Secularism forms the heart of a long and sometimes contentious political debate that has been ongoing in America since the 1800s. Should the United States embrace, reject, or be indifferent to religious considerations on principle when conducting the business of governance, and what are the constitutional limitations regarding such a question? There are generally two sides to this debate: those that wish to embrace the Judeo-Christian heritage and tradition upon which the nation was founded and those that believe the “separation of church and state “ is the only proper way of governing a free society. But reality, as it so often does, bears out a somewhat less unilateral answer to the debate.
In the Constitution, the words “separation,” “church,” and “state” do not appear in any combination in relation to each other. In fact, religion in general is mentioned but three times in the document, with very specific contexts. Article VI declares that “no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States” and the 1st Amendment prevents the Congress from establishing a state religion or making laws which infringe upon an individual’s free exercise of their chosen religion (or right to not subscribe to any particular religion for that matter).
But it is a nonetheless undisputable fact that the founding of the United States included significant religious considerations. For example, Judeo-Christian values were espoused as a partial basis for the rationale of unification when the individual states deliberated ratifying the Constitution. In Federalist No. 2, Founding Father and later Chief Justice of the Supreme Court John Jay cited Americans “professing the same religion” as a compelling commonality (among others) to justify embracing the Constitution, to form a single federal republic incorporated of the many states.
So what did the Founders mean when they sought to unite a people based on demographic commonalities while simultaneously protecting spiritual diversity as an individual right? The original intent behind the conceptual separation of church and state is rooted, at its base, in the derivation of governmental authority. During the Middle Ages, the widely held mantra throughout most of Europe was that the Pope, as head of the Catholic Church, derived his earthly authority through the linear succession from the perceived first Pope – St. Peter – and, thereby, from God Himself. This power was generally viewed to take precedence over a king’s “mortal” claim to rule in many cases and thus the Bishop of Rome possessed the authority to coronate or depose kings in Christian nations (which made up most of Central and Western Europe). If a king did not maintain the favor of the Church for any number of reasons he could be excommunicated – a status of perceived damnation that obviously had a direct impact on the king himself but also indirectly affected the entire people of his realm. As crusades against “infidel” lands were common practice during much of the Middle Ages, only papal-acknowledged Christian (i.e., Catholic) nations were protected from them via his authority.
This relationship was amplified in a manner that had a direct impact on later Anglo-American colonists when King Henry VIII of England broke away from the Catholic Church in the mid-1500s and founded the rival Anglican Church, with himself as “pope.” This reformation effectively removed the theoretical, albeit minor, separation of church and state that existed between the de facto state church and England’s monarch and properly established an official state church, thereby unifying the head of government and faith in a single, all-powerful ruler with hereditary, regal, and divine right to rule over his subjects. This transition marks subtle but very relevant differences.
When Americans formed their new government, they took these events and others into consideration and properly decided that a nation’s standing domestically or internationally does not equate directly to an individual’s standing with God. The American concept of church and state separation derives its importance from the same perspective that led the Founders to denounce and reject monarchism – both kings and clerics claimed authorities to govern individuals and their choices that are not wholly consistent with democracy and individual rights. Thus, the only authority the United States government legitimately possesses is that granted to it from the people. The Constitution was intended to limit government power not restrict individual or collective religious expression, and that is where many modern proponents of the separation err in their unilateral interpretations.
If a leader is elected by the people with the full knowledge that their particular values, beliefs, and perspectives – whatever their source (including religion) – directly influences their decision making this is not a violation of the constitutional framework. For example, if the somewhat persistent urban legend that President Obama is a Muslim were true this would only be a legitimate problem if he failed to disclose such an important point before he was elected. The same would have been hypothetically true of George W. Bush’s evangelical Christian values as well. American secularism was not implemented with the intent to preclude public officers from the free exercise of their religion, even in the execution of their duties, provided this exercise does not violate individual rights (e.g., others’ free exercise of religion) or violate legal statutes (e.g., discriminatory preferential treatment to/against certain groups or individuals).
One of the more famous examples of overreach in this context is the opposition to religious motifs, such as the Ten Commandments, that often adorn government buildings such as court houses. This is not an unconstitutional practice in my mind because it is does not technically violate the 1st Amendment; these motifs relate in no way to Congress passing legislation, regulations, or policy affecting religious practices or pursuits of belief. It does not violate the spirit of the law either because while the exemplary Ten Commandments may form the foundation of some legal processes, such as criminal statutes for example (i.e., Thou shalt not kill), this does not establish a state church, religion, “pope,” or infringe upon the free exercise (or lack thereof) of individuals.
Further, opposition to such symbolism demonstrates an embrace of doubles standards. I have long maintained that, in a sense, everyone has a god – money, fame, material things, science, earth, etc. Much of science is as theoretical and unproven as most religious canon, and yet like religion, it can engender deep faith and comfort for those who choose to adhere to and embrace it. Given the parallelism between the belief in a singular, omnipotent, and unknowable God and the sometimes competing belief in a single system of near omnipotent and as yet not entirely defined or understood set of theoretical physics, it should be equally troubling that the National Science Foundation – a government institution – is involved in such controversially theoretical scientific pursuits as evolution, extraterrestrial life, and global warming. What truly is the difference other than perspective?
This point becomes especially troubling when children are introduced into the issue. I subscribe to the school of thought that children should be taught how to think but not what to think, so schools (themselves pseudo-government institutions) teaching an unproven, faith-based dogma to highly impressionable children is entirely unacceptable in this context. On this point I agree with proponents of church and state separation, but where I disagree is that human evolution, or more specifically the transmutation of species from a common ancestor, is somehow differentially acceptable under this same reasoning. Creationism and “Darwinism” are virtually identical in terms of lacking in empirical proof to support their respective theses, so it seems obvious from a religious freedom perspective that they must be equally and impartially covered by a neutral authority (if such a thing is possible) in government-funded institutions or not addressed at all. Perhaps the best course of action is to allow parents to teach these particular subjects to their own children without interference.
Everyone is religious, if not in the traditional understanding of the term. Everyone is influenced by some external system of belief(s) that helps form their values, perspectives, decision making, etc. Though it may be called by a different name and may not take the traditional form that we recognize symbolically in typical theology, these external systems exist nonetheless. We would all do well to remember this when we pettily seek to attack and dismantle others’ religious beliefs and heritages when we misuse the Constitution to facilitate erroneous interpretations of the concept of separation of church and state. As much as we must diligently guard against the obvious religious abuses that can come from a government-sponsored church we must also guard against the pendulum’s return swing into unilateral secularism.
*The phrase “wall of separation of church and state” was written by Thomas Jefferson in a letter to the Danbury Baptist Association in 1802 and is typically used as justification to remove all references to any and all religion from government and public places, institutions, buildings, etc. Notwithstanding the fact that this phrase is often taken out of context to misleadingly make this overreach, Jefferson was not even present when the 1st Amendment was deliberated and written. As America’s minister to France at the time, he was in fact out of the country.