February 2019 Church & State Magazine | Editorial

There has been a lot of talk about walls lately. Some Americans support President Donald Trump’s plan to erect a barrier at the Southern border, and others do not. While that debate rages on, we are concerned about another wall, a metaphorical one, the importance of which can’t be denied – the wall of separation between church and state.

Even as he pursues construction of a border wall, Trump, in cahoots with his Religious Right allies, is hard at work tearing down the church-state wall. His actions could not be more misguided.

Trump seeks to undo hundreds of years of history. Colonial-era religious-liberty pioneer Roger Williams first invoked the idea of a “hedge or wall of Separation between the Garden of the Church and the Wilderness of the world.”

More than 150 years later, Thomas Jefferson crafted the metaphor of the First Amendment creating a “wall of separation between church and state” in his famous letter to the Danbury, Conn., Baptist Association. There is no evidence that Jefferson knew of Williams’ writings, but their parallel thinking is striking. Both men were committed to religious freedom and knew that only a distance between church and state could protect that principle.

The U.S. Supreme Court in 1879 endorsed Jefferson’s metaphor. Noting the key role Jefferson played in securing religious freedom in Virginia, the court observed that his metaphor “may be accepted almost as an authoritative declaration of the scope and effect of the amendment thus secured.”

In 1947’s Everson v. Board of Education, the high court called for a high and firm church-state wall, ruling, “[N]either a state nor the Federal Government can set up a church. Neither can pass laws which aid one religion, aid all religions, or prefer one religion over another. Neither can force nor influence a person to go to or to remain away from church against his will or force him to profess a belief or disbelief in any religion. No person can be punished for entertaining or professing religious beliefs or disbeliefs, for church attendance or non-attendance. No tax in any amount, large or small, can be levied to support any religious activities or institutions, whatever they may be called, or whatever form they may adopt to teach or practice religion. Neither a state nor the Federal Government can, openly or secretly, participate in the affairs of any religious organizations or groups, and vice versa. In the words of Jefferson, the clause against establishment of religion by law was intended to erect ‘a wall of separation between church and State.’” (Emphasis ours.)

Jefferson’s friend and ally James Madison, while he did not employ the “wall” metaphor, was a strong supporter of church-state separation. Madison, a primary author of the First Amendment and the “father of the Constitution,” once observed that in Virginia, the “total separation of the Church from the State” had been a great boon to both institutions. As president, Madison strictly observed church-state separation, never deviating from the principle.

Some modern-day commentators believe they know more than Jefferson and Madison. These critics share one thing in common: They haven’t been able to make a convincing case why lowering or removing the wall would be beneficial to American society. Some have asserted that the government has a duty to “help” religion. Yet religion has prospered in our nation thanks to, not in spite of, the support it gets from purely voluntary channels.

[Critics] haven’t been able to make a convincing case why lowering or removing the [church-state] wall would be beneficial to American society. Some have asserted that the government has a duty to 'help' religion. Yet religion has prospered in our nation thanks to, not in spite of, the support it gets from purely voluntary channels.

Others have argued that the government should enforce a particular version of morality and personal behavior. Conveniently, it’s always one aligned with their theology. Western societies tried that before for about a thousand years. It spawned oppression, violence and war.

Still others maintain that government should embrace religion as a kind of powerful totem by erecting its symbols and language. Even if this were possible in a multi-faith, multi-philosophy nation, how does it benefit religion to be reduced to the status of a prop for state power or converted into an instrument for ceremony?

The wall invoked by Williams, Jefferson and (indirectly) Madison is not old-fashioned. It is not a relic from the past. Rather, it was the creation of a band of bold thinkers who dared to imagine an America that could exist – and did, indeed, come to fruition.

As our nation’s religious and philosophical diversity expands, we’re going to need that wall more than ever. It’s the only way we can all live side by side in peace.

Not one brick should be eroded.

As our nation’s religious and philosophical diversity expands, we’re going to need that wall more than ever. It’s the only way we can all live side by side in peace. Not one brick should be eroded.