|The Separation of Church and State
History of the "Separation of Church and State"
Hoo boy. This one ain't easy. Now, before we jump in, let me just point a few things out. The people listed on this page are not polar opposites. No one here is trying to establish a theocracy (I'll put in links to Christian Reconstructionists later) and no one is trying to persecute others for their beliefs. This still being America, we all fall somewhere in between.
One's ideas regarding the 'proper' role of religion vis a vis the state clearly goes straight to the heart of all of these debates. As such, the stakes are high. The 'original intent' of the framers in crafting the first amendment, "Congress shall make no law respecting the establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof", has been hotly debated by those who know far more about these things than I. Indeed, to secure the blessing of the Founding Fathers on their own interpretation of the proper lines between Church and State is seen by many as the 'brass ring' of this overall debate.
I fear, however, that such partisans are subject to the same 'prooftexting' that has hindered and perverted the reading of the Bible for millennia. Plunging into history (be it constitutional or otherwise) already armed with firm answers almost guarantees that one shall find the exact viewpoint which one seeks.
As you browse through the following pages, the most important thing to remember is that anything can be taken out of context, and that to build firm convictions about the intentions of the founders of this country (or anyone else, for that matter) by reading a few phrases plucked out of historical context is not a sign of intellectual rigor.
A Very Brief History
The mere phrase, "a wall of separation between church and state" is continually invoked in the debate over the role of religion in public life. The American author of this phrase was none other than Thomas Jefferson, who wrote it in his letter to the Danbury Baptists. After reading this brief letter, the reader will conclude that "the separation of church and state" had for Jefferson none of the meaning that it has for today's "strict separationists". All that is clear from the letter is that Jefferson felt that the state should have no control over the minds of its citizens.
Jefferson himself is a very problematic figure for those seeking an answer rooted in the opinions of the founders. His legitimacy to interpret the constitution is questioned by some, because, after all, he did not attend the constitutional convention. However, he did write the Declaration of Independence, which makes explicit that, as humans, our rights derive from our creator (although for Jefferson, this was almost certainly not the God of Christianity).
Jefferson and Madison and the Legacy of Virginia
Besides Jefferson's aforementioned letter, those who interpret a strict separation between church and state pay particular attention to a series of events that took place in the Virginia legislature shortly after the American revolution. Without going into too much detail (gotta keep things moving), a bill was introduced which would collect a tax from the citizens to be given to local churches. Although the tax-payer could decide which church was to receive the "donation", the tax was to be required by law.
This was simply too much for Jefferson and Madison. James Madison (soon enough to become president) wrote a multi-point argument against the proposed legislation, his famed Memorial and Remonstrance. The writing was said to have such an effect on the citizens as well as the lawmakers that the bill to establish a "religious tax" was voted down the next year. Riding on the crest of this victory, Jefferson and his supporters pushed through Jefferson's Bill to Establish Religious Liberty, another much quoted document.
There have been several more scholarly histories and interpretations of the events listed above. Follow these links to read people more academic discussions:
To illustrate the divergent opinions that people derive from the writings of the founders, I provide the following links for the so inclined: