“Separation of Church and State Isn’t in the Constitution” (Or So They Say)
Like Joshua in the Bible, there are Americans today who would like to blow their trumpets loud and strong in order to destroy the “wall of separation between church and state” of which Thomas Jefferson spoke approvingly in his 1802 letter to the Danbury Baptists. But instead of trumpet blasts echoing off the walls, the faithful are shouting a mantra of sorts that they tend to repeat loudly and ad nauseam, those words being “separation of church and state is not in the Constitution”. And of course, the actual words “separation of church and state” do not appear in the Constitution. But that does not mean that the framers, signers and ratifiers of the U.S. Constitution did not intend this concept to be an important pillar of our governing institutions. They did. How do we know this, when that phrase is not included in our country’s founding documents? There are a number of ways, including the contemporaneous writings of the founders. These include the aforementioned letter from Jefferson to the Danbury Baptists, as well as James Madison’s “Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments” (1785), where he argued that government suffered where religion was established and that religion suffered when it got too close to government. This certainly seems as though Madison, the Constitution’s primary draftsman, believed that government and religion should be kept separate. Then there’s the Constitution itself which, in its original form (prior to amendments) mentioned religion only once, in Article VI, paragraph 3, which prohibits any religious test for public office holders. If separation of church and state was not intended, why would the Founders have crafted the document that directs how our government shall operate, and only mention religion to say that no one has to believe it (or any particular version of it) in order to hold public office?
But there’s another very simple counter-argument that I want to posit to those who spout the “separation of church and state isn’t in the Constitution” canard. Perhaps you remember your lessons on the Constitution from grade school. Remember how we were taught how the Constitution provided for the “separation of powers” between our three branches of Federal government, the Executive, the Legislative, and the Judicial? Remember how we were also taught how this “separation of powers” gave our government a system of “checks and balances” that ensured that no one branch of government could become too powerful and therefore dominate the other two branches? C’mon, you must remember that. Heck, we all knew that just remembering those two phrases could guarantee us a passing grade on a history test, even if we didn’t remember anything else about the Constitution. Now, get out your pocket copy of the Constitution and show me where those phrases appear. Better yet, don’t bother, because you won’t find either one of them. Does this mean that our teachers were lying and/or mistaken when they taught us that the “separation of powers” and the “system of checks and balances” were two of the Constitution’s founding principles? Of course not. We can see from the document itself and from the words of its drafters that this was exactly what was intended. Just like separation of church and state. We didn’t need these exact words to appear in the Constitution to know that these concepts were intended as governing principles of our country.
One more thing: at the start of this essay I analogized those who would deny or break down Jefferson’s “wall of separation” between church and state with the Biblical story of Joshua and the trumpets breaking down the walls of Jericho. Those who think that removing the wall separating church and state (or pretending that it never was there to begin with) would be a good thing, would be well advised to remember what happened after the walls of Jericho came tumbling down. Joshua’s army entered Jericho and didn’t stop until “they utterly destroyed what was in the city, both man and woman, young and old, and ox, and sheep and ass with the edge of the sword” (Joshua 6:21). Just the kind of thing we deplore Muslim militants like ISIS for doing today. Now I’m not saying that the failure to separate church and state in our country would result in a bloodbath as happened in Jericho (although that appears to be the case in some parts of the world), but it would inevitably cause rifts in our society as various sects argued over whose beliefs should be paramount. The bottom line is that the separation of church and state (which, incidentally, was meant to protect both government and religion) was a founding principle of our system of government, as was the separation of powers between the three branches of Federal government. This is true whether or not these exact words appear in the Constitution.