Separation of Church and State: The First Amendment and Religious Neutrality

The debate about the separation of church and state has a long history, and, like many controversial issues, engenders much confusion and disagreement. Many contributors to this perennial topic desire an absolute separation between church and state, meaning that religion may at no point affect the public square. Others, preferring the polar opposite, hope for a state that is explicitly religious, much like some modern Islamic states. Many other views lie between these poles. This essay shall take an uncommon turn in the discussion by asking a question which may surprise some readers. While typical conversations about this topic are concerned with whether there should be a separation between church and state, I desire to ask whether there can be such a separation, either in theory or practice.

My thesis is two-fold: first, popular ideas of church and state separation today are conceptually confused; second, that the assumption of religious neutrality behind the concept is theoretically and practically impossible. The first goal is to show that views of separation that claim that the state and public square should be religiously neutral is not what was believed or practiced during the days of our Constitution’s formulation. This is significant for the obvious reason that if current appeals to and definitions of the theory do not match the practice of the founding days, they are therefore not the issues the founders had in mind while penning the language in Bill of Right—unless we wish to accuse the founders of egregious inconsistency. This is but one aspect of how the concept of church/state separation is confused.

The second goal of this paper is to challenge the so-called religious neutrality that serves as the foundation of religious freedom upon which many views are built. Many today believe that a separation of church from the state must mean that no religious indoctrination should exist in the public square. Religion is seen as offensive when in the public square because of the unreliable, subjective, and irrational nature of faith-based argumentation or practice. Only ideas and practices that are objective and based on the established principles of science are appropriate for the public square and for state sanction. Creationism, for example, is faith-based, and thus unscientific. Adversity to homosexual marriage is strictly religiously based and thus irrelevant to our scientific methods of knowledge, which alone can bring us correct ethical stances. I wish to expose the myth of religious neutrality by showing that all men are religious, and thus politics, which involves men necessarily, is inescapably religious.

Significance and Difficulty

This thesis is important because the topic is inescapable for any citizen of any government. Politics, which is inherently moral and thus religious, affects everyone. An inescapable issue that touches the life of everyone is, by definition, significant. The question I plan to answer is also problematic because there is much historical and philosophical labor required to view the issue clearly. It is a difficult challenge to communicate this thesis for it dares to confront the deeply-anchored assumptions and presuppositions of many citizens. This is, or course, another reason this thesis is significant. When one argues for a change in presuppositions, he is in some way arguing for a paradigm shift. If the presumptions of the debate are changed, the trajectory and shape of the discussion change in proportion—a change which is inevitably drastic.

Historical Confusion

The concept of church state is properly defined by most dictionaries as a political theory which states that religious and government institutions should be kept separate from each other. But the modern meaning has moved beyond such a definition as the word “institution” seems to have been forgotten. The ACLU, for example, appeals to church and state separation when they claim that because creationism is based on the Bible, to “reject [it] as science is to defend the most basic principles of academic integrity and religious freedom” (ACLU). Now, as the ACLU policy on religion in public school states, “…any program of religious indoctrination—direct or indirect—in the public schools or by use of public resources is a violation of the constitutional principle of separation of church and state and must be opposed….”(ACLU). The difference is subtle but substantial. We are no longer concerned with whether the State should authorize a religious test to its officials, or whether Congress should endorse a state church; today we are concerned with “religious indoctrination” and faith-based claims in the public square, no matter the institution behind the claims. When or why the shift occurred is difficult to determine, but that the swing has happened is apparent. This shift is quite unambiguous when the modern understanding of separation is contrasted with that of America’s early days.

In the early days of our nation there was indeed a separation between church and state, although the precise terminology of “church and state separation” was not present. As John Whitte has pointed out, the founders primarily invoked this separation in order to protect the church from the state (28). The founders rightly saw a separation between the institutions of church and state. The clergy is forbidden to execute criminals, for example, and has no business in the adjudication of civil affairs. Likewise, the government has not been given the responsibility to “preach the word” or administer the sacraments.

