Great Plains Chapter - Americans United For Separation of Church and State

Common Myths about Separation of Church and State

**The following information was taken from Rob Boston's book, Why the Religious Right Is Wrong About Separation of Church and State, and paraphrased by Vickie Sandell Stangl (VSS) **

  1. The phrase "Separation of church and state" is not in the U.S. Constitution.
  2. Thomas Jefferson wrote in the Danbury letter that the church-state wall is "one directional" and meant only to protect the church from incursions by the state.
  3. Separation of church and state is not an American principle but is found in the constitution of the Soviet Union.
  4. The United States was founded as a Christian Nation.
  5. U.S. law is based upon the Ten Commandments

Myth No. 1: The phrase "Separation of church and state" is not in the U.S. Constitution.

The literal phrase is not found in the Constitution but the principle is definitely clear. As Leo Pfeffer explains in his book, Church, State and Freedom, it was inevitable that people use more convenient terms to verbalize constitutional principles. The 1st Amendment states: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof."

Deconstructing the amendment, it is clear that government cannot be mixed with religion, but citizens have the right to follow their own beliefs. In the first phrase, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion," there is no question that a separation must take place between the government and religion, thus writers found a convenient manner to address this 1st Amendment protection, and used the metaphor of a wall of separation of church and state to verbalize and explain this principle.

There are other constitutional principles we accept as part of the Constitution which are not literally expressed in the document. For example, as Pheffer explains, the term "fair trial" is generally considered a constitutional principle under the law for all Americans, but that term does not appear in the Constitution. Does this mean the intent of the Founders was to withhold from citizens the right to a fair trial? Pheffer goes on to argue that we have no problem embracing the term "Religious liberty" but that specific phrase is also absent from the Constitution. Therefore, there is a universal acceptance for certain principles in the Constitution that may not be expressed verbatim, but Americans still embrace them as basic democratic principles.

Fundamentalists talk loudly about following the intent of our Founders, but nothing could be clearer than what Madison and Jefferson intended under the 1st Amendment. James Madison, considered the Father of the U.S. Constitution wrote in 1819, "The number, the industry and the morality of the priesthood, and the devotion of the people have been manifestly increased by the total separation of church and state." And as Rob Boston notes, even earlier, in an undated essay, Madison wrote, "Strongly guarded ... is the separation between religion and government in the Constitution of the United States." Thus, there is no question that the most illustrious Founder was more than clear that the separation of church and state was a solid principle within the Constitution.

And, for the record, it was James Burgh - whose book, Crito (1767), was widely read by our Founders - who suggested what would become the famous metaphor used by Jefferson to the Danbury Baptists, that it was essential to "build an impenetrable wall of separation between things sacred and civil."

Myth No. 2: Thomas Jefferson wrote in the Danbury letter that the church-state wall is "one directional" and meant only to protect the church from incursions by the state.

Personally, this one really annoys me. (VSS) Think about this claim for a minute. Why would the Founders protect religion from the intolerance of the state, but allow religion to interfere and set up controversial doctrines or beliefs as necessary to the functioning of government? How could such a one-way street help to ensure America as a stable government free of sectarian discord if religion had no boundaries within that governmental structure? And, wasn't the business of the Constitutional Convention to make sure they could establish a more stable and lasting government? Thus as Rob Boston writes, "The evidence is clear that Jefferson believed that church-state separation was good for BOTH institutions. He never, in any of his writings, expressed an opinion like the 'one-directional wall' myth."

Myth No. 3: Separation of church and state is not an American principle but is found in the constitution of the Soviet Union.

This lie has been most frequently spread by Pat Robertson, and is most offensive since this is an attempt to taint a vital American principle of the Constitution with the brush of communism. Jefferson coined the phrase in his letter to the Danbury Baptists about the wall of separation some 145 years before the modern Soviet state came into being during the Russian Revolution of 1917. Therefore, it is beyond ridiculous to try and suggest the Soviets pioneered the separation of church and state principle. As Rob Boston states, "If anything, the Soviet's stole the concept from the United States, in an effort to make their oppressive society appear like America's free society ... The Soviet document also guaranteed free speech, but no one has labeled freedom of expression a Communist idea."

Myth No. 4: The United States was founded as a Christian Nation.

Many people confuse the colonial period of this country with the establishment of our new government of 1787. Yes, many Europeans did come to the shores of North America seeking religious freedom, and they were Christian. However, this was not an American government, but was instead a group of colonies under the rule of England, and their notion of church and state reflected the English model in which church and state were one. State governments in the colonies also combined religion with the state forcing citizens to adhere to one faith over others, and this led to many unhappy colonists forced to move elsewhere to find religious liberty in another locale. Thus, ironically, the colonial governments created religious intolerance - the very reason many colonists sought to leave behind the Old World.

The colonial world was not the United States. Our current government was not formed until after the Constitutional Convention of 1787. The American Government duly ratified the Constitution in 1789, thus beginning the United States of America we think of today. This was long after the Pilgrims landed in 1620.

During the Constitutional Convention, the Founders had ample opportunity to insert God, and/or establish the Christian religion as the state religion, but they declined to do so. It was a minority who thought this was even correct at the Philadelphia convention, and in the end, this view was rejected by the delegates, who adopted a purely secular document. How do we know this for sure? We have only to read the historical notes and minutes of the ratification process in the states that had the task of approving or rejecting the new Constitution presented to them. In their debates of this new Constitution, many state leaders were appalled that the Christian God and Christian faith was absent from such an important document. And yet, this secular document was ratified.

And if there was one defining moment that made it clear America was to be a new kind of nation free of religious associations, the Treaty of Tripoli between the U.S. and the Muslim region of North Africa in 1797 noted "The Government of the United States is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion."

The important point to understand is that our Founders were not anti-religious or anti-Christian but clearly understood the problems that come with any nation where church and state rule together. They rejected this Old World idea and moved forward to craft a state free from sectarian disputes that most certainly would destabilize the government just as it had in Europe.

Myth No. 5: U.S. law is based upon the Ten Commandments

The roots of America's legal system and law are based upon something called "Common Law" or judge-made law. In England, judges would listen to complaints and decide what was fair based upon local tradition and past circumstances of cases similar in nature to the offense in question. This legal system was introduced by the Pagan Saxons to England before Great Britain converted to Christianity. Common Law remains the structure of America's jurisprudence to this day.

The Ten Commandments, on the other hand, are religious rules dealing with humankind's relationship with God. They have nothing to do with the secular U.S. Constitution. For example, the prohibition that one should not worship false gods does not apply to the Constitution since this document does not concern itself with which gods as are true and which gods are false. The Ten Commandments also requires people to observe the Sabbath, but our government under our secular laws cannot force anyone to do so.