Church-State Separation: The Importance of Secular Governance

The term Separation of Church and State has been used often in America. This is separation of church and state essay where this topic is discussed. The main author of this concept was Thomas Jefferson, in his response back to the Danbury Baptist he said that it was apart of their natural rights to worship any God they chose. In the year of 1802 Danbury Baptists were being persecuted by the Anglican Establishment, aware of Jefferson’s opinions on the freedom of religion they wrote him a letter pleading for a stop to these laws permitting their execution. It was from this event where Jefferson crafted the idea which would influence the creation of the first amendment “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof;”.They wanted to get rid of the idea that the US Government was ingrained with religious influences like that of England.

Furthermore our Founders used Separation of Church and State to avoid ongoing religious battle taking place in England. There was constant turmoil when many people who held opposing religions fell martyrs during a Catholic or Protestant king’s reign. This was the reason many Puritans fled to the New World, in order to escape religious persecution. The Separation of Church and State was meant to diminish the fact that the government had an established religion, so that citizens could be free to believe in any religion they chose to without the fear of religious persecution.

To do away with the concept of religion entirely was never the founders intent, as a matter of fact they believed that religion did have a role in society, to help create virtuous citizens. Religion provokes social cohesion through a unified system of beliefs that influence general social norms. Religion helps to maintain control and conformity between people as they tend to place such principles high. However this sense of cohesion can be utterly diminished if any established authority puts one religious sect over others and forces those to adhere to such beliefs against their will. This is why many people express disapproval of the Supreme Court’s use of Separation of Church and State in their holding for Van Orden v Perry (2004) holding that the ten commandments simply having religious content promoting a message did not violate the establishment clause and also was a part of the nations historical meaning. By not removing the ten Commandments from the Texas state capitol building the government did not uphold this wall of separation by separating itself from Protestant religious symbols, as religions would argue over whose doctrines where to get foremost display in monumental buildings.

The political culture of America has changed drastically from the beginning of colonial times into the modern era. In early colonial times many advocated the country as a Christian nation since many believed that America was where God chose to complete the Protestant Reformation.The First Great Awakening known as Enlightenment took place in the early 1700s in Europe, ideas of scientific and philosophical rationale began making its way to the New World. Enlightenment philosophers embraced the notion that humanity could be advanced through rational reasoning and understanding from the use of natural law. John Locke’s contribution was the idea that men are born with the natural rights of “life, liberty and possessions”, a concept which is present in the US Constitution stating that man has the inalienable “right of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”. The right of liberty means that we are free from arbitrary control, thus where the concept of religious liberty in the first amendment stems from.

Following the Enlightenment a Second Great Awakening took place in the mid 17th century known as the “New Birth”. The question over religious authority divided many churches into two groups, the “Old Lights” who opposed the new teaching and the “ New Lights” who supported it. The “New Birth” created the belief that spiritual experience rose above that of acceptance to doctrine, mere bible learning and the teachings of church ministers. This division in turn provoked a revolution which adopted both views, as it encouraged the use of one’s reason in all matters without outside forces having any impact on one’s judgement, instead of succumbing to Standing Order. In turn, this had an impact on the conservation of “self governance” a factor that generated our system of Democracy where citizens are not restricted from having a say in those who presume authority over them. Bishop Hughes Introduction of the “Carroll Hall Ticket” in 1841exemplifies religious liberty as Catholics got involved in politics for the first time. Through this involvement they were able to create parochial schools whose curriculum was based on Catholic principles as opposed to the Protestant Ethic.

Liberal religionists began taking the stance that the comprehension of the New Testament were to be altered to fit the modern era. America’s involvement in the Cold War challenged religious faith as the Manhattan Project- creation of an atomic bomb- made many look towards science as their new God. Public policies began relying on scientists and engineers to win the war instead of prayer and worship from ministers. In the wake of WWII the Supreme Court ruled in Minersville v Gobitis that a state's interest in “national cohesion and unity” were of more importance than religious practice. Justice Stone dissented arguing that “very essence of liberty is the freedom of the individual from compulsion as to what he shall think and what he shall say. The POAU a religious group criticized moral relativism and focused on rooting out governmental aid to fund parochial schools. However in the case of Engel v Vitale the Supreme Court ordered that school prayer be banned. This was an outcome that the PAOU did not expect, their emphasis that religious influences in public schools violated the establishment clause attributed to the replacement of a secular approach to previous anti sectarianism.

The 1970s brought about two new groups the Religious Right and the Religious Left. Rev. Jerry Falwell encouraged the Right movement, they held conservative stances on the bible and encouraged people to take back the moral authority by spreading the word of the gospel. They aimed to use Bible teachings to influence politics and policies, which in turn was adopted by the Republican Party, their use of media was what catapulted their message, from this their influence was able to reshape politics for an entire generation. The Religious Left had a hard time influencing the Democratic Party, they pushed for social justice for groups who were oppressed attributing for their involvement in the Civil Rights Movement. The Left had a hard time swaying Evangelicals, but their influence on politics became noticeable in the presidential election of 2004, which accounted for more than 40 percent of Kerry’s vote. Despite this they have been able to sway the Supreme Court’s decisions on same sex marriage and abortion laws.

Overall the concept of “Separation of Church and State” has been reiterated over the times on its true meaning. The founders did not want to do away with religion, its contribution to society was its ability to create morally virtuous citizens and maintain control and conformity between people. Through the years this wall of separation has created a bridge to secularization as religious organizations campaigned for certain religious liberties to be upheld over the other. This fight over whose liberties are to be upheld without the notion that the government is favoring one religion over the other has forced the Supreme Court to begin making decisions not siding with one over the other but with none at all when in need of national cohesion. However as of recent we can see how the court may be categorizing Protestant religious doctrines as historical doctrines in order to permit their presence in governmental institutions. The wall of separation of Church and State will continue to be at the mercy of the Court’s interpretation. 

10 October 2022
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