Separation of Church and State

The separation of church and state is currently the focus of much debate. The concept is increasingly challenged by religious groups and discussed in the media as conflicting claims move through the courts. This overview of the subject is organized around four questions: What is the historical background of the First Amendment, which established the separation—what was it meant to achieve, and why? How can we understand the current struggle over the “wall of separation”? Is there a way to ameliorate this conflict? And how do Friends relate to the separation? I will address each of these topics in turn.

The History

The First Amendment begins: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” Two things are notable about this statement. First, the word establish means not only “to place upon a secure foundation” but also has older meanings, which include “to ratify, to confirm, or to validate.” Note also that the First Amendment refers to religion generally, and not to “a religion.” Thus one reading might be: “Congress shall make no law respecting the validation of religion.”

The founders of the United States were influenced by the Enlightenment and were thoroughly familiar with the troubled and violent history of religion in Europe, where the rulers and clergy had fought one another for power or had joined forces with one another to impose their religious beliefs on the people. The founders wanted to protect their new country from the threat that once again the absolutism of a religious belief might ally itself with the temporal power of the state and thus impose its will on the people, limiting their reasonable freedom to enjoy liberty, to pursue happiness, and to practice religions of their individual choosing, or to practice no religion at all. The Age of Faith was to be superseded by the Age of Reason, and for the first time in history “the people” were to be sovereign. (Note that throughout I write as though our founders were of one mind. In fact we cannot know all disagreements that arose among them or the details of their resolution.)

This effort to dispense with the old order and bring in the new developed only gradually. Despite the wish to escape the inquisitions and other religious persecutions of the “old countries,” the early settlers nonetheless introduced religious intolerance into most of the colonies. Nine colonies established official religions, and intolerance was widespread. In Maryland, for instance, in 1694, to deny belief in Christ was punishable by death. In some colonies only professed Christians were allowed to run for public office.

The Declaration of Independence in 1776 included references to God, such as “Nature’s God,” the “Creator,” “Divine Providence,” and the “Supreme Judge of the world.” But this was a political document that needed power to mobilize the citizenry in a time of war. Several years later, in more settled times, when the founders wrote a Constitution for a new nation, they made no reference to God at all and in fact offered the unique concept of deliberately separating church and state. Some scholars view this as perhaps our greatest contribution to human history.

It is clear from the record of that time that the First Amendment was intended to protect nonbelievers and even explicit opponents of religion to the same extent that it protected the adherents of differing religious faiths. While many of our founders were religious men, most were not fundamentalists or evangelicals. They viewed religious beliefs as a benefit to individuals in their private lives while having no role in shaping the government of all the people. John Adams wrote that “the Government of the United States is not in any sense founded on the Christian religion,” implying that good citizenship does not rest upon religious assumptions. Thomas Jefferson wrote of “believing that religion is a matter which lies solely between man and his God, and that man owes account to none other for his faith or his worship.” Like others of his day he assumed that all men, believers and nonbelievers alike, possessed a moral faculty adequate to support civic virtue. He wrote further: “The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others. But it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are 20 gods or no gods. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.” When Jefferson criticized the Church’s persecution of Galileo for his modern views about the solar system, he employed a well-known distinction between personal religious beliefs that may reasonably be viewed as private, and beliefs based on generally agreed-upon epistemic criteria and goals that exist in the public sphere.

This distinction between two types or realms of human interest, one public and the other private, seems to me crucial in understanding the First Amendment and the attempt to separate church and state. The distinction is between two different mindsets or perspectives. It is ancient and to some degree intuitive. It needs to be grasped intellectually and not taken on faith. It is not a revealed truth but rather is arrived at by people thinking about human problems and trying to solve them. “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and unto God the things that are God’s” is an early Christian example. The contrast between “reason” and religion during the Enlightenment is another, as is the distinction between the secular and the sacred in current parlance. These two ways of approaching the world and our experience of it, though different from one another, are not inherently in conflict.

