What is the proper relationship between religion and the government?

Is it the complete separation between church and state? Even Thomas Jefferson in his letter to the Danbury Baptists didn’t completely define the “wall” he talked about.  The wall itself seems to be penetrated at times by Jefferson’s own words in the Declaration of Independence which reveals that the source of life, freedom, and man’s ability to be happy comes from the Creator.

In 1787, the Northwest Ordinance allowed for the creation of five states, of which, Ohio was first. The ordinance states, “No person, demeaning himself in a peaceable and orderly manner, shall ever be molested on account of his mode of worship or religious sentiments, in the said territory.” This predates the First Amendment to the US Constitution which was adopted in 1791. This ordinance provided for religious freedom in the territory. It further states that religion and morality are to be taught. Article three says, “Religion, morality, and knowledge, being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged.” From reading the ordinance, it is obvious that this “religion and morality” was taught in public schools and paid for with public taxes.

The constitution of Massachusetts written in 1780 by John Adams asserts, “As the happiness of a people and the good order and preservation of civil government essentially depend upon piety, religion, and morality, and as these cannot be generally diffused through a community but by the institution of the public worship of God and of the public instructions in piety, religion, and morality.” It goes on to instruct that groups, political bodies, and religious societies should carry out this public worship authorized through the legislature.

Are these legal documents breaching the “wall of separation” that Jefferson talks about? Do they violate the First Amendment? Or do these writers and framers of legal documents and constitutions understand better than we do the proper relationship between church and state? A comparison of public scenes from the 18th century and today shows us that the former had greater religious freedom than the modern people of today. I postulate that this wall of separation as is thought of in the modern sense actually inhibits the freedom of expression and freedom of worship. If you doubt my statement and begin to invoke the undefined “wall”, consider if you will ever hear in your lifetime, a speech from a government official with these words:

“I congratulate the people of the United States on the assembling of Congress at the permanent seat of their government; and I congratulate you, gentlemen, on the prospect of a residence not to be exchanged. It would be unbecoming the representatives of this nation to assemble for the first time in this solemn temple without looking up to the Supreme Ruler of the universe and imploring his blessing. You will consider it as the capitol of a great nation, advancing with unexampled rapidity in arts, in commerce, in wealth, and in population, and possessing within itself those resources which, if not thrown away or lamentably misdirected, will secure to it a long course of prosperity and self-government. May this territory be the residence of virtue and happiness! In this city may piety and virtue, that wisdom and magnanimity, that constancy and self-government, which adorned the great character whose name it bears, be forever held in veneration! Here, and throughout our country, may simple manners, pure morals, and true religion forever flourish.”

–  John Adams, November25, 1800, the year the first Congress opened session in the Capitol.

I submit to you, the reader, we have lost some freedom when any religious expression in public places and public institutions is allowed to be defeated by a “wall”.

11 thoughts on “What is the proper relationship between religion and the government?

  1. It takes only a very small amount of thought to appreciate that religious favouritism shown by any government through law and policy must impinge on freedom of all other religions save for the favoured one. The more favouritism shown to the one, the less freedom of all others to fairly compete and exercise their beliefs in the marketplace of religious notions. This was the concern of the baptists to whom Jefferson wrote his famous letter to ally their fears.

    We can extend and expand this same argument today. By creating a situation that has government favouring any and all religion(s) over those who are allied to no religion, one can easily understand that such general favouritism impinges on the freedom from some imposed religion. In other words, it is quite simple to grasp that the greatest freedom for all citizens – religious and non religious both – relies on government favouring none and this is best accomplished by allowing each citizen to personally decide for him- or herself to favour or not favour whatever religious belief they may prefer. State interference tilts this playing field.

    Compare and contrast state constitutions to the federal one. The absence of religious language from the federal Constitution is strikingly different. Why?

