Aviva Directory » Faith & Spirituality » Church & State

The relationship between the church and state is the institutional form of relationship between a nation or state's religious and political factions.

In Christendom, Jesus recognized a division between the two realms of influence when he commanded his followers to render unto Caesar that which is Caesar's, and unto God that which is God's. Throughout the various governments in history, this relationship has taken multiple forms.

The concept of separation of church and state has been adopted, to varying degrees, in several countries. The degree of separation varies from total separation, mandated by a constitution, as is the case in India and Singapore, to the other extreme, which establishes an official state religion and the prohibition of any other religions.

A government in which the church rules the state is known as a theocracy, while one in which the state rules the church is known as Erastianism.

The concept of a separation between religious and political powers originated with Christianity. Prior to the emergence of Christianity, separate religious and political orders were not clearly defined in most societies. People worshipped the gods of whatever state they lived in, and religion was essentially a subsection of the state.

In the United States, separation of church and state has become a mantra cited by people who object to public displays of religious faith or religious reasoning in political matters. They claim that the church and state should never interact meaningfully.

However, the idea of the separation of church and state in the United States originated in a letter written by Thomas Jefferson in 1802. A group of Connecticut Baptists had written to Jefferson to express concern about the potential ability of the new U.S. government to persecute religious groups. Jefferson replied that the government was not allowed to make any law regulating a religious group or religious expression, as outlined in the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. In this letter, he referred to this as "building a wall of separation between Church and State."

The Founding Fathers were concerned with ensuring that the federal government would not infringe on the church's existence and the individual expression of faith. The concept was never intended to set up a system in which the church and the state are in opposition to one another.

Also significant in understanding the establishment of separation in the United States is that the word "religion" in the Founders' First Amendment discussions was often used interchangeably with "denomination." The original version of the First Amendment introduced in the Senate in 1789 stated, "Congress shall not make any law establishing any religious denomination." The second version stated, "Congress shall make no law establishing any particular denomination." The third was similar, declaring that "Congress shall make no law establishing any particular denomination in preference to another." The final version passed on the same day read, "Congress shall make no law establishing religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof."

When the First Amendment was finally approved, it contained two separate clauses on religion. The first clause (Establishment Clause) prohibited the federal government from establishing a single national denomination, while the second clause (Free Exercise Clause) prohibited the federal government from interfering with the people's public religious expressions and acknowledgments. Both clauses restricted the federal government's power; neither restricted citizens' actions.

In understanding this, it helps to realize that several colonies and subsequent states established a specific Christian denomination within their jurisdictions, banning or exerting punishments against all others.

For example, Puritans expelled dissenters from their colonies, and those who returned risked capital punishment. Virginia enacted laws against Quakers, including the death penalty for refractory Quakers. Rhode Island was the first colony founded on the principle of freedom of religion.

Even after the American Revolution, many newly established states had established religions, as the Constitution and its Amendments were viewed as a restriction on the powers of the federal government, not the states. All states had disestablished state religions by 1844, Massachusetts being the last.

The focus of sites listed within this category, or any of its subcategories, will be on the relationships between faith groups and governmental bodies or those that combine religion and politics in any manner. Faith-based political lobbying groups are an example of topics that would be appropriate here, as are secular or anti-religious groups lobbying to lessen the influence of faith in the political sphere.



Feature Article

Separation of Church and State?

separation of church and state

The First Amendment clauses to the United States Constitution provided that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof."

The part of the sentence before the comma is known as the "establishment clause," while the section after the comma is the "free exercise clause." Regardless of subsequent applications, the obvious goal of the religion clauses was to protect against congressional actions. There is no indication, in the language of the Amendment, that the terms were intended to apply to other branches of government, or to the states.

The free exercise clause protected the rights of people to worship whatever god or gods that they pleased, but there is nothing in the language to indicate that this portion of the First Amendment was intended to protect atheists or other non-believers, although they were given limited protection under the First Amendment's free speech, free press, and assembly and petition clauses.

The clear purpose of the establishment clause was to complement the free exercise clause and, as such, was subservient to it. The establishment clause protected the free exercise of religion by barring Congress from establishing a national religion, or otherwise favoring one religion over another. It did not bar the states from doing so; in fact, it prevented Congress from interfering with established churches in those states which had them. This is borne out by the fact that, following the adoption of the Bill of Rights, no action was taken against any of the states that had established churches. State churches were broken up much later, and that was as a result of political pressures within the individual states rather than through an act of the U.S. Congress.

There is nothing in the language of the First Amendment to suggest a "wall of separation between church and state." That language was lifted from a letter written years later by Benjamin Franklin, who was not even in the country when the Bill of Rights was drafted.

During the ratification debates, Anti-Federalists warned that the Administrative branch might enter into a treaty with a foreign state by which a particular religion might be established. Only thirteen years earlier, the terms of King Charles II's 1660 Treaty of Dover, with King Louis XIV of France, had been made public. Under the terms of this treaty, King Charles II was obliged to convert to Catholicism, and to begin the process of establishing the Catholic Church as the official church in England. Even more recently, the Confederation Congress had entered into a treaty with the Netherlands which potentially restricted religious freedom for Americans in Holland, and for the Dutch in America.

Obviously then, the original members of the United States government understood that the religion clauses of the First Amendment were intended to limit the powers of Congress only.

There is also nothing in the language that would seem to prohibit Congress from advancing the cause of religion, so long as they were not favoring one religion over another. In fact, the chief concerns of the authors of the amendment were over the advancement of one Christian sect over another.

The First Congress, which enacted the religion clauses of the amendment, set aside land "for the purposes of religion," and promoted religion, morality, and knowledge in public education. Bible reading was supported in the public schools, a practice that did not become an issue until much later.

An additional point that should be made is that during the debate in the First Congress, James Madison proposed an additional amendment that would be applicable to the states. It read, "No state shall infringe the equal rights of conscience, nor the freedom of speech or of the press, nor of the right of trial by jury in criminal cases."

If it was necessary to prohibit the federal government from infringing on these essential rights, Madison argued, it was equally necessary that they should be secured against the state governments.

Significantly, Madison did not propose that the establishment clause be made applicable to the states. His proposal was adopted by the House, but rejected by the Senate, leaving the entire Bill of Rights solely as limitations against the federal government, where they remained until a later Supreme Court found language in the document that was neither written or intended by its authors.

The scope of the religion clauses are not defined by what Congress views as religious or worthwhile, but what the believer views as his duty toward whichever god or gods he chooses to worship.

As written, and understood in the early years of the nation, the free exercise clause guarantees the widest possible scope for religious activity, and the establishment clause ensures that religious activity was not to be mandated or prohibited by Congress.

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