Here We Go Again: Separation of Church and State

The Huffington Post continues its mandate to promote historical illiteracy. This time it’s the common “wall of separation” myth. Honestly I grow tired of addressing this and it’s a subject more deserving of books (of which there are some notable works). I will keep it short and simple.

1: Nowhere does the Constitution contain the language “wall of separation between church and state.” More and more people (I hope) are becoming aware this particular phrase originates in a January 1802 personal letter from Thomas Jefferson to the Danbury Baptist Association in my home state of Connecticut. The Constitution states, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” That’s it, and it’s fairly self-explanatory – there can be no federal religion (ergo, no Church of the United States modeled after the Church of England), nor can the federal government prohibit the free exercise of religion. Please note: the Constitution applies to the federal government and the people, not the states. Consequently, many states continued to have an official state religion, including Connecticut and Massachusetts, into the 1800s.

2: As the always incredible James Hutson has demonstrated, Jefferson’s Danbury letter is political in nature and a reaction against his Federalist predecessors and his Federalist enemies and not a Constitutional church-state treatise or elucidation.

3: To further muddle the church-state waters, particularly regarding Jefferson, he authorized the use of federal buildings and offices for Christian services every Sunday, and the practice continued until the Civil War. Where does this fit into the “Religious symbols, icons and phrases — not just Christian, but any religion — should be kept out of government buildings and organized prayer should be kept out of schools” narrative?

4: The Post asserts: Therefore, individuals can pray in school, but public schools cannot require people to pray. The government cannot endorse any particular religion — meaning there can be no copies of the Ten Commandments in front of schools, nor nativity scenes in government buildings, nor Buddha statues in front of government offices.” However, public schooling began in the New England colonies and a staple of public education was, wait for it, Biblical literacy. Also, the first act of Congress was a call to prayer. Too, the Washington and Adams Administrations, and the Continental Congress before them, regularly invoked national days of humiliation and thanksgiving to the Christian God. Seriously, read any founder, any person of influence from that era; almost to a man they affirm religion, broadly, is the foundation for a virtuous citizenry and thus a virtuous government, and the Judeo-Christian tradition is best, if one has to choose, for inculcation of virtue and justice.

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