Separation of church, state an old idea worth keeping

June 19, 2009|By ALLAN POWELL

The principle of separation of church and state reaches far back into our colonial history and beyond to "America's philosopher," John Locke, in England. It is, therefore, rather strange to be a witness to the current resistance to such an important and valued principle. One can only hope the present opposition is a fad that will fade as the morning mist.

Because I have, for a long time, recognized the importance of the principle of separation of church and state, it was necessary to study the history of this idea and to be aware of its relevance for today. Following are some results of this extended study.

A prominent historian of our colonial era gives Roger Williams the credit for being "the first man in America" to do battle for a complete separation of church and state. This New England radical must have appeared as a threat to the established churches as he publicly berated their ingrained status. In 1652, Williams wrote, "The government of the Civill Magistrate extendeth no further than over the bodies and goods of their subjects, not over their soules, and therefore they may not undertake to give Lawes into the soules and consciences of men ... The Civill Magistrate cannot (without exceeding the bounds of his office) meddle with those spiritual affairs."


It is difficult to measure the power of Williams' appeals to reasonable people to avoid the conflicts of the old world for harmony in the new, but we would be foolish indeed to ignore this wise voice of the past. This caution is especially appropriate with regard to the opinions of John Locke, perhaps the most utilized European philosopher from which American thinkers sought advice. In 1685, just 42 years after Roger Williams penned his words, John Locke composed his highly recognized "Letter Concerning Toleration."

Well aware of the violence and carnage brought on by religious turmoil throughout England as a consequence of entanglements between civil government and various sects, Locke gave his assessment for the causes. "The heads and leaders of the Church, moved by avarice and insatiable desire for dominion, making use of immoderate ambition of magistrates and the credulous superstition of the giddy multitude, have incensed and animated them against those that dissent from themselves by preaching unto them, contrary to the laws of the Gospel and to the precepts of charity, that schismatics and heretics are to be ousted of their possessions and destroyed. And thus they have mixed together and confounded two things that are in themselves most different, the Church and the Commonwealth."

One hundred years later in 1785, James Madison helped to gain passage of Jefferson's disestablishment of the Anglican Church in Virginia. Other newly formed states after the American Revolution followed in time. Many had specific clauses in their constitution requiring a separation of church and state. The opinions of the foregoing thinkers are easily found in Supreme Court decisions that reinforce the principle of separation.

A wise and serious student of history, Sam Irwin Jr., the former senator from North Carolina, wrote an extensive analysis of why this largely American contribution to political thought should be respected and practiced. Irwin wrote, "The ugliest chapters in history are those that recount the religious intolerance of the civil and ecclesiastical rulers of the old world and their puppets during the generation preceding the framing and ratifying of the First Amendment."

Next follows a tragically long list of atrocities inflicted by zealots of a repressive government or by fanatics of one religion or another. He closes with the well-known aphorism of Blaise Pascal: "Men never do evil so completely and cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction."

Those who busily chip away at the wall of separation may do so with sincere conviction. But those more wise and learned must thwart their designs with equal conviction. This old idea is worth keeping - it permits a measure of unity amidst diversity by a studied avoidance of entanglements between government and religion.

Allan Powell is a professor emeritus at Hagerstown Community College.

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