I wrote this essay for a political science course at Seattle University. The essay prompt suggested an exploration of the relationship between church and state, but I managed to squeeze in my theories on the differences between the "church" and "religion." At the date of composition, I had completed exactly two quarters of higher education. Take that as you will.
Oh, and the best part of all of this was that my professor's name was Bond. Dr. James Bond.

Religion, Church, and the State

The centuries-old rhetoric of "Church and State" has degenerated into a cliché that precludes the opposing views from any true grasp of the implications of either term. For an issue so mired in the definition of blurred boundaries and unspecified borders, participants on both sides seem unusually careless; they apply "Church" and State" to inappropriate concepts, or even interchange them with complimentary terms such as "religion" and "government" as if they were synonymous. Unfortunately, they are not; and their misuse is responsible for much of the seemingly irreconcilable controversy over whether America should be, in the words of William O. Douglas, “a religious people, whose institutions presuppose a supreme being.” However, this is hardly surprising; after all, Jefferson himself made the same mistake when discussing his own conception of the importance of religious liberty in the Unites States:

I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should "make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof," thus building a wall of separation between Church and State.1

What mistake Jefferson did make in equating religion with the church? The differences may seem negligibly slight; but in actuality, these terms are not two different names for the same concept, but two complimentary parts of a dependent whole. An analysis of more precise definitions of each term show that the secularist arguments are based largely in the problems of the Church, while it is the moral value of religion that advocates of a Christian state defend. Resolution lies, rather obviously, in the Constitution itself. Government can promote religiosity among the citizenry without establishing a national church, or infringing upon any individual’s right to free exercise.

In declaring the government independent of the Church, the framers of the American Constitution cast off a mode of governance that had existed since the beginnings of the Roman Empire, if not earlier. The history that lies between these ancient roots and ratification of the Constitution of the United States seems uniformly to support their decision. As Jefferson sums up his landmark legislation, the Virginia Statute of Religious Liberty, the entanglement of the Church and State "tends only to corrupt the principles of religion it is meant to encourage, by bribing with a monopoly of worldly honors and emoluments, those who will externally profess and conform to it."2 Although the relationship between Church and State stretches back much further than the Romans, this is the logical start because it is under Roman dominion that Christianity emerges from its feeble beginning to become "the most stable institution in western Europe."3 In his City of God, St. Augustine identifies a Christian society as the only political society in which justice can flourish. In 313 Emperor Constantine's Edict of Milan ended the national Roman policy of persecuting Christianity and adopted it as the religion of the state. Thereafter, the persecution of perceived heresy occupied the attention of the state as successive kingdoms and governments maintained the political supremacy of the Christian Church. As Jefferson pointed out, contrary to St. Augustines thesis, justice rarely seemed to be served under this arrangement whatever form or denomination Christianity took.

The most glaring and obvious examples occur during the First Crusades, which began in 1096. Although church sanctioned (but hopefully not mother approved), most crusaders could hardly be said to be serving justice. In fact, under any sort of rational standards, many of the participants cannot be defined as even being religious. Supposedly in the name of God, "The crusaders slaughtered, robbed, and forcibly converted Jews in the Rhineland and elsewhere." Even more horrifically, "When the crusaders took Jerusalem, they herded the Jews into a synagogue and burned them alive."4 None of these acts suggest a reverence for any sort of Supreme Being in a worthwhile sense. Nowhere at the time, amidst all the political charges of heresy and official condemnation of sin, was there a more blatant lack of religiosity. The men that impaled the 'infidels' on poles were not following the teaching of the Jesus depicted in scripture; and yet, as all noble men of the state at this time, they were certainly well churched.

Later, in fourteenth century Spain, anti-Semitic legislation began calling for Jews to wear identifying badges; twenty years later massacres and forced conversions occurred in the large cities. The numbers of 'New Christians,' as the converted Jews were called, grew quickly through the fifteenth century, fostered by a state sponsored effort to enforce orthodoxy: the Inquisition. In order to ensure that these New Christians were sincere in their conversion, the Spanish monarchs wielded a unified system of investigation, coercion, and torture. Underneath this veneer of Churchly purity, the implacable force of appetite of greed was clearly at work. Heretics who failed to repent (which implied both conversion and furnishing the names of other heretics) forfeited all property and could be imprisoned for life. Coveting thy neighbor’s estate is easily remedied if it can be proven, or even suggested, that they live ungodly lives. Likewise, political dissidents or revolutionaries can be seen as equally ungodly, and as easily imprisoned, exiled, or "turned over to the secular arm for burning."5 Thus, "uniform religious belief and loyalty to Spain became synonymous, a pernicious union of church and state."6 Conversely, the union of religion and state under these circumstances is as clearly absent as is the presence of liberty, whether religious or political.