    Legitimate political authority does not come from any creator who bestows authority in exchange for allegiance as suggested in the Declaration (written to bring every state representative on board including the Quakers from Pennsylvania). This is made perfectly clear by the opening phrase of the Constitution that first establishes concisely where this authority to empower legitimate governance comes from: we the people, the consent of the governed. This revolutionary idea comes to us straight from the Enlightenment and continues to resonate in people around the globe to this minute. This is the clarion call of those in the Arab world risking their lives to demonstrate this political truth. Political authority is justified only when it comes from the people and not from some royal lineage, or god-sanctioned approval by church or temple or imam, or from the barrel of a gun, or from authoritarian dictates. Authority does not come from any other source but from the consent of the governed: we the people…. all of the people and not some partisan group, all the people and not some privileged class, all the people and not some section of the populace granted a say over another. All the people have equal authority and this is why the Constitution is such a watershed moment in human history. This is the radical idea that has and continues to affect political change away from the old and into the modern era. This is the foundation for democracy. This is the grounding of our rights and freedoms: our equality of consent because we are member of the larger community, members of we the people.

    When people argue about the religious intentions and histories of the Founders, we have to understand that many were allied to particular religions but that others were simply deists, meaning they believed in some higher deity. But people conflate this commonly held belief by many of the Founders to mean that the government they were establishing had to recognize the supremacy of this deity, some favouritism to religious allegiances, in political terms, in terms of legitimizing political authority. Plainly, this is false. Political authority comes from we the people and not from any other community to which we belong.

    People also argue that the Founders were sympathetic to the establishment of religious authority – as if this kind of authority was equivalent or appreciated or acceptable or necessary in political terms for legitimizing governance. Plainly, this too is false. Legitimate political authority comes from we the people and not from any other religious community to which we may belong. The writers even went so far as to point out in clear and concise language that no public office was to have any kind of religious test, whereas in contrast many state constitutions insisted on them (and several still do). But federal authority trumps state authority and so these conditions that outline acceptable religious tests for publicly held offices are not enforced because the states in question know that these tests are unconstitutional. And they are unconstitutional because political authority clearly is not subject to religious authority or any test they ask of us, and it’s not subject to religious authority because authority comes from one source and one source only: we the people.

    Religious beliefs are not ‘defeated’ by this wall of separation but protected from those who would use their religious beliefs to usurp YOUR legitimate political authority and sacrifice it in the name of some god, some religious allegiance held in greater esteem than your rights and freedoms.

    From where I sit, such proponents of this religious usurpery are fools and dangerous one of the worst kind because they have allowed their personal theological beliefs to try to undermine their own authority to their rights and freedoms as well as mine.

  2. I submit that leaders such as John Adams and Thomas Jefferson were not only men of great humility, but also men of a deep understanding of the Creator and our obligation to Him taking the form of personal responsibility, accountability to God and society, and a purpose given by God Himself to each man as well as society as a whole. When we veer from that understanding, we shipwreck, and society becomes unable to function correctly. Not everyone has this understanding, but His principles stand and it would behoove those in government to recognize Who made them and what their God given purpose is. Only then can there be real world peace.

    1. Oh rubbish. Your ‘understanding’ is no such thing. It is just so much wishful thinking based on ignoring contrary evidence.

      When the enlightened populations of societies move away from belief in various supernatural agencies, the evidence clearly shows that we don’t get a “shipwreck”. Nor does the society become “unable to function correctly”. In fact, these societies seem to function much better – much healthier – if we measure that function by rates of behaviours that are criminal and/or counterproductive to worthwhile norms (like murder rates, infant mortality, abortion, armed robberies, teen pregnancies, stds, and so on). There is an obvious correlation that more religious a society is, the higher these rates. This brute fact stands in splendid contrast to you “understanding” and reveals that what is true in no way equates with what you believe is true. But then, you would know this if you actually cared about what is true rather than pretend that your religious affiliation magically informs your beliefs to make them true. You would also know this if you used your critical faculties to inquire honestly and with intellectual integrity rather than assume the starting answers from your theology are true. They are not. They are assertions and assumptions… and that why theology pretends that faith is both necessary and a virtue, whereas in any other are of your life faith of this kind is a failing, a capitulation of reason, a choice to embrace ignorance and superstition instead of knowledge and understanding. And the measuring stick is what’s true… noy what we believe to be true.

