The United States was founded to be a Christian nation. Kids can’t pray in public schools. The Founding Fathers did not support separation of church and state.
These statements are articles of faith to the Religious Right. There is one problem with them, however: They’re all false.
Myths about separation of church and state and its role in American history abound. Over the years, Religious Right groups have constructed an entire false narrative to compete with the real story of religious freedom in America.
Under this faux-history, church-state separation was never the intention of the Founders, who yearned for an officially Christian America. The separation principle, the Religious Right argues, was imposed on the nation some years later by either the Supreme Court, “radical secularists” or communists – take your pick.
Many scholars have debunked this line of thinking over the years, yet it persists. Why?
For people involved with Religious Right groups, the phony “Christian nation” version of history fills a psychological need. It lets them know that they were right all along. It provides a comforting myth of religious supremacism to combat the multi-faith, multi-philosophy America that so many of them find troubling.
Followers of the Religious Right are probably a lost cause on this issue. Like creationists who find a way to ignore every piece of evidence for evolution, the “Christian nation” crowd will never be persuaded by facts.
Many more Americans probably haven’t given the matter much thought. They may have dim memories of history class where Pilgrims and Puritans were discussed, and they may know that the theocratic systems favored by those groups didn’t prevail. What they don’t know is how we got from there to where we are now – a nation with a secular constitution and complete religious freedom for all.
Some of these people are, unfortunately, susceptible to Religious Right propaganda. Not knowing the whole story of how church-state separation evolved and how it has been applied by the courts, they might fall for Religious Right distortions.
In a sound bite age, it’s important to make arguments as succinct as possible. In 1993, Americans United published a list of 10 common myths about separation of church and state. It proved to be a popular article that was reprinted as a brochure.
Now, 22 years later, Americans United has decided to revisit those myths. The following compilation contains some that were on the 1993 list, but others have been tweaked or are new.
Our goal remains the same: Religious Right groups tell lies about the separation of church and state. This is the information you need to combat them.
Myth One: Separation of church and state isn’t found in the U.S. Constitution. Rather, it is a modern invention of the Supreme Court, a communist idea, something Nazis concocted, etc.
It’s hard to believe that some of these claims are taken seriously, but they are. The American Family Association’s Bryan Fischer, for example, has taken to claiming that Adolf Hitler invented separation of church and state! (Even a casual student of the history of Nazi Germany knows why this is false.)
Separation of church and state came about in America because during the colonial period there often was no separation, and this violated fundamental liberties. The system the Religious Right favors – church-state union – was tried in many colonies and found wanting.
Virginia led the way. Thomas Jefferson and James Madison worked together to disestablish the Anglican Church and pass legislation that extended true religious freedom to all. Some years later, it was Jefferson who penned the metaphor of the First Amendment erecting a “wall of separation between church and state.”
Jefferson’s metaphor resonated with the public and the courts. Thus, the phrase “separation of church and state” came into being as a short-hand way of describing the First Amendment’s religion clauses. As the eminent church-state scholar Leo Pfeffer once wrote, “[I]t was inevitable that some convenient term should come into existence to verbalize a principle so widely held by the American people.”
Key Founders backed the concept. Madison, known as the “Father of the Constitution” and a primary drafter of the Bill of Rights, used similar language. In Virginia, Madison noted that he and Jefferson had created the “total separation of the church from the state.” As president, Madison was a strict advocate of this principle. He vetoed legislation that would have given a church in Washington, D.C., a symbolic charter to care for the poor, and he vetoed legislation giving a federal land grant to a church. In both cases, Madison issued veto messages citing the First Amendment.
When Religious Right advocates attack church-state separation, their beef is not with Supreme Court justices, Joseph Stalin or Hitler. It is with Thomas Jefferson and James Madison.
Myth Two: The United States was founded to be a Christian nation.
This claim is easily debunked by referring to the text of the U.S. Constitution. If an officially Christian nation had been the Founders’ intent, the Constitution would say that explicitly. It doesn’t. In fact, it says the opposite.
Religion is referred to twice in the Constitution. The First Amendment bars laws “respecting an establishment of religion” and prohibiting “the free exercise thereof.” The first portion of this statement, which scholars call the Establishment Clause, cuts strongly against the notion of an officially Christian nation.
The second reference is often overlooked but is very important. Article VI contains language stating that “no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.” What the Founders did here was ban religious qualifications for federal office – that is, they made it illegal to require that a person hold certain religious beliefs as a qualification for public office.
Article VI ensures that all people – Christians, Jews, Muslims, atheists, etc. – can hold office at the federal level. It is impossible to square this language with the “Christian nation” concept.
Many conservative pastors of the post-Revolution era were well aware of the secular nature of the Constitution. They knew that the document did not establish an officially Christian nation. This angered them and led to a round of pulpit attacks on the “godless” Constitution.