Even within the Church itself, corruption and hypocrisy were prevailing to the extent of becoming the norms. In the sixteenth century, reformers such as Martin Luther and John Calvin attempted to restore the holiness of the Church, or in other words, its religiosity. Luther's writing clearly shows a concern for the religious ideals that he felt should be embodied by the Church, and he believed that the ideal leader should exhibit these values. He says that the leader "must act also in a Christian way towards his God, that is, he must subject himself to Him in entire confidence and pray for the wisdom to rule well."7 The act of 'ruling well' for Luther entails the careful adherence to Christian values. This seems to revolve around the general rule of applying "his whole mind to making himself useful and serviceable to them."8 Thus, Luther denounces especially the general practice of monarchs of exploiting the wealth of their subjects for his own comfort. The ruler should exist to serve all, and through that process be lord of all, i.e. the freedom of a Christian. Luther also speaks of the concept of just war (p. 398), just punishment (p. 397), and poor laws (p. 400). Although Luther seems to be advocating the union of Church and State, he is not. In fact, he clearly states the opposite:

Since, then, belief or unbelief is a matter of every one"s conscience, and since this is no lessening of secular power, the latter should be content and attend to its own affairs and permit men to believe one thing or another. 9

Luther is not simply arguing for toleration when he says that the state must "attend to its own affairs and permit men to believe one thing or the other," he must be assuming a separation of church and state. It would be ludicrous to maintain that it is the proper duty of the church to permit divergent beliefs, but that is exactly what Luther says his Prince must allow, even a Christian Prince. Thus his thesis is that the state must incorporate the religious values of the Church without extending political authority to Church concerns.

However, the great Reformation of the early sixteenth century did nothing to alter this situation. "By the 1570s, a religious map of Europe was drawn by the principle that the people followed the ruler"s choice of religion."10 The Protestants had split the church, perhaps stamping out some of the more obvious forms of church corruption of the time in the process. This did very little to dampen religious violence and tyranny. The Protestants (or Catholics, depending where in Europe one happened to be at a given time) were the new heretics; but the drama was much the same. The identification of state loyalty with loyalty to the church was still prevalent. In the seventeenth century, Catholicism was fiercely repressed in England; and Protestants were fiercely repressed in France. The same severe restrictions of liberties and acts of atrocities festered in both countries, and decades of wars were fought over the issue.

In 1689 the Toleration Act allowed dissenters from the Anglican Church of England to practice their religion; this promoted some progress for toleration at the price of the privilege of public life and political service. Likewise, in America, settlers had inherited the religious attitudes of their homelands, especially England.11 Many of the settlers had sailed to America seeking sanctuary from religious persecution, and almost all of them had experienced the terrors of religious warfare. And yet, each of the individual communities that formed from these groups tended to be as intolerant as their forefathers. The Puritans for example, were fleeing oppression, and yet they became infamous for oppressing in turn what they saw as heresy inside their highly Church-oriented communities. Quakers and Baptists living in the same general area were whipped, imprisoned, tortured, and slain for blasphemy. In 1684, the original Bay Colony charter was revoked. After a new Dominion of New England was formed worked to disestablish the superiority of any single church, the Puritan leaders were forced to accept the necessity of toleration for unity. The new charter of 1691 guaranteed freedom of religious worship for all Christians except Catholics.12 Jefferson's Virginia Statute represented an even greater amount of toleration.

