Separation of Church & State In Context

Separation of Church & State In Context by

KrisAnne Hall, JD


Separation of Church and State.  I know of very few statements that carry so much emotion and so much misconception at the same time.  Our education system passes its own agenda with this phrase.  Our court systems have failed America with their rulings misapplying this phrase.  Our churches have been negligent to their responsibilities because of this phrase.  The culmination of all this wrong doing has lead this nation down a road that, may I boldly say, our founders never intended.  All because we have failed to understand the history that motivated Thomas Jefferson to make his statement to the Danbury Baptists in 1802.

What would we do as a nation if we owned the truth about Jefferson’s statements in this letter?  Would we have the courage to change things?  Would we have the courage to stand against the false premises and give truth the victory?  Well, let’s see, because here is the truth. 

When the first settler’s came to the continent fleeing religious persecution in their home country, they established charter governments.  Each new settlement had a new charter.  These charters wanted to make sure that they would never be prevented from practicing their religion again, so they repeated the government formula they knew, ironically exactly like the one they just fled.  Each charter established the religion of that charter.  The thought was, if the government is OUR religion, we will never be persecuted by our government for OUR religion.  But they also understood that as new administrations came and went, there would be a danger of those newly elected changing that law, then the danger would exist again.  So they took additional remedies, they created “test act” qualifications for office.

Test acts were oaths that each person had to take before they were eligible to hold any governmental office.  These oaths required a sworn allegiance to the religion of that charter.  Additionally, part of the laws of these charters established means for persons of this religion to receive a license from the charter government to build a church or preach the established religion.  So, if you were not of the faith of the charter, you were not able to obtain a license to preach or build a church.  If you were not of the faith of the charter, you were not able to hold office to change the law so you could build a church or preach from a pulpit.  This is obviously not religious liberty, this is government mandated religion.  And the penalties for breaking these laws were severe, to include public execution.  This religious charter worked for those of like faith and practice, until someone elected to office decided to break their test act oath and change the government mandated religion.

The problem came when someone lived in a charter contrary to their beliefs or when a religious denomination was not represented at all in any of the charters of the new colonies.  These individuals were thrown into a liberty conundrum.  Do they follow the law and violate their conscience?  Do they follow their conscience and violate the law?  Either way, there is no way to have liberty.

This problem existed for the pastors and preacher of the Baptist denomination.  Men like Obadiah Holmes could not take a license to preach.  Even if they would, they could not profess a denomination they did not support, so they could not have an official church, and could not legally preach in any charter.  History tells us that this did not stop these men from preaching.  However, it did hold some dire consequences.  If you doubt me, go ahead and research these men.  They were arrested, fined, imprisoned, and tortured for refusing to take a license to preach.  And yes, that happened right here, in the new American Colonies.

Several states, being led by Virginia refused to ratify the proposed Constitution because they felt:

“Whether the new Federal Constitution, which had now lately made its appearance in public, made sufficient provision for the secure enjoyment of religious liberty; on which it was agreed unanimously that, in the opinion of the General Committee, it did not.” Virginia General Committee, 1788

Virginia was led in this stand by a group called the Virginia Baptist General Convention, John Leland was their leader.  Virginians wanted Leland to be the delegate for Virginia in the Constitutional Convention.  Leland did not want to be a delegate; he wanted to remain a pastor to his church.  However, he felt so strongly in this matter he was willing to do just that. 

John Leland met with Thomas Jefferson and James Madison and struck a deal.  He offered James Madison his position as delegate for the state of Virginia as long as Madison promised he would make sure there was sufficient protections for religious liberty; namely a Bill of Rights.  Madison made his promise and held to it, being not only an ardent proponent for religious liberty but for the entire Bill of Rights.  If you are interested in a fairly good account of this agreement, you can find this story in movie titled, Magnificent Heritage.

Once the Constitution was ratified and the Bill of Rights adopted, several founders tried to pass a bill to establish a tax to pay for Christian Teachers.  Many of the founders, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison to mention two, were adamantly opposed to this taxation.  They felt this taxation was a direct assault on the religious liberty they had fought so hard to protect.  They felt:

“…it is believed to be repugnant to the spirit of the gospel for the legislature thus to proceed in matters of religion; that the holy author of our religion needs no such compulsive measures for the promotion of his cause; that the gospel wants not the feeble arm of man for its support; that it has made and will again through divine power make its way against all opposition; and that should the legislature assume the right of taxing the people for the support of the gospel it will be destructive to religious liberty.”

