What Does Separation of Church and State Really Mean?

John Bambenek November/December 2007

The much-bandied about phrase "separation of church and state" means different things to different people. To those from the secular humanist persuasion, it means that the state can make no public acknowledgment of religion, have no religious displays, recognize no tax exemptions for churches, and goes so far as to regulate even religious expressions of private individuals in the public arena out of line. One also hears that any attempt by others to "moralize" or use any religious values to argue for a policy should be silenced.

On the other hand, there are those who believe the matter is simply that the government should not establish an official state church, or that a church should not be anointing officials in the government. Other than that, people should believe and practice how they see fit. Both sides couch their arguments on constitutional theories, some involving Thomas Jefferson's "Wall of Separation" letter.

To consider this issue, it is important to look at the historical situation of the framers and what they intended. To recap, they were declaring independence from the king of England. There is one important title for the monarch of England that is relevant to this issue—Supreme Governor of the Church of England." Not only was the Church of England the official state religion (and still is), but the king himself was the head of that church. This ensured that his political reach not only extended in the public realm, but from the pulpit. The hierarchy of the church was subservient to the king. This led to abuses in both directions—those by the church and those by the government.

The founders did not declare independence from England because they wanted to set up a secular state. They declared independence because of a long train of abuses and usurpations of government power against its people. They were concerned about matters of tyranny, not theology. The Boston Tea Party was about taxes (and thus enshrined in American tradition the fine art of complaining about taxes), not about Baptists throwing Presbyterians' Bibles into the Atlantic. The Declaration itself made liberal use of religion in general, as did the founders in their public statements. Even in Jefferson's "Wall" letter, he expresses religious sentiment and asks for prayers. It's obviously clear; it isn't religious expression they are worried about.

The choice of phrase is important, "separation of church and state." Jefferson doesn't say separation of religion and state. He is talking about institutional separation. Ireland's official church is the Roman Catholic Church, as is Poland's. In England, it's the Church of England. These aren't religions in general but specific religious institutions. No nation has "Christianity" as the official state religion for a very good reason. The reason is that there's about 50,000-some odd flavors that run the gamut from the Mormons to the Unitarians. Some Christians say Jesus established a hierarchical church, others say He was a social activist, still others say He was an anarchist. Saying Christianity is the official state religion would border on effective meaninglessness. It wasn't the ideas that the founders were afraid of, which is why they were perfectly free praying together and expressing religious sentiment in public documents and speeches. Institutional corruption and tyranny were their concerns.

The results of institutional mingling of churches and governments are quite clear in history and it hasn't been beneficial for the state or the church. However, this is a far cry from divining an intent that projects the idea that "religion is all that's wrong with the world" upon the founders. There was a camp among the founders who believed that a free society required a religious people and yet still continued to allow free association between the various churches.

However, the crowd pushing separation most vigorously is also the crowd that's trying to regulate certain religious beliefs out of existence. Pharmacists aren't allowed to express their religious sentiments about abortion and retain their jobs. The argument is that they shouldn't take the job if they don't follow a predefined ethical construct approved by the government. Catholic hospitals are consistently fighting attempts to force them to provide abortions despite their clear religious teaching. Catholic Charities of California is required to recognize "gay marriage" despite their own beliefs. Schoolchildren (a.k.a. individual citizens not to be confused with government officials) are told that they aren't allowed to pray or have Bible studies on school property. In one case, schoolchildren were threatened with federal prison if they dared utter a prayer on their own volition during a graduation ceremony. The IRS has investigated churches for preaching against abortion. In short, the wall of separation is growing to enforce a certain religious orthodoxy and not protect the free expression of religion that was also mentioned in the First Amendment.

The irony of setting up such a system where beliefs are regulated to some level of appropriate orthodoxy on issues such as abortion is that the sword cuts both ways, depending on the whims of government. When right wing churches complained about IRS harassment, the left wing told them to stop talking about abortion instead. However, when an antiwar sermon brought the IRS, the left wing cried foul. The problem with state regulation of religion is that its regulation will serve its own interests, usually on sale to the highest bidder. The founders were rightly concerned about this abuse, which is why in the same breath of saying the state should establish no official religion, it should also in no way restrict reasonable expressions of religion.

Contrary to the opinion of some, the First Amendment doesn't require regulating religion into hiding; it requires that church and state remain institutionally separate. The mere expression of the word "God" in a speech does not a theocracy make.

John Bambenek is the assistant politics editor for Blogcritics Magazine (an online magazine and a community of writers and readers from around the globe), and is an academic professional for the University of Illinois. He writes from Champaign, Illinois.

Article Author: John Bambenek