      If you honestly think that world peace comes based on faith – based on NOT respecting first and foremost what’s true – then I think you are not just wrong but actively deluded.

  3. Tildeb,

    You said, “religious favouritism shown by any government through law and policy must impinge on freedom of all other religions save for the favoured one.”

    This statement is proven false by the fact that laws and policies in the founding of America were derived from religion and the morality that springs from it. Reflect for a moment on American history. Our Christian religious founding did not hinder any other religion from practicing their traditions and beliefs. From America’s beginning to today, all religions have been free to express and worship as they will. The freedom of other religions were not violated by American laws and policies. And, this freedom originated from the Christian religion.

    In fact, if America’s founding were to be problematic for any group of people, it would be for the totally secular people. Consider John Adams’ words:

    “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”

    Laws NOT based on the morality that springs from religion are subject to the whim of the lawgiver and evolve over time so that the entire identity of a people can be in crisis. Consider, if you will, that we are more fractured as a people today than ever before.

    Abraham Lincoln said in April 30, 1863:

    “We have been preserved, these many years, in peace and prosperity. We have grown in numbers, wealth, and power as no other nation has ever grown. But we have forgotten God. We have forgotten the gracious hand which preserved us in peace, and multiplied and enriched and strengthened us; and we have vainly imagined, in the deceitfulness of our hearts, that all these blessings were produced by some superior wisdom and virtue of our own. Intoxicated with unbroken success, we have become too self-sufficient to feel the necessity of redeeming and preserving grace, too proud to pray to the God that made us! It behooves us, then to humble ourselves before the offended Power, to confess our national sins, and to pray for clemency and forgiveness.”

    You see, “We the people” back then, did indeed derive their life, liberty, and happiness from God and not from themselves. It seems that some were starting to believe that these inalienable rights came from themselves, but Lincoln rebuked them for thinking so. Liberty comes from self-restraint originating from morality derived from religion. Many of our founding fathers believed this to be true.

    Charles Carroll, who was a signer of the Declaration of Independence said in a letter to James McHenry:

    “Without morals a republic cannot subsist any length of time; they therefore who are decrying the Christian religion…are undermining the solid foundation of morals, the best security for the duration of free governments.”

    1. You state that that laws and policies in the founding of America were derived from religion and the morality that springs from it. So where are these laws and policies derived from religion in the Constitution? What is the morality that “springs from it?”

      I think you are wrong. I think if one of the 30,000 christian sects was actually favoured, we would read of it in the Constitution.

      Your second point, that morality springs from “it” requires some evidence that you cannot provide because morality precedes any reading, interpreting, and formulating whatever theology you currently support. To say morality comes from god has nothing to back it up. Zero evidence. That we each practice behaviours we place on a moral spectrum between good and evil is obvious. What is not obvious is how this comes from some creator, although you have no problem assuming it is true without any evidence whatsoever to back you up, to show that you speak of something that you know something about, that your opinion in the matter is somehow qualitatively different than made-up stuff. Yet I can show that not only infants but other species show what we would consider in humans to be moral behaviour. So the notion that morality precedes any one particular religious belief becomes quite apparent. But you already know all this to be true because it is self evident… for those who might be the slightest bit concerned with what’s true in fact rather than assumed to be true because of some preferred belief.

      I think you make a very typical mistake by assuming that because many people are religious – including many of the country’s leaders and signers of the Declaration – the state they created, that we populate must also be religious. Yet there is no evidence in the Constitution to back your position up so you turn instead to pointing out the old canard that because many totalitarian leaders have mustaches, mustaches must play some central and important role in totalitarian states… because many founders were religious, the state they created must also be so. Yet you get the Salem trials when government favours a religion, and the founders were painfully aware of that fiasco. That’s why the state is not to get involved with this private matter of favouring religion other than to not disallow it.

