A Delicate Balance: A History of the Separation of Church and State in the US

By Boston, Rob | Conscience, Summer 2012 | Go to article overview

A Delicate Balance: A History of the Separation of Church and State in the US


Boston, Rob, Conscience


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SEPARATION OF CHURCH AND STATE, TV PREACHER PAT ROBERTSON DECLARED in a 1993 speech in South Carolina, is a myth.

According to Robertson, the "radical left ... kept us in submission because they have talked about the separation of church and state. There is no such thing in the Constitution. It's a lie of the left, and we're not going to take it anymore."

Two other televangelists, the late Jerry Falwell and D. James Kennedy, were no fans of church-state separation, either. W.A. Criswell, a once-prominent Southern Baptist pastor in Texas, famously declared during the Republican National Convention in 1984, "I believe this notion of the separation of church and state was the figment of some infidel's imagination."

In more recent times, David Barton, a Texas-based pseudo-historian, has made a comfortable living peddling books and DVDS to fundamentalist Christians arguing that the United States was founded to be a "Christian nation" and that separation is a myth.

Evangelical Christians would not exist in America were it not for the separation of church and state--a concept many of them now assail. The irony is rich.

The Catholic bishops rarely assault the separation of church and state by name. The party line is that they're for it. But the bishops have a long history of advocating for policies that would elevate church dogma over secular law. They've demanded various forms of taxpayer aid that would compel all Americans--Catholic or not--to support the church's schools and other ministries and have doggedly sought to conform US abortion policy to church teachings. Lately, they've even taken to arguing that the church has a "religious freedom" right to receive contracts from the government to provide social services to the public without meeting any accountability or oversight rules that they find offensive.

The late Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua of Philadelphia summed up the bishops' position well in a 1989 sermon: "In spite of attempts to separate one from the other, to put an impenetrable barrier between, [church and state] knew from the beginning that they needed each other, and along the way they became even more convinced of this truth. ... In their quest for their respective kingdoms, church and state are seen as walking with an inviolable, impenetrable and towering wall between them. This opposition, this impregnable wall between two friends traveling the road of our American experiment, cannot endure much longer. If it does, both will suffer and crisis will be upon us."

How did this happen? How did religious organizations that have benefitted so greatly from the separation of church and state come to the point of either heaping disdain on it or advocating policies that would shred it?

It's a case of too much success. Once small and marginalized, both evangelicals and Catholics grew and prospered under America's free and open theological marketplace. As they grew, they tasted political power--and promptly forgot their roots. It's an old story.

The story of how religious freedom and the separation of church and state grew alongside one another in America, intertwined and mutually dependent, is an old one too. But it's worth telling again. Apparently, too many Americans have forgotten their history--or perhaps never learned it.

Opinion polls tell a sad tale: Many Americans believe the Constitution, a wholly secular document, contains a declaration that America is a "Christian nation." Others are confident that founders like George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, were really right-wing "born-again" Christians. The United States, one hears all too often, was founded on the Bible, the Ten Commandments and the teachings of Jesus.

None of this is true.

The First Amendment guarantees five core freedoms: religion, speech, press, assembly and petition. In the case of freedom of religion, that fundamental right is expressed in just 16 words: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof. …

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