The True History of American Church/State Separation October 26, 2010

The True History of American Church/State Separation

Think you know the history of separation of church and state?

Smithsonian Magazine has an interesting article on the subject by Kenneth C. Davis — he argues that our knowledge of that doctrine contains a lot more myth than we think:

From the earliest arrival of Europeans on America’s shores, religion has often been a cudgel, used to discriminate, suppress and even kill the foreign, the “heretic” and the “unbeliever” — including the “heathen” natives already here. Moreover, while it is true that the vast majority of early-generation Americans were Christian, the pitched battles between various Protestant sects and, more explosively, between Protestants and Catholics, present an unavoidable contradiction to the widely held notion that America is a “Christian nation.”

I think atheists who have studied the subject probably know quite a bit of what Davis mentioned. As a non-history-buff myself, most of that was familiar even to me.

Still, it’s always good to reaffirm the notion that church/state separation is an idea that benefits both sides. When the wall is torn down, we’re all worse off.

(Thanks to Margy for the link!)

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  • Sean

    People think of freedom of religion and freedom of speech as being among the “inalienable rights” that the Constitution has always protected.

    While that’s partially true, everyone seems to forget that until the First Amendment was incorporated in the 20th century, you didn’t have a constitutional right to freedom of religion in many states.

    So there’s this whole mythos about freedom of religion that wasn’t even legally valid, much less socially relevant, for a lot of the space and time of American history. It always baffles me. It’s the “activist judges” of the 20th that really secured First Amendment rights on the state and local levels.

  • Sean

    (Also, yes, I am aware that “inalienable rights” is not in the Constitution, but I was paraphrasing the thoughts of certain commentators who can’t seem to tell the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution apart)

  • LeAnne

    proof that america is not a christian nation:

    what religion were the natives?

  • Hitch

    Well Jefferson used the phrase in a letter to the Dansbury Baptists. As a religious minority they had the distinct feel that the majority legislation granted their existence as a curtesy rather than it being a right.

    The phrase separation between church and state was used exactly to describe the notion that the religious notion of the majority should not crush those of any minority through the state.

    This was precisely to protect one belief system from another via state enforcement.

    Jefferson’s and Madison’s brilliance in understanding the critical nature of this also is part reason why the first amendment is so clearly phrased, and why the prohibition of religious texts for office already appear in the main body of the constitution.

    The trouble is of course that certain Christians actually do not want the state to stay neutral, but take their side. And this happens through all sorts of means, including but not limited to the meme that “America is a christian nation”, which goes exactly counter to the treaty of tripoli which explicitly says that it is not!

    But historic truth does not matter, why Jefferson has been removed from Texas social studies textbooks as core influences on the formation of the US nation. I don’t think there can by any more stark revision of history, but that’s how powerful the “moral majority” is in pushing untruths.

  • Luther


    You may be the one forgetting your history:

    While that’s partially true, everyone seems to forget that until the First Amendment was incorporated in the 20th century, you didn’t have a constitutional right to freedom of religion in many states.

    According to Wikipidia: “submitted to the states for ratification on September 25, 1789 and adopted on December 15, 1791.”

    I was not there but, from my understanding that is about the correct time for the Bill of Rights.

  • Jeff

    Even from a religious perspective, we’re more a history of cults and dissident religous sects. They were often authoritarian assholes, but nonetheless, the whole point is that our history is based in the sheer variety of religion; as we move forward in time, non-Christian religions have become more and more prevalent, and so Christian privilege and bias in government workings becomes more and more obvious. So even if we could be seen as an originally “Christian” nation, most of those versions of Christianity didn’t see each other as Christian, and to assign any overarching religious bent to our founding is revisionist, even if many of the founding fathers thought that god in some form was necessary for an moral nation. What it comes down to is that government needs to be religiously neutral- never mind “secular”- and must not legislate religious mores onto a populous that may or may not follow the associated religion.

  • Joshua W.

    I have been digging into this issue quite a bit lately due to an ongoing, I’ll say discussion to be nice, with some tea party people on Facebook. It seems that a lot of people felt that the First Amendment had the potential to actually abolish religion altogether. The Danbury Baptists wrote to Jefferson expressing their concern, and of course he replied with what became a fairly famous letter.

    Whatever you do, never mention the Treaty of Tripoli to a tea partier. They consider that to be the most misrepresented document in history.

  • Sean


    You are referring to ratification of the Bill of Rights. When the Bill of Rights was ratified it applied only to the federal government (“Congress shall make no law…”).

