The Origin of the Separation of Church and State
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Americans can be justifiably proud of their founding fathers’ insistence on a separation of Church and State. And, yet, surprisingly, very few Americans seem to understand what their founding fathers meant by this concept.
Conservative politicians take pride is saying that the US is, primarily, a Christian nation and that their Christian forefathers fought King George in order to have the freedom to practice Christianity as they saw fit.
Liberal politicians tend to take an opposing view – that separation of Church and State means that the concept of God has no place in government. In fact, some go so far as to say that landmarks such as a plaque stating that George Washington attended a specific church, should be removed, as it compromises the separation of Church and State.
Unfortunately, both these groups have got it wrong.
So, let’s take a step back and have a look at what caused Thomas Jefferson to repeatedly insist that the separation be implemented in the US Constitution.
Mister Jefferson attended the College of William and Mary, where he received the customary university education, but went on to study law privately under George Wythe in Williamsburg, Virginia. Mister Wythe was not only his teacher, but his mentor, a man in his latter years who not only imparted knowledge to the young Jefferson, but wisdom. He frequented the Raleigh Tavern with his pupil, but additionally brought him to banquets at the mansion of Governor Fauquier, in an effort to expand his outlook.
I believe that it’s safe to say that, when Mister Jefferson completed his education at age thirty-four, he had both the energy and imagination of youth and the wisdom of the elders at his command. The former gave him his drive and the latter provided him with the farsightedness that guided the writing of the American Constitution and the future direction of the new nation.
George Wythe lived conveniently next door to the Governor. (His home is still there today, as is his small study where he taught the future president.) On the other side of his home was Bruton Parish Church. In the 18th Century, one could not be elected to office unless he was a member of the Church of England. As Attorney General, Mister Wythe tolerated this, but taught his pupil that, as a free man, he should not be required to be an Anglican.
To add insult to injury, Mister Jefferson was not a Christian, but a Deist, as were several others of the founding fathers. He did believe in his own form of a God and even referred to him in the first sentence of the Declaration of Independence, but did not ascribe to him the power of miracles and omnipotence, as described in the Bible.
In addition, he regarded Jesus as an admirable human being, but did not regard him as anything more. (In later years, he would create his own Bible, by removing much of what he considered to be latter-day additions to the King James Bible, leaving little more than the words of Jesus.)
In spite of his beliefs, Mister Jefferson was required to be a (paid-up) member of the Anglican Church in order to sit in the House of Burgesses and he chafed at this requirement.
However, he was a deep believer in the concept of God as a being with both consciousness and conscience, who, he believed took no direct part in the affairs of man, but did create all men as equals and therefore entitled them to “certain unalienable Rights”.
But he saw the Church differently. He regarded it as a political organization, controlled by the King, intended to dictate morals and acceptable behaviour.
Mister Jefferson was entirely comfortable with the concept of a moral God as a principle upon which to base a government. However, he distrusted the inclusion of the Church.
Comedian George Carlin once said, “I’m completely in favor of the separation of Church and State. My idea is that these two institutions screw us up enough on their own, so both of them together is certain death.” Had Mister Jefferson been in the audience, I believe he would have nodded his approval.
Today, politicians tend to treat God and Church as being one and the same. In the perception of America’s founding fathers, they were entirely different entities. One was a creator, the other was a controller and, at times, a usurper.
Not coincidentally, it was the latter description that they ascribed to governments. The Constitution was written not only to outline what their new government should be, but in what ways it should be limited to keep it from being a controller and a usurper.
In past history, much good has been done in the name of the Church, but, indeed, whenever it has become a political power centre, it has abused this position. This is evidenced by the Crusades, the Medici’s, the Spanish Inquisition and more.
Today, we see this same problem manifesting itself, particularly with the destruction of Europe by religious zealots.
Individual spirituality lies at the very core of what makes a person moral. However, a strong personal moral fibre, and an adherence to a religious organization which dictates blind obeisance to itself are, in fact, polar opposites.
The former offers a moral compass to the individual; the latter, especially when connected to a government, trounces mankind’s natural morality and increases the potential for oppression by that government.
As in so many other things, America’s founding fathers had the right idea with the separation of Church and State. The phrase still exists today, but its original intent has been largely lost.
Should its true meaning be revived, we can be fairly certain that it won’t be done by the political class.