There is No American Tradition of Separation of Church and State

Mississippi is adding the words “In God We Trust” to its license plate, and that has sparked some interesting debate. Much of that debate focused on an idea we have come to accept as gospel: that we have an American tradition of separating religion and politics. We do not. We have been misinformed and misled by generations of public policy, education, and media leaders on the so-called “separation of church and state.” The concept has been so pervasive that we generally accept the idea that it is inappropriate to bring any faith-based ideas to the public square. The idea that we should separate religion — of any faith or denomination — from politics is not only false, it is virtually impossible.

The arguments in favor of this separation arise from Thomas Jefferson’s 1802 letter to the Baptist Association of Danbury, Connecticut, in which he used the phrase. However, that letter, and the metaphor, have been granted meaning that Jefferson never intended. With proper historical context and examination, it is clear that Jefferson, a major proponent of religious liberty, never envisioned anything like today’s interpretation. If anything, Jefferson’s metaphorical wall was meant to keep the state from violating the individual liberty of religious conscience. Washington and Lee University’s Sam Calhoun, Professor of Law and Associate Dean, put it this way: “[Jefferson’s] wall was meant to insulate religious belief and practices from legislative interference, not to separate religion from politics.”

In the 1947 case Everson vs. Board of Education, Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black wrote, “The establishment of religion clause of the First Amendment means at least this: Neither 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.” The late Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist agreed with Justice Black. Rehnquist believed the Establishment Clause was only meant to prevent the establishment of a national church and the state giving preference to one religious group over another. It was not intended to exclude faith-based ideas from political discourse.  In America, these ideas can be informed by any faith and any denomination, or by no faith at all. What we must reject is the Faustian idea that any public policy ideas that come from a faith-based perspective are invalid.

If we think about the public policy arguments that have made the biggest difference in improving our society and promoting individual liberty, freedom, and opportunity, we find religion and faith-based reasoning. Jefferson, Hamilton, Lincoln, Martin Luther King, and many others who opposed slavery made faith-based appeals on that issue. It is absurd to think that we should restrict our views of what is right and wrong to the private sphere only. In fact, we should question the motives of anyone who wants to dismiss another’s public policy ideas simply because those ideas are informed by a faith.

Yes, I’m a conservative. Well, actually, I’m a “conservatarian,” but more on that at a later date. Yes, I’m a Christian. No, I don’t want the government to endorse my ideas simply because some of them may be informed by faith. My argument is not that government should support a religion. In fact, it is the opposite. We need a more limited government. We need a government that is less intrusive in all matters. We should stop petitioning the government to solve most of our problems — including ones better solved by private institutions and free markets. The more we ask of government, the less freedom we have.

What I seek is government more in line with what Jefferson intended when he wrote about the wall of separation. He was intending to protect us from the state’s involvement in religion. He was not trying to prevent us from expressing religious views in public policy. In America, and in Mississippi, we must be open to diverse points of view, even to views with which we disagree. In that great tradition, we therefore must not dismiss views influenced by religion under the false notion that we are committed to a separation of church and state. We are not, at least not the way you think.

Jon L. Pritchett is president and CEO of the Mississippi Center for Public Policy, the state’s non-partisan, free-market think tank.


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