One is a public realm, concerned with public needs and purposes, open to evidence and to open-minded discussion. It includes the sciences, practical problem solving, and other empirical and pragmatic pursuits that are the same the world over. It offers some chance for bringing nearly all people into agreement. Dialogue and debate are useful. Laws based in such a realm, whether laws of physics or laws of the state, are expected to change over time to accommodate new knowledge, new insights, or changing values.

The other, though shared in groups, is a private realm. Religious or absolutist beliefs that refer to gods, prophetic revelations, ultimate truths, and presumed universal values refer to things unseen and are subject neither to validation nor to invalidation by empirical means. There is no related concept of evidence beyond that of faith, and there is no reason to expect broad agreement. In this realm beliefs will differ one from another. The differences, however, are not differences in value, though sometimes a monarch or a powerful church has stepped in and decreed by virtue of power alone that one is more valuable than the others.

The intention of the founding fathers when they guaranteed religious freedom, combined with separation of church and state, was to view religion in this private realm. The purpose was to protect religion from encroachment by the state and to protect the people from the imposition of religion by force of law or other governmental sponsorship. In other words, religion is a private matter about which people may continue to differ indefinitely without harm to the government or to one another. In rare instances the state will forbid a religious practice, such as parents’ denying their children medical care for religious reasons. In this instance a cultural value not based on religion trumps a value supported by a religious belief.

This view of religion as a private matter for individuals or groups of like-minded individuals and unnecessary for the smooth functioning of society fits well with the Enlightenment ideals upon which the U.S. Constitution is based. We are presumably a pluralistic, tolerant, secular society acknowledging many different beliefs and devoted to the common good of all citizens. The so-called wall of separation between church and state is meant to keep us that way. We were offered in good faith a situation in which religion could flourish with no threat to the achievement of liberty and justice for all.

“Wall of Separation”

There has often been conflict over the wall of separation. Sometimes the effort is to introduce religion into the schools or to suppress the teaching of evolution. Sometimes it is to protect religious expression from governmental interference. Sometimes it is an attempt to support religion with tax dollars. It is a complex picture and conflict is inevitable. Some earlier efforts, two spearheaded by Christian ministers, have successfully breached the wall, namely, placing “In God We Trust” on U.S. currency at the time of the Civil War, and squeezing the words “under God” into the Pledge of Allegiance during the anti-communist frenzy of the McCarthy period. In recent years, especially since the Roe v. Wade decision in 1973 and subsequent decisions concerning sodomy laws and gay marriage, there has been an increase in church-state litigation.

Looking at the overall picture, the largest pressure on the wall of separation seems to stem from Christianity’s commitment to expand itself: to bring the country, if not the world, to adopt a single, uniform system of belief and conduct. For some believers the commitment to spread the “Word” is intrinsic to their religious practice.

Paradoxically, the Constitution, which was created to protect our freedom to be diverse and tolerant of differences, does at the same time guarantee religions the free exercise of an endeavor that is intolerant and directed toward imposing uniformity of belief and conduct. Without the wall of separation, this effort to impose religion can engage governmental power toward achieving its goals. We see this in the repeated attempts to introduce prayer into the lives of school children; to display the Ten Commandments in courts and schools; to teach Creationism in the public schools under the guise of Intelligent Design (which is itself masquerading as science); to introduce a concept of the soul or personhood into a fertilized ovum, which presumably changes abortion into murder; and to penalize homosexual individuals in any number of ways because of alleged immorality or presumed offense against religiously conceived natural law. A current extreme example of disregard for the integrity of the United States by a religious group is the attempt by the Christian Exodus movement to colonize South Carolina, convert it to a biblically based government, and then secede from the Union. In all of these instances the felt commitment to a concept of God trumps concern for the United States as a government of all the people regardless of religious belief or lack of it.

