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Tearing Down the “Wall of Separation between Church and State”

by R. Jonathan Moore on Sep 21, 2000

         The current presidential campaign continues to provide rich opportunities to debate the proper role of  religion in national politics.  But "the wall of separation between church and state" keeps muddling our discussions. Pundits and critics on all sides reflexively invoke "the wall" without explaining what it means or why this metaphor should have the authority it enjoys. In fact, the "wall of separation between church and state" is a historically inaccurate, always misapplied metaphor that unnecessarily complicates our thinking surrounding religion and politics.  It's time for "the wall" to disappear.

         The authority often attached to this phrase is undeserved: The
"wall of separation between church and state" is found nowhere in the
Declaration of Independence or the U.S. Constitution, the nation's founding
documents.  The relevant statement on the proper relationship between
church and state is found in the First Amendment, which says that "Congress
shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting
the free exercise thereof." Nary a wall in sight there.

         In fact, the phrase first appeared in a letter from President
Thomas Jefferson. In 1802, explaining to the Danbury (Conn.) Baptist
Association why he refrained from proclaiming national days of fasting and
thanksgiving, Jefferson wrote that the First Amendment had built "a wall of
separation between Church and State."  But even in the letter it seems
clear that Jefferson didn't envision such a wall to be high or
impenetrable. He concludes by reciprocating his correspondents' "prayers
for the protection and blessing of the Common Father and Creator of man."

         Most other Founders shared Jefferson's sense that the First
Amendment, even if understood as somehow constructing a "wall" between
church and state, should not be construed as keeping the two realms
completely separate. The evidence is plentiful. The same Congress that
passed the First Amendment agreed to fund congressional chaplains. George
Washington, in his Farewell Address of 1796, made clear that he thought
religion and morality were "indispensable supports" for the health of the
new republic.

         Most subsequent presidents — including the most eloquent champion
of religious liberty, James Madison — proclaimed national days of
thanksgiving, fasting, and prayer. And even Jefferson, who disdained such
proclamations, made a public point of attending church services in the
House of Representatives while president.

         The First Amendment is best understood as a mere jurisdictional
statement. By declaring that "Congress shall make no law," the new federal
government indicated that there would be no nationally established
religion.  In other words, the government had decided to keep its hands
entirely away from religion.

         This was an intelligent, pragmatic compromise by men who
recognized that church-state relations varied from state to state. By
leaving church-state matters up to the individual states to sort out, the
framers deftly sidestepped a thorny issue and made the First Amendment
easier for the diverse states to digest. Even an official establishment of
religion at the state level was not perceived as inconsistent with the
First Amendment. For example, Congregationalism remained the official,
state-supported religion in Massachusetts until 1833.

         Historically speaking, then, the First Amendment was clearly not
intended to separate religion from politics. The authority granted to the
"wall" metaphor is a much more recent invention. Over the last fifty years,
as the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled on more and more cases involving
religious freedom, many justices have adopted the wall metaphor –
erroneously — as the only way to understand the First Amendment.

         In an important case in 1947, Justice Hugo Black invoked
Jefferson's words to insist that the First Amendment was intended to erect
a wall of separation between church and state, one that must always be kept
"high and impregnable."  Current Chief Justice William Rehnquist has
rightly criticized this misuse of history, noting the inappropriateness of
basing constitutional interpretation on Jefferson's "short note of courtesy."

         This is not at all to argue that there should not be carefully
defined boundaries between religious and political institutions. Indeed,
history shows that, as James Madison said, "A mutual independence" between
church and state "is found most friendly to practical religion, to social
harmony, and to political prosperity."

         It's time to give "the wall of separation of church and state" a
proper burial. It has never been a part of the Constitution, and its
meaning is unclear. Let's dispense with this empty phrase and confront our
religiously plural republic with fresh eyes, fresh ideas, and fresh language.


R. Jonathan Moore is a doctoral candidate in American religious history at the University of Chicago Divinity School and managing editor of Sightings, an e-mail newsletter on religion and public life.