They knew that where the government taxed they had an obligation to regulate.  If Christian Teachers were to be paid, even in part by taxes collected from the people, they would become employees of the government.  Where the government employs, they will also, dictate.  (Precisely why vouchers are not a benefit but the downfall of Christian schools) The supporters of religious liberty prevailed and the bill was defeated. 

What most fail to see is that religious liberty is a principle of the  Judeo-Christian world view.  It is the only world view that supports the statement that “all men are created equal and endowed by their creator with unalienable rights.”  This is why Leland reminded those who were fighting for liberty there is an essential principle to limiting government to maintain liberty.  He said:

“Everyman must give account of himself to God, and therefore every man ought to be at liberty to serve God in that way that he can best reconcile it to his conscience.  If government can answer for individuals at the day of judgment, let men be controlled by it in religious matters; otherwise let me be free.”

The Judeo-Christian world view requires that government not dictate a person’s conscience because every individual will be held accountable one day before God and they will not be able to use government as an excuse for their belief or unbelief.

Our founders were fighting for a nation where all would be equally free “Jews, Turks, Pagans, And Christians”.  They knew from history, that Christianity could only prevail in a nation where Liberty was a primary principle of the people.  Where the government, through power or sword could dictate, there is no liberty.  In the Letters from a Federal Farmer IV, the author stated,

“It is true, we are not disposed to differ much, at present, about religion; but when we are making a constitution it is to be hoped for ages and millions yet unborn, why not establish the free exercise of religion, as a part of the national compact.”

So, when Thomas Jefferson was elected president the Danbury Baptists wanted to encourage their new president to continue to fight to maintain religious liberty.  In a letter to President Jefferson they congratulated him on being elected and encouraged him to stand firm on this issue.  President Jefferson responded to this letter in 1802 with the following words:

“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 and State.”

Now combine that explanation with the clarification offered by Jefferson in the second Session of Congress, regarding the adoption of the act for “establishing religious freedom”:

“…that to suffer the civil magistrate to intrude his powers into the field of opinion, and to restrain the profession or propagation of principles on their supposition of ill tendency, is a dangerous fallacy which at once destroys all liberty,” it is declared, “that it is time enough for the rightful purposes of civil government for its officers to interfere when its principles break out into overt acts against peace and good order.”

Anyone with any critical thinking skills can look at this information as see the true application.  Thomas Jefferson was making a statement that the Government has no business in the affairs of the church.  Period.  Then if you take into account the very words of Jefferson and even those of Ben Franklin it will be clear that they never intended for God to be removed from Government.

Thomas Jefferson said , “Can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are a gift from God?”

Benjamin Franklin said this at the Constitutional Convention:  “In the beginning of the Contest with Great Britain, when we were sensible of danger, we had daily prayer in this room for Divine protection…. All of us who were engaged in the struggle must have observed frequent instances of Superintending Providence in our favor…have we now forgotten that powerful Friend? or do we imagine we no longer need His assistance?…. God Governs in the affairs of men And if a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without His notice, is it probable that an empire can rise without His aid?” 

Unfortunately for America the courts have not taken the time to understand this text in its historical context.  I find it ironic that there were judges recognizing that to truly and correctly interpret a provision in the Constitution it is vital to refer to the intentions of the Founders.  Yet, in this instance, where they do quote a founder, they get it entirely wrong.  Is that a sign of judicial activism: the courts using whatever they can lay their hands on conveniently to complete their agenda?  Or is it simply ignorance of history and misapplication of principles?  I can’t help but think that if some attorney had taken that time to present an historically correct argument the courts would have never have been able to take Jefferson’s quote completely out of context and create a precedent that has been used changed the face of Liberty in America.

Jefferson’s words of ‘separation of church and state’ were a declaration that the government has no business in the affairs of the church.  By Jefferson’s own words, this was never to imply that God had no place in government.  Now you have the truth and to whom much is given, much is required.  The responsibility remains with the people to make a difference.  WE must take back the narrative and speak truth.  WE must elect people who understand the true foundation of America.  WE must teach our children Liberty First Principles and where they come from.  WE must restore Liberty perspectives so we can built a better tomorrow.