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By Thomas F. O'Neill

Church vs. State in our Modern Society

I find it fascinating that in our modern technological age that we as Americans can become so divisive, and hostile, when it comes to the separation of church and state issue.

The view that the state is to be thoroughly secular, and not influenced by religious values, especially Christian - was completely foreign to the first 150 years of American political thought. Clearly, the Founding Fathers did not try to expunge every vestige of Christian religion, thought, and values from all facets of public life.

When you study the documents of the Revolutionary period, a very distinctive picture of what the Founding Fathers believed comes into view. The Founders clearly believed that moral leadership, and a virtuous electorate, were essential for the experiment of freedom to succeed. Because of this, they created a political climate that was encouraging to religious faith and accommodating to religion, rather than hostile to it.

Consequently, Protestant Christianity was the prevailing religious view for the first 150 years of our nation's history.

However, to be accurate and balanced, it must be stated that the Founding Fathers sought to set up a just society, not a Christian theocracy. For that reason, they specifically prohibited the establishment of Christianity - or any other faith - as the religion of our nation. At the same time, the First Amendment was drafted to insure the liberty needed for religious freedom to have an ongoing and profound influence in American society separate from Government.

Most but not all of our Founding Fathers were influenced by the popularity of Newtonian physics and deism. The deist of their day did not believe in a personal god that had a direct influence on our national destiny. Many of our Founding Fathers viewed Christianity as practicing and living within superstitious beliefs.

However, it is an historical fact that the Founding Fathers were supportive of religion and its public practice and expression. It wasn't until 1947 that the United States Supreme Court first used the concept of "separation" to isolate government from religion.

In Everson v. Board of Education the court lifted a phrase from a letter Thomas Jefferson wrote to a Baptist church in Danbury, Connecticut. In the words of Jefferson, the clause against establishment of religion by law was intended to erect "a wall of separation between church and state."

In this ruling, the Supreme Court quoted Jefferson's separation language as a normative guideline for understanding the First Amendment. This is especially remarkable when one realizes that Jefferson wasn't even a member of the Constitutional Convention, and the phrase "separation of church and state" does not appear anywhere in the Constitution or the Bill of Rights.

A careful reading of Jefferson's letter, his other writings, and the First Amendment itself makes it clear that it is the government that is restricted from intruding into any religious organization, and not people who are being restricted from having religious views within government. However, they cannot use their office to impose their religious views or in implementing Government policy.

Freedom of religion is the goal, and the non-establishment clause is the means. The only way to have true freedom of religion is to keep government out of religion's affairs. This view defines religious freedom in terms of governmental neutrality toward religion in which no religion is favored over any other, and neither religion nor secularism is favored over each other.

The First Amendment was rewritten 12 times to make clear its intent. The concept set forth in the Bill of Rights is "non-establishment" of religion, not the total isolation in the belief in God in government.

For nearly two centuries, state and federal governments have had a benevolent attitude toward religion in general, and Christianity in particular.

The Northwest Ordinance of 1787, passed by the very same Congress which enacted the First Amendment, stated the following in Article III:

"Religion, morality, and knowledge being necessary to good government and happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged."

Notice that religion and morality were equal with knowledge as proper subjects of public education.

I am a firm believer that Thomas Jefferson would have approved of comparative religion courses in the public school system. Comparative Religion courses can give us a deeper understanding of how humanity has searched for meaning and found purpose in life through the power of myth. Jefferson's concept of Christianity was more philosophical than what Christian Fundamentalist believe today.

Thomas Jefferson would not however approve of public schools teaching Christianity as the inspired word and Religion that we as Americans must follow to be truly American. That is what today's Christian Fundamentalist would have us believe. Jefferson like most of the Founding Fathers believed Christianity and the gospels can be used as a moral guide but he did not believe in divine revelations. That was one of the reasons Jefferson wrote the Jeffersonian bible he hoped it would be utilized as a moral compass. He also believed that nature and reason hold the key to unraveling the mysteries of our universe.

A holistic Education for Jefferson was not filling the mind with mundane facts but rather opening the mind to new ideas. Education is also the means to developing a virtuous and moral electorate to guide our nation forward.

I personally do not believe entirely in the Deist view of reality nor do I believe in Christian Fundamentalism. But, it is a fact that cannot be denied that many of our Founding Fathers were in fact supportive of religious expression in society separate from Government interference. Most of our Founding Fathers would have also considered themselves deists and they believed it best to live moral lives by example, free from religious influence, bigotry, and bias.  

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Reader Comments

Name: Sara Phillips Email:
Comment: Dear, Mr. O'Neill I am a teacher and a graduate student on my way to a PHD. This is probably the best article on the subject of the seperation of church and state that I have ever read. Mr. O'Neill if you read my comment, I would just like to let you know that I will be using this article in my class. I learned a great deal from reading it and it is the most balanced article on the subject. I was told that your article was in USA Today and a friend of mine is going to cut it out for me. I am a Christian but far from being a fundamentalist. I am also encouraging both my daughters to take comparative religion courses in college. I wish you were my neighbor so that I could discuss this issue with you further, in person, over a hot cup of morning tea. Please continue to publish your articles. I also particularly enjoyed reading, "When you love" and "Let us remember our heritage" they were also beautifully written and extremely thoughtful, and they brought tears to my eyes. You have a unique writing style that is extremely easy to follow. I wish you and your readers a Joyful Holiday Season. Seasons Greetings from the Phillips Family, Sara Phillips



Name: John I. Blair Email:
Comment: This is an excellent essay on a very difficult and controversial topic. I essentially agree with everything you say, and have learned some new information from your research. The real problem, as I see it, is how to express one's religious convictions in a publicly funded facility or organization without implying that one'sviews are somehow authoritarian. I recall my grade school teachers in the 1940s leading the class in reciting the Lord's Prayer daily. I didn't mind, as I had been raised in a Protestant Christian household. But what if I'd been a Jewish boy, or (very unlikely then in Kansas) Hindu or Muslim? I would have been having someone else's religion forced on me, simply by the authority of the teacher's position. Sure, one can say "Well, the teacher isn't requiring the children to recite the prayer" but that would be disingenuous in the extreme. Thanks for your well-written article.



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