Newsweek Calls "Separation of Church and State" a Myth

14 09 2006

Filed under: Separation of Church and State, First Amendment

A pleasant surprise appeared in the September 11, 2006 issue of Newsweek. It carried an article in the “Beliefwatch” section on the candidacy of Katherine Harris and the topic of the “separation of church and state”.

When U.S. Rep. Katherine Harris recently told a religious journal that separation of church and state was “a lie,” many critics cited this as another sign she was out of the mainstream. But, experts say, she was reflecting a common view in religious conservative circles—that the idea of separation of church and state was concocted by 20th-century courts, not the Founding Fathers.

Conservative activists point out that the words “separation of church and state” appear nowhere in the Constitution—and they’re right.

Conservative scholars have long argued that the “wall” was mostly intended to block the creation of official state religions—not to completely close the door between government and religious life.

From a judicial perspective, the phrase “separation of church and state” only appears in a letter Thomas Jefferson wrote to a group of Connecticut Baptists to reassure their concern that the government would not, in fact, force them to change their worship preferences.

But the Newsweek article still does not encompass the true history of the concept of separation of church and state. The phrase has a long history going back to the Reformation. The idea is a biblical one when properly understood.

In the simplest terms, separating Church and State means that the institution and the ecclesiastical jurisdiction of the Church is separate from the institution and the civil jurisdiction of the State.

In other words, The Church cannot mingle in the institutional affairs of civil government. Neither can its officers. In the same way, civil government cannot disturb the ministry and operation of the Church by tampering with the Church’s doctrines or courts.

Nowhere, however, does the First Amendment prohibit individuals or government from applying religious precepts to the legislative and judicial agenda of the State.

Biblical laws against theft, murder, polygamy, abortion, homosexuality, rape, and perjury have been accepted by civil governments as having a civil application with no transgression of the First Amendment. At the same time, the State does not have the jurisdictional right to compel people to believe the gospel, confess the Christian religion, pay tithes, or attend church. Neither can the civil magistrate declare any single Christian denomination to be the nationally established Church, the real purpose of the first Amendment.

Earlier courts long understood Jefferson’s intent. In fact, Jefferson’s letter was invoked by the Court only once prior to the 1947 Everson case—the Reynolds v. United States case in 1878. That is unlike today’s Courts which publish only his eight-word separation phrase. The Reynolds ruling that published Jefferson’s full letter, concluded:

Coming as this does from an acknowledged leader of the advocates of the measure, it (Jefferson’s letter) may be accepted almost as an authoritative declaration of the scope and effect of the Amendment thus secured. Congress was deprived of all legislative power over mere religious opinion, but was left free to reach actions which were in violation of social duties or subversive of good order.

That Court then succinctly summarized Jefferson’s intent for “separation of church and state”:

The rightful purposes of civil government are for its officers to interfere when principles break out into overt acts against peace and good order. In this . . . is found the true distinction between what properly belongs to the church and what to the State.

One further note should be made about the now infamous “separation” dogma. The Congressional Records from June 7 to September 25, 1789, record the months of discussions and debates of the ninety Founding Fathers who framed the First Amendment. Significantly, during those debates not one of those ninety Framers ever mentioned the phrase “separation of church and state.” It seems logical that if this had been the intent of the Founding Fathers for the First Amendment—as is so frequently asserted—then at least one of those ninety would have mentioned that phrase; none did.

Since Murphy v. Ramsey (1885), the ACLU have been challenging provisions in our Constitution, and have been aided significantly by activist judges since Everson (1947). This is the root of most of the frustration from liberal leaders. For over 50 years, they have been furthering their agenda through frivolous lawsuits and judges legislating from the bench. With Alito and Roberts now aboard, it is understandable that many liberals would be frustrated. How else are they going to advance? They cannot.

The Newsweek article concludes with a brief compilation of resources backing the solid claims of conservatives.

A cottage industry has grown in recent years to push a more radical argument that the Founders intended virtually no separation. Books making the case include “The Myth of Separation Between Church and State,” by Dee Wampler, “What If America Were a Christian Nation Again?” by D. James Kennedy, and “America’s Christian Heritage,” by Gary Demar. The conservative Web site WorldNetDaily sells a special issue called “The Myth of Church-State Separation,” and former presidential candidate Alan Keyes has campaigned against the “so-called doctrine … that the courts have created out of thin air.” David Barton, author of a book called “The Myth of Separation,” was hired by the Bush campaign in 2004 to speak to church groups around the country—in part to convince them that the Constitution doesn’t ban political activity by churches.

While we cannot classify America as a “Christian nation”, we can definately acknowledge its Christian heritage and we can ce
rtainly return to the Founders’ original intent while still being a progressive country.

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