President’s Post Series: Debunking Church-State Myths
Myth #1: The words “church/state separation do not appear in our constitution”
This is the first in a series of discussions addressing some common myths surrounding Church/State Separation. I’ll begin with a myth I’ve been hearing for years and has been trumpeted by most of the present Republican contenders for the presidential nomination. That is, nowhere in the Constitution does it say anything about church/state separation.
One candidate, Michele Bachmann, a graduate of Oral Roberts School of Law, had this to say, “They’re teaching children that there is separation of church and state, and I am here to tell you that’s a myth — that’s not true.” She went on to say “The only reason we’ve been a great nation — guess why? Because at our founding we established everything we did on the lordship of Christ.” Ms. Bachmann is right, the words are not in the constitution, but the principle surely is. Let me explain.
No one can deny that the “separation of powers” and “right to a fair trial” are constitutional principles? But those words are not found in the Constitution either. The separation of church and state, or the “wall of separation,” is simply a metaphor, a shorthand way of expressing a deeper truth that religious liberty is best protected when church and state are institutionally separated and neither tries to interfere with the other. In order to gain clarification of a current Supreme Court ruling, it’s often helpful to look at the justice’s writings. Similarly, when seeking clarification of constitutional principles it helps to look at historical writings from the time.
In 1644, Roger Williams recognized the importance of keeping religion and government distinct when he wrote about a “hedge or wall of separation between the garden of the church and the wilderness of the world.” In Thomas Jefferson’s 1802 Letter to the Danbury Connecticut Baptists when referring to the 1st Amendment’s religious clause he said “thus building a wall of separation between church and state.” The father of our Constitution, James Madison, observed that “the number, the industry and the morality of the priesthood and the devotion of the people have been manifestly increased by the total separation of church and state.” And how has the modern court interpreted our founder’s words? In the famous 1947 Everson vs. Board of Education decision, Justice Hugo Black wrote, “In the words of Thomas Jefferson, the clause against establishment of religion by law was intended to erect a wall of separation between church and state.”
So in conclusion, the Constitution may not contain the words church-state separation, but it’s very obvious to most people that those who wrote the Constitution and subsequent court rulings certainly had the concept in mind. And why? Because keeping the religious and secular separate is simply the right and honorable thing to do.