Common Sense and the First Amendment

Much has been written about the doctrine of the separation of church and state. I refer to it as a doctrine, for that is what it properly should be called. Doctrine is simply teaching.

The Bill of Rights, and specifically the First Amendment, is mistakenly identified as the source of the doctrine. We are told that the separation of church and state is the idea that anything borne of government (and therefore publicly funded) can in no way suggest, recommend, propagate, promote, encourage, foster, or otherwise acknowledge anything which is in any fashion religious in nature. The pertinent portion of that amendment to our federal Constitution reads thus:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof

Consider for a few moments the true meaning of this amendment. The very first word, “Congress,” debunks much of the doctrine of separation of church and state. The First Amendment (as well as the other nine) was crafted as a limitation solely on what the federal Congress could do. Period. The Bill of Rights was never intended to tie the hands of citizens, yet that is exactly what the doctrine of the separation of church and state teaches. The prohibition of the amendment is upon the making of laws by the Congress. When a manger scene is erected on a courthouse lawn, what law was made by Congress in erecting that display? Not one.

Patrick Henry was known for helping suffering clergy in his own state of Virginia who, for reasons of conscience, refused to accept a license from the state church

The word “establishment” is the next point to consider. To establish means to set up, institute, set in motion. So something Congress legislates is thus putting something into motion or establishing it. Again, setting up a manger scene hardly fits.

The term “religion” is frequently misunderstood in our day, let alone during the days of the founding of our Republic. Perhaps the easiest way to understand the word for us 21st-century Americans is to think of the word “denomination.” In Colonial America, most of the colonies (states) had a state church. In one state, the state religion was the Congregational Church, whereas in another it was the Anglican Church. This caused serious problems in several ways. If you were a Baptist, for example, in an Anglican state, you were forced to get a license from the state church to preach. If you refused for reasons of conscience, you were jailed, persecuted, or worse. Patrick Henry was known for helping suffering clergy in his own state of Virginia who, for reasons of conscience, refused to accept a license from the state church. State churches were a carryover from Europe, and the results here were no better than in the Old Country. Our Founders referred to these churches as “religions,” though we today would refer to them as “denominations.” Upon crafting the First Amendment, they were horrified to think of the mess that would have been ours if any one of the individual state churches were to become a federal church over every state. They chose, rather, to prohibit Congress from setting up—establishing—any such state church (religion).

From where, then, does the doctrine of separation of church and state properly issue? The courts often cite a metaphor of Thomas Jefferson expressed in an 1802 address to the Danbury Baptists. This particular group had become concerned that the new federal government might begin encroaching upon their liberty to worship, and they petitioned Mr. Jefferson to address the issue. To this group, he stated:

I contemplate with solemn reverence the 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.

Knowing what precipitated his statement helps us to understand, therefore, that the president was simply assuring them that the federal Congress was not in the business of denying them religious liberty. But this in no way suggested that there could be no interrelation between the federal government and religious matters.

Jefferson would have been hypocritical if he meant what we are told that he meant by his statement. You see, during the very period when he made this statement to the Danbury Baptists, Mr. Jefferson was himself a regular attendee of worship services being held at the time—of all places—in the House of Representatives! Gasp!

Furthermore, it was not unusual for the president to ask Congress to authorize some action with a religious aspect to it. For example, in 1803 President Jefferson recommended that Congress pass a treaty with the Kaskaskia Indians which provided, among other things, a stipend of $100 annually for seven years from the federal treasury for the support of a Catholic priest ministering to the Kaskaskia Indians. This and two similar treaties were enacted during Jefferson’s administration—one with the Wyandotte Indians and other tribes in 1806, and one with the Cherokee in 1807.

A review of early congressional history yields several examples of such treaties and acts involving the promotion of Christianity in one way or another. Thus, the doctrine of separation of church and state—as commonly referred to by the courts and taught by many today—is a fabrication, is not borne out by historical fact, and is very much an inversion of historical fact.

The next time someone cries out, “Separation of Church and State,” politely ask that person what religion Congress started—and then enlighten him or her with the truth.

  • Michael Harrison
  • Michael Harrison is founder of the Luzerne County Campaign for Liberty group and hosts an online blog at

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  1. Have you ever heard of the document drafted by Thomas Jefferson, that throughout his lifetime, Mr. Jefferson was recorded many times over as saying was the achievement he was most proud of? It was NOT the Declaration of Independence, but rather The Virginia Statute of Religious Freedoms. What you fail to understand is the fact that it was extremely important to the framers of our country, even the Christian ones, that this new republic would in no way favor one religion over any other. Your article claims that the founders only really meant to include the differing denominations of Christianity. That claim is completely fatuous and contemptible to anyone who is a true student of history. Jefferson’s Statute was a completely SECULAR bill and and called for the end of Episcopal Church taxing all Virginians. His rival, Patrick Henry proposed a bill which whereby not one, but ALL of the christian churches be supported by the taxpayer. Furthermore, in the preamble to Jefferson’s Virginia Statute he used the words Almighty God. He was pressured by his rivals to change the words to Jesus Christ, which was rejected by a majority. Jefferson cited that defeat as “proof that they meant to comprehend, within the mantle of its protection, the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and the Mahomedan, the Hindoo, and the Infidel of EVERY DENOMINATION. I know the publication you write for is frivolous at best but the complete disregard for facts and the degree of obvious spin toward your opinion is journalism in its lowest form.

  2. Hey thanks, I’m just a big fan of good ol’ TJ and thought I should comment on how it really went down

  3. I would actually be very interested in doing something like that. It would be nice to see more skeptical or critical thinking oriented articles in the mix of things. I guess that just depends on if people would want to actually read about that perspective though.

  4. mdimircoGet in touch with me through the contact form.  We can discuss it privately.

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