    Incorporation” is a legal term which refers to the process by which the Bill of Rights was applied to state and local governments through the application of the Fourteenth Amendment (passed a century later). Incorporation was a 20th century phenomenon.

    As a result, although the federal government could not establish a national religion, state governments could (and sometimes did) establish state religions within their own jurisdiction. This was perfectly legal until incorporation occurred.

    It is in part for this reason that many of the religious conflicts mentioned in that article occurred. My point was that the United States, despite being secular on the national level, has had individual Christian states (and that didn’t go very well).

  • muggle

    Great point, Jeff!

    What irks me is when pressed for examples, they’ll use people like the Puritans who predated the United States, quite conveniently overlooking the fact that while their fleeing England and settling the colonies here eventually led to the Revolutionary War, they did not form this country.

    Regardless, the Constitution still provides for religious freedom and makes this a secular nation, not a Christian one.

  • Nordog


    Would it be fair to say that the Constitution makes this a pluralistic nation, with a secular government?

  • Jeff

    @Nordog,I like that distinction.

  • Ben

    LeAnn >> proof that america is not a christian nation: what religion were the Native Americans?

    LeAnn, you’re a genius! I’ve been looking for hte perfect rejoinder to the pompous and predictably uninformed ass that spits at me, “American is a Christian nation.”

    To which I will now reply: “No it isn’t. It was a collective of nations with a very rich religious heritage of their own – until the Xians beat them into spiritual submission, like they have done in so many counties before this one.

  • muggle

    Um, yeah, Nordog, it would. I’ll again agree with Jeff and say that’s a nice distinction too. And add that it’s what makes this country great.

    But, er, I’m trying to understand why you’re pointing it out as if I’m advocating anything else. I hope you didn’t misunderstand me as being anti-theist. I’m ardently anti anti-theism. I’m more than willing to live and let live any theist who shows me the same respect.

    The theists who want to use the government to express and/or enforce their religion for them are doing anything but. Absence of a statement either way is not opposing religion; it’s just not promoting it. Opposing it would be just as wrong. To put one nation without god in the pledge or on the money would be as wrong as the current situation. Commentary either way should be left the fuck off.

    Or better yet, restore e pluribus unum and promote togetherness as a nation. We’ve had too much diviseness already.

  • Erp

    Unfortunately Native Americans were generally not included in the new nation. The tribes were considered separate nations with which the US could make treaties and Native Americans in those tribes (‘Indians not taxed’ in the words of the US Constitution) were not counted when allocating representation. Native Americans born in the US were not automatically considered citizens until 1924 (you were either a citizen of the US or a member of a tribe but not both [you could be neither]). Even then many could not legally vote until 1948.

  • jono

    PBS did a fantastic documentary a few weeks back about the history of god and religion in America from the 1600s to today. I found it to be extremely enlightening as I was not fully aware of the true history of the Puritans, the feuding protestant factions, etc. You can view the full 6 hour, 6 part series here:

    God in America by PBS

    Obviously, the comment section on that page is full of tripe, but the series is quite well done.

  • Robert

    Very interesting article but from my reading it doesn’t support the conclusion that this was not a “Christian nation”. It shows a fight between Christians who founded this country but it certainly doesn’t show that it wasn’t a Christian nation.

    The conclusion that because Christians who founded this country from the time of the pilgrims on forward (or even the Catholics in Florida before them)ultimately set up a religiously tolerant government which allowed for religious freedom to be practiced and promoted free from the dictate of the government means that this nation is not a “Christian nation” is a stretch and not supported by the evidence.

  • Nordog

    “But, er, I’m trying to understand why you’re pointing it out as if I’m advocating anything else.”

    I didn’t think you were advocating anything else. It’s just that many people (myself included) often speak of “nation” when they mean “government”. I tend to think that the nation is far more than the government.

    In other words, I was just trying to put a finer point on your distinction. No other implications implied.

  • JD

    I’d be more interested in what the Framers as individuals believed, say take all the signers of the constitution and itemize what they felt about religion and government. Sure, Jefferson was a major influence, but I’d like to know who really were deists and when.

  • muggle

    Oh, OK, nordog. Gotcha. I was thinking of the pledge so I used that terminology. Not sure if I would have nor not otherwise. It’s very easy to not make that distinction, especially since one has a tendency when referencing government to think of the government that rules their nation.

    Thanks for the link, jono. I missed that series.

  • Robert W.


    Here is a link that answers your question:

    Everyone of them a Christian.

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