The concept of separation of church and state is misunderstood by many Americans. Some view it as a complete rejection of all religious principles from being used in government or that all government officials must be silent about religion or about their own religious practices. Others completely reject the notion of separation of church and state, wanting to bring them closer together. Both views discount elements essential to a pluralistic society and a healthily functioning government.
The Origin of the Phrase “Separation of Church and State”
Ironically, although many of the colonists came to the New World in hopes of being free from religious persecution, many of them did not extend that same religious tolerance to others. During the 17th and 18th centuries, it wasn’t uncommon to have tax supported clergy. Naturally, the denomination that was most numerous tended to also be supported by taxes. Around the time of the American Revolution, these denominations would have been Congregationalism in the North and Anglicanism in the South.
Unsurprisingly, those denominations in the minority (such as Baptists and Quakers) did not like being forced to pay taxes to support the clergy of another church. In many of these cases, exemptions from the ministerial taxes were given, but the certificates presented to obtain such exemptions were arbitrarily granted by the civil authorities. In one infamous incident in 1768, a law was passed in a town from Ashfield, Massachusetts which eliminated this exemption. Several appeals by the Baptists were later denied, and as a result, they had livestock and land confiscated in order to repay those back taxes.
Paying taxes to support another church’s ministers weren’t the only injustices suffered by religious minorities. In many instances, they were also beaten, mutilated, hanged, or jailed for not supporting the majority denomination in one form or another.
This background is important for understanding why the Danbury Baptist Association in Connecticut wrote to President Thomas Jefferson in 1801 and why Jefferson wrote about a “wall of separation between Church and State” in his reply in 1802. In their letter to Jefferson, the Baptist Association expressed their desire for their religious liberty to be treated as a right rather than as a privilege as it had often been treated by the Congregationalist majority in the North.
Our Sentiments are uniformly on the side of Religious Liberty—That Religion is at all times and places a Matter between God and Individuals—That no man aught to suffer in Name, person or effects on account of his religious Opinions—That the legetimate Power of civil Goverment extends no further than to punish the man who works ill to his neighbour: But Sir, our constitution of goverment is not specific. Our antient charter, together with the Laws made coincident therewith, were adopted as the Basis of our goverment, At the time of our revolution; and such had been our Laws & usages, & such still are; that religion is consider’d as the first object of Legislation; & therefore what religious privileges we enjoy (as a minor part of the State) we enjoy as favors granted, and not as inalienable rights: and these favors we receive at the expence of such degrading acknowledgements as are inconsistant with the rights of freemen.
Jefferson was sympathetic to their cause. Along with James Madison, he spearheaded the effort in the Virginia government to pass the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom in 1786, which granted people freedom from having to participate in or financially support any religion, freedom of conscience to hold whatever religious beliefs they wanted, and protection from having their civil rights denied based on those beliefs. This later became the basis for the freedom of religion clause in the First Amendment, which states, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”
In his letter of reply, Jefferson expressed his sympathy towards their cause of being free from governmental interference and compulsion in religion, saying:
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.
Citing the First Amendment, Jefferson uses the phrase “wall of separation between Church and State” to reassure them that their sentiments are enshrined in the Constitution and he will work to protect their rights of conscience and freedom from government coercion.
The Constitution, the Supreme Court, and Separation of Church and State
As I showed above, contrary to popular belief, the phrase “separation of Church and State” does not appear in the Constitution. Although, certainly by Jefferson’s own interpretation, the concept does exist in the First Amendment. This has become the legal basis for several important Supreme Court decisions.
Reynolds v. United States (1878) was a case in which the Morrill Anti-Bigamy Act (which outlawed bigamy in federal territories such as Utah) was challenged by George Reynolds, a member of the LDS (Mormon) church. He argued that since bigamy (at the time) was required under LDS doctrine, he should be allowed to practice it on grounds that the First Amendment protected the free exercise of his religion. However the Supreme Court ruled against him, citing Jefferson’s explanation of the First Amendment from the Danbury letter, saying that Congress could punish actions “which were in violation of social duties or subversive of good order” as opposed to simple religious opinion. This is a distinction which Jefferson himself also makes in the letter (“… that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, & not opinions”). Thus, someone could not cite religious freedom in order to sanction harmful religious practices like polygamy, human sacrifices, or burning themselves on the funeral pyre of their dead spouse.
