Constitutional Myth #4: The Constitution Doesn't Separate Church and State

America's Founding Fathers may not have included the phrase, but the history is clear--they never wanted a Christian nation


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Christine O'Donnell died for the far right's constitutional sins.

In the fall of 2010, the dilettante-witch-turned-Tea-Party-Senate-candidate sneered at her opponent, Democrat Chris Coons, when he pointed out in a debate that the First Amendment to the Constitution prohibits "an establishment of religion."

O'Donnell: Let me just clarify: You're telling me that the separation of church and state is found in the First Amendment?

Coons: Government shall make no establishment of religion.

O'Donnell: That's in the First Amendment?

O'Donnell paid with a thumping repudiation at the polls even in a year of far-right victories. But her mistake was not a random one. As Rush Limbaugh explained in defense of O'Donnell, "She was incredulous that somebody was saying that the Constitution said there must be separation between church and state. Those words are not in the Constitution." In 2006, Michelle Bachmann warned a Christian group that public schools "are teaching children that there is separation of church and state, and I am here to tell you that is a myth." This year's right-wing pinup, amateur historian David Barton, devotes his book Original Intent: The Courts, The Constitution, and Religion to the proposition that separation of church and state is "a relatively recent concept rather than ... a long-standing constitutional principle."

The attack on separation of church and state involves twisting words and reading history backwards, and it involves making an inconvenient part of the Constitution disappear. Most ardently espoused by loud foes of "big government," the attack aims to place government in charge of Americans' spiritual lives.   

John Adams signed the 1797 Treaty with Tripoli, which reassured that Muslim nation that "the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion."

The idea is that the Framers desired a Christian nation, in which government oversaw the spiritual development of the people by reminding them of their religious duties and subsidizing the churches where they worship. "Establishment of religion," in this reading, simply means that no single Christian denomination could be officially favored. But official prayers, exhortations to faith, religious monuments, and participation by church bodies in government were all part of the "original intent," the argument goes.

Because the words "separation of church and state" do not appear in the Constitution, the argument runs, the document provides for merger of the two.

It's bosh: ahistorical, untextual, illogical.

Patriots like Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and James Madison were profoundly skeptical about the claims of what they called "revealed religion." As children of the 18th-century Enlightenment, they stressed reason and scientific observation as a means of discovering the nature of "Providence," the power that had created the world. Jefferson, for example, took a pair of scissors to the Christian New Testament and cut out every passage that suggested a divine origin and mission for Jesus. In their long correspondence, Jefferson and John Adams swapped frequent witticisms about the presumption of the clergy. ("Every Species of these Christians would persecute Deists," Adams wrote on June 25, 1813, "as soon as either Sect would persecute another, if it had unchecked and unbalanced power. Nay, the Deists would persecute Christians, and Atheists would persecute Deists, with as unrelenting Cruelty, as any Christians would persecute them or one another. Know thyself, Human Nature!") As president, Adams signed (and the U.S. Senate approved) the 1797 Treaty with Tripoli, which reassured that Muslim nation that "the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion."

James Madison, the father of both the Constitution and the First Amendment, consistently warned against any attempt to blend endorsement of Christianity into the law of the new nation. "Who does not see that the same authority which can establish Christianity, in exclusion of all other Religions," he wrote in his Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments in 1785, "may establish with the same ease any particular sect of Christians, in exclusion of all other Sects?" Unlike the Articles of Confederation, the Constitution conspicuously omits any reference to God.

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Garrett Epps is a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He teaches constitutional law and creative writing for law students at the University of Baltimore. His latest book is American Justice 2014: Nine Clashing Visions on the Supreme Court.

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