      You can believe all you want that life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness comes straight from some white bearded fellow who lives in the sky. I think you are wrong because it’s no different than believing in the literal truth that Santa Claus is also real. To me, it’s just a really bizarre belief to continue to hold when it is so painfully obvious it is not true by anything knowable of than gullibility and a suspension of critical and sceptical thought. But the principle laid out in the Constitution remains incontrovertible in spite of any beliefs thee or me has: political authority comes from we the people.

  4. Political authority comes from the people. Yes. This is true. Political authority is not, however, synonymous with freedom, life, happiness, property. It is synonymous with nothing except its own existence. The founders knew this.

    The Declaration speaks of mankind being created equal and having, therefore, inalienable rights. If you take out the word “inalienable”, rights are subject to political whims. If you take out the word “equal” you have no basis for inalienable anything. If you take out the word “created” you have no basis for equality. These days equality is a word used as a political strategy. Equal is only equal if it comes from a non-biased third party. That is why to maintain equality it must be understood that equality is not a derivative of the people or the government especially since they are one in the same. Equality is bestowed upon man by his creator.

    Let me ask you this. Is equality a fact or a construct? Answers to this question are highly revealing. If one answers that equality is a construct then it is no more than that. The answerer may hold equality as a value but it is only fabricated. It is not a real belief. If one answers that equality is a fact then there has to be a reason it is a fact. The answerer inevitably traces that fact back to a source. It is real belief and it is not subject to arbitration.

    This is why if men are not created equal then they are not equal. If rights are not eternal then they are temporal and therefore not inalienable. Few seem to trace that word inalienable back to its source. Rights are only inalienable if they are a fact. They are only a fact if all men are equal and men are only factually equal if there are created that way. Otherwise “equal” is just a fairytale we all trick ourselves into believing because it’s nice.

    1. If you take out all the words in this sentence, you are left with nothing.

      The topic about the separation of church and state is best revealed through the framework for domestic law, and that is the Constitution. If religion were meant to be an important aspect or consideration of the law, then it should be there – either implicitly or explicitly laid out.

      It isn’t.


      What we have, and equally obvious, is an amendment that there is to be no religious test. That’s rather significant, don’t you think?

      Also, you’ll note the oath of office for the Prez does not include any reference whatsoever to operating under some supernatural blessing, or for wisdom to be sent via divine courier, or asking to be granted temporal power to install divine will or any other such superstitious dribbling. The fact that no religious language is used AT ALL stands in very stark contrast to other state constitutions. This is very significant and meaningful because it shows intent: political authority to make law comes from we the people and not some fairy godfather living in some other realm of existence.

      1. I don’t suggest that we should change any of the things you mentioned. I only suggest that as individuals we should understand the reasoning behind the concept of inalienable rights. Because, truth be told, just being mentioned on a legal document somewhere does not make it fact. It does not make it incontrovertible. It’s just paper. What we believe is what matters. That will determine if those documents will continue to hold weight with us and our descendants.

      2. Inalienable rights were formulated at a time to directly contrast divine rights and in political terms to mean natural rights of the common man that are his by birthright versus the divine right of kings that is bestowed from god upon a particular blood line.

        That you argue to twist this into meaning natural rights are actually divine rights not from birthright but bestowed by god is in fact relativism of the worst kind where white means black and down means up. That you then assert that what matter is simply what we believe is absolutely central to maintaining your relativism to try to exempt your conclusions from legitimate criticism based on what is true in fact (and in context) rather than what is simply believed to be true. At the time of writing, inalienable rights were a revolutionary idea that contrasted sharply with established religious dogmatic practice of supporting god by supporting the king. Patriotism to country rather than king comes from the enlightenment value of state secularism that recognizes natural rights as its political authority and not – as you would have us falsely believe – rights granted to the common citizen as a gift from some divine source.

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