In Everson v. Board of Education (1947), a situation arose in which a law in the state of New Jersey authorized local school boards to reimburse parents who sent their children to and from school on the public transit system, regardless of whether the school was public or private. A taxpayer, Everson, sued the state saying that since taxpayer dollars were being used to reimburse parents sending their children to parochial schools, this then violated the establishment clause of the First Amendment (“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion”). By giving money to parents who sent their children to parochial schools, the government was giving tacit support of that religion. The Supreme court ruled 5-4 against Everson, the majority opinion arguing that since the law makes this reimbursement available to everyone, you can’t discriminate against those who get reimbursed simply because they send their children to a religious school. “Its legislation, as applied, does no more than provide a general program to help parents get their children, regardless of their religion, safely and expeditiously to and from accredited schools.”
This case, more than any other, codified the language of “separation of church and state” into case law and has been cited dozens of times in subsequent cases, including those dealing with prayer in public schools, teaching creation vs evolution in public schools, including the phrase “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance, etc. In their concluding statement of Everson v. Board of Education, the majority opinion writes, “The First Amendment has erected a wall between church and state. That wall must be kept high and impregnable. We could not approve the slightest breach. New Jersey has not breached it here.”
The last case I will mention is Lemon v. Kurtzman (1971). In 1968, Pennsylvania passed a law allowing for the salaries of private school teachers of secular subjects (like math) to be supplemented by the government. This was challenged and the Supreme Court ruled the law unconstitutional. In so doing, they created what was called the Lemon Test, which created three criteria for evaluating whether the principle of separation of church and state were violated by a law:
- The legislation must have a secular purpose.
- The effect of the legislation must neither advance nor inhibit religion.
- The legislation must not excessively entangle government and religion.
The Lemon Test continues to serve as a guide to whether separation of church and state has been violated, and, as such, has been used in subsequent Supreme Court decisions.
Separation of Church and State in the Bible
What does the Bible have to say about separation of church and state? In order to answer that, we need to look at the way in which God interacted with Israel in the Old Testament and the way Jesus and the apostles dealt with secular authorities in the New Testament.
When Israel’s government is initially established after they leave Egypt, it was established as a theocracy with no king. Aaron and his descendants (Exodus 29:44), along with the Levites (Numbers 3:9, 8:19), handled the priestly duties. Moses and those he appointed (Exodus 18:13-26) would judge and interpret the law to the people. But there was no earthly king. God himself was their king. In this scenario, there was no separation of church from state, in one sense because there was no “state” properly speaking, in another sense because God was their king.
However, as the sin of the people of Israel grew, they demanded that an earthly king be appointed over them (1 Samuel 8). (Interestingly, God predicts that they would ask for a king in Deuteronomy 17:14-20 and lays out some guidelines for the king to follow.) Samuel warns them of the dangers of having an earthly king, but despite this warning, the people persist and demand a king. God tells Samuel, “Obey the voice of the people in all that they say to you, for they have not rejected you, but they have rejected me from being king over them” (1 Samuel 8:7).
After Saul is anointed king by Samuel the prophet (no separation of church and state there), we still generally see the priestly functions being done separately from kingly functions, although the king had some power over the priests (1 Kings 2:27). Other exceptions to this principle of separation were Melchizedek (Genesis 14:18), possibly David (1 Samuel 21:1–6; 2 Samuel 6:12–15, Psalm 110:4), and then, in the New Testament, Jesus himself being both priest (Hebrews 6:20) and king (Revelation 19:16). While “church” and “state” by and large functioned separately, there are several exceptions where they overlapped.
When looking at church-state relations in the Old Testament, we need to be careful about what principles we draw from this example and how it might apply to our situation today. In the Old Testament, from the beginning, when God established his covenant with Abraham, his desire was to have a direct relationship with his people. “I will be their God, and they will be my people,” was a frequently expressed desire by God himself (See Genesis 17:8, Exodus 29:45, Leviticus 26:45, Jeremiah 31:33, Ezekiel 11:19-20). In the overall narrative of Scripture, God’s primary objective in the Old Testament was not to establish an earthly or civil order to serve as a model in its own right but rather to prepare the way for the upcoming spiritual order to be established by Jesus. As Paul recounts in Acts 17:26-30, “And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, that they should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him…The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent.” The nations of the earth and governments alike exist to serve the purposes of the God who created them.
In this context, Israel in the Old Testament, as God’s chosen people, can be likened more to the church of the New Testament than to a secular government like Rome. For this reason, I would caution against drawing hard and fast principles from Israel and the government of the Old Testament. Just because God commanded Israel to do something or established a law for Israel’s sake, that doesn’t mean we should do things exactly the same way. We have to look at the purpose behind the commandment or law and then think about how that might apply in our context.
In the New Testament, Israel is under a different set of circumstances, being ruled by the Romans. They longed for a Messiah who would deliver them from the Romans and establish Israel as a politically independent nation as it used to be. However, Jesus, as Messiah, did not come to accomplish that, but rather to deliver his people from their sins (Matthew 1:21).