Myth Three: Separation of church and state was originally intended to merely bar the creation of a national church.
The text of the First Amendment goes way beyond simply banning a national church. The amendment prohibits all laws “respecting an establishment of religion.” James Madison, one of the chief drafters of the amendment, interpreted it broadly. Madison believed that tax funding of churches was unconstitutional and even concluded, later in his life, that official White House proclamations calling for days of prayer were a violation.
It is true that some colonies had official churches. But it’s worth noting that the religion enshrined in law varied from colony to colony. There was no agreement. Thus, a single established church was never a serious threat in the United States because there was great disagreement, mostly among the dominant Protestant sects, over which one was to be favored. Congregationalism reigned in New England, while the Anglican Church tended to dominate in the South. Maryland was a haven for Roman Catholics, and Pennsylvania vowed religious freedom for all (as did Rhode Island). This “multiplicity of sects,” as Thomas Jefferson called it, ensured an effective check on an officially established national church.
Myth Four: Most of the Founders were evangelical Christians and supported government promulgation of that mode of faith.
Evangelicalism did take hold in the colonies in the post-Revolutionary era, but it was never embraced by key Founders. Rather, they tended to align with a rival school that sought to merge certain ethical principles of Christianity with the tenets of the Enlightenment, which stressed the primacy of science and reason.
Thomas Jefferson is a good example of a Founder who was greatly influenced by Enlightenment principles. Jefferson admired the moral teachings of Jesus but rejected his claims to divinity and the miracle stories of the New Testament. Jefferson created his own personal version of the scriptures by cutting away these portions of the Gospels and pasting up what was left with his own commentary.
Many Founders are identified as Deists, a theological school of thought that is less popular today. Deists believed in God but didn’t interpret the Bible in a literal fashion. They were skeptical of miraculous claims and sought to find a way to bring religion into alignment with the emerging scientific view of the world.
Some of the signers of the Constitution did undoubtedly hold traditional Christian beliefs. But this does not mean they supported merging church and state.
Myth Five: Mottos like “In God We Trust” on currency and “Under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance are evidence that separation of church and state was never intended.
Both of these phrases are of much more recent origin than many people believe.
“In God We Trust” is familiar to most Americans because it appears on U.S. currency. But early American money did not carry this phrase. The Fugio cent, a penny authorized by Congress in 1787 and reportedly designed by Benjamin Franklin, contained the mottos “Mind Your Business” and “We Are One” – a reference to the 13 colonies.
“In God We Trust” didn’t appear on coins until the Civil War, when it was authorized for use on some coins minted in the North. The use of the phrase was sporadic on currency and was not codified until the 1950s. Around the same time, the phrase was adopted as the national motto. (“E Pluribus Unum” had been serving as an unofficial motto until then.) Many scholars believe that the adoption of these religious phrases was a reaction to the fight against “godless communism” during the Cold War.
The Pledge of Allegiance was written in 1892 by Francis Bellamy, a minister and a socialist. Bellamy wrote the Pledge to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the voyage of Christopher Columbus. Bellamy’s Pledge, which did not include the phrase “under God,” appeared in a magazine called Youth’s Companion. After a lobbying campaign by the magazine (which, incidentally, made money selling American flags to schools), it was adopted for use in public schools as part of a daily flag-salute ritual. Congress added the words “under God” to the Pledge in 1954, again as a reaction to the fight against communism.
In short, the Founders had nothing to do with these religious mottos or their adoption.
Myth Six: Thanks to separation of church and state, kids can’t pray in public schools.
The U.S. Supreme Court in 1962 and 1963 banned programs of government-sponsored, compulsory prayer and Bible reading in public schools. The high court did not invalidate truly voluntary prayer and hasn’t done so since then.
It’s important to realize what was going on in many public schools prior to these rulings: Children were forced to take part in daily religious rituals. In New York, a state body known as the Board of Regents drafted an official prayer and urged local school districts to adopt it. In Pennsylvania, a law required that the school day begin with readings from the “Holy Bible” – generally interpreted to mean the King James Version.
These practices were not voluntary; they were imposed on everyone – Christian and non-Christian. Thus, they amounted to a significant violation of parental rights.
Young people in public schools today may pray and read religious books in a non-disruptive way – but the choice is now theirs. No students can be compelled to take part in religious worship in a public school or singled out for refusing to do so.
Public school students can engage in a variety of voluntary religious activities. Most secondary schools must abide by the federal Equal Access Act. This legislation allows students to form and run a variety of clubs that meet during “non-instructional” time. Some of these clubs are religious in nature. All are voluntary; no one has to attend.
