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Three more misguided myths about church-state separation PDF Print E-mail
Written by J. Brent Walker, BJC Executive Director   

brent walkerMy recent article titled “Debunking the Top Five Myths of the Separation of Church and State” was well received. Many of you were kind enough to tell us how much it helped your thinking about the subject, and some of you have republished it in other venues. Actually, of course, there are more than five. Let’s think about a few more.

Click here to read the rest of this column.

Myth No. 6: Our nation’s Founders were born-again, Bible-believing evangelical Christians, or they were Enlightenment rationalists who were dismissive of religion.

Both are wrong as categorical statements. It is dangerous to generalize about our Founders. We cannot speak in monolithic terms. The Founders exhibited many views about religion. Some were orthodox Christians, many were rationalists, others were deists, and maybe an atheist or two thrown in. What’s more, they were complicated, multi-faceted Renaissance men of the 18th century, making generalizations even more difficult. For example, George Washington is often held up as an orthodox Anglican. But he always spoke in terms of the deistic “Providence” instead of a personal God and never wrote a word about Jesus. Washington rarely, if ever, took communion. Thomas Jefferson, on the other hand, is often seen as a consummate skeptic who took a razor blade to edit the Gospels. But Jefferson could speak warmly of Jesus and admired his ethical teachings.

Although most of our Founders came out of the Christian tradition, they were a mixed lot when it came to their religion. They do not fit neatly into our 21st century post-denominational religious categories. But we can say with confidence that they were more committed to ensuring religious liberty than enshrining their own religion.

Myth No. 7: The separation of church and state is a creation of 19th century anti-Catholic bigotry and 20th century secularism.

This is simply not the case. The concept of church-state separation, familiar to Baptists for more than four centuries, preceded the 19th century by a long shot. Even though some may have used it to support reprehensible bigotry against Catholics, many champions of religious liberty — including our Baptist ancestors — insisted on separation to protect religion, all religion, from coercive and corrosive influences of government. Separationists have opposed the Catholic Church when it has sought to tap into the public till to support its parochial schools. But that principled debate on the issues does not support the charge of bigotry.

Some have argued anti-Catholic animus coalesced with 20th century secularism resulting in hostility to religion. This is wrong too. Along with the 18th century Enlightenment rationalists, who wanted separation for political and philosophical reasons, were Baptists, like John Leland and Isaac Backus, who worked for separation for reasons having everything to do with religious liberty. As William Estep so ably told us in his book, “Revolution within the Revolution,” the First Amendment’s protections for religious liberty were adopted because of the support of the so-called “twice born” evangelical dissenters. Moreover, the word “secular” is a good word, not a bad one. Here I am not talking about that anti-religious, often atheistic, critique that would banish religion to the back waters of privatized faith. Rather, I mean the more friendly form of secularism embraced by many people of faith who simply believe that government should be non-religious.

Government should not take sides in matters of religion but be neutral toward religion. We do not need or want a religious government.

Myth No. 8: The religion clauses in the First Amendment apply only to the federal government, not to the states.

It is true the Bill of Rights originally applied only to the federal government, not to states. It was simply a further limitation on the already limited powers delegated to the federal government. State establishments and preferences for religion continued even after 1791. In fact, Massachusetts did not abolish its Congregationalist establishment until 1832.

However, the 14th Amendment changed this. It prevents the states from depriving citizens of due process and equal protection under the law. The U.S. Supreme Court later interpreted these provisions to “incorporate” most of the Bill of Rights and apply them to the states. The Free Exercise Clause was incorporated in 1940 and the Establishment Clause in 1947. Thus, the religion clauses — and therefore the concept of church-state separation — apply to the states as a matter of federal constitutional law.

A related argument has been advanced, notably by Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, that sees the Establishment Clause as a federalism provision. This wrong-headed notion argues that the clause provides little, if any, substantive protection against government advancement of religion; it simply prevents the federal government from interfering with state establishments.  This understanding of the Establishment Clause, taken to its logical conclusion, would permit 50 different state establishments as far as the federal law is concerned. Thankfully, this argument continues to be an outlier, but, unfortunately, it is gaining some strength. My friend Ellis West, University of Richmond professor emeritus, has a new book that should be helpful on this issue titled “The Religion Clauses of the First Amendment: Guarantees of States’ Rights?”

Got some more myths that need debunking? If you do, let me know. And stay tuned.

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