After Christ’s death and resurrection, the apostles and other believers had to reconcile how to live as a Christian under a secular authority. Similar to the Old Testament, we don’t really find any prescriptive statements about whether church and state should be separate or how the government should treat the church. Instead, it deals with the reality that the church and Rome were separate entities and addresses how those in the church are to relate to the governing authorities (See Matthew 22:17-22, Mark 12:13-17, Romans 13:1-7, Titus 3:1, 1 Peter 2:13-17). This was said with the priority being the propagation of the gospel and godly living in a fallen world.
The one other passage that is worth addressing on this issue is John 18:33-38. When asked if he was a king, Jesus said to Pilate, “My kingdom is not of this world,” making a distinction between the earthly kingdom and his heavenly kingdom. Beyond perhaps drawing a distinction between Church and State as separate entities, we shouldn’t try and make this passage say anything about church-state relations which it doesn’t say. That wasn’t the point that Jesus was making.
Should Church and State be Separate?
The short answer to this question is: Yes. The real question is: What does that actually look like?
What it does mean…
- The Church and State are to be separate institutions. History has shown that, in the hands of sinful humans, both the Church and the State become corrupted when they start to overlap on an institutional level.
- The government should remain neutral towards religion. It should not work to promote one particular church or one particular faith over another, whether financial or otherwise.
- The government should not prohibit or interfere with the free exercise of someone’s faith unless that free exercise violates someone’s intrinsic rights.
What it does NOT mean…
- It does not mean that the government has no value system or worldview under which it operates. People will often say that we can’t legislate morality and that we shouldn’t try and put morals into our laws. However, this is totally unworkable if you want to live in a society governed by laws. Laws cannot exist apart from a worldview or moral system. By definition, they either compel you to “Do this” or “Don’t do this,” which are moral imperatives. Those morals have to come from somewhere and be grounded in an objective standard of some kind. It’s not so much a matter of whether we should legislate morality but what kind of morality we are going to legislate.
- It does not mean that secularism should be the predominant worldview which influences our government. This might sound strange, but while I do think the government should be secular (in the sense that it doesn’t favor a particular religion and gives people freedom of thought and choice), I don’t think that secularism is the value system that should undergird our government. Why? The main reason is that Secularism cannot justify objective moral standards or intrinsic human rights. In fact, it has to borrow these values from religion (in particular the Judeo-Christian ethic). As such, without objective morality, it cannot ground its reasoning for making laws. When taken to its logical conclusion, the process of lawmaking under secularism becomes completely ad hoc. People often make the assumption that simply because a moral principle is “religious” as opposed to secular, it is therefore more biased than secular values. However there’s no justifiable grounds for believing this. The most common argument used to support secularism can be boiled down to the statement, “Secularism is better because it’s secular,” which is just circular reasoning.
- It does not mean that political leaders or others who work for the government lose their rights to free speech.While we maintain that the Church and State should be separate institutions, our Constitution also recognizes that we cannot and should not apply religious tests (Article VI, Section 3). Simply being elected to a public office or working for the government does not deprive you of your First Amendment rights to free speech. Rather, they ought to be the paragons of free speech. Of course, just because you have the ability to say something, that doesn’t mean you should. Government workers, especially those who are elected, have to remember that they represent citizens with vastly different beliefs, and, as such, they should use wisdom and discernment in their language. However, that shouldn’t stop them from being themselves and expressing their own values.
- It does not mean that we cannot use religious imagery (such as a display of the Ten Commandments) in the architecture of our government buildings or other public displays. Both religious and nonreligious sources have had influences in the formation of American law (just look at the relief portraits in the House of Representatives). However, whether you like it or not, religion (in particular the Judeo-Christian worldview) has played a primary and historical role in the formation of our Western system of laws, especially here in the United States. There are perfectly good historical and cultural reasons to have these displays at our courthouses or other public locations.
Separation of Church and State has played an important role in American history in ensuring that people are treated fairly regardless of their religious affiliation. It has also kept both the Church and the State separated enough that they do not corrupt one another. However, we shouldn’t take this legal principle so far as to deprive the law of its moral foundations or to inhibit the free exercise of speech and religion for all people.
Heather, Ellen, and Bailey Newton. “Separation of church and state.” Salem Press Encyclopedia (January 2016): Research Starters, EBSCOhost (accessed July 24, 2017).
Shepherd, Joshua. “‘Ye Are Called Unto Liberty’: Revolution, Religious Freedom, and Massachusetts Bay.” Baptist History And Heritage no. 3 (Fall 2015): 1-14. Academic OneFile, EBSCOhost (accessed July 24, 2017).