In addition, the Supreme Court has made it clear that public schools can teach about religion in an objective manner. Religion can be discussed in classes like history, art, literature and others. The Bible and other religious texts can even be read as part of a comparative religion course. As long as the approach has legitimate educational goals, public school officials will not get into trouble for teaching about religion.
To sum up, there is plenty of room for religion in public schools, but it must be voluntarily chosen.
Myth Seven: Separation of church and state fosters secularism, which drains religion of its vitality.
Official government secularism is not the enemy of faith; it is the defender of it. A secular state is one that is neutral on matters of theology. An official policy of government neutrality toward religion is a positive thing for faith communities.
Think of government secularism as a platform. The principles of religious freedom and the right of conscience rest on that platform. Because the government has no official theology, all faiths on the platform are free to spread their doctrines and seek adherents among the population. They do so vigorously, but they must rely on private channels, not government assistance, to spread their doctrines.
The United States is a perfect example of how an official doctrine of secularism helps religion. In this country, the government long ago adopted a hands-off attitude toward religion. As a result, hundreds (if not thousands) of specific faith groups have sprung up on our shores. Religious groups remain vital, and most Americans claim a religious affiliation.
Other Western nations have either established churches or some form of government aid to religion. Ironically, it is in these nations where religion is withering away. It would seem that the official tie between church and state and the rejection of secularism as a legal principle sap faith of its vitality. In the end, religion becomes a mere creature of the state and a tool for promoting whatever policies government leaders decide are appropriate. This is not what people want, and they turn away from religion.
Myth Eight: Separation of church and state means that government must be hostile to religion.
In some countries, houses of worship are shuttered by government mandate, and religious people are persecuted. Nothing like that has occurred in the United States, which operates under the separation of church and state.
The separation principle contains two key parts: The government is to refrain from promoting, sponsoring or advocating for any faith. Yet at the same time, the government is required not to meddle in the internal affairs of religious groups or impose undue regulations and oversight on them. Church-state separation protects religion by placing it beyond the reach of government.
American history is replete with examples of religious groups that used the First Amendment to protect their rights. If the United States had not adopted separation, these groups would have been left unprotected and subjected to state control.
Religious groups in America receive many benefits. They are wholly tax exempt and are often free from the regulatory oversight that is imposed on similarly situated secular groups. They are free to lobby and speak out on political issues. They often receive special exemptions and preferential treatment in secular law. Far from experiencing hostility, the place of religion in this nation where we separate church and state is in many ways exalted.
Myth Nine: Most religious leaders don’t support separation of church and state.
Some of the earliest proponents of separation of church and state were religious leaders. Roger Williams, a Puritan clergyman and the founder of Rhode Island, strongly advocated for separation during the colonial era. Years later, clerics like John Leland and Isaac Backus demanded separation as the best vehicle to protect the right of conscience for all.
In colonial Virginia and elsewhere, clergy from Baptist, Presbyterian and other traditions worked alongside Enlightenment thinkers like Thomas Jefferson and James Madison to secure church-state separation. These religious leaders knew that only separation could protect their faith and enable it to prosper.
In the modern era, many members of the clergy continue this proud tradition of support for church-state separation. Many religious denominations are on record as officially supporting the concept.
A minority of religious leaders disagree. Most of them belong to fundamentalist denominations that seek to use the power of government to control other people and impose their regressive dogma.
Myth Ten: Separation of church and state stifles the public voice and presence of religion.
Anyone who believes this hasn’t been paying attention. The United States operates under separation of church and state, yet religious groups have a loud and robust public voice. They speak out – from the left, right and center – on any number of political issues. As tax-exempt entities, houses of worship are not permitted under federal law to endorse or oppose candidates for public office, but there is nothing to stop them from addressing issues. Many do. Consider just one issue that has been prominent lately: marriage equality. Houses of worship have been vocal on both sides of the debate. Many people have strong opinions about this issue, and religious denominations that oppose same-sex marriage have certainly encountered spirited opposition – but no one has tried to sanction or punish them for their views.
Nor does separation of church and state result in what one foe of the principle called a “naked public square.” It’s true that government may not post or erect religious symbols, but private religious groups are often able to use public space to display them with their own money and on their own time. All that is required is that the government must treat all religious and secular groups equally; if access to public space is extended to one group, it must be extended to all. This is a simple matter of fair play, and it usually results in a vibrant public square full of many symbols, not a naked one.
In a 1787 letter to Madison, Jefferson urged his protégé, “Educate and inform the whole mass of the people….They are the only sure reliance for the preservation of our liberty.”
Jefferson’s words are a reminder that our religious liberty is only as secure as we make it. If the American people don’t understand the origins of the principle and how it has been applied – if they buy into Religious Right mythology instead of historical reality – religious freedom and its corollary, separation of church and state, will be very insecure indeed.