In the Founders’ footsteps: Maintaining the Great Separation

This month, I want to talk about a perennial issue, one that tends to bubble to the surface of political discourse again and again, but one that is also often poorly understood. That issue is the Great Separation — the separation of church and state.

The Constitution makes clear that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” This seems pretty straightforward. However, I’ve noticed a trend among commentators calling for a greater role for religion in regard to the state. Often, the precise role they feel religion should play is very vague; specific policies are usually not called for. Nonetheless, it is a troubling trend.
The revolutions of thought that led to our nation’s founding had their roots in the turmoil of religious wars in Europe. Several factors led to the conflicts that plagued the continent, obviously, but it’s no stretch to say that religion was one of them. Out of this tumult, modern thought was born, which in time inspired our founders to break away from the tyranny of the Crown. They structured the new nation largely on the principles of modern philosophy, especially on the thought of men like John Locke, among others.

What did Locke have to say about the union of religion and government? He had reservations, to put it lightly. “It is one thing to persuade, another to command; one thing to press with arguments, another with judicial rulings. . . . The civil power should not try to establish any articles of faith or doctrine, or any forms of worship, by the force of its laws. Laws without penalties have no force, and in our present context penalties are just silly, because they have no power to change anyone’s mind.”

In my opinion, Locke makes a solid argument. Spreading religion by state power fails because you can’t change someone’s beliefs by beating them into submission with penalties.

But perhaps it would be better to hear from the Founders themselves. James Madison, Father of the Constitution, saw the “practical distinction between Religion and Civil Government as essential to the purity of both and as guaranteed by the Constitution of the United States.” Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence, believed that “religion is a matter which lies solely between Man and his God,” and that “the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, and not opinions.” He concluded that the First Amendment to our Constitution served to erect “a wall of separation between Church and State.”

This is not to say that I’m condemning religion. I’m simply saying that it should not be wed to government. People should be free to practice their religions as they see fit, and the Constitution guarantees as much. However, I do stand firmly in the tradition of thought that led to our country’s creation, and in doing so condemn the integration of church and state.

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