This is the time of year when people reflect on the things they’re thankful for. One of them ought to be America’s fundamental principle of separation of church and state.
We have many reasons to be thankful for our founders’ decision to put distance between religion and government. Here are just five:
- Separation of church and state frees us from the scourge of an officially established church: Established churches play out in two ways: They either become instruments of oppression and terror (think Europe in the Middle Ages or Saudi Arabia, Iran and Afghanistan today) or they devolve into ceremonial entities that are little more than house-trained props for the state. These churches provide a dose of pomp at government ceremonies, but few people actually attend their services (Church of England, anyone?). In recent years, established churches in some northern European nations have agreed to disestablishment as a way to reverse their decline. It is probably too late.
- Separation of church and state promotes pluralism: Conservative evangelicals may not care for religious diversity, but most Americans do. This diversity, which includes thousands of distinct religions as well as varieties of nonbelief, has given us a vibrant society with a rich array of faiths and philosophies. Not only does this safeguard everyone’s rights, but it also makes for a more interesting, thoughtful society.
- Separation of church and state protects your right to believe as you choose: Because the government doesn’t presume to meddle in our religious choices, Americans have the right to align with existing houses of worship, fashion their own belief systems or reject religion entirely. You can explore, you can blend traditions – and you’re always free to change your mind. Your journey may take you to a place that is unique to you, and that’s fine, too. Thomas Jefferson said it best. Asked to explain his religious beliefs, he replied, “I am of a sect by myself, as far as I know.” Millions of Americans are taking that spirit and running with it. Separation of church and state protects them.
- Separation of church and state protects secular public education: Thanks to separation of church and state, coercive, state-sponsored prayers and Bible reading were removed from public schools more than six decades ago. Our public schools, which serve 90% of America’s children, are allowed to objectively teach about religion as an academic subject, but they’re not permitted to sponsor worship activities. This ensures that the schools are welcoming for all and leaves decisions about religion where they belong – with the families. (And yes, we know that some schools continue to meddle in religion in inappropriate ways anyway. But when Americans United finds out about that, we can make them stop – again because of separation of church and state. Learn more about your rights as a student, parent or educator here.)
- Separation of church and state crushes the lies of Christian Nationalism: Christian Nationalism – the claim that the United States was founded to be a Christian nation and therefore Christians (usually white and of a certain type) should have the power to infuse their theology with our laws – is a pernicious lie that is, unfortunately, embraced by millions of Americans. Separation of church and state exposes Christian Nationalism for the malicious, exclusionary and ultimately empty system that it is and provides a freedom-based alternative.
Americans United wishes you all the best this holiday season no matter what, how or if you celebrate. There’s one thing we’re definitely thankful for: You!
Editor’s note: This post originally ran on Nov. 24, 2021. Some links have been updated.