As I read the letters in this opinion section, one thing becomes abundantly clear, most people still do not understand the term “separation of church and state.” First of all, this term is not found in any official document of the United States of America. It comes from a letter that Thomas Jefferson wrote to the Danbury Baptist Association on Jan. 1, 1802. In order to understand the context of this statement, one must understand the history behind, and immediately following, the statement. The following reveals the context of Jefferson’s statement:
Why did the Pilgrims come to America? They came to flee religious persecution from the Church of England. The Church of England was the official church of Great Britain. If you were not a member, you faced persecution. If fact, it was illegal not to attend Church of England services (you could be fined) and you could be thrown in jail and executed for attending an unauthorized service. The Church of England was the officially recognized and established church of Great Britain; it was a state sponsored church. This is the history behind Jefferson’s statement and the founding of our great nation.
The “establishment clause,” which is part of the First Amendment of the Constitution, which Jefferson quoted in his letter, is a source of contention and is used in an attempt to reinforce the misunderstanding of Jefferson’s statement. However, to understand the context of the clause, one must understand the history that is stated above. The key word is “establishment.” Because of the experience with Great Britain, the framers of the Constitution did not want a Church of United States, in other words, a church funded by public funds and “established” as the only official church of the United States. It would be a church which would have laws enacted to protect it by making it illegal not to attend its services or to attend the services another church (Just as it was in Great Britain).
After the Constitution was written, let us look at the history immediately following. If the intent of the writers, our founding fathers, was to exclude Christianity from any public governmental event, those men would have done so back then. They did not. If the intent was to exclude the Holy Bible, then our founding fathers would not have quoted it so freely, and we would not find scripture engraved on so many buildings in Washington D.C. If the intent was not to have Christian prayer at official governmental events and functions, then our founding fathers would not have established the position of the Senate Chaplain, a Christian position by the way. This was the practice before Jefferson wrote his letter and was the practice afterwards. This is the history following Jefferson’s statement and the founding of our great nation.
Conclusion. The “separation of church and state” and the “establishment clause” do not mean the separation of Christianity and state. It is to ensure that there is not a Church of the United States that has the power, legal protection, and laws enforcing compliance that the Church of England had. This country has no laws forcing attendance of a particular church, nor does it have laws that enforce particular religious tenets, i.e. baptism, communion or prayer. When there is public prayer at a government function, a person is not thrown in jail, or fined, because they do not participate. The Constitution is working as intended.
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I am so glad to see that somebody else around here understands the true meaning of “separation of church and state” and its context. There for a long time I thought I was the only one. I hear people misquote and misuse the term all the time and it makes me want to pull my hair out. Most of these people are on TV and are supposedly educated people. A lot of people posting comments here and on local newspaper websites do the same thing.
Thank you for explaining it to the ones that thought it meant we have to have a total lack of religion or a total abstinence of the word God or Jesus in public.
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Mr. Harwood and Mr. Smith,
As a Christian, I have heard that explanation in church and Bible college many times, and although legal scholars and historians may have differing opinions on the matter, maybe it's correct. I don't know for sure. One thing I do know is that Thomas Jefferson re-edited the Bible, because as a Deist and Enlightenment figure, he didn't believe in miracles. In fact, many of the founding fathers who seem to be Christians were actually Deists as well, as Deists praised Christianity's moral influence, and therefore quoted it often in their writings. That being said, I'm guessing you both would disagree with me, so for now, let's assume you're correct and I'm not about that.
Here's the problem. The founding fathers gave birth to a democratic Constitutional Republic in which every white man was equal (women and black people were excluded) and free. And as time passed, that notion of equality and freedom was expanded to include every American citizen, no matter the gender, color, ethnicity or religion. I'm sure all of us, you two included, are in full support of that. But if we really believe that, then American Jews, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Catholics, Sikhs, etc. have all the same rights as we Protestant Christians do. That's the system our country's leaders created. If Christians don't want to bow to Mecca before a meeting or event, then we have no right to make an American Muslim close their eyes in prayer to our Lord Jesus. We have no more important place in the life of our nation than a Jew does.
