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When the Founding Fathers of the United States drafted the Constitution,
they built a 'wall of separation of church and state' to keep religion from
intruding into the public sphere. This has been the American tradition ever
since. Unfortunately the 'Religious Right' now seeks to breach that wall
and thereby undermine the Constitution."
The above view of our history is now common in public discourse, particularly
beloved of some editorial writers, who lecture a backward citizenry about
the true "American way." In fact, however, no matter how often
the above mantra is repeated, virtually every part of it is untrue.
When the framers of the Constitution adopted the clause "Congress shall
make no law respecting an establishment of religion" they did not explain
what they meant by it. There was almost no discussion of it at the time,
in all likelihood because no one saw a need to clarify its meaning, because
it was merely intended to prevent the Federal government from interfering
with the various states in matters of religion, at a time when some states
still maintained official churches.
Modern separationists invoke the names of James Madison and Thomas Jefferson
to "prove" what the Founding Fathers intended. But Jefferson had
nothing to do with the drafting of the Bill of Rights. Madison did, but
the Religion Clauses were the work of someone else. The hallowed phrase
"wall of separation" does not appear in the Constitution, as some
people seem to think, but in a private letter that Jefferson wrote some
years later. For almost a century afterwards the "wall" metaphor
was largely ignored.
Those who believe the myth of strict separationism find it impossible to
explain why we have military chaplains, prayers in courts and legislatures,
the claim "In God We Trust" on coins, an official Thanksgiving
day, oaths that end "so help me, God," and many other things that
bring religion into the public sphere. The answer is simple even
Madison and Jefferson were not as extreme as the modern separationists and,
for more than 150 years after the Bill of Rights was drafted, few people
agreed with Madison's and Jefferson's separationist philosophy. Even those
two statesmen, while they were in office, accommodated religion in various
ways, and it is quite clear that few of their contemporaries understood
the First Amendment in the ways Madison and Jefferson wanted it understood.
Thus, not surprisingly, until 1948 the Supreme Court never found a violation
of separation of church and state, and on numerous occasions it upheld arrangements
whereby religion received official public support. As late as 1930 the Court
dismissed out of hand a claim that it was unconstitutional for a state to
provide textbooks to students in Catholic schools, just as it had previously
ruled that no institution was "sectarian" if it provided beneficial
services to society, like schools or hospitals.
The Court in 1947-8 made a revolution simply by bold assertion, without
regard for historical or judicial evidence, like a magician turning a bouquet
of flowers into a pigeon in full view of an audience. Some of the leading
constitutional scholars pointed this out at the time, but the new understanding
of the First Amendment quickly became enshrined as definitive, and ever
since separationists have reacted with shock and horror when anyone recalls
how arbitrary these decisions really were.
How and why this happened in 1947-8 is a complicated story, but a key part
of it is the fact that most of the Supreme Court justices who brought about
this revolution, and many of the people who then enshrined it in our national,
lore, frankly regarded traditional religion as outmoded and in some ways
dangerous. They did not really care what the Founding Fathers intended,
or what the real tradition of the country was. They simply believed that
the time had come to marginalize religion. Those who today seek to undo
some of the damage stemming from that fallacy are not undermining the Constitution
but seeking to recover it.
To learn more about this than most readers probably want to know, see my
recent book The Supreme Court and Religion in American Life (Princeton
University Press. Two volumes; see links below.)
Dr. James Hitchcock, professor of history at St. Louis University,
writes and lectures on contemporary Church matters. His column appears in
the diocesan press. He is the author of several books, including The
Recovery of the Sacred, What is Secular Humanism?, and Years of Crisis:
Collected Essays, 1970-1983.
Princeton University Press just published his two-volume history of the
Supreme Court, The Supreme Court and Religion in American Life:
The Odyssey of the Religion Clauses (Vol. 1) and
From "Higher Law" to "Sectarian Scruples"
(Vol. 2). He is also a regular contributor to many Catholic periodicals,
This article originally appeared in January 2005 on the Women
for Faith & Family website. It is reprinted by permission of the author.
Related Resources from Ignatius Press:
The American Catholic Voter: 200 Years of Political Impact by
George J. Marlin
Church and State in Early Christianity by Fr. Hugo Rahner, S.J.
When Conscience and Politics Meet: A Catholic View, edited by
Msgr. Eugene Clark
Catholic World Report
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