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.

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.
The words "separation of church and state" are not in the text; the idea of separation is. Article VI provides that all state and federal officials "shall be bound by oath or affirmation, to support this Constitution; but no religious test shall ever be  required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United  States." The First Amendment's Establishment Clause (which Christine O'Donnell had apparently not read) provides that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion"--meaning that not only no church but no "religion" could be made the official faith of the United States. Finally the Free Exercise Clause provides that Congress shall not make laws "prohibiting the free exercise" of religion. (These prohibitions were extended to state governments by the Fourteenth Amendment, whose framers in 1866 wanted to make sure that the states maintained free, democratic systems instead of the old antebellum slave oligarchies that spawned the Civil War.)
If government can't require its officials to support a church; may not support a church itself; and may not interfere with the worship or belief of any church, is there a serious argument that church and state are not separate?
The attack on separation began as an attack on a letter by Thomas Jefferson to the Danbury Baptist Association, dated Jan. 1. 1802.  Jefferson assured the Baptists that "I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should 'make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,' thus building a wall of separation between Church & State."  In 1985, then-Justice William Rehnquist wrote that "unfortunately the Establishment Clause has been expressly freighted with Jefferson's misleading metaphor for nearly 40 years."
But this argument ignores a historical fact. It's not Jefferson's metaphor. Even in 1802, separation was already deeply rooted in American religious history.  In 1644, the American theologian Roger Williams, founder of the first Baptist congregation in the British New World, coined the phrase to signify the protection that the church needed in order to prevent misuse and corruption by political leaders: "The church of the Jews under the Old Testament in the type and the church of the Christians under the New Testament in the antitype were both separate from the world; and when they have opened a gap in the hedge or wall of separation between the garden of the church and the wilderness of the world, God hath ever broke down the wall itself, removed the candlestick, and made his garden a wilderness."
It is this concept--that use by political leaders of religion for their own ends was a danger both to the faithful and to the peace of society--that the Constitution embodies. James Madison wrote that government involvement with the church "implies either that the civil magistrate is a competent judge of religious truth; or that he may employ religion as an engine of civil policy. The first is an arrogant pretension falsified by the contradictory opinions of rulers in all ages, and throughout the world: the second an unhallowed perversion of the means of salvation."
The current right-wing drive to harness the power of government to bring souls to Christ is dangerous and un-American.  As no less conservative a figure than Sandra Day O'Connor wrote in 2005: "Those who would renegotiate the boundaries between church and state must therefore answer a difficult question: why would we trade a system that has served us so well for one that has served others so poorly?"

Garrett Epps's Full Constitutional Myth Series: