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Americans United for Separation of Church and State
Nashville Chapter
PO Box 210005 . Nashville TN 37221


America Invented Separation of Church and State
written by Charles Sumner

The people who came to the New World came for various reasons. Many came for religious freedom. But, for example, fewer than one-half of the people on the Mayflower were Pilgrims. There was not necessarily an uniformity of religion. Even if there had been, people still might have changed their views, and there would not have been an uniformity.

Therefore we take issue with the thesis that this is a Christian nation. Many of the early settlers were Christian and came to America for religious freedom. However, it is not the predominance of a religion which determines this. It is whether the government was set up to favor a religion. True, most of the settlers followed the pattern of Europe by establishing their own brand of religion in the Colonies. It is not to their credit that they did not allow for diversity or individual thought. Religious freedom is more than just freedom for your own group.

Roger Williams was expelled from the Puritan Massachusetts Bay Colony, as were Anne Hutchinson and others, because the predominant religion would not tolerate beliefs contrary to theirs. Roger Williams said "God requireth not an uniformity of religion." He founded a colony where people could worship in their own manner. It contains the oldest synagogue in the United States.

In colonial America some religions were more equal than others. Today the Religious Right follows much the same pattern. It would like to take us back to colonial America. It would like to provide tax funding to religious schools, which would benefit chiefly certain religions. It would like to divert welfare aid to religious groups and not necessarily require that they not use this as a tool for proselyting. It would like Christian prayers to be forced upon impressionable children by an agency of the state. It would like creationism to be taught as if it were science. It would like to write into law some of its beliefs, even if the majority of others, including most Christian denominations, have different beliefs.

The lines of separation between church and state are not always easy to draw. Things are not the same now as they were 200 or 300 years ago. It would take the wisdom of a Solomon to make just decisions about some of the controversies. However, some things are basic to the principle. Anything tending toward establishment of religion is prohibited. Establishment means government aid or favoritism. Separation does not mean that people elected to public office have to leave their beliefs behind. It does mean that they should not use their position of influence to favor religion or any religions.

The "Prayer Decision," Engel v. Vitale, is frequently maligned. The Religious Right says it wants to "restore voluntary prayer." The Supreme Court decision stated that government had no business composing a prayer for students in public schools or directing them to pray. Just because a student could be excused from the prayer does not make it voluntary. The fact that the prayer was innocuous and based on our spiritual heritage did not carry weight with the justices. In fact, many clergy thought that a watered-down, common denominator prayer was an affront to Christianity, and many denominations supported the decision.

In Virginia Patrick Henry, an Anglican, and others attempted to pass a law funding "teachers of the Christian religion." Presbyterians, Baptists, Lutherans, and Quakers found allies in James Madison and Thomas Jefferson, who opposed all religious establishments and were responsible for the Virginia Act for Establishing Religious Freedom. The Supreme Court in Engel said, "By the time of the adoption of the Constitution, our history shows that there was a widespread awareness among many Americans of the dangers of a union of Church and State. These people knew, some from bitter experience, that one of the greatest dangers to the freedom of the individual to worship in his own way lay in the Government's placing its official stamp of approval upon one particular kind of prayer or one particular form of religious service."

Article VI of the Constitution (no religious test for public office) shows the deliberate action by drafters to assure that people of all religions (and none) be treated equally. Providing isolated statements of individuals or of laws which seem to contravene separation of church and state does not prove anything, except maybe that these things were taken out of context to attempt to prove a point.

Drafts of the First Amendment which were rejected demonstrate the meaning of the First Amendment - which is not the same as some of the Religious Right figures would have you believe. An examination of the circumstances surrounding Jefferson's Letter to the Danbury Baptist Association would also lead you realize its intent. Jefferson's own correspondence tells that he intended this letter to help define the matter. He even had it reviewed by the Attorney General prior to its release. Therefore it was no casual penning on the part of Jefferson but a carefully thought out epistle.

Don't swallow the propaganda and distortions put forth by the Religious Right. Any assumption that this country was founded as a Christian nation is a misassumption. Nowhere in the Constitution (the document on which our government is based) is there any indication of this or even any mention of the deity. It is to no avail to argue that some other documents of our history mention God.

The Framers deliberately attempted to avoid the problems of the Old Country where church and state were often intertwined. There is a vast difference between colonies where most inhabitants were of some Christian persuasion or background and the governing document for the new nation. It is not only atheists and humanists who are saying that this is not a Christian nation but many of the major Christian denominations.

Our nation is a nation for all peoples and all religions, for believers and nonbelievers. It is not proper for the government to decide what is the correct religion, nor should government be involved in religion. The Bill of Rights is not subject to the will of the majority. It protects basic rights of the individual.

Separation of church and state is best for the health and freedom of both. It was invented here so we could have the Land of the Free. But you had better defend it, or we may lose some of our freedoms.


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A Critique of David Barton's "America's Godly Heritage"
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