The misconception of separation of church and state

Photo courtesy of Chuck Coker/ flickr

Photo courtesy of Chuck Coker/ flickr

Natalie King

I must first self-disclose that I am a Christian and a Republican. I must also make it clear that I agree with the ideal of Separation of Church and State. I am well aware that since my personal opinions on many issues are based upon my religious beliefs, they cannot be implemented or “forced” on the rest of the country.

With all that being said, I am often bothered by the use of the phrase, “separation of church and state.” I feel as though the true meaning and intentions of it are usually overlooked, whether it is on purpose or from lack of knowledge about the history of the subject.

Although Thomas Jefferson is often credited with espousing the idea of separation of church and state, Roger Williams, the founder of Rhode Island, likely preceded him. Williams was a Christian himself but repeatedly emphasized the importance of religious freedom.

“Forced worship stinks in God’s nostrils,” said Williams as he backed up the notion of keeping religion separate from government.

As all of us learned in history class, people left England throughout the seventeenth century, largely to escape religious persecution and establishment. This is why Roger Williams, and likely many other political leaders of the time, stood so strongly for precisely what our Constitution states today: no religion should be established by the government.

All of this makes perfect sense. But there is an aspect a lot of people today refuse to accept, which is that our country was based upon Christianity. No, the Founding Fathers and signers of the Constitution did not establish Christianity as a national religion, but the fact is that they were religious men, and religious men base their moral decisions on their religious beliefs.

The written phrase of separation of church and state, however, can in fact be accredited to Thomas Jefferson. In a letter he wrote to the Danbury Baptist, Jefferson wrote that the free exercise of religion clause in the First Amendment creates a “wall of separation between church and state.” And thus, the notorious argument was born.

It is interesting to me that we can take one phrase so fiercely while ignoring the context in which he is writing this letter. Jefferson was thanking and commending the Danbury Baptist Association; he was a political official that openly supported a religious group. Today, people are so quick to pull out “separation of church and state” any time a political leader supports a religious community.

For example, Ted Cruz has been attacked for his encouragement of certain religiously affiliated groups to stand against Planned Parenthood in protest. He did not fund or establish anything, yet people say he is openly violating separation of church and state. First, separation of church and state is not something that can be violated, as it is in not written in the Constitution. Sure, disagree with Cruz’s strategies and choices, but no “rule” has been broken.

This brings me to the difference between freedom of religion and freedom from religion. The U.S. Constitution obviously grants all citizens freedom of religion within the Bill of Rights. The problem I often see is people feeling as though they are entitled to freedom from religion.

This means they do not practice tolerance toward people who are freely exercising their right to practice religion. Just because you do not support a certain religious group does not mean you can expect to live in a world completely free of that religious group. Just as those individuals who do not agree with certain activists groups cannot dare to interfere with their freedoms.

Many people who use separation of church and state as an argument do genuinely believe that it is a law. This likely stems from the freedom from the establishment of religion clause within the first amendment. “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof” is how the clause begins. As we can see, this statement is not the same as “separation of church and state.” In fact, it very clearly prevents the government from establishing a state church, not eradicating the presence of religion in the public sphere.

My overall point is that although I agree with the necessity of separating church and state, I do not agree with people who use this clause to condemn political leaders who are simply showing support to religious groups. That is in no way breaking the law, and we should all recognize and accept it.

Categories: Editorials, Opinions

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