5 Crucial Moments That Defined America's Separation of Church and State


It seems these days that a lot of public figures are wary of endorsing the separation of church and state. They shouldn’t be: The principle is as American as apple pie and has long roots in our nation.

Of course, church-state separation and the religious and philosophical freedom it gives us didn’t just happen in America. It was all part of a long process, an evolution of attitudes over many years. There were plenty of bumps along the way, and lots of people weren’t convinced that dividing religion and government was the way to go – and some still aren’t today.

There have been many crucial moments in America’s church-state history, some of which took place before we were officially a nation. Here are five of the most significant.

1. The Flushing Remonstrance (1657): Back in the day when New York was New Amsterdam, it was a good idea to belong to the state-established Dutch Reformed Church. In fact, other religions were banned in the colony, and failing to show the proper degree of government-approved piety could land you behind bars. Everyone had to pay church taxes, and the law mandated that all children be baptized in the Reformed Church.

New Amsterdam’s leaders had a special antipathy toward Quakers. Members of that faith were barred from even entering the colony, and anyone who came across a Quaker was expected to turn him over to the authorities. Steep fines were levied on those who harbored Quakers.

In light of these strict laws, what happened in 1657 is nothing short of remarkable. Thirty residents of the village of Flushing (now part of Queens) sent a letter to Peter Stuyvesant, director of the colony, telling him to let up on the Quakers.

The signers argued that religious persecution wasn’t in keeping with Christian theology, and they boldly closed their letter by vowing to protect Quakers. Wrote the signers, “Therefore if any of these said persons come in love unto us, we cannot in conscience lay violent hands upon them, but give them free egresse and regresse unto our Town, and houses, as God shall persuade our consciences, for we are bounde by the law of God and man to doe good unto all men and evil to noe man.”

It should be noted that none of the signers were themselves Quakers. They were arguing for the rights of others. Not surprisingly, this didn’t go down too well. Some of the signers were thrown into jail and ordered to recant. Locked in filthy, vermin-ridden cells, they did so – at least on paper. Who knows what was really in their hearts?

The Remonstrance proved to be ahead of its time, but the signers were vindicated when religious liberty was ensured in the Bill of Rights in 1791.

2. James Madison’s Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments (1785): Patrick Henry was a fiery patriot famous for uttering the line, “Give me liberty or give me death!” But there was one area where Henry could not break with the British: All of his life, he argued in favor of church-state union.

James Madison disagreed. And when Henry proposed a bill in 1785 to require all Virginians to pay a tax to support “teachers of the Christian religion,” Madison swung into action. The diminutive Virginian penned the “Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments,” one of the greatest documents in American church-state history.

Madison’s Memorial and Remonstrance is essentially a list of 15 reasons why no one should be forced to pay taxes to support religion. The broadside circulated throughout the state, and petitions flooded the Virginia legislature demanding the defeat of the Henry bill. It was rejected.

What’s amazing about Madison’s document is that its arguments remain so relevant today, in this age of “faith-based” initiatives and demands for vouchers to fund religious schools.

Consider Point 5:

“[T]he Bill implies either that the Civil Magistrate is a competent Judge of Religious Truth; or that he may employ Religion as an engine of Civil policy. The first is an arrogant pretension falsified by the contradictory opinions of Rulers in all ages, and throughout the world: the second an unhallowed perversion of the means of salvation.”

Point 7 is also powerful:

“[E]xperience witnesseth that ecclesiastical establishments, instead of maintaining the purity and efficacy of Religion, have had a contrary operation. During almost fifteen centuries has the legal establishment of Christianity been on trial. What have been its fruits? More or less in all places, pride and indolence in the Clergy, ignorance and servility in the laity, in both, superstition, bigotry and persecution.”

After the defeat of the Henry bill, Madison used the momentum he gained to push Thomas Jefferson’s Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom through the legislature in 1786. The bill disestablished the Anglican Church in Virginia and ensured that no resident “shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever, nor shall be enforced, restrained, molested, or burthened in his body or goods, nor shall otherwise suffer on account of his religious opinions or belief; but that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinion in matters of religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capacities.”

Historians agree that the Virginia struggle reverberated nationally. Five years later, Madison helped draft the First Amendment, writing church-state separation into the federal constitution.

3. George Washington’s Letter to Touro Synagogue (1790): Jews were uncertain of their status in the new nation of the United States of America. Even after the revolution, many states retained established Christian churches, and some states even barred non-Christians from holding public office.