This understanding of separation of church and state was prominent in eighteenth-century America. The American founders’ principal concern was to protect church affairs from the state intrusion, the clergy from the magistracy, church properties from state interference, ecclesiastical rules and rites from political coercion and control. (White 29)

This historical and legitimate understanding of separatism is granted even today. But another aspect of separatism is concerned with protecting the state from the church. Because history is replete with the examples of men who were both ministers and magistrates and of their abusive control over their constituents, seven of the original thirteen states and later fifteen states total would ban ministers from taking political office (Whitte 31).

These two aspects of church and state separation are not what most Americans mean when the phrase is invoked today. Now, it is argued that having the word “God” on American coinage is a violation the separatism, that teaching creationism in public schools is a violation, or that public prayer in these schools is a violation (Boortz 60). A more recent and notable example of what is prohibited by the separation is the display of the Ten Commandments and other religious artifacts on public property. Were these the types of issues that invoked the language of church and state separation in the late eighteenth-century? As we shall see, the answer is emphatically in the negative.

This brings us to our first argument that the conception of church and state separation has shifted. It is not difficult for the reader of American history to notice the toleration of religion in the public square that existed in our nation’s earlier days. The very fact that these religious monuments were allowed to be placed in public spaces shows that the language of church and state separation has shifted. The coins in our pockets that bear the word “God” also bear witness to an earlier American tolerance of “religious” language in the public sphere. History books would not be filled with cases involving the removal or prayer from our public schools if the concept of church and state separation had remained steady.

While these self-evident facts seem unassailable, amazingly it is common today to speak of such issues as a violation of church and state. Popular radio host Neal Boortz sees the issue of prayer in public school as a violation: “The prayer-in-school proponents out there are merely looking for a way to use the government to present religious theory to your child. Those who don’t see that as an abominable violation of the spirit of the First Amendment are either lying or lacking a basic capacity for logical thought” (Boortz 60). Boortz does not answer the natural question as to why prayer was ever allowed in the public schools of a nation that held the view of the First Amendment that he projects.

There are more explicit references to religious tones that existed in the public of former years. Perhaps the following facts will prove helpful to critics like Boortz. In the 1892 decision of Church of the Holy Trinity v United States, the Supreme Court concluded “from the discovery of this continent to the present hour, there is a single voice making this affirmation… that this is a Christian nation…We find everywhere a clear recognition of the same truth” (qtd. in Ewing 10). Today, under the rubric of church and state separation our nation claims to be pluralistic, not Christian. Another example may be cited. In the “New England Primer”, the beginning textbook for public students for nearly 200 years until 1900, children were catechized with questions and answers such as the following: “Who is the Redeemer of God’s elect? The only Redeemer of God’s elect, is the Lord Jesus Christ…” (Ewing 11).

One objection is that because a dominant portion of early America was professedly religious, a toleration of these things was consistent with the majority’s will. But that the population was dominantly religious does not mean it was totally religious, and as such there would have been many who were forced to publicly tolerate what they would not personally endure. A populace of religious diversity, no matter the numbers, never equals the ‘equal treatment’ of pluralism.

Another interesting argument against popular views of separatism concerns the history and actions of Thomas Jefferson. One of his writings is generally referred to as the origin of the phrase “church and state separation.” More than a decade after the signing and ratification of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, Jefferson did indeed pen those words to a Baptist minister (Witte 16). A first and obvious rebuttal is that private letters do not carry constitutional authority. Secondly, if one still wishes to use Jefferson’s personal letters as an historical hermeneutic to understanding the language of the First Amendment, he should note that Jefferson did not sign the Constitution or the Bill of Rights (DeMar 65). It is possible, however, to get an idea of Jefferson’s views of church and state separation, even though his views have no direct bearing on interpreting the United States constitution. The following historical facts should dissuade the reader from believing that Jefferson wanted to eradicate religion from the public square.

As governor of Virginia, Jefferson issued proclamations declaring days of “public and solemn thanksgiving and prayer to Almighty God” (DeMar 65-66), a strange action for one who’s views of separation are concerned with getting religious and faith-based language and artifacts out of the public realm. His “Bill for Punishing Disturbers of Religious Worship and Sabbath Breakers” was introduced by James Madison in the Virginia assembly in 1875, becoming law in 1886 (DeMar 65-66). The language of ‘Sabbath-breaking’ is certainly not religiously neutral.

