by Ryan Stevens
Many of us are familiar with the concept behind separation of church and state, but few people realize where the idea actually came from, or what its original intent was.
One common misconception is that church and state separation is specifically listed in the Constitution. The reality, however, is that the term was coined by Thomas Jefferson in a letter to a church group while the First Amendment was being laid out. Jefferson’s remarks were a commentary on what is known as the establishment clause, which prevents the government from promoting or adopting a specific religion, as well as repressing one. The letter was written to assure the church group that the government would have no say in what their religious practices would be.
That initial motivation is hardly what is being upheld today.
In American society, the idea that the government and religion should be inherently separated in any and every way is pervasive. In fact, that mentality has created a system where the two areas of social identity have become contradictory.
Perhaps in many ways, that concept is what contributes to American society as a whole, but since the time of our founding fathers its intentions and applications have far overstepped its boundaries.
Religion (Christianity in particular), once viewed as a vital part of life, has become an enemy to anything linked to government or public interest. That is particularly evident in the area of education.
As reported by Fox News, a lawsuit against a public school prohibits students from using religious specific words such as “prayer” and “amen” in school events, from referring to a deity of any kind during a speech, and even required the school to remove the words “benediction” and “invocation” from its graduation programs. The suit, which severely limited free speech in the public school, was brought about by a student who claimed he would “suffer irreparable harm” and was justified through the notion of church and state separation.
Furthermore, public schools are prohibited from teaching creationism in science classes, and teachers are even fired or heavily restricted for suggesting that other scientific evidence exists. Valid information and critical analysis is omitted from schools simply on the basis that it holds religious bias. English and literary classes are limited to references or allusions to Biblical works, despite the massive effect that religion has had on our country and its development.
School clubs, if religiously affiliated such as a Bible study at my own public high school, confined to areas of the building with limited public access and constrained to a small window of allotted time. In contrast, a notably secular club at my high school was given the freedom to conduct a school-wide assembly.
Even in our political system religion is regarded as counterproductive. Religious ideas are strongly opposed in almost every area of politics, and often political candidates are criticized for their religious preferences. Consider Mitt Romney, who, as reported by ABC News, has been openly criticized simply for his involvement in the Mormon faith.That could not be more contrary to the original political structure, where church services were held in the U.S. Capitol and where George Washington himself was asked to issue a prayer the day after the Bill of Rights was passed (Kimberly Felton, George Fox Journal).
David Barton, founder and president of a pro-family organization called WallBuilders, said “Jefferson believed that God, not government, was the Author and Source of our rights and that the government, therefore, was to be prevented from interference with those rights.” The establishment clause and even the idea of separation of church and state was originally set up to prevent the government from hindering religious activity, not the other way around.
Barack Obama even commented on an attempt to purge the Pledge of Allegiance of religious affiliation, saying “It is doubtful that children reciting the Pledge of Allegiance feel oppressed or brainwashed as a consequence of muttering the phrase ‘under God.’ I didn’t.”
I am by no means advocating a nation that condones a certain religion, as I believe there is an effective and essential balance between church and state. I do believe, however, that restricting all things remotely religious from public domain not only denies a critical part of history, but is completely contradictory to the nation the founding fathers had in mind.
Stevens is a sophomore majoring in English and French. Comments can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org.