Separation of Church and State: Santorum vs. Madison

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The presidential hopeful and the Founding Father seem to disagree about whether the principle is embedded in the U.S. Constitution.

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On Hugh Hewitt's radio program, where news-making interviews are legion, Rick Santorum on Friday related a campaign story in which he was curiously dismissive of a voter he encountered. "I was in a town hall meeting in Hollis, in New Hampshire the other day, and a young man got up and started going after me, talking about the Constitutional separation of Church and state," Santorum said. "And I asked him where it was in the Constitution, and he insisted it was in there. That's the kind of, really, indoctrination that's going on in our country, as to the role of faith in public life."

Was the young man "indoctrinated?" Or was he perhaps referring to the First Amendment guarantee that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof," thus ensuring that "the church" and "the state" would be separate? Possibly he was also thinking of the Article VI language insisting that "no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States."

It is, of course, true that the phrase "the separation of church and state" doesn't appear verbatim in the Constitution. But James Madison, generally regarded as "the Father of the Constitution," was known to use the phrase. In 1822, for example, he said this in a letter to Edward Livingston:

Notwithstanding the general progress made within the two last centuries in favour of this branch of liberty, & the full establishment of it, in some parts of our Country, there remains in others a strong bias towards the old error, that without some sort of alliance or coalition between Government & Religion neither can be duly supported. Such indeed is the tendency to such a coalition, and such its corrupting influence on both the parties, that the danger cannot be too carefully guarded agst. And in a Government of opinion, like ours, the only effectual guard must be found in the soundness and stability of the general opinion on the subject. Every new & successful example therefore of a perfect separation between ecclesiastical and civil matters, is of importance. And I have no doubt that every new example, will succeed, as every past one has done, in shewing that religion & Govt will both exist in greater purity, the less they are mixed together. [Emphasis mine.]

This isn't to say that present controversies over school prayer and the like are always straightforward. It is very likely, however, that in resolving such controversies, Madison would be inclined to grant the young man's preference for a strict separation of church and state far more respect.

As Madison wrote in 1832, "It may not be easy, in every possible case, to trace the line of separation between the rights of religion and the Civil authority with such distinctness as to avoid collisions and doubts on unessential points. The tendency to usurpation on one side or the other, or to a corrupting coalition or alliance between them, will be best guarded agst. by an entire abstinence of the Gov't from interference in any way whatsoever, beyond the necessity of preserving public order, and protecting each sect agst. trespasses on its legal rights by others."

It's just what you'd expect from a liberal anti-colonialist.

Image credit: Reuters

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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