomplished through purely material means. The idea that our deepest and most profound problems are spiritual is not even on the table.

I am not suggesting that material needs are not in the purview of public life. Nor am I advocating a “Christian political agenda” as a solution to our problems. Instead, I am pointing out how the trends in our culture have devalued and marginalized many of the most important aspects of public discourse. This is perhaps dangerous to our society. But more importantly, to our great loss, it encourages us to devalue the significance of our spiritual nature.

One of the main ways that this reinterpretation of church and state has affected our culture is in education. Our goal in education is to pass on the ideas, values, and skills that will help our children live the best lives they can. Spiritual questions—such as right and wrong, what it means to be a human, and whether there is a supreme being—are central to this task. But in the current system, to raise these questions is, in fact, illegal! This sort of restriction on education surely never darkened the worst nightmares of the writers of the Constitution.

Another important consequence of this reinterpretation of church and state has to do with how society approaches social services. Federal and state social services can only consider the material well being of those in need. All analyses and researches into our social problems are purposely blind to our most important problems, spiritual problems. Such an approach is bound to lessen the success of these services. The need for the spiritual in social services can be seen in Alcoholics Anonymous. My understanding is that AA promotes the idea of a higher being in its treatment. If AA were restricted from encouraging the attendees to consider a higher power, the program would be significantly less effective, both socially and individually.

Man is a spiritual being, and everyone recognizes this whether or not they admit to it. All feel the need for purpose. All feel the need for connection and love. All feel the call to the transcendent. The idea that we should eliminate this aspect of our lives from the public sphere is self-defeating at best and malicious at worst.



(Part 1: Freedom of the Press and Freedom of Speech)



2 thoughts on “Four Dangerous Ideas, Part Two: Separation of Church and State

  1. Your commentary on separation of church and state reflects some fundamental misconceptions.

    Separation of church and state is a bedrock principle of our Constitution, much like the principles of separation of powers and checks and balances. In the Constitution, the founders did not simply say in so many words that there should be separation of powers and checks and balances; rather, they actually separated the powers of government among three branches and established checks and balances. Similarly, they did not merely say there should be separation of church and state; rather, they actually separated them by (1) establishing a secular government on the power of “We the people” (not a deity), (2) according that government limited, enumerated powers, (3) saying nothing to connect that government to god(s) or religion, (4) saying nothing to give that government power over matters of god(s) or religion, and (5), indeed, saying nothing substantive about god(s) or religion at all except in a provision precluding any religious test for public office. Given the norms of the day (by which governments generally were grounded in some appeal to god(s)), the founders’ avoidance of any expression in the Constitution suggesting that the government is somehow based on any religious belief was quite a remarkable and plainly intentional choice. They later buttressed this separation of government and religion with the First Amendment, which affirmatively constrains the government from undertaking to establish religion or prohibit individuals from freely exercising their religions. The basic principle, thus, rests on much more than just the First Amendment.

    While the First Amendment undoubtedly was intended to preclude the government from establishing a national religion as you note, that was hardly the limit of its intended scope. The first Congress debated and rejected just such a narrow provision (“no religion shall be established by law, nor shall the equal rights of conscience be infringed”) and ultimately chose the more broadly phrased prohibition now found in the Amendment. During his presidency, Madison vetoed two bills, neither of which would form a national religion or compel observance of any religion, on the ground that they were contrary to the establishment clause. While some in Congress expressed surprise that the Constitution prohibited Congress from incorporating a church in the town of Alexandria in the District of Columbia or granting land to a church in the Mississippi Territory, Congress upheld both vetoes. (Separation of church and state is hardly a new invention of modern courts. Even less is it an outgrowth of a supposed “politically powerful atheistic segment in society.” Seriously? Check the ranks of Congress, state legislatures, and courts, and check the polls on the makeup of our society—and see if you find any such segment.) In keeping with the Amendment’s terms and legislative history and other evidence, the courts have wisely interpreted it to restrict the government from taking steps that could establish religion de facto as well as de jure. Were the Amendment interpreted merely to preclude government from enacting a statute formally establishing a state church, the intent of the Amendment could easily be circumvented by government doing all sorts of things to promote this or that religion–stopping just short of cutting a ribbon to open its new church.

    That said, the principle has not been applied by the courts to prohibit “any acknowledgement of the spiritual in any governmental entity.” Far from it. Wake Forest University has published a short, objective Q&A primer on the current law of separation of church and state–as applied by the courts rather than as caricatured in the blogosphere. I commend it to you.

