History offers up all sorts of lessons. And with every new biography about one of the original finders, we learn something new—both good and bad—about the individuals who built America’s foundation. In spite of their human frailty, I still find myself amazed by their foresight.
These gentlemen took obvious missteps (The Great Compromise, anyone?), but on the whole they made several decisions with a lasting impact. One bold idea in particular was the acknowledgment of separation between church and state. Using Thomas Jefferson’s 1802 letter to the Danbury Baptists, the United States Supreme Court endorsed his interpretation of the “wall” in decisions from 1878 and starting again in 1947. (link) Jefferson, writing three paragraphs, endorsed a concept that, I believe, kept this country from self-destructing. Here’s the core of it:
Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, & not opinions, 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 & State. Adhering to this expression of the supreme will of the nation in behalf of the rights of conscience, I shall see with sincere satisfaction the progress of those sentiments which tend to restore to man all his natural rights, convinced he has no natural right in opposition to his social duties. (link)
Right now, I’m worried. The last 8-10 years have blurred the line between church and state. For the same reasons I don’t want the government in my home, I don’t want it in my church and vice versa. The separation exists for a reason: freedom under a theocracy is next to impossible. Ultimately, for me, freedom trumps religion. Once you require certain beliefs or certain actions, faith ceases. My faith is personal and doesn’t require my President worshiping in the pew next to me.
Benjamin Franklin, in a letter to Richard Pierce, pointed out that “when a religion is good, I conceive it will support itself; and when it does not support itself, and God does not take care to support it so that its professors are obliged to call for help of the civil power, ’tis a sign, I apprehend, of its being a bad one.” (link)
Separation was a bold idea 200+ years ago. It’s still valid today, in spite of critics who say America is on the pathway to hell. Contrary to the opinion of certain religious leaders, religion doesn’t always get it right or do it better. Why? It’s still organizations run by humans, and humans, religious or not, are far from perfect.
Do we really want our daily activities controlled by a single religious authority? I suspect that supporters of a connected church and state believe THEIR church will be the one running things. Makes me wonder what these supporters will think when its their denomination sitting on the sideline. Maybe they’ll decide that wall wasn’t such a bad idea after all.