Advertisement

Allan Powell: Myths about separation of church and state

February 22, 2013|By ALLAN POWELL

The principle of separation is one of America’s greatest contributions to political thought. Responsible citizenship makes it important to identify myths to sort out intended and unintended distortions of fact.

Myth 1: We don’t have separation of church and state in America because those words do not appear in the Constitution.

Baptist scholar Brent Walker points out that there are many words used in accepted constitutional interpretation that do not appear in the original document. What can be found and used are principles identifiable in the Constitution. There is no debate about the terms “federalism,” “separation of powers” and “right to a fair trial,” which define important principles that do not appear in the Constitution.

The principle of separation of church and state was so clearly established for Thomas Jefferson that he used the metaphor “wall of separation” to clarify this idea as an integral part of the First Amendment. It is true that this amendment only applied to the federal government for a period of time. As a result of Gitlow v. New York, in 1925, the states — like the federal government — are required to enforce the Bill of Rights. This momentous decision is said to have “nationalized” The Bill of Rights.

There is another consideration about the presence or absence of certain words in the Constitution. A Supreme Court decision, Marbury v. Madison, handed down in 1803, set the precedent for the Supreme Court to exercise the power to declare an act of Congress unconstitutional. It is judges who interpret the meaning of words in the process of judicial review. As Justice Frankfurter expressed it, “The Supreme Court is the Constitution.” This is an awesome power.

Myth 2: We do not need or want separation of church and state because the United States is a Christian nation.

Walker argues, “America is not a Christian nation, legally and constitutionally. Our civil compact, the Constitution, is decidedly a secular document.” Congress is charged to “make no law respecting an establishment of religion.”

A remarkable source of support for the view that our government is a secular one is the words of former President John Adams. In a treaty with Tripoli, signed in 1797 (and approved by the U.S. Senate), Adams avers that “as the government of the United States is not in any sense founded on the Christian religion as it has in itself no character of enmity against the religion or tranquility of Musselmen (Muslims) ... it is declared that no pretext arising from religious opinion shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries.”

Myth 3: We have freedom of religion but not freedom from religion.

As Walker argues, “If we don’t have both, then we have neither. Forced religion is simply a violation of conscience, not a voluntary response to God.” We live in a pluralistic society in which free individuals make voluntary responses about commitments to faith.

Myth 4: Church-state separation only keeps the government from setting up a single national church.

Walker takes note of the fact that when the First Amendment was crafted (three years after the Constitution was ratified), several clauses that called for the idea of a single, national church were rejected. Such phrases as “nor shall any national religion be established,” “no law establishing one religious sect or society in preference to others” and several like clauses were not accepted. In the end, the authors of the Bill of Rights settled upon the more-expansive phrase, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.”

Myth 5: The separation of church and state has resulted in God being banished from the public square.

The facts show otherwise. Studies show that only 20 percent of the population belonged to a church in 1776. Membership grew steadily until, by 1850, more than 30 percent were church members. By 1890, church membership reached 45 percent. Membership continued to grow, and by 1906 it came to 51 percent. The last measurement listed was in 2000 and it had reached 62 percent. It is not possible to reconcile this longitudinal growth with the claim of a dominance of secularism.

Myths will always abound to hamper clear thinking about vital social concerns. The principle of separation of church and state is too important to permit being corroded by misinformation. This concept has served our country well by discouraging sectarian conflicts and maintaining religious harmony. It deserves our respect and support.

Allan Powell is a professor emeritus of philosophy at Hagerstown Community College.

















   

Advertisement
The Herald-Mail Articles
|
|
|