    It is important to distinguish between “individual” and “government” speech about religion. The constitutional principle of separation of church and state does not purge religion from the public square or restrict the kinds of issues that can be raised in public discourse–far from it. Indeed, the First Amendment’s “free exercise” clause assures that each individual is free to exercise and express his or her religious views–publicly as well as privately. The Amendment constrains only the government not to promote or otherwise take steps toward establishment of religion. As government can only act through the individuals comprising its ranks, when those individuals are performing their official duties, they effectively are the government and thus should conduct themselves in accordance with the First Amendment’s constraints on government. When acting in their individual capacities, they are free to exercise their religions as they please. If their right to free exercise of religion extended even to their discharge of their official responsibilities, however, the First Amendment constraints on government establishment of religion would be eviscerated. While figuring out whether someone is speaking for the government in any particular circumstance may sometimes be difficult, making the distinction is critical.

    Nor does the constitutional separation of church and state prevent citizens from making decisions based on principles derived from their religions. Moreover, the religious beliefs of government officials naturally may inform their decisions on policies. The principle, in this context, merely constrains government officials not to make decisions with the predominant purpose or primary effect of advancing religion; in other words, the predominant purpose and primary effect must be nonreligious or secular in nature. A decision coinciding with religious views is not invalid for that reason as long as it has a secular purpose and effect.

    Confusion understandably arises because the constitutional principle is sometimes equated with a widely supported political doctrine that goes by the same name and generally calls for political dialogue to be conducted on grounds other than religion. The underlying reasons for that political doctrine are many, but three primary ones are that (1) it facilitates discussion amongst people of all beliefs by predicating discussion on grounds accessible to all and (2) it avoids, in some measure at least, putting our respective religious beliefs directly “in play” in the political arena, so we’re not put in the position of directly disputing or criticizing each other’s religious beliefs in order to address a political issue and (3) since the government cannot make laws or decisions with the predominant purpose or primary effect of advancing religion, it makes little sense to urge the government to do just that. This political doctrine, of course, is not “law” (unlike the constitutional separation of church and state, which is), but rather is a societal norm concerning how we can best conduct political dialogue in a religiously diverse society. Reasonable people can disagree about whether the doctrine is a good idea or not and whether or how it should influence us in particular circumstances.

  2. I think that our Constitutional jurisprudence is a bit more nuanced than “separation of church and state.” In fact, there is no “separation of church and state” clause in the First Amendment. The concept came instead from the writings of some early US politicians, including Jefferson. It is later adopted in some Constitutional cases. But the actual text of the First Amendment refers to two specific aspects of “separating” government from religion. First, the “Establishment Clause” prohibits the government from establish a state religion. And the “Free Exercise” clause prohibits the government from interfering with the “free exercise” of religion by individuals. These rights are eventually incorporated not only against the federal government, but also against the state governments, by operation of the Fourteenth Amendment.

    State and Federal cases have been very conscious of the limits of the First Amendment, and some justices have been vocally critical of the term “separation of church and state” (most notably, Scalia). Thus, the Court’s understanding of the Establishment and Free Exercise clauses are usually in flux, and not just in one direction. I feel that the Court has made some decisions supporting religion as part of public life, recently, particularly related to “faith based initiatives.” But, it is true that the Government tries to stay out of the business of religion/spirituality/non-material ends. I do not, however, believe this standpoint eliminates religion from public discourse/life, and maybe not much more than in America’s early history.

    Many of the programs now associated with government (public education being a prime example) were not common back when the Constitution was written. The thought of such major government involvement in education would probably have been surprising to early Americans. In that way, education, charity, healthcare, and many other parts of life were not “public” in the sense that the Government was EXPECTED to stay out of them. But Government activity is only one, and in some ways a lesser, aspect of public life and public expression.

    So, if there is an objection to be made, it might be that Government has become too involved in all aspects of “public” and “community” life, not that it has become too distanced from religion. And even then, parochial schools, religious charities, and homeschools are still allowed to provide the “spiritual” part of public life without serious interference from the Government, it seems to me. And at the end of the day, shouldn’t churches and families be the place where that kind of spiritual “education” is fostered, without interference from public educators? One benefit of preventing school teachers and administrators from influencing the spirituality of our children is that it allows parents to fill that role without as much interference. And some would argue that the right to raise children WITHOUT interference in their spirituality from public officials is part of the right of “free exercise.”

    Just some thoughts! I really do think that spirituality is still a big part of America, even if that spirituality manifests itself much differently at different times and in different places around the country.

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