As early legal documents concerning religion like the Massachusetts Charter and the Virginia Statute show, colonial thought was evolving to embrace a fuller and more complete tolerance, and the realities of challenge of writing the constitution forced even more progressive evolution. Diversity (mostly among smaller Protestant denominations) was growing greater by the year, and the Great Awakenings of the eighteenth century induced even more branching, splitting, and dissecting even while promoting a general sense of religious fervor. The pre-Revolutionary fervor and coexistent religious awakening throughout America went a long way towards establishing Protestantism as national doctrine in every way except officially, and this last step turned out to be impossible. Towards the end of the colonial period, forced cooperation among the colonists for the purpose of defense in the French-Indian War and imposed toleration from new state charters fostered the development of a general sense of religious tolerance, but most states still had some involvement of religion in politics. Orators like James Madison, Patrick Henry, and Thomas Jefferson worked to institute disestablishment in the state constitutions, but it would take several more years before they were successful.13

In the process of drafting the Federal Constitution, the establishment of a single denomination was impossible. The states not associated with a particular brand of godliness would never bestow any authority to a central power they already found distastefully distant. Citizens of South Carolina, while accepting a church-state entanglement, were not to be persuaded to pay taxes to support the denomination of Connecticut. The framers, who had in effect manipulated the religious conviction among citizens of the Colonies to justify the revolution, found reason to actively forbid establishment in the Constitution for the newly formed Union. In fact, there could be no union without equal toleration, and thus complete disestablishment, and thus secularism.

So whereas the Declaration of Independence stated an attempt "to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God" the Constitution describes their purpose very differently:
We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity…

The shift of emphasis from the concept of separate to union, and God to liberty, is a meaningful one. Where does this leave modern critics of the first amendment, who claim that America abandoned its moral roots and in some sense its covenant with the God who supposedly sponsored the American Revolution? In some sense, it doesn't conflict with what they claim to be their goal. According to Thomas Curry, "those who would return to state-supported religion…seek the functionality of an established church while simultaneously attempting to avoid its inherent coercive features."14 Historical analysis has shown rather uniformly that the 'established church' is inextricable from its inherent coercive features. However, state supported religion is not impossible to return to. In part, America already supports religion among its citizenry, and this is not unconstitutional. In fact, the wording of the first amendment makes it clear that this is intended. It explicitly states that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." The use of the word religion here is misleading. The term seems to preclude government support of the religious world in general. In fact this is exactly opposite to what the founders intended. Actually, the event they hoped to avoid was government establishment of a particular church, which they saw as a dangerous affront to the general liberty of a diverse society, and insurmountable obstacle to a stable union. The greatest infringement on religious liberty occurs when a single denomination is able to secure sovereignty over citizens that may not be of the same faith. Government support of religious sentiment, in general, was never an issue that the founders considered. In fact, considering the social environment to which they were accustomed, they probably could not have even conceived of a society that excluded religious thought entirely.

When considered in this light, modern first amendment questions become much clearer. Government funding of religious charities, outreach programs, or other social work is perfectly acceptable; the key lies in neutrality. For example, funding only Baptist Church organizations, even if they seem the most desirable, is a clear violation of the Establishment Clause. Typical secularist thought resolves this issue by denying the constitutionality of government funding of all religious institutions. But by neutrally applying government funds to a variety of denominations, the government both avoids establishment and promotes the values common to every major religious denomination. In addition to the Baptist Church, all Jewish and Buddhist organizations would be entitled to the same amount of funds. The separation of the political aspect of the church and the state is preserved; or, at least, kept as separate as other civilian institutions. At the same time, the positive, religious aspect of social aid is preserved and fostered.

The Supreme Court's decision in Rosenberger v. Rector is proof of the validity of this method of constitutional construction. The court ordered that that the religiously affiliated student run newspaper 'Wide Awake' receive funding from the public University of Virginia, as do all similar student run publications. As Kennedy articulates, "it does not follow…that viewpoint-based restrictions are proper when the University does not itself speak or subsidize transmittal of a message it favors but instead expends funds to encourage a diversity of views from private speakers."15 Indeed, it isn't proper at all; it is a direct violation of free speech guarantees. Justice O'Connor, concurring, calls the problem of this case a problem of conflicting "bedrock principles:" Establishment and Free Speech. However, the direct funding violation is not nearly as clear as the restriction of speech. The University does not endorse the views of Wide Awake unless it denied equal funding to Buddhist informational pamphlets, Jewish publications, or atheist newspapers. In the words of Justice O'Connor, "Neutrality, in both form and effect, is one hallmark of the Establishment Clause."16 As long as this principle of neutrality is not violated, there cannot truly be an issue of Establishment, because the government cannot establish a church by supporting all denominations equally!

