Understanding the Separation of Church and State Debate
Updated: Nov 24, 2021
Religious Values in American Government
The arguments regarding the concept of the separation of church and state are perhaps some of the most damaging conflicts in jurisprudence and American culture. The First Amendment of our Constitution states,
“Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”
The first portion of the statement is known as the Establishment Clause and the second, the Free Exercise Clause.
For those of us who accept the Constitution on its face and with its original intent in mind, the Establishment Clause simply means that Congress shall not establish a national religion, nor shall they prohibit citizens from believing and worshipping as they wish. Notably, the choice not to hold religious beliefs is also protected within the First Amendment because no belief is forced upon the citizenry. So why all the fuss?
In some ways, it’s as simple as the reason people suggest avoiding discussions of politics and religion at the dinner table. Both topics, but particularly the religious beliefs one holds, tend to be held close in our hearts and passions. Politics and religion also tend to be subjects upon which there is much disagreement. We struggle to allow others to have their own opinions and beliefs. If we’re honest, most of us want everybody else to agree with us and believe as we do, and with as much passion as we do. Unfortunately, with people, it doesn’t work that way. We each have different life experiences and have been taught by parents and others to hold a particular worldview and values system. So we argue and make proclamations and many times fall into the trap of discounting the beliefs of others around us.
Our Founders, who also had disagreements among themselves, did understand two principles that underlie the importance of our First Amendment freedoms, however. First, they understood that historically the establishment of a state religion led to unrest and persecution. Second, they understood that trying to stop people from seeking and holding religious beliefs is as impossible as draining the sea. We are born with questions in our hearts about who we are, is there a Creator, who is the Creator, what is our purpose? Many will search to find answers to those questions and come to one belief system or another. Others won’t. But the opportunity to search for higher meaning and purpose is fundamental for a free society.
Our Founders also believed that virtue in people was a societal building block. Faith encouraged virtue. Typically, those who choose faith, in one of the many varieties and forms it might take, tend to embrace the goodwill, compassion, and generosity that our Founders thought necessary for a truly free society. The faithful tend to behave differently. They tend to honor and respect others. They tend to believe and follow a legal system that provides protection for all against criminal activity, tyranny, and injustice. Not all believers of course, but the tendencies are true or we in America would not have experienced the safety and prosperity of the last two and a half centuries.
Finally, if we’re going to consider the benefits of a constitutionalist interpretation of the First Amendment, let’s consider one historical fact about the founding of America and the risk factor of discarding our tolerance of religious freedoms. The pilgrims left Europe to escape religious persecution and were determined to govern themselves differently. They started the process with the Mayflower Compact, a prelude to other founding documents.
What we’ve seen in America over the last few decades is a decline in faith and a rise in the intolerance of other people’s beliefs. We’ve experienced a decline in civility and an increase in the willingness to attack those who hold to traditional Judeo-Christian values and principles. We’ve seen a lack of moral compass present in our political leaders and the corruption spreading within our government. And much of this comes along with the cry for separation of church and state. Rather than freedom of religion, many promote freedom from religion. The faithful are told they have no place in the public square. Sounds like a slippery slope, doesn’t it?
Have we, in the 21st century, forgotten that when it becomes acceptable to persecute any group of people, we are all at risk? - Donna K. Rice
Dismissing people, their opinions, and their beliefs, whether religious or otherwise, creates a dangerous environment of self-righteousness and judgment. We all face the risk of becoming a part of the next group determined unfit or unworthy for some reason based on something other than our value and equality as human beings. We risk losing our objectivity and devaluing our friends and neighbors by sorting their personally held beliefs into categories we will judge and determine to be worthy, or not. I propose that these are some of the risks that flow from not valuing the right to choose our own beliefs and worship practices. When we willfully ignore or misinterpret the First Amendment and squelch decisions as fundamental as choosing to believe in God, or not; choosing how we worship, or not; choosing how we practice our faith, or not, then it becomes more and more simple to let factions and special interest groups attack other areas of our lives. Ultimately, we implode or decay from within our own culture.
It is not imperative that all humans agree on all things. It is, in fact, impossible. Opinions abound. But, when we put our focus on the value of each human being as a unique creation with potential and their own unique part to play in human history, we become less inclined to hate and reject one another based on subjective qualities. The principle embraced by our Founders in the First Amendment flows much deeper than just religious freedom. It goes to the deepest views we hold about each other as creatures of humanity.
Can we love and respect every one of the human race regardless of all the myriad differences among us? It’s a high ideal to be certain, but our Founders and many generations of Americans have thought it a worthy goal.