The term “separation of church and state” is being thrown around more every day, but it seems that its origin and meaning still escapes many Americans, even those who should know better.
Even among Christian conservatives, there are now some who constantly check themselves at the door of separation of church and state before making private or public decisions or statements, readily accepting the popular understanding of the phrase. The problematic reality of the situation is that they are being misled by those whose intentions are dishonest and far from the promotion of free speech and religion.
Most political conversations now initiated, concerning the separation of church and state, claim that the separation they speak of is based upon the U.S. Constitution. In reality, this phrase is found nowhere in the Constitution; neither is their argument. The anti-freedom argument of separation of church and state contends that no reference, audible or visible, to any biblical or Christian tenet should be allowed in any federal or state facility (or in any decision made therein.)
Their unfounded claim is made in citation to the First Amendment to the Constitution, effective December 15, 1791. Amendment I states that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
Obviously, the exact phrase that is so popular among this crowd is not present in this amendment. The phrase “wall of separation between the church and the state” actually originated from a letter written by Thomas Jefferson to the Baptists of Danbury, Connecticut on January 1, 1802. This religious group, like many today, had learned just enough about the governmental terminology that had been established concerning the church and the state to entertain the possibility that the government meant to turn completely away from the interests and influences of Christianity and Bible teaching. That was their fear. The purpose of Jefferson’s letter was to remove their fears and to assure them that this “wall” was being erected to protect their religious freedom, in that it was meant to keep the state out of the church’s business, not to keep the church out of the state’s business. The respect or display of Judeo-Christian faith is not the sort of “establishment” being addressed in the First Amendment. This faith had already been established long before the writing of the Constitution.
It’s easier to put the true intent of the nation’s founders into perspective when we consider their plight in the earlier American colonies and, for some of them and many of their ancestors, in the mother country of England. There, under the British monarchy, the Church of England and the government were one in the same. Both entities infiltrated the other, causing citizens’ lives, well-being, and freedoms to suffer. This “establishment” of a state religion is what the founders wished to avoid in the independent separation of their young nation of the United States from British control. Their intention was never to remove the free expression or practice of religion from public or private American life. Quite the contrary was true.
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