Some vocal critics of court decisions limiting religious expression view them as hostile to religion. Following the 1962 decision banning prayer in New York public schools, Billy Graham protested that the First Amendment guarantees freedom of religion, not freedom from religion. In this regard he is mistaken. The history is clear. While there is no freedom to live in a society devoid of religion, there is freedom from the imposition of religion on nonbelieving individuals. I think it is best to acknowledge this hostility toward religion elicited by some of the court battles, recognizing that the hostility is directed toward the attempt by the religion to impose itself on others and not toward the religious beliefs and practices held privately.

Some people of faith believe that religious values are needed to insure moral behavior and to avoid a breakdown of civilized society. I view this as a major misunderstanding. One can start with the fact that there is not now, and has never been, any evidence that people who profess religious beliefs are more moral or better behaved than nonbelievers. Although a religion may support a cultural value, it is not ipso facto the foundation of that value. For instance, all cultures that have a concept of private property have also a prohibition against stealing. The Ten Commandments are irrelevant in this regard. Our laws are not based on the Ten Commandments. In fact in the United States we are free to ignore seven of the ten.

But what about the values of human decency that we all share? Some believe that even the concept of the “common good” and caring for the poor must have something to do with religion. They wonder how, without religion, we can raise our children so that they continue to feel a natural commitment to the basic values on which the United States rests. First of all, it is far from clear that all forms of Christianity do support these basic values. Furthermore, it is crucial to recognize that values exist in the public realm just as they do in religion. Many children learn their values in a family, tribal, or cultural context and not as religious teachings. Just because a value exists as a religious teaching doesn’t make it exclusively a religious value. There are no patents on values. The only specifically religious values refer to specific religions, such as acceptance of Christ as one’s savior, devotion to the Koran, or faithful attendance at Holy Communion. Caring for the poor or promoting peace, for instance, are not explicitly religious values.

Societal values and civic responsibility existed in ancient Athens five centuries before the birth of Jesus and are more than sufficient to support a secular society. American history and the cultural values related to it need to be taught as such to children, preferably both at home and in school. In addition, the values specifically supported by religions may be taught freely at home, in Sunday Schools, in neighborhood clubs—whatever the people want to provide outside of the government. Keep in mind that the separation clause of the Constitution in no way restricts the legitimate contribution that religion can make to our society. Often religion-based groups, such as the Friends Committee on National Legislation, lobby to achieve goals of interest to both religion and government. It is up to the legislature to decide what is in the public interest, subject to Constitutional challenge.

Ameliorating the Conflict

We will never know whether or not the founders foresaw the conflict inherent in the First Amendment: that, on the one hand, we are free to live with no religious beliefs imposed upon us and, at the same time, we are assured the free exercise of a religion that is committed to imposing itself on others. The barrier erected to protect us is under a kind of condoned assault. Can the conflict be ameliorated? In theory, perhaps; but in practice, probably not.

One recent suggestion aimed at reducing the conflict is provided by Noah Feldman, a professor of Law at New York University, in his book entitled Divided by God. His approach offers a good example of the diversity of perspectives on the First Amendment. He believes that the primary motive of the founders in separating church and state was to prevent tax dollars from going to religion and that they would not have objected to cost-free infiltration of religious ideas, prayer, and symbolism into schools and public spaces. He condenses the relevant Constitutional principles, as he understands them, into “no coercion and no money.” In his view the contemporary church-state conflict is between “values evangelicals,” who have an altruistic motive to stabilize our society by enforcing the traditional religious values upon which they believe the United States rests, and “legal secularists,” who, like the founding fathers, view religion as a private matter with no legitimate role in government. He makes no conceptual distinction between secular and religious values, and seems to affirm the claim of the “values evangelicals” that our society depends on religious values. For Feldman the goal is to achieve a participatory democracy with all people feeling included. The “values evangelicals” feel excluded if they cannot bring their foundational religious beliefs explicitly into political and legislative debate. The resolution of the diverse worldviews would occur when politicians and legislators argue their conflicting value positions and then accept the vote of the majority in matters such as abortion, the Terry Schiavo case on discontinuing medical life support, and gay marriage. Thus a law enacted for religious reasons is considered to be acceptable.