As president, Jefferson included a prayer in each of his two inaugural addresses, and signed bills appropriating money for chaplains in Congress and Armed Services, which earnestly “recommended to all officers and soldiers, diligently to attend divine services” (DeMar 65). In 1803, the allegedly champion of church and state separation signed an appropriation of funds to be paid to the Kaskaskia Indians who requested that the US build them a Catholic church and pay their priest. He also advocated that the tax-supported College of William and Mary maintain “a perpetual mission among the Indian tribes,” which included the instruction of “the principles of Christianity.” In terms of his actions relating to religious indoctrination, Jefferson proposed a curriculum for the University of Virginia which included a provision for a “professor of ethics” who would present “the Proofs of the being of God, the Creator, Preserver, and Supreme Ruler of the universe, the Author of all the relations of morality, and of the laws and obligations these infer” (DeMar 66).

While the long list of facts above might seem excessive, it is nonetheless appropriate due to the frequency with which his name is cited as an authority of modern views of separation. From such a list it would appear that any appeal to Jefferson to embolden a view of separation which requires the removal of “religious” language from the public square is ignorant and futile.

Many more examples of religious language can be cited in government literature, but the point is proved without them. Thus far our argument is that today’s church and state separation language has shifted from the original intent of First Amendment. We know this because of the conspicuous evidence we have that the early American government had no church/state gripes with some aspects of religion existing in the public domain, yet which would today be considered as violations of church and state separation.

Religious Neutrality

The main offense of having religion in the public square is that it is faith-based. What is tolerated and promoted in the public square should be that which is factual and based on the scientific model. As Justice John Paul Stevens asserted in 1977, “the realm of religion is where knowledge leaves off, and where faith begins” (qtd. in Titus, 16). Faith and religion are permissible in the personal realm, the family, or the religious community, but are completely inappropriate in the public square. Faith doesn’t give us an objective and scientific basis for argumentation and knowledge, and for this reason we should not teach religious beliefs like creationism in the public classroom. Unlike faith-based arguments, science gives us evidence and arguments that are not mysterious, unreasoned, and improvable.

This takes us to the second part of the thesis and to the most crucial argument against the modern view that the state should be religiously neutral. To be sure, if part of the State’s role is to be religiously neutral, one can see why endorsing the name “God” on U.S. coinage and teaching doctrines from the Bible are a violation of the State’s role. But such a view or religious neutrality is impossible, both theoretically, and practically, as I shall prove. Therefore, such religious neutrality could never have been the State’s role and may never be.

Today’s proponents of religious neutrality are not merely concerned with the government’s installation of a state sponsored church. They want the State to be neutral in all matters, statements or doctrines that are faith based. But, as one professor comments, “there is no neutrality, for states any more than for individuals” (Frame 211). This is because of the following reasons.

In dealing with the theoretical impossibility of religious neutrality, it should be noted that a religion is a worldview or philosophy of fact based, not on science, but on faith. Worldviews deal basically with views of knowledge, reality and ethics. That is, our worldviews help us answer questions about how we really know what we know, the nature, limits and origin of reality, and how we are supposed to behave. Either wittingly or unwittingly each person has a worldview. But worldviews are not testable by the standards of natural science, thus making them foundationally faith-based. One cannot put a theory of knowledge, ethics, or reality under a microscope to test its validity. The significance of this is that modern views of separation that are based on religious neutrality are suggesting that a person, even the State, should deal with the life-matters of ethics, reality, and knowledge apart from a worldview. Since worldviews are inescapable, the state can never be totally religiously neutral.

Another interesting argument about the theoretical impossibility of religious neutrality concerns science. Science is assumed to be antithetical to faith, but in fact itself has inherent religious qualities (Poythress 111). The late Robert Ingersoll agreed with the former view when, calling religion superstition he stated, “only that should be taught in a school that which somebody can learn that somebody can know” (Ingersoll 116). But Ingersoll would need to explain how on purely scientific principles one can make sense of the many aspects of science which are foundational to it. Philosopher and theologian, John Frame has pointed out that

[A] great many writers (Kuyper, Dooyeweerd, Clouser, Van Til, Polanyi, Kuhn, Hanson, Poythress) have made an impressive case that science is not religiously neutral. At the most obvious level, science presupposes many things that it cannot prove, but must take on faith: the uniformity of nature, the correspondence of thought with reality, the universality of physical laws, the values required for the honest pursuit of truth. (Frame, Intelligent Design)

