The history of religion and state in the United States dates back to the puritan times (Corbett and Corbett, 1999). The relationship of the two at the time was so intense that religious matters were indoctrinated in common law in form of theocracy. The Puritan system used both political and religious organizations as the model through which the society would be governed.
However, even in these times, there were exceptions to the church-state connection. According to Flowers (2005), people who advocated for religious freedom in the colonial era were more concerned about the benefits that such separation would have on the church, rather than the effects that it would have on the larger society.
The eight century marked the entrance of pluralism in the American culture, consequently increasing diversity of religion and making it hard for the government to maintain a homogenous religion (Marsden, 1990). According to Flowers (2005), “this brought about the need for stable political decisions, which were not based on religious principles”.
Two colonies (Pennsylvania and Rhode Island) had already proven that it was indeed to establish stable governance without maintain religious uniformity. The presence of many churches made it even harder for the rulers at that time to determine which (if any) would be picked as the state religion. None of the religious groups was powerful or large enough to be given the dominant role in political involvement (Flowers, 2005).
Religious revivalism further contributed to the separation of church and state. Between 1720 and 1742, the Great Awakening revival movement swept across the United States attracting people to open-air meetings to the preaching. According to Flowers(2005), this brought about awareness to people that it was indeed not necessary to continue with the establishment pattern especially if people could attend church services without persuasion from government quotas.
Pietism was another school of thought that perceived Christianity and salvation as an independent individual decision based on a higher power rather than dictates issued by a state controlled church. To such people, liberation that was brought by salvation not only freed them from sin, but from political powers too. This meant that the pietistic could not justify coerced uniformity of religion as provided for by the Establishment.
Rationalism also contributed to the eventual separation of church and state. Rationalists believed that man’s ability to perceive things gave him the ability to understand and devise ethical principles, as well as formulate systems of governance without relying on religion.
To the rationalists, institutions which hindered reason (and religion was one of them) interfered with man’s freedom and creativity thus shackling the minds of people. Theistic rationalists fell in this category, and are believed to be the framers who wrote the American constitution (Flowers, 2005).
In 1784, James Madison using philosophical and rationalistic arguments succeeded in rallying enough support against a tax bill that had been introduced in Virginia’s legislature proposing taxes that would aid religions for purposes of having “a moral society”.
Riding on the success of opposing the taxation bill, James Madison re-introduced the “Bill for establishing religious Freedom”, which had been introduce by Thomas Jefferson earlier in 1779 back into the legislature. This time, the bill was passed. This made Virginia a trailblazer in America’s effort to separate church and state (Flowers, 2005)
In 1791, the adoption of the Bill of Rights, which contained the words, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof” was seen by many Americans as a way of depoliticizing religion.
According to Levy(1994), the bill or Rights and the First amendment’s establishment clause removes religious issues from politics and the ballot box and hence, helps maintain civility between non-believers and believers among the thousands of other people who belong to different denominations, cults and sects.
To the proponents of this kind of separation, this presented a social platform where all Americans, regardless of their religions, would share the same commitment to equalities and liberties for purposes of building a stronger country. Despite this, the same year (1791) saw seven states authorize establishments of religion in law obviously in contravention of the first amendment. Through the years, each of these states has been forced by courts to drop it preferential treatment of religion through various suits.
Regardless of the establishment clause, the fact that the oath of office that the president takes is religion, casts doubt on the real separation of church and state. More to this, the United States still observes religious holidays such as Thanksgiving and Christmas.
Other instances where religion and state are not quite separate include the commencement of congress and Supreme Court sessions, where prayers are said. The pledge of allegiance to the National flag also contains words where Americans invoke God, while the American money contains the phrase “In God we Trust”.
Non-preferentialists are people who believe that the constitution of the United States does not ban the government from providing aid or sponsorship to religious organization or their activities (Levy, 1994). Such people argue that since the first amendment does not specifically ban government from engaging in religious activities, the intention of the constitution framers is not obvious, and is thus open to misinterpretation.
