July 30, 2006
The First Amendment grants Americans the right to freely exercise their religious preferences and prohibits government establishment of religion. Unique at the time, it's become a model of religious liberty for the world. Recently, however, our interpretation and application of the First Amendment has inspired much debate.
History shows that we've never been consistent in our interpretations and practices. Though most American children no longer pray or read the Bible devotionally in school, we still have congressional and military chaplains and pledge allegiance to “one nation under God.” The words “in God we trust” are imprinted on our currency and Protestantism has long appeared to have a quasi establishment as the national faith. Whatever the nature of the alleged wall of separation between church and state, it appears that the wall is quite porous.
It's true, as many are quick to point out, the Constitution doesn't mention a wall of separation, but, as others rightly point out, Thomas Jefferson's response to the Danbury Baptist Association of Connecticut (January 1802) does speak of such a wall. The Danbury Baptists sought clarification from the president, because they weren't experiencing the promised religious freedoms in Congregationalist dominated New England. Jefferson responded that the First Amendment had erected “a wall of separation between Church and State,” and that “religion is a matter which lies solely between Man and his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, and not opinions.”
While the phrase “wall of separation” doesn't appear in the Constitution, it's clear that Jefferson and others among the founders believed that the First Amendment had erected a barrier of sorts between church and state. Jefferson's close friend, James Madison, was the primary author of the Constitution, and he wrote in his “Memorial and Remonstrance against Religious Assessments,” that each person has the unalienable right to exercise their religion as “conviction and conscience” directs. Regarding the establishment of religion, Madison asked, “Who does not see that the same authority which can establish Christianity, in exclusion of all other Religions, may establish with the same ease any particular sect of Christians, in exclusion of all other Sects?”
Jefferson and Madison assumed that the Constitution created a barrier separating religion and government, but they also believed that both religion and the government would benefit from this wall of separation. History has shown that their understanding of the church-state relationship is correct, no matter how porous the wall has proven to be.
Even with this wall in place, however, religion continues to have a place in the public square. Witness how politicians from Jefferson and Madison and on to George W. Bush have invoked Providence and God in speeches and writings; at the same time, religious leaders from Henry Ward Beecher to Martin Luther King have stood in the public square and have offered a prophetic voice on the issues of the day from the abolition of slavery to civil rights.
Though some believe that Jefferson's wall is impermeable, effectively eliminating every religious voice from public life, this wasn't the intent of the First Amendment. While courts and legislatures will likely continue wrestling with the interpretation of the First Amendment, their rulings neither should inappropriately favor religion nor should they exclude religion from the public sphere.
When we talk about separation of church and state the central issue concerns coercion. Establishment is by its very nature coercive even when accompanied by edicts of toleration. Our problem today is that we're not sure when religion becomes coercive.
The recent fracas at the Air Force Academy, where school officials appear to have inappropriately interjected religion into the life of the school, is illustrative. School sponsored prayers and devotional Bible reading can also be coercive, while a student-sponsored religious club that gathers to read the Quran or the Bible shouldn't be, as long as all religions are treated equally. Other points of contention, like the phrase “under God,” are harder to get a handle on.Ultimately, the key to resolving the debate is learning how to share the public square with dignity, civility, and respect. If we can do this, then we will have lived out the core values of our nation.
Dr. Bob Cornwall is Pastor of First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) of Lompoc (www.lompocdisciples.org).
July 30, 2006