Separation of Church and State: The Dividing Line Grows Thinner

By Braffman-Miller, Judith | USA TODAY, November 1996 | Go to article overview

Separation of Church and State: The Dividing Line Grows Thinner


Braffman-Miller, Judith, USA TODAY


THOMAS JEFFERSON once wrote: "I have sworn upon the altar of God, eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man." These words are carved into the base of the Jefferson Memorial in Washington. Most visitors to the monument believe he was referring to tyrants like King George III of England. However, Jefferson was writing about the Christian clergy.

As U.S. humorist and journalist Finley Peter Dunne's fictitious Irishman, Mr. Dooley, said of church and state: "Religion is a quare thing. Be itself it's all right. But sprinkle a little pollytiks into it and dinnymit is bran flour compared with it. Alone it prepares a man for a better life. Combined with pollytiks it hurries him to it."

Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter called Mr. Dooley a "great philosopher," and the renowned 19th-century liberal French statesman and political writer Alexis de Toqueville probably would have agreed. When Toqueville visited the U.S., he was intrigued by what he called "the spirit of liberty" and the "spirit of religion" in this country. He noted that, in Europe, where they were joined, government and religion were antagonists; in America, both blossomed because they were completely separate.

That appears to be the way most of the Founding Fathers wanted it. For example, there is almost no mention of religion in The Federalist, written by James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay to gain support for the new Constitution. Only Madison made a brief reference to religion when he noted that "a zeal for different opinions concerning religion" appeared to be one of civil society.

In 1794, Thomas Paine, the American Revolutionary War patriot, writer, and political theorist stated his position in The Age of Reason: "I do not believe in the creed professed by any church that I know of My own mind is my own church . . . all national institutions of churches . . . appear to me no other than human inventions set up to terrify and enslave mankind and monopolize power and profit."

The American Revolution was influenced heavily by the Enlightenment, an intellectual movement of 18th-century Europe that was skeptical of traditional prejudices and beliefs, especially in regard to religion. Indeed, it was on the subject of religion that the influence of the Enlightenment caused the greatest commotion in the U.S. Many of the Founders had adopted the rationalistic concepts of the Enlightenment's European deists, who had rejected all the traditional beliefs of Christianity. These concepts reached America before the Revolution and were taken up by Benjamin Franklin, Jefferson, and Madison, among others. George Washington declared that "The Government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian religion."

Madison believed freedom of religion to be an inalienable right, and made this clear in Memorial and Remonstrance (1785): "The religion then of every man must be left to the conviction and conscience of every man; and it is the right of every man to exercise it as these may dictate. This right is in its nature an unalienable right. It is unalienable, because the opinions of men, depending only on the evidence contemplated by their own minds cannot follow the dictates of other men."

Jefferson considered the fight for religious liberty to be the most important and difficult struggle of his life. Jefferson and others who believed as he did were not hostile to religion. However, they felt that centuries of church-state bonding had resulted in oppression and suffering. As Jefferson put it: "Our civil rights have no dependence on our religious opinions."

Roger Williams, a clergyman and founder of Rhode Island, was perhaps the first to use the metaphor of "a wall of separation" between church and state: "When they have opened a gap in the hedge or wall of separation between the garden of the church and the wilderness of the state, God hath ever broke down the wall itself, removed His candlestick, and made His garden a wilderness. …

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