The Truth About the Separation of Church and State (Or At Least SOME Truth)

Last Thursday night as I was procrastinating from writing a paper that was due Friday morning, I turned on the Republican presidential debate. Someone from the audience asked this question:

“If you’re elected, how will your religious views impact the decisions you make as president?”

Often, the answer people want the candidates to give is, “My religious views are private and won’t have an impact on my decisions as president.” I felt like that was especially the answer people wanted last night, as voters continue to struggle with their comfort level on whether they should vote for Mitt Romney because he’s Mormon. (For what it’s worth, I’m usually cautious about people who say their religious views won’t make any difference in their decision-making in public office. That probably means they’re either lying or their religious views aren’t very important to them, both of which bother me. But Mitt Romney’s religious views and my opinion on political candidates are different topics for a different day.)

This question and the cautiousness with which political candidates answer it goes back to an issue that has been at the heart of religion and government in America since the beginning – “the separation of church and state.” I’ve always assumed that the “separation of church and state” was intended to be a statute to protect the state and the church from each other, to keep them completely separated, as the phrase suggests. The church should stay out of the state’s business, and vise versa.

I’m taking a course called “History of Religion in America” this semester. We’ve been looking at some of the foundational documents written near the founding of our country that deal with religious freedom and tolerance.  I was surprised to learn some new things that I thought I’d share. I should probably already know these things, but I’m not a historian, I’m a youth minister!

First of all, the phrase “separation of church and state” doesn’t appear anywhere in the United States Constitution. It’s from a letter Thomas Jefferson wrote to the Danbury Baptist Association in 1802 in response to a letter they’d sent him. They were concerned that there was no protection for their religious freedom in their state constitution. Jefferson’s response included the phrase “wall of separation between Church and State” as a way to explain to them he agreed that their freedom to express their religion should be protected.

Last week, we read from the Religious Freedom Act passed by the Virginia legislature in 1786. This Act was also written by Thomas Jefferson, and was instrumental in setting the tone for religious freedom as the U.S. grew. Here’s what it concluded:

“All men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinions in matters of religion, and that the same shall in nowise diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capacities.”

In other words, this wasn’t intended to keep people’s religious views from government, it was intended to keep government from prohibiting people to express their religious views. If I’m understanding this correctly, the “separation of church and state” was originally intended to protect the freedom of people to express religion from the government rather than to protect the government from people freely expressing their religion.

I’m sure there are pieces of this I’m missing, but I thought this was pretty interesting.

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