Feldman would reject Intelligent Design from the school curriculum on the ground that it is not science. However, if by chance some school board voted to let it into the schools, it should be admitted, apparently despite the fact that the result would be both coercive and cost tax dollars.

In essence he is saying that legal secularists, the group that views religion as existing in a private sphere and separate from the government, have not succeeded in reconciling religious diversity with national unity. His solution is to open up political and legislative activity to explicitly religious input with the expectation that a majority vote will provide a satisfactory resolution.

If I understand his position correctly, I am not able to share his optimism and do not view harmony as a reasonable goal where religions are concerned. It seems to me that our best hope for combining democracy with religious diversity lies in the Constitution’s First Amendment. “Values evangelicals” feel excluded from explicitly religious participation in politics and government because they are in fact excluded. They encounter the First Amendment. Weakening church-state separation will only encourage more challenges. Such are expected to continue under any circumstances, but so, too, is the resistance to them. Whether the separation of church and state can survive remains to be seen. In the meantime members of all religious groups are assured the same freedoms, including freedom of personal expression, freedom to proselytize, and one vote each.

Friends and Church-State Separation

My reference to Friends as a whole is not intended to obscure the considerable variation among Friends, both as individuals and as groups. Not all are theists; not all are Christians; not all are pacifists. Yet they share a remarkable history with many overarching beliefs and practices that unite them.

Friends have a long history of persecution in England at the hands of both secular and religious authorities. Discrimination and persecution followed them into several of the American colonies, leading sometimes to exile or even to public hangings in Massachusetts.

When the Pennsylvania colony, “The Holy Experiment,” was formed under the guidance of William Penn, Friends were welcomed and expressed their religion in ways that by the nature of their beliefs were tolerant and respectful of others. The fact that Friends do not base their beliefs on a book or other authority that can be construed as a final statement, but rather hold that pursuit of Truth entails an ongoing search and belief in continuing revelation, supports an openness to new ideas not present in many religions. Friends, for example, are not threatened by the discoveries of science.

Like most Christian groups they, too, have a wish to spread their beliefs and practices over the world. George Fox wrote: “Let all nations hear the word. . . . Spare no place. . . . Be obedient to the Lord God and go through the world and be valiant for the truth. . . . Be patterns, be examples in all countries.” More than 200 years later, Henry Hodgkin, the first director of Pendle Hill study center, wrote: “The Society of Friends is called by its deepest principles, and by the lessons of its own history, to a universal mission. It cannot fulfill its service to humanity unless it responds to this call.” Friends proselytize, seek that of God in every person, and let their own “lives speak,” generally in ways compatible with the First Amendment. Unlike the Puritans, Friends have no wish to compel uniformity of religious belief in society.

Friends are notable for their public service, exemplifying how religions and government can work together to achieve shared goals. For instance, the pursuit of peace, prison reform, and abolition of the death penalty are all motivated by religious as well as by secular values. Attempts by Friends to influence legislation either involve secular arguments or they concern the pursuit of religious freedom. For instance, at the behest of the peace churches after World War I, our government granted conscientious objector status to pacifists for whom military service would conflict with religious convictions. The quest in such instances is to achieve religious freedom for all citizens, and that in itself is a secular value.

At times the assertion of Friends’ religious convictions, involving civil disobedience, trespassing, destruction of military property, or the withholding of taxes to avoid funding the military, have been in conflict with the law. In such instances they accept the penalty and have sometimes gone to jail for their religiously motivated conduct.

For the most part, Friends live compatibly with the First Amendment and its church-state separation. They are protected thereby from religious persecution and imposition from other groups and are free to pursue their goals, whether motivated by religious or secular values.
This article is based on a talk to the Interfaith Fellowship of Crosslands, in Kennett Square, Pa., on September 28, 2005.

George L. Alexander

George L. Alexander, a retired psychiatrist, grew up as a Presbyterian in Arkansas. He first encountered Quakerism as an undergraduate at Yale in the 1940s. He attended Pittsburgh (Pa.) Meeting, where his family was active for nearly 40 years.