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Separation of Church and State

Our US Supreme Court, by majority decisions (5-4), recently handed down two rulings that in the eyes of some violated our Constitutional separation of powers, and, in the eyes of others, clarified it. This is a good moment to remind ourselves that those who persist in calling America a Christian nation founded on Judeo-Christian principles are operating with a deception and a myth that are unfortunately still being publicly shared with the American people. The founding fathers called instead for a secular state, where religion could be free to operate in a voluntary way, and they insisted on the separation of church and state. The U.S. Constitution says very clearly that “there shall be no established religion.”

Historians tell us that during the Revolutionary period between 1750 and 1800, the influence of the Christian church and its beliefs was at its lowest ebb in the history of America. In fact, the few Christian ministers who spoke out between 1787 and 1789 denounced the proposed Constitution as godless, anti-Christian, Jewish, Islamic, deistic, pagan, and atheistic. It has been said that at that time in our history, only between six and eleven percent of the American people were actively involved in the Christian church. Surely, some of the founding fathers were Christians. Many of them, however, were not Christians, at least in the conventional understanding of the word, and this included the most influential of those who drafted the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.

Most of our country’s founders were rationalists who operated with reason alone, and many of them were deists. Rationalists held that any claim to supernatural revelation was false. John Adams even felt that organized religion was harmful. Many of the founders who were deists, including Washington, Adams, Jefferson and Franklin among many others, believed that the course of nature gave evidence to the existence of God, but they felt that formal religion was unnecessary.

With regard to the specific history about the separation of church and state, Jefferson, in his 1802 letter to some Connecticut Baptists, said that “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, & 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 & State.”

As recently as 1984, Ronald Reagan, in a speech to a Jewish community in California said that “We in the United States, above all, must remember that lesson, for we were founded as a nation of openness to people of all beliefs. And so we must remain. Our very unity has been strengthened by our pluralism. We establish no religion in this country, we command no worship, we mandate no belief, nor will we ever. Church and state are, and must remain, separate. All are free to believe or not believe, all are free to practice a faith or not, and those who believe are free, and should be free, to speak of and act on their belief”.

As you decide for yourself about the advisability of these recent court decisions, it is good to close with the reminder that it was the United States Treaty of Tripoli, Article 11 (negotiated during Washington’s administration, then unanimously ratified by the U.S. Senate and signed by President Adams in 1797) that said “[T]he government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian Religion.” This statement in no way denigrates the role of religion in the formation of American history; however, the record must be made clear: the crucial period in the formation of the American republic — 1750 to 1800 – was marked by rationalism which is reflected in our founding documents. No latter day revisionism by the religious or political right will change that fact.