Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.
Obviously, the words “separation,” “church,” or “state” are not found in the First Amendment. Furthermore, the phrase “separation of church and state” appears in NO founding document. While most people recognize the phrase “separation of church and state,” few know its source. But it is important to understand the origins of that phrase, as well as the history of the First Amendment.
The process of drafting the First Amendment made the intent of the Founders abundantly clear. Before they approved the final wording, the First Amendment went through nearly a dozen different revisions and intensive discussions. Those discussions, recorded in the U.S. Congressional Records, from June 7 to September 25, 1789, made clear their intent for the First Amendment.
By it, the Founders were saying that they did not want in America what they had had in Great Britain. They did not want one denomination running the nation. They did not want everybody to be Anglicans or Catholics or any single denomination. They wanted God’s principles to run the nation, not one denomination. This intent was well understood, as evidenced by court rulings after the First Amendment.
For instance, in the Runkel v. Winemiller case of 1799, a court made the following declaration:
By our form of government, the Christian religion is the established religion; and all sects and denominations of Christians are placed on the same equal footing.They wanted Christian principles, and they wanted God’s principles. But they did not want one denomination to run the nation.
Thomas Jefferson, to whom the now-popular phrase “separation of church and state” is attributed, also believed (as did the other Founders) that the First Amendment simply prevented the federal establishment of a single denomination. He made this fact clear in a letter to Benjamin Rush on September 23, 1800. In that letter, Jefferson committed himself, as President, not to allow the Episcopalians, the Congregationalists, nor any other denomination to achieve what Jefferson called the “establishment of a particular form of Christianity.”
So what is the source of Jefferson’s now infamous phrase? On November 7, 1801, the Baptists of Danbury, Connecticut, wrote Jefferson. They were concerned that the guarantee of the “free exercise of religion” appeared in the First Amendment. To them, this suggested that the right to religious exercise was a government-granted, rather than a God-granted, right—thus implying that, some day, the government might try to regulate religious expression. They believed that the freedom of religion was a God-granted, unalienable right, and that government should be powerless to restrict religious activities unless, as the Baptists explained, those activities caused someone to “work ill to his neighbor.”
Jefferson understood their concern. In his response on January 1, 1802, he assured them that the free exercise of religion was, indeed, an unalienable right and would not be meddled with by the government. Jefferson pointed out to them that there was a “wall of separation between church and state,” to ensure that the government never would interfere with religious activities.
Today, all that is heard of Jefferson’s letter is the phrase, “a wall of separation between church and state,” without either the context or the explanation given in the letter, nor it’s application by earlier courts. The clear understanding of the First Amendment, for a century and a half, was that it prohibited the establishment of a single national denomination. In that century and a half, national policies always reflected that interpretation.
For example, in 1853, a group petitioned Congress to separate principles from government. They desired a so-called “separation of church and state,” with chaplains being turned out of Congress, the military, etc. Their petition was referred to House and the Senate Judiciary Committees, which investigated for almost a year to see if it would be possible to separate Christian principles from government. Eventually, both the House and Senate Judiciary Committees returned with their reports. Here are excerpts from the House report, delivered on March 27, 1854 (the Senate report was similar):
Had the people [the Founding Fathers], during the Revolution, a suspicion of any attempt to war against Christianity, that Revolution would have been strangled in its cradle. ... At the time of the adoption of the Constitution and its amendments, the universal sentiment was that Christianity should be encouraged, but not any one sect [denomination]. ... In this age, there is no substitute for Christianity. ... That was the religion of the Founders of the republic, and they expected it to remain the religion of their descendants.Two months later, the House Judiciary Committee made this strong declaration:
The great vital and conservative element in our system [the thing that holds our system together] is the belief of our people in the pure doctrines and the divine truths of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.The Committees explained that they would not separate these principles, for it was these principles and activities that had made us so successful. They had been our foundation and our basis.
During the 1870s, 1880s, and 1890s, there was another group which challenged, before the Supreme Court, specific Christian principles in government. Now, Jefferson’s letter had remained unused for years. As time had progressed after its use in 1802, and after no national denomination had been established, his letter had fallen into obscurity. But then, 75 years later, in the case of Reynolds v. the United States, the plaintiffs resurrected Jefferson’s letter, hoping to use it as an issue to their advantage.
At that time, the Court printed a lengthy segment of Jefferson’s letter. Then it used that letter on the “separation of church and state” to prove, again, that it was permissible to maintain Christian values, principles, and practices in official policy. For the next 15 years, during that legal controversy, the Supreme Court utilized Jefferson’s letter to ensure that Christian principles remained a part of government.
