Monday, February 14, 2011

"Separation of Church and State" Revisited


Few could forget Christine O’Donnell’s gaffe in the electoral debates last year. In an exchange with Democrat Chris Coons of Delaware, she and Coons came to blows on the matter of creationism and public schools, with Coons arguing that teaching creationism is not consistent with the separation of church and state. O’Donnell asked, “Where in the Constitution is the separation of church and state?”

The audience of legal scholars and law students that witnessed O’Donnell’s “blunder” gasped, and it appeared to be a painful exchange for O’Donnell. After all, Americans that grew up in the last half-century would need to have lived under a rock to not know that the standard notion of “separation of church and state” is a derivative interpretation of the First Amendment. The audience obviously assumed that O’Donnell has been living under that rock. Or more likely, they thought her a right-wing zealot bent on pushing her religion on others.

But perhaps she meant to point out that our Constitution does not explicitly mandate a total “separation of church and state,” and that this modern interpretation is flawed. And if so, the scoffs of the audience were unjustified. History and the literal verbiage of the First Amendment suggest that she would be absolutely right.

“In Adam’s fall, We sinned all.” Though this is a phrase unfamiliar to many today, two centuries ago, in countless schools across America, legions of children uttered these words in their formative years while reading from the New England Primer. This continued for many years after the Constitution and its First Amendment were penned.

This phrase refers to Adam, the first of men according to Christian dogma. His sin is disobedience to the order of God in consuming the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, and this, according to Christian theology, is the reason for the “mortal sin” that afflicts all of mankind. Thus, the children of our founding fathers, in our nation’s first public schools, were almost universally taught that the reason for our worldly plight is the ancient sin of the first human product of the “Creation” described in the Bible.

This fact alone should give us pause to reconsider the contemporary interpretation of the First Amendment as the “separation of church and state.” After all, why would the New England Primer have been used to nurture literacy and moral values in children of the United States if the First Amendment explicitly mandates that religion is to be barred from all educational institutions associated with the state? If it was such a high priority for the fellows who drafted the guidelines of the Constitution to make sure religion doesn’t penetrate our educational and public institutions, why didn’t they promptly march around the nation and remove books of religious nature from all schools, or tear down any religious maxims from all town halls and political offices?

The very simple answer is that the drafters of the Constitution did not mean to imply the absolute “separation of church and state” in the First Amendment, as contemporary interpretation insists. In fact, the phrase never appears as such in the Constitution. Rather, the First Amendment is a broad statement about personal and religious freedoms, and regarding religion, the actual wording is: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” This, very literally, is meant to describe that the federal government shall not adopt a national religion to influence or oversee policymaking, and that personal religious beliefs and practices shall not be imposed upon by the federal government.

Take historian and academic Thomas E. Woods’ position on the matter. He describes that the First Amendment does not grant power for the federal government to “interfere in the church-state relations decided upon by the states…The amendment clearly says that Congress shall make no law pertaining to religion, not that Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, or Georgia make no law.” Indeed, in early American Massachusetts, for example, state law allowed for public funds to go to the church, but “no one in the early republic considered it a violation of the First Amendment, which was universally understood not to apply to the states.”

But at various points in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the words of the First Amendment regarding religion became twisted by various social dilemmas, most notably the iconic clash between creationism and evolution in the 1925 Scopes trial, which laid the modern foundation for the notion of “separation of church and state.” So as a result, what the founding fathers intended to be a safeguard against a possible American theocracy in the future became a total disassociation between religion and any institution affiliated with the “state.”

Tragically, this evolved misconception that the Constitution mandates a separation of church and state has resulted in the casualties of freedoms that the First Amendment actually intended to secure. In 1962, Engel v. Vitale declared that local school boards could not approve any forms of prayer in school, effectively taking from public school children the right to openly clasp their hands and pray, even if state and local governments should choose to allow it! This is a federal prohibition of their free exercise of their religion, and entirely antithetical to the framers intention for the First Amendment.

The reason for the hard-and-fast segregation between “church and state” in America has nothing to do with an actual implication of the First Amendment. This segregation exists only as a derivative assumption, loosely based upon the First Amendment and the product of semantic sleight-of-hand. And as a result, liberty, as it pertains to religion, is perpetually under attack.

It is absolutely imperative that we revisit the Constitutional merits of the notion, “separation of church and state.” The First Amendment is a crucial foundational principle, but it has been entirely corrupted by generations of PC thugs.

William Sullivan

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