Many of you commented that the Founders’ religious beliefs did not determine their approach to separation of church and state. I agree. So let’s turn now to the big question: what DID the Founders believe about separation of church and state?Link.
First, there’s no such thing as “the Founders.” They disagreed with each other on a number of key points. John Adams and George Washington supported more church-state mingling than did Jefferson and Madison. Crucially, while some folks back then seemed to use the term “establishment” to refer to official state religions, Madison for one thought it meant something much broader. During the fight in Virginia over state support of churches, he referred to tax subsidies for religion as being “an establishment,” just as dangerous ultimately as an official church.
Second, though it’s certainly interesting and important what the Founders believed on this – hell, a lot of my book is about that topic – that alone doesn’t determine what the law is on separation of church and state.
Madison believed that we should have separation of church and state throughout the land, federal and local. But his proposal to apply this principle to the states was defeated. Madison was not allowed to send his legislative draft straight to the National Archives. The First Amendment was a states rights compromise. There was a fascinating moment during the congressional debate over what became the First Amendment. Rep. Benjamin Huntington of Connecticut complained that Madison’s amendment could "be extremely harmful to the cause of religion." How could the beloved First Amendment be harmful to religion? Huntington feared that it would overturn or interfere with Connecticut’s approach, which was to have state-supported religion. Madison assuaged him by assuring him that the amendment would allow Connecticut to keep doing what it was doing. Some people supported the First Amendment only because it allowed the states to continue with their practice of NOT having separation of church and state. It wasn’t until the 14th amendment that the nation began the process of applying some principles of the Bill of Rights to local government, and even then in a confusing way. What Madison believed, and what the First Amendment means, are two different things.
What no lawyer or advocate on either side wants to admit is this: the First Amendment does allow many gray areas. We need to stop looking at every church-state question solely in Constitutional terms. My personal view is that because of intentional ambiguities in the First Amendment, that constitutionally a fair amount of church-state mingling is allowed. That’s what’s Constitutional. What’s wise is a separate question. On the merits of what actually should happen, I’m more with Madison. When in doubt, err on the side of separation: “Religion and Gov will both exist in greater purity, the less they are mixed together." [i] I agree with him that having government or politicians involved in religion not only is problematic in terms of political discourse, it also sours people on religion. Has the Republican Party embrace of the religious conservative moral agenda really been good for Christianity? Has it really taught more people the beauty of Jesus’s teachings? I think the experience of the last few years has validated Madison’s view that the biggest beneficiary of separation and church and state is likely to be the church, or, more accurately, religious vibrancy.
The time has come for separationists to focus their arguments on what’s best for society, not only what’s Constitutional or what “the Founders” believed. I think they happen to have the better argument, but on social, not Constitutional grounds. One of the most effective arguments for religious freedom is that it’s good for religion. Advocates for separation have sometimes had such hostility toward religious leaders that they’ve failed to see that the most religious Americans ought to be the biggest advocates of separation. Madison and Jefferson understood this, which is why they worked so closely with the evangelicals of their day to promote separation. Meanwhile, it’s time for conservatives to stop using the faith non-sequitur – as in, “I know I’m right about separation of church and state, because John Adams believed in God.” And it’s time for them to stop perpetuating the myth that the United States was created as a Christian nation.