Arguments to this effect state that so long as the state does not treat any religion in a preferential manner as compared to others, then government can avail aid and sponsorship to religion without contravening the first amendment (Levy, 1994).
The debate about separation of church and state revolves around two main areas. 1) Religion and government support (establishment vector) and 2) religious practice and government non interference (free exercise vector) (Corbett and Corbett, 1999).
In the establishment, there are two points of view. The accomodationist’s position is the first one and maintains that the government has a moral responsibility to enact policies that recognize the role of religion in the society (Corbett and Corbett, 1999).
People in this group of thought believe that the country could fair well with an organized religion in place. Their assumptions are based on assumptions that religion may be important in girding democracy since it is beneficial to the human behavior (burger, 1967 cited by Corbett and Corbett, 1999).
The separationists on the other hand believe that religion and state should be separated and the former kept in private realism. People supporting this school of thought says that a religion would undermine democracy, claiming that religion would only serve to divide rather than unite culture (Corbett and Corbett, 1999)
Advantages / disadvantages
The separation of church and state has its own advantages and shortcomings. In the dynamic society that the United States is, there is no denying that religion could be a major problem if merged with state. This is because it would cost Americans their liberalism, and rights as guaranteed in the constitution. According to Hutchinson and Norbrook (2001), “religion is an instrument of social control”.
As such, merging religion and politics, which is also defined as another tool for social control would be disastrous. Allowing the two to exist independent of each other on the other hand would create an ideal situation in a democracy. However, considering the opposing positions that church and science has in matters such as stem-cell research and gay marriages, it is only plausible that church and state operate as separate entities.
In a principle supported by English philosopher John Locke, the state should not have any authority in management of individual conscience. When such is allowed to happen, rational people will no doubt see this as government trying to invade their individual space (Locke and Laslett, 1988). In the social contract theory Locke and Laslett (1988) asserts an individual’s right to conscious liberty, which should be separated from government through law and therefore Church and religious matters are conscious related.
But does the separation of church and state means that secularism has taken precedence over the American society? Locke and — argues that “secularism recognizes and protects religion. However, it ensures that religion is freed from the domains of politics and sectarian dominance.”
Opponents of the separation of church and state, claim that the separation has brought moral decadency in the society. They argue that separating church and state undermines the major source of appeal against corrupt power. This is especially so if the society looses sight of eternal, fixed principles that keeps human beings within the good moral grounds (Hutchinson and Norbrook, 2001)
Because church and religiosity is such a deeply ingrained subject in the American culture, separating the two has not been an easy process. It has taken court cases to help interpret the first amendment in different cases throughout the country. As a result, issues such as prayers in schools, displaying the Ten Commandments in social places or exempting churches from taxes have all been subject to intense debate both in political and social circles.
The secular constitution in the United States gives different religions the freedom to pursue their different faiths without any hindrances. This is provided in the constitution through clauses that forbids states and religions from interfering with each other’s affairs.
Popescu (2003) claim that the constitution framers were wise enough to foresee the dangers that church and state posed to the society if they were allowed to operate together or worse still, interfere with each other’s affairs. To enforce individual liberties, the constitution framers did not pose any restrictions to religion, but rather, they permitted it to thrive freely.
According to Popescu (2003), religion and state are like two separate governments. The state’s main role if to create outward peace in the society by enacting and upholding laws that are good for the general society, while religion has the moral obligation to ensure that the society is free from evil doing. More to this, states appeal to a person’s reasoning abilities, while religion appeals to a person’s conscience.
Court decisions played a major role in separating church and state. Until 1940, there were minimal court cases involving the church and the state (Jelen and Wilcox, 1995; Curry, 1987). In 1940 the Supreme Court in Cantwell v. Connecticut ruled that religious freedoms in the first amendment were protected from infringement by the fourteenth amendment.