Here's another point. Just because the founders said we get our American rights from God doesn't make it true. That idea is not found in Scripture. In fact, the Bible doesn't talk about any "rights" at all. So it may be a nice notion, but it's not a Biblical one. Our rights as Americans come to us only by the Constitution. Jesus lived in a time when Israel was occupied by Rome, and he told His followers to render unto Caesar that which is Caesars. In many places around the world, many times in history, Christianity was persecuted. It's nice that we are not persecuted here in America (I would not consider a Ten Commandments statue removed from a public courthouse nor anything like that real persecution), but why would we then want to try to have more rights than those of other religions? We know from history that all persecution does is strengthen people and their beliefs, as it did so many Christian martyrs, and I'm sure that's not what Christians who believe they have more rights really want to do. Whenever we demand our rights, wave signs in angry protest or try to assert notions that we have the more important faith in America, all it does is make us look like spoiled, haughty and entitled children, and I believe that grieves God.
I believe that politically active Christians today need to think about these things, and stop trying to rule over the country, or Christianize it, and instead live quiet lives of humble service to Christ and to love everyone around us, no matter their religion. That is what the Bible and our Lord calls us to do. And if real persecution ever comes to us, which I doubt, the Bible actually calls us to be thankful, not to wave signs in protest. I wish the politically active American Evangelical church would stop endorsing the Republican party (or any party), reset its goals as Americans according to the two greatest commandments, and focus instead of mirroring Christ to those around us, not forcing non-Christians to submit to our beliefs.
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The reason the phrase "Separation of Church and State" is so trumpeted by the anti-religious factions is because it can be twisted into something that fits their anti-religious agenda.
But you will never ever ever hear the anti-religious groups quote directly from the First Amendment. That's because the actual wording of the "establishment clause" does not give them a leg to stand on. The actual words in the First Amendment to the Constitution read:
"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof."
In light of the controversy over prayer preceding ball games and graduation ceremonies and the singing of religious-based Christmas Carols in school programs, I have to ask the question: Are these activities legislated as mandatory by acts of Congress? No? Then they are not unconstitutional.
In fact, if they are not mandated by acts of Congress, then the prohibition of them is actually unconstitutional. It is actually unconstitutional for the government to stop these free expressions of religious practices.
You will also not find any wording in the Constitution that addresses "Endorsing." Endorsement must be pro-active. Passive endorsement is subjective. Example: If you treat a gay colleague just like every one else... are you endorsing the homosexual lifestyle? In like manner, acquiescence to prayer on public property does not constitute endorsement.
This is why you will never hear the Freedom From Religion Foundation quote the First Amendment.
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I love history and Mr. Harwood gave an excellant short history lesson on the "Meaning of Separation of Church and State." And let's remember that the time of this "meaning" was in the mid to late 1700's, not 2012. Have you ever heard the saying, "when I ask you what time it is, don't tell me how to build a watch." And after reading your opinion/response, I realized that after the first paragraph it had totally nothing to do with Mark's statement (except for maybe the first sentence).
I am also a Christian and realize thru history that the United States of America was founded as a God fearing nation, like it or not. So if you would please re-read the last two paragraph's in Mark's statement several times, it becomes pretty clear that "The Constitution" is, as he says, indeed working.
And Mark, once again, great history lesson.
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First, the Thomas Jefferson Bible was created not as a "revised" version of the bible, but because Jefferson was asked in his revered old age to pick those passages that meant the most to him over the years. His clipped verses did just that. Anyone who reads the bible will always gravitate to specific passages that speak to them for personal reasons above other verses. And typically, those passages don't refer to the "miracles," but to specific words of inspiration that serve us during troubled or other times in our lives. Jefferson's bible was just that--and nothing else.
Second, if, as you say, the Founding Fathers were Deists, which is another case of revisionist history in itself, then you are left to explain why the first act of the newly-elected representatives of this country was to create via the new U.S. Constitution the U.S. Office of the Chaplain of the House and the Senate, positions that have existed in this nation since 1789. You might want to go to the website and review the extensive history there.
You also noted that, "Just because the founders said we get our American rights from God doesn't make it true. That idea is not found in Scripture." In fact, it is. Romans Chapter 13. "Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God; the powers that be are ordained of God. Whatsoever therefore resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God; and they that resist shall receive to themselves damnation. For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to the evil. Wilt thou then not be afraid of the power? do that which is good, and thou shalt have praise of the same."
We must be diligent that we do not promote a form of revisionist history that does not recognize or respect the intent of our Founding Fathers for this nation.