What does Separation of Church and State Really Mean

The "separation of church and state" is maybe the most misunderstood piece of political jargon ever

What does Separation of Church and State Really Mean

The phrase “separation of church and state” is one of the most commonly used yet least understood political sayings in all of modern vernacular. Many Christians claim this separation as the unrelenting law that took prayer from public schools, tore down crosses from public parks and seeks to removed America from being “one nation under God”. Others see it as an open minded and helpful gesture that ensures equality for a nation of immigrants that is a melting pot of global cultures. For both good and bad the term “separation of church and state” has been touted in more wrong ways that correct ways.

Where does the phrase come from?

If you have ever searched the Constitution or the Bill of Rights to try and find out exactly what has been it means, you would find that it doesn’t show up in either of those two documents. The phrase comes from a letter that our third president Thomas Jefferson wrote to the Danbury Baptist Association in Connecticut in the year 1802. The Baptists Association wrote to him because they feared the constitution didn’t protect their religion from oppressive practices from the old world. In the 17th and 18th century certain clergy were funded by taxation, if your denomination wasn’t the “chosen” group then you were heavily persecuted. The Baptist Association sent this letter to the newly elected President Jefferson urging that the same mistakes not be made again. Thomas Jefferson wrote back a short but insightful letter where he states.

“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.”

At the end is where the famous line about separation of church and state. If you read that paragraph too quickly you might miss the whole essence of what he means. He says that the “legitimate power of the government reach actions only & not opinions” this means that the government can only take enforce based on actions and has nothing to do with opinions of any kind. You can believe in whatever you want, the government could care less. Unless religion enacts a policy that infringes on laws of the land, the government has no say in what happens.

He goes on to say that the legislature should “make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof”. This is relevant once you know the context. There used to be an official religion of the state and that was the final word. That religion was funded by civilian tax dollars and civilians were expected to worship in the way and place that the government deemed appropriate. This means that in the United States of America, the government cannot mandate a particular religious belief system for any government at any level. Not city, county, state, or federal governments can have a sanctioned government. Anyone can worship however they want and that is protected.

What about all the other things we thought were caused by the separation of church and state? These have mostly been citizens who band together to express their free speech to make changes they feel are necessary in their community. The reason why children don’t read from scripture in class anymore is because civilians have asked for it to be separated. The reason why statues of crosses have been torn down in public parks is because the general population have asked to keep those public places a neutral space.

It is true that nearly all of the founding fathers were deeply religious, it does not mean that the United States is Christian nation. Any and all faith is protected and must be respected by the government. The only thing that the “separation of church and state” means is that the government can’t mandate a particular religious practice. Any other application outside of that single parameter is not relevant to that principle and has come about some other way. The next time you hear someone claiming the separation of church and state, remember that it is maybe the most misunderstood piece of political jargon.

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James Robinson
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