Of course, this does not answer the extremists that claim that loyalty to God supercedes constitutional concerns, and American government should incorporate church doctrine and language directly into the national laws and institutions. Nor does it pacify somewhat less reactionary views that church involvement in secular institutions (such as public education) should at least be allowed. In fact, these positions are indeed irreconcilable, because they involve church establishment rather than simply neutral religious concerns, and thus are constitutionally invalid. A public school in a small, overwhelmingly Christian town cannot incorporate common church practice such as prayer or Biblical instruction into the curriculum for two reasons. First, this cannot be accomplished without violating the all-important neutrality principle. Even if there were no members of varying faith in the small community, singling out Christianity would infringe upon the liberty of potential members of the community, who would now face a lack of educational opportunities without compromising their faith. Should the school wish to instruct their students on the tenets of all major faiths (within reason), this would not suggest Establishment, and thus be perfectly acceptable and constitutional in that sense. However, it would be equally unlikely. Thus the enforcement of neutrality often naturally separates church and state, fostering religious growth without compromising secular integrity.

In his book Slouching Towards Gomorrah, Robert Bork discredits the modern trend of so called 'secular humanism,' saying that "particularly if a society is heterogeneous, tradition cannot be adequate to the maintenance of morality and a healthy culture…" and "reason alone cannot provide a morality."17 In his mind, then, "only religion can accomplish for a modern society what tradition, reason, and empirical observation cannot."18 Although Bork may go too far in asserting that the only valid first principles are those found in religious text, "handed down from God," his point is a valid one or at least one shared by a large majority of American citizens. Almost 90 percent of Americans claim to be religious, and cite faith as one of the things they look for in candidates for pubic office. Clearly religion cannot be cast aside in the name of secularism for the benefit of greater liberty. Bork also recognizes that the original understanding of the framers must have accepted a religious presence in society.19 Bork, however, overcompensates by ignoring the meaning of the Establishment clause entirely. Although the framers may not have foreseen a time in which a Supreme Court would prohibit the hanging of the 10 Commandments on a classroom wall, they could no more have foreseen the staggering statistics of cultural diversity of modern classrooms.


1. Thomas Jefferson, “Reply to the Danbury Baptist Association, Jan. 1. 1802,” in Wall of Separation? (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 1998), 126. Emphasis added.
2. Thomas Jefferson, “Virginia Statue of Religious Liberty, 1786,” in Wall of Separation?, pp. 130-131.
3. United States Commission on Civil Rights, Religion in the Constitution: A Delicate Balance. (Washington D.C.: Clearinghouse, 1983). p. 3.
4. Ibid., p. 4.
5. Ibid., p. 5.
6. Ibid.
7. Martin Luther, “How Far Secular Authority Extends,” from Martin Luther elections from His Writings. (New York: Doubleday, 1962), p. 399.
8. Ibid., p. 394.
9. Ibid., p.385.
10. United States Commission on Civil Rights, p. 6.
11. Ibid., p. 7.
12. Ibid., p. 8.
13. Ibid., p. 13.
14. Thomas J. Curry. Farewell to Christendom: the Future of Church and State in America (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001), p. 3.
15. Justice Kennedy, Rosenberger v. Rector, 1995.
16. Justice O’Connor, Rosenberger v. Rector, 1995.
17. Robert Bork, Slouching Towards Gomorrah (New York: HarperCollins Inc., 1996), p. 276.
18. Bork, p. 278.
19. Ibid., p. 289.

Please credit any part of this essay that you may choose to reproduce. Remember, copyright laws apply.

I would raise a small issue with this excellent essay.

Regarding the Puritans, it is often stated that they fled to the New World to escape religious oppression. One should note that the oppression they were fleeing was the infamy of being "forced" to live in a society in which non-Puritans were tolerated. In their view, a society that was not "Godly", as they defined it, was oppressive to them. The freedom they sought was the freedom to employ the stake, the noose, and the rack to enforce their own orthodoxy. Thus, it is hardly surprising that they founded not some Eden of tolerance but an intolerant religious dictatorship.

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