By Jonathan Engel

The United States is awash in arguments over the separation of church and state. From access to birth control to the case of recalcitrant Kentucky County Clerk Kim Davis; from displays of the Ten Commandments in public buildings to police departments placing “In God We Trust” on their patrol cars, the arguments rage on and on, too numerous and too depressing to restate in their entirety here.

The arguments over whether church and state must be kept separate frequently rely on dueling quotes from the Founding Fathers. “James Madison said this” versus “George Washington said that” ad infinitum.

I have done a lot of research on the topic, and I definitely believe that it was the intention of the framers of the Constitution (in particular Madison, the document’s primary draftsman) to keep church and state separate. But I also think that this discussion misses an important point: Separating church and state is a good idea for right now, regardless of the intent of the country’s founders.

Whether church and state should be kept separate was a contentious issue at the time the Constitution was drafted. Some people thought it essential to the country’s democracy to do so; others disagreed. In light of this, it’s not surprising that those on opposite sides of the argument today can find ample support for their respective positions by cherry-picking selective quotes from various founders. 

We also need to keep in mind that these gentlemen were politicians; at times they sent different messages to different audiences to advance their personal political agendas, and, yes, also to advance their personal ambitions, just like today’s politicians. They were human beings with all the failings and foibles of human beings.

The United States is much more pluralistic today than at any time in its past. This applies particularly to religion. At the time of the country’s founding, there were very few Hindus, Buddhists or Muslims living in this country. Today there are approximately 2.9 million Muslims, 2.3 million Buddhists and 2.3 million Hindus. There are also 6.1 million Jews, and a recent poll from the Pew Research Center shows that “none of the above” is the fastest growing religious designation in the country.

As our nation continues to grow and diversify, separating church and state becomes more important than ever. It is a good idea because it protects everyone, all of the time, from religious persecution.

People who think of themselves as being in the majority don’t always see the wisdom of separating church and state. Some are happy to have the government embrace a church, because they assume that the favored religion will always be their own. But of course it doesn’t always work out that way.

Once a change in demographics has taken place, it’s a little late to start arguing for the separation of church and state if you were against that principle when your religion was in the majority. So if nothing else, a little enlightened self-interest would (hopefully) persuade people that church and state should be kept separate, if for no other reason than to act as a safeguard from persecution when people find themselves in the minority.

More and more this country is desperate for institutions that bring all of us together, as opposed to those that rend the social fabric – which is why I find particularly cringe-worthy the assertion that the United States is a “Christian nation.”

I am ethnically/culturally Jewish, and I was raised in the Jewish religion, although for the most part I no longer practice it. When people say that this is a “Christian country,” they are saying that it does not belong to me, certainly not to the same extent that it belongs to them.

And I say to hell with that! My family and I are just as American as anyone else. My family has helped to make our community a better place, but if this is a “Christian nation,” then we are just outsiders who can stay here only as long as the Christian majority “tolerates” us, and the same is true of all Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists and non-believers.

This state of affairs doesn’t bring us together as a people, it rips us apart. This is why the separation of church and state is such a great idea for our country, in the here and now. It gives everyone the right to worship (or not) as they see fit, while the government focuses on secular issues that favor no particular form of belief over any other.

When government stays out of the religion business, we can all feel that the government, and by extension the country, exists for us all, and we are all equal in its eyes. No one is favored and no one is disfavored. We are all Americans, period. This is a great idea, regardless of who thought of it or when.                                        


Jonathan Engel is an attorney in New York City. His father, Steven Eng­el, was lead plain­tiff in the landmark 1962 school pray­er case Engel v. Vitale. 

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