A stock objection at this point is that it does not follow that because all people and states have worldviews that the state should be teaching anything from the Bible, or that the State should endorse any particular view of God. In response, it should be pointed out that whether the State teaches the Christian or Islamic concept of deity or whether it teaches no deity at all, it is still making a worldview declaration about deity. It is making a claim about reality (there is a God, or there is no god), and it is making an ethical stance on whether it is appropriate for the State to allow specific concepts of God to be introduced into the public sphere. In this case worldviews are inescapable whether one is making a positive, negative, or “neutral” policy on God.

The force of the argument is powerful. It turns out that just as religious neutrality is not only philosophically or theoretically possible, it is not practically possible. If one makes any ethical declaration, then he is at root making a faith-based statement. Even the supposedly neutral declarations made from the scientific laboratories are pronouncements made on the basis of experiments which rely on faith-based worldviews to justify the above-mentioned aspects of science and that are outside the boundaries of science itself.

Conclusion

We have discovered by looking at the practice of early America that it was not concerned with protecting her citizens from faith-based language in the public square. The early founders prayed at national public assemblies, allowed for the teaching of the religious doctrines in school, and did many other things that are not tolerated today under the rubric of the church and state separation which they penned in the Bill of Rights. It cannot be the case that such founders or early America has a whole were trying to eradicate all religion from the public square.

While it is difficult to ascertain whether America’s founders were aware of the impossibility of pure religious neutrality, and whether they understood the personal inescapability of faith-based worldviews, it clear that faith-based systems of thought govern everyone’s theory of ethics, knowledge, and reality. And as such, it is impossible for one to make judgments about God, or anything else, while attempting to be religiously neutral.

Any citizen of any country that assumes or believes a view of church and state separation that is based on religious neutrality should be concerned about a few key issues. One, he or she should examine whether there are any possible ways to escape this thesis that religious neutrality is impossible. Second, if he is convinced that all men are indeed religious, he should investigate more deeply these worldview/religious issues of life, both in his and in the lives of those around him. What are his worldview foundations? What about those of the very State he lives under and which purports to be religiously neutral? Is the state subscribing to at theory of ethics which is utilitarian? If so, what if that clashes with his own religious standard of ethics? Both are ultimately faith-based, and the concerned and thinking citizen should not ignore the glaring reality that not only is the state religious, but the State by definition is compulsive with its religious views. He also should not overlook the strong irony that it is precisely the enforcement of religious views by the State, posturing under the guise of religious neutrality, that initially provokes the controversial topic of church and state separation: the appeal to the government’s apparent religious neutrality is actually an appeal to enforced religion.

Works Cited

“ACLU Position Statement on “Creation-Science” American Civil Liberties Union. 11 Mar. 2002. 22 Feb. 2007 <http://www.aclu.org/religion/gen/16154res20020311.html&gt;

Boortz, Neal. Somebody’s Gotta Say It. (New York: Harper Collins, 2007).

Demar, Gary. America‘s Christian Heritage. Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 2003.

________ “It Started with Aristotle.” Biblical Worldview Magazine Feb. 2006: 22-24.

Ewing, Tim. “Why Was America Founded as A Christian Nation (Part 1).” Biblical Worldview Magazine Feb. 2006: 22-24.

Frame, John. “Is Intelligent Design Science?” 22 April 2007 <http://www.frame-poythress.org/frame_articles/IntelligentDesign.htm&gt;

Frame, John. “Toward a Theology of the State” Westminster Theological Journal 51:2 (Fall, 1989), 199-226

Ingersoll, Robert Green, What’s God Got To Do With It?: Robert Ingersoll On Free Thought, Honest Talk, and the Separation of Church and State. Hanover: Steerforth Press, 2005.

Titus, Herbert W. “Defining Religion.” Biblical Worldview Magazine April. 2007: 16-17

Poythress, Vern S. “Why Scientists Must Believe in God: Divine Attributes of Scientific Law.” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society. 46 (2003): 111-121.

Witte Jr., John. “Facts and Fictions About the History of Separation of Church and State.” Journal of Church & State 48 (2006): 14-45.

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