Following this controversy, Jefferson’s letter again fell into disuse. It remained silent for the next 70 years, until 1947 when, in the case of Everson v. Board of Education, the Court, for the first time, did not cite Jefferson’s entire letter but selected only eight words from it. The Court now announced,
The First Amendment has erected “a wall of separation between church and state.” That wall must be kept high and impregnable.This was a new philosophy for the Court. Why would the Court take Jefferson’s letter completely out of context and cite only eight of its words? Dr. William James, the father of modern psychology, and a strong opponent of religious principles in government and education, perhaps explained the Court’s new strategy when he stated,
There is nothing so absurd but that if you repeat it often enough, people will believe it.This statement precisely describes the tactic utilized by the Court in the years following its 1947 announcement. The Court regularly began to speak of a “separation of church and state,” broadly explaining, “This is what the Founders wanted—separation of church and state. This is their great intent.” The Court failed to quote the Founders; they just generically asserted that this is what the Founders wanted.
The Court continued on this track so steadily that in 1958, in a case called Bael v. Kolmorgen, one of the judges was tired of hearing the “separation of church and state” phrase. He wrote a dissent warning that if this court did not stop talking about the “separation of church and state,” people were going to start thinking that it was part of the Constitution.
Nevertheless, the Court continued talking about “separation” until June 25, 1962, when in the case of Engel v. Vitale, the Court delivered its first ever ruling which completely separated Christian principles from education. The Court struck down school prayer. Even the World Book Encyclopedia, 1963 Yearbook, noted that this case had been the first time that there had been a “separation of church and state” in education.
In the 1962 case, the Court redefined the meaning and the application of a single word: “church.” For 170 years prior to that case, the Court had defined “church,” as used in the phrase “separation of church and state,” as being a federally established denomination. However, in 1962, the Court explained that the word “church” now would mean any religious activity performed in public. This was a turning point in the interpretation of the First Amendment.
No longer would the First Amendment simply prohibit the establishment of a federal denomination. It now would prohibit religious activities in public settings. The current doctrine defining “separation of church and state” is a brand new doctrine. It is not something from the Founding Fathers, and it is not in any founding document. Even outside observers recognize that this policy is a recent one. Yet notice how much has been relinquished in recent years under this new doctrine.
School prayer was the first casualty of the redefinition of the First Amendment in the early 1962 Engel case. School prayer never before had been challenged, for clearly school prayer never had established a national denomination and, therefore, always had been acceptable. But, under the new definition, school prayer was a religious activity in public and, therefore, was deemed to be “unconstitutional.”
That 1962 case, which first redefined the First Amendment, and then removed school prayer, was notable in a number of aspects. An 1892 Supreme Court case, Church of the Holy Trinity v. United states, had offered 87 precedents to maintain the inclusion of Christian principles in our laws and in our institutions. But the 1962 case, which removed school prayer, was just the opposite. It was the first case in court history to use zero precedents. The Court quoted zero previous legal cases; and without any historical or legal base, the Court essentially made this announcement: “We’ll not have prayers in school anymore. That violates the Constitution.”
A brand new direction had been taken in America. Within a twelve-month period of time, with two more cases in 1963 (Abington v. Schempp and Murray v. Curlett), the Court not only reaffirmed the ban on school prayer, but it but also removed Bible reading, religious classes, and religious instruction from schools. This was a radical reversal, since many school textbooks prior up to that time freely printed Christian and biblical information. A school textbook from 1946 illustrates this.
Remember, the Founders of this nation relied on the Bible, early textbooks quoted the Bible, and early Supreme Court cases ruled that a school must teach religion and the Bible. Therefore, on what possible basis could the 1963 Supreme Court have justified its rulings to stop the use of the Bible in public schools? The Court always explains its decisions in written form. In the decision for the 1963 cases, the Court wrote,
If portions of the New Testament were read without explanation, they could be and...had been psychologically harmful to the child.Now that is quite a statement. For the second time in the same year, here was a case lacking both historical and legal precedent. Again, the Court simply made a new announcement of policy: “No more Bible reading in schools.”
The Court continued to extend the new boundary outward. In 1965, in the case Reed v. Van Hoven, the Court determined that it was possible for students to pray over their lunches in school, so long as no one knew they were praying. They couldn’t say words or move their lips, but they could pray if no one knew about it.
In DeKalb v. DeSpain, 1967, the Court declared a four-line nursery rhyme, used by a kindergarten class, to be “unconstitutional.” The Court explained that although the word “God” was not contained in this nursery rhyme, if someone were to hear the rhyme, someone might think that it was talking about God—and that would be “unconstitutional.” When the Court declares something unconstitutional, it is inferring that our Founding Fathers, the men who drafted the Constitution, would have opposed it.
Yet, notice what James Wilson—a signer of the Constitution, an original Justice on the U.S. Supreme Court, and co-author of America’s first commentaries on the Constitution—had to say about this:
Human law must rest its authority ultimately upon the authority of that law which is Divine. Far from being rivals or enemies, religion and law are “twin sisters.” Indeed, these two societies run into each other. The Divine law...forms an essential part of both.Our Founders were clear about the important and inseparable role that religious principles played in the public life of the nation.