The defendants in the case were convicted of violating the constitution through promoting religion in the neighborhood. In justifying the decision, the court argued that though people were free to believe in whatever they wanted, there were regulations to the extent that people should go in order to solicit religious following (Jelen and Wilcox, 1995)
Most recently, the issue of prayer in public schools has elicited sharp debates and three court cases. Wallace v. Jafree in 1985, Lee v. Weisman in 1992 and Santa Fe Independent School district v. Doe.
In the 1985 case, Ishmael Jafree sought a restraining order against the Mobile County in Alabama against “maintaining or allowing regular religious or other forms of religious observance on Mobile County public School”. The parent of three students attending school in the county argued that by forcing students to participate in religious prayers was against the first amendment and the fourteenth amendment of the US constitution (Irons, 1999).
In his suit, the complainant said that the children were being subjected to religious indoctrination every time a teacher asked led the students in class on unison prayers. Further, the defendant claimed that his children, not being Christians or believers in Christian prayers were being subjected to ostracism from fellow students (Irons, 1999). The Supreme Court however ruled in favor of the defendants.
In the 1992 case of Lee v. Weisman, saw Weisman win over Robert lee, a Middle School principal who had invited a Jewish rabbi to say a benediction during the school’s graduation earlier in 1989. Before the graduation, Weisman had moved to court seeking a restraining order against the Rabbi. The court however denied him the order. After the gradation, Weisman followed up the case and won the case after several appeals.
In the ruling, the court said that “it is not in the government’s business to compose official prayers, which could be used by any group of American people.” This decision was reached after it immerged that Lee had given the Rabbi a pamphlet with directives on how to compose prayers for use in civic occasion. According to the courts, the school officials were government employees and therefore under no jurisprudence to do such a thing(Irons, 1999).
The separation of church and state has kept church and government free from each other. In so doing, it has allowed government institutions to remain neutral.
This on the other hand ensures that all citizens, regardless of their religious affiliations access the government services equally and without discrimination. In other words, secularism works best for the United States because it gives equal right to people from major religions, minority religions, and atheists and well as those who have no definite religious affiliations.
Further, the separation of church and state ensures that religion does not meddle in the state affairs and vice versa. By upholding this separation, the constitution protects American’s freedom of belief and conscience. It is agreeable that church plays a vital role in the society, just as the state does.
As such, Popescu (2003) is right in his conclusion that neither church (religion) nor state is complete for the society without the other. As martin Luther said in his definition of religion and state roles, “There are two hands of God at work: the left hand keeps the society harmonious through political institutions, while the right hand gathers Christians together through the gospel” (Luther et al, 2005).
In the true sense of separation ideals, the constitution framers must have had the knowledge that the soul needs to obey what it believes is true (depending on one’s religious affiliations), while the body needed to obey the laws of the land.
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Curry, T. (1987). The First Freedoms: Church and State in America to the Passage of the First Amendment. New Jersey: Oxford University Press US
Flowers, R. B. (2005). That godless court?: Supreme Court decisions on church-state relationships. Edition2, annotated. New York: Westminster John Knox Press, 2005
Hamburger, P. (2002). Separation of church and state. New York: Harvard University Press
Hutchinson, L., and Norbrook, D. (2001) Order and disorder. London: Wiley-Blackwell.
Irons, P. (1999). A people’s History of the Supreme Court. New York: Viking
Jelen, T, G., and Wilcox, C. (1995). Public attitudes toward church and state. Chicago: M.E. Sharpe
Levy, W. L. (1994). The establishment clause: religion and the First Amendment. Chicago: UNC Press
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McWhirter, D. (1994).Separation of Church and State. Ed. New York: Greenwood Publishing Group
Popescu, B. (2003). Church and State: The Symphony of the Two Kingdoms. Student World. Retrieved Feb. 22, 2010 from http://www.koed.hu/sw247/bogdan.pdf