In 1790, one year before the Bill of Rights was adopted, members of Touro Synagogue in Newport, RI, wrote to President George Washington to express their support for complete religious freedom.

Washington’s reply is a classic of religious liberty. He didn’t say that America was a “Christian nation.” He didn’t tell the Jews that they could expect toleration but little else. Instead, Washington assured the members of the synagogue that they need have no fears, and he assured them that they were valued members in the American experiment of freedom of conscience. Washington wrote:

“The Citizens of the United States of America have a right to applaud themselves for having given to mankind examples of an enlarged and liberal policy: a policy worthy of imitation. All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship. It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people, that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights. For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens, in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.”

Religious Right activists who believe that Washington favored an officially Christian America must find this letter vexing. Their vision was of a nation that favored Christianity by law but that might deign to extend toleration to other faiths. The father of our country explicitly rejected this vision in his missive.

4. Thomas Jefferson’s Letter to the Danbury Baptists (1802): Although the Bill of Rights was adopted in 1791, it wasn’t made binding on the states until Congress passed the 14th Amendment after the Civil War. After the Revolution, Connecticut retained its established church, Congregationalism. Members of other religions were compelled to support the church through taxation and were harassed in other ways.

Members of the Danbury Baptist Association were aware that Thomas Jefferson was a champion of religious liberty; they also knew Jefferson wrote the law that ended Virginia’s state-established church. In 1801, the Baptists wrote to Jefferson to thank him and express their hope that his view of religious freedom would someday come to Connecticut.

Jefferson knew his reply would become public and decided to use it to make a pronouncement on his views about church-state relations. He consulted with two members of his cabinet before sending the letter, revising and editing as he went along.

Jefferson’s response, dated Jan. 1, 1802, is rightly famous for this passage:

“Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, & not opinions, 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 & State. Adhering to this expression of the supreme will of the nation in behalf of the rights of conscience, I shall see with sincere satisfaction the progress of those sentiments which tend to restore to man all his natural rights, convinced he has no natural right in opposition to his social duties.”

Our third president’s “wall” metaphor has infuriated the Religious Right over the years, and they have labored in vain to dismiss the letter as a mere courtesy reply. The history of the document shows that the opposite was true: In a cover memo to Attorney General Levi Lincoln, Jefferson said he hoped his reply would assist in “sowing useful truths and principles among the people, which might germinate and become rooted among their political tenets.”

5. John F. Kennedy’s Address to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association (1960): This is the speech that makes Rick Santorum nauseous. It wouldn’t if he had a real appreciation for religious tolerance in America.

John F. Kennedy had to deal with a great deal of anti-Catholic prejudice during the 1960 presidential campaign. Rumors circulated that a Catholic president could not put loyalty to America above Rome, and some feared JFK would seek to impose Catholic doctrine on a nation that was still culturally Protestant.

With polls showing Kennedy running neck and neck with Richard M. Nixon, the Massachusetts senator decided to tackle the matter head on. He entered the lions’ den and arranged to deliver a major address on religion to a collection of Protestant ministers in Houston.

The Sept. 12, 1960 speech, strongly worded and deftly delivered, is today remembered as both a turning point in the 1960 campaign and a powerful affirmation of tolerance and church-state separation.

Asserted Kennedy, “I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute – where no Catholic prelate would tell the President, should he be Catholic, how to act, and no Protestant minister would tell his parishioners for whom to vote – where no church or church school is granted any public funds or political preference – and where no man is denied public office merely because his religion differs from the President who might appoint him or the people who might elect him.

He continued, “I believe in an America that is officially neither Catholic, Protestant nor Jewish – where no public official either requests or accepts instructions on public policy from the Pope, the National Council of Churches or any other ecclesiastical source – where no religious body seeks to impose its will directly or indirectly upon the general populace or the public acts of its officials – and where religious liberty is so indivisible that an act against one church is treated as an act against all.”

During his presidency, Kennedy put those words into action. He rejected demands from the Catholic hierarchy to extend tax aid to Catholic schools, and when the Supreme Court struck down mandatory school prayer in 1962, Kennedy reminded people that they could pray at home. Kennedy’s full-throttle endorsement of church-state separation and his vow to put the interests of the people ahead of church dogma still infuriates today’s budding theocrats.

Separation of church and state isn’t always respected today. Plenty of Religious Right activists, TV preachers and even politicians blast it. They should know that when they assail a principle that has given our nation a greater degree of religious liberty than any other people, they’re at odds with our history.

The current flock of GOP candidates might understand that if they spent less time pandering to religious zealots on the campaign trail and more time reading documents like these.

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