Can We Separate Church And State? Or Church From Anything?
Religion & Liberty Online

Can We Separate Church And State? Or Church From Anything?

Thomas Jefferson believed that the practice of one’s faith should not be impinged upon by one’s government. He wrote of this in a letter or address to the Danbury Baptist Association:

Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man and his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, and not opinions,” he wrote, “I contemplate with sovereign reverence that 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 and State.”

Many American wrongly believe that this idea of the “separation between Church and State” appears in our Constitution or the Declaration of Independence. This has led to all sorts of issues, including the current tangle of the HHS mandate, forcing employers to pay for medications and procedures they find morally repugnant. “But,” the ill-informed cry, “you must! There is a separation of Church and State! Your faith cannot enter the public arena!”

OnFaith’s Jon Meachem has a short, elegant discussion on this.

On this Fourth of July, however, if you think of anything at all having to do with the uniqueness of American liberty, think of this: that the Founders of the nation whose Declaration of Independence we celebrate successfully found an answer to an ancient problem by erecting that wall of separation between church and state while recognizing that there could be no wall between religion and politics any more than there could be a wall between economics and politics or geography and politics.

Here’s one way to think about that tradition. The two great founding documents — the Declaration and the Constitution — are very different when viewed through the prism of religious thought and practice. Jefferson’s Declaration grounds our fundamental human rights in the divine — as gifts of the “Creator.” The original Constitution, on the other hand, mentions religion only twice: once to ban religious tests for federal office and again in the most utilitarian of ways, dating the document “in the Year of Our Lord 1787.” As a practical matter, we have lived our national life with an awareness and appreciation of religion and with a vigilant regard for the principle, articulated by Jefferson, that faith is “a matter which lies solely between Man and his God.” And so it should be.

Read “One Way to Think about America’s Unique Liberty” at OnFaith.

Elise Hilton

Communications Specialist at Acton Institute. M.A. in World Religions.