This trend continued in case after case, year after year. Previously, the existence of the Ten Commandments on the walls of school classrooms was not a problem. It was assumed that students could look at them or not look at them, as they wished. However, in 1980, in Stone v. Graham, the Court determined,
If the posted copies of the Ten Commandments are to have any effect at all, it will be to induce the schoolchildren to read, meditate upon, perhaps to venerate and obey the Commandments...[which] is not a permissible...objective.Essentially, they were saying that we cannot let students see the Ten Commandments, because if they do, they might obey them—things like “do not steal” and “do not kill”—and that would be “unconstitutional.”
The entire controversy over God and religious activities and teachings in school had begun with a 22-word prayer in the Engel v. Vitale case (1962). That prayer, which led to the removal of all prayers from America’s schools, read as follows:
Almighty God, we acknowledge our dependence upon Thee, and we beg Thy blessings upon us, our parents, our teachers, and our Country.That prayer, which only acknowledged God, and didn’t even contain the word Jesus, was a “bland” prayer. In fact, it was so bland that eight years later a court, when discussing that prayer, described it as a “to whom it may concern” prayer.
That bland prayer had acknowledged God only one time—the same number of times that God is acknowledged in the Pledge of Allegiance and only one-fourth the number of times that God is acknowledged in the Declaration of Independence. Yet, the prayer had been declared “unconstitutional.”
Here are the four categories in that prayer on which God’s blessings were asked:
Let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.Essentially, Washington warned that to lose religious principles would be to lose national morality. The second president, John Adams, explained that there was no government in the world that was able to make someone do what was right or able to control those who did not wish to be controlled. Adams explained,
We have no government armed with power capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion. ... Our constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.The Founders believed that the Constitution worked only for people who had internal restraints and internal controls, for people who had used the Word of God as their standard. We have moved away from that. Clearly, the Constitution, apart from religious principles, is not working the way it should—a fact evident on all the charts and statistics.
There are clear references to the Triune God and to Christian principles in state constitutions:
Every person appointed to public office shall say, “I do profess faith in God the Father, and in Jesus Christ His only Son, and in the Holy Ghost, one God blessed for evermore; and I do acknowledge the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testament to be given by divine inspiration” (Delaware Constitution, 1776).An acknowledgement of Christian belief was a requirement for holding public office during the years of the Founding Fathers. This requirement is consistent with the First Amendment, because it did not require someone to be a member of one specific denomination to hold public office. It did not say that you had to be a Methodist, a Lutheran, a Catholic, an Anglican, a Presbyterian, or a Baptist; but it did say that you had to understand God’s principles, and you had to understand the Word of God, to hold office.
Each member [of the legislature], before he takes his seat, shall make and subscribe the following declaration: “I do believe in one God, the Creator and Governor of the universe, the rewarder of the good, and the punisher of the wicked” (Pennsylvania and Vermont Constitutions).The constitutions of the other states were very similar. Basically, a politician wouldn’t just answer to the voters; he/she would be individually accountable to God. But what about the accountability of a nation to God?
On the floor of the Constitutional Convention, in 1787, was explained the difference between individual accountability to God and national accountability to God. An individual answers to God in the future. However, when a nation dies, it is forever dead; it will not be resurrected in the future to answer for what it has done. Therefore, when does a nation answer to God?
George Mason, the Father of the Bill of Rights, explained,
As nations cannot be rewarded or punished in the next world, so they must be in this. By an inevitable chain of causes and effects, Providence punishes national sins by national calamities.The Founders believed that God would deal with a nation right now, in the present, for the stands that it takes. A nation has no other time to answer to God than in the present. Perhaps this is the best explanation as to why all the charts broke dramatically in 1962-63 when, for the first time in the nation’s history, we officially told God that He no longer was welcome in the public affairs of this nation. The charts simply illustrate a principle the Founders understood, believed, and discussed: A nation either will suffer or be blessed for the stands of its leaders.
Perhaps the most famous speech ever delivered by Benjamin Franklin was on June 28, 1787, on the floor of the Constitutional Convention. He reminded the delegates that they needed God to be their friend, not their enemy, and their ally, not their adversary. He said that they needed to keep God’s “concurring aid.” Franklin warned,
If a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without his notice, it is probable that an empire can rise without his aid? We’ve been assured in the sacred writing that “Except the Lord build the house, they labor in vain that build it.”Thus, Benjamin Franklin called for regular, daily prayer to make sure that the people of the nation kept God in the midst of what they were doing. The third president, Thomas Jefferson, also understood this principle. He declared,
Can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis—a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are the gift of God? That they are not to violated but with his wrath? Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just: that his justice cannot sleep forever.A nation does answer to God for the stands it takes. This understanding of national accountability to God has been part of our heritage and part of our history. Our Founders understood that a nation needs to take stands which line up with God’s principles so that God’s blessings and his “concurring aid,” as Franklin described it, could rest on that nation. The so-called “separation of church and state,” as we have it today,