There's more to seperation of church and state than meets the eye.
Many articles have been written about the separation of church and state. In fact, some of my students have even submitted papers about it. But I think people don’t really take the time to look at it historically and really think about it in terms of our documents such as the Constitution and separate their feelings about religion from what our forefathers tried to do when forming our country.
The United States, obviously, began as a Christian country since many of the colonists were themselves Christian, although the Native Americans who were here prior to Europeans had their own religious practices that varied among the nations and tribes. But although the great majority were Christian, they varied in how they practiced, and many people came here to America in order to start over and lead lives that were more free than what they had experienced in Europe.
One of the earliest influences on our form of government was Thomas Paine. He wrote, “You will do me justice to remember, that I have always strenuously supported the right of every Man to his opinion, however different that opinion might be to mine. He who denies to another this right, makes a slave of himself to his present opinion, because he precludes himself the right of changing it.” This is a profound statement and one that I have followed throughout my life.
You might be surprised to know that he later wrote in the same work: “I do not believe in the creed professed by the Jewish church, by the Roman church, by the Greek Church, and by the Turkish church, by the Protestant church, no any church that I know of. My own mind is my own church.” He wrote much more about religion that I find interesting and surprising for colonial times, but it goes beyond the scope of this brief article.
In spite of what some elected officials will have you believe, our Constitution is surprising secular. Article VI, Clause 3 says that “no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any office or public Trust under the United States.” And the oath of office the president takes makes no reference to God or religion. In fact, if you carefully trace it, the “So help me God” phrase that they claim George Washington used only goes back to some time in the 1850s – there’s no earlier record of him saying that. And the phrase was added to the Congressional Oath in 1884. We miss those two things because so often people only quote from the Bill of Rights the part that speaks of the separation of church and state.
Although we can’t know exactly what our founding fathers thought, there are some clues in things they left behind in writing. Here is a letter from Thomas Jefferson from 1802:
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. 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.
I read through an interesting article published online in 2004 by R.G. Price, and the author gives a pretty good overview of how the separation of church and state evolved in the United States (http://rationalrevolution.net/articles/history_of_the_separation_of_chu.htm).
What I get from reading his article hasn’t really changed my belief. I believe that in a country as diverse as ours, we need to be mindful and respect other people’s differences. Our neighbors might not share the same religious beliefs as us. The separation of church and state is meant to protect us as Americans from one organized religion forcing its beliefs on us through our government. Those in office who feel the need to pray should do so, but they should not force those who do not follow the same doctrines to do so or to do so in the same manner.
Too often, religion becomes a divisive issue when we should focus on the things we have in common such as living in the same community and sharing the same roads, schools and public access. It’s a shame that the closeness we developed as Americans as a result of the 911 attacks has dissolved into such divisiveness in government at all levels. Imagine all the compromises made during our Constitutional Congressional meetings to form the government we have today.