It must rank as the most misused phrase by atheists, the ACLU and left-leaning liberals — whether they call themselves Christians or not. It even rolls off the tongues of well-intentioned middle-of-the-roaders. But I wonder how many of them actually know how it came into being?
The phrase is, “the separation of church and state,” with its companion assertion that it’s in the Constitution.
Let’s establish from the get-go that there is no such phrase anywhere in the Constitution. The Bill of Rights, part of the First Amendment, states simply that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…” Read it carefully; it is a simple sentence prohibiting Congress from creating a state church or preventing — without any exceptions — the right of any citizens to practice their religious faith.
In October of 1801, the Danbury Baptist Association wrote a letter to President Thomas Jefferson expressing its concerns that there could be efforts to establish a state religion. Because they were a minority in Connecticut, they were concerned that they would effectively be ostracized. The president assured them that there would always be a “wall” separating the government from ecclesiastical affairs and there would not be a state church. It’s because of the Baptists’ legitimate concern that we have the “separation” phrase. It wasn’t about keeping religion out of the public square or even public buildings.
Recent analysis of the actual handwritten draft of Jefferson’s letter, which includes his inked-out words and other editorial changes, make it clear he was addressing two issues. The first was Baptists’ concern that the federal government would become involved in the church; the second, and more difficult to discern, was Jefferson’s wish to keep the government from endorsing or actively supporting a specific religion or religious practices — something this writer agrees with.
Despite Supreme Court decisions in the last 60 or so years, it’s doubtful Mr. Jefferson would approve of how anti-religious, specifically anti-Christian zealots, have applied his phrase to the prohibition of such activities as a voluntary after-school Bible study club meeting in a high school.