The Religious Case for Church-State Separation

Article excerpt

Byline: Jon Meacham

Here we go again. On April 15 a federal judge in Wisconsin ruled that the National Day of Prayer, slated for May 6, was unconstitutional. The usual voices have been heard rising in objection (Sarah Palin and Franklin Graham among them) and, proving yet again that President Obama is no radical, the administration announced its own plans to challenge the decision. One can make a reasonable case that the weight of custom puts the fairly banal idea of an occasionless, generic day of prayer (how many of you even knew that we have had such a day every year since 1952?) on the safe side of the Establishment Clause. But the right is, as ever, taking things a beat too far. Lest anyone try to convince you that God should be separated from the state, Palin said, our Founding Fathers, they were believers.

Governor Palin's history is rather shaky. Religious liberty--the freedom to worship as one chooses, or not to worship--is a central element of the American creed. Yes, many of the Founders were believing, observant Christians. But to think of them as apostles in knee breeches or as passionate evangelicals is a profound misreading of the past. In many ways their most wondrous legacy was creating the foundations of a culture of religious diversity in which the secular and the religious could live in harmony, giving faith a role in the life of the nation in which it could shape us without strangling us. On the day George Washington left Philadelphia to take command of the Continental Army, the Rev. William Smith preached a sermon at the city's Christ Church, saying: "Religion and liberty must flourish or fall together in America. We pray that both may be perpetual."

Arguments about the connection between religion and politics, church and state, have surely been perpetual. The civil and legal cases against religious coercion are well known: human freedom extends to one's conscience, and by abolishing religious tests for office or mandated observances, Americans have successfully created a climate--a free market, if you will--in which religion can take its stand in the culture and in the country without particular help or harm from the government.

There is a religious case against state involvement with matters of faith, too. …