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Opinion: Separation of Church and State



EDITORS NOTE: This article was presented during a forum at Augusta University several years ago.

I think it would be befitting at the outset of this discussion to talk about what the Separation of Church and State actually is and what it means in reality.  First, where did the statement originate?  In our society the populace has been educated to believe that the Separation of Church and State is a doctrine which was carefully crafted by the founding fathers to make sure that the church and the religious community should have no say whatsoever in anything which even remotely touches the political spectrum.  They believe that the phrase “separation of church and state” is a legitimate doctrine which is contained in our founding documents when in actuality it is not.  One can search until the proverbial “cows come home” and they will not find that phrase or any such doctrine in our Constitution.  Just for the record, the First Amendment states: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion; or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”  No mention is made of a “wall between church and state.”  So, where did the phrase “separation of church and state” originate?

In 1802, Thomas Jefferson received a letter from the Danbury Baptist Association in Connecticut which was very concerned about the fact that the government might affect the free expression of their faith by formally establishing a state church.  Thomas Jefferson was sympathetic with their concerns and within the body of his letter answering them, he reassured them that they would not be restricted in the free expression of their faith by employing the metaphor “wall of separation between church and state.”  His actual quote is: “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 and State.”  It should be noted that what Jefferson was writing in reference to was the fact that the Danbury Baptist Association should have no fear of the “national” government imposing a religion on a state.  He saw that as a state’s rights issue.  Jefferson’s letter had nothing to say about limiting public religious expression, but dealt with government’s interference in the public expression of faith.

Interestingly, Jefferson allowed….and even attended….church services in the U.S. Capitol, the Treasury and the War Department buildings, and the Supreme Court.  In fact, he wrote his letter to the Danbury Baptists on Friday and two days later he rode his horse to the Capitol Building and attended church services in the Capitol Building with about 2,000 other people.  Now, I ask you, does that sound like someone who was concerned about the government’s participation in the expression of religious faith as some would say?  I think not! 

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So, the expression “wall of separation between church and state” was a part of a private letter from Thomas Jefferson to the Danbury Baptist Association.  In his letter it is nothing more than a metaphor, a figure of speech but it has now been inculcated into our society in such a way that it literally means that secular society must be sanitized from the presence of religious influence.

It might also be valuable to remember the situation our forefathers were recalling when the fear of a state church became a question for them.  They had just come from England where there was a state church, The Church of England.  They had to worship under the aegis of that church or else suffer the consequences and they did not want that to happen over here in the new country.  Just as an example, the original pastor of Abilene Baptist Church was a man named, Loveless Savage.  He had been the high sheriff for the British Crown in this part of the world.  A preacher named Daniel Marshall came into the area preaching that a person should be baptized only after conversion.  This was against the Church of England practice and so it was considered against the law to preach it even though the Bible affirms what Marshall was preaching.  Daniel Marshall, the preacher was arrested by Loveless Savage, the sheriff for preaching against the Church of England’s teachings.  A short time later Savage was converted and God called him to preach.  Marshall ordained him and then formed Abilene Baptist Church with the old sheriff as the first pastor.  The point being that there was persecution from a state church in those days and the people wanted to be free from that.  That is why the first amendment states that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion; or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

Secondly, what is the affect of our secular application of the phrase, “separation of church and state?”  The ACLU and the Americans United for the Separation of Church and State use this Jeffersonian metaphor as a tool in an attempt to separate religion from the public square.  The most cherished freedom we have as Americans is our freedom of speech.  Everyone has the right to express themselves openly….except…the church, and because of their position, the pastors in particular.  The one place that we should want to be completely free is the very one that is limited by governmental influence.  So, everyone can say what they want, when they want to say it.  Everyone, that is except the church.  Everyone can publicly express their opinions.  Everyone, that is except the church. The secular world, does not want to hear from God on the issues of the day.  It does not want God’s appointed prophets to have influence in its realm.  So, how do you limit them?  A very shrewd politician found the answer in 1954 and his name was Lyndon Johnson.  While running for the senate, Mr. Johnson was being called into question by a leading Texas evangelist.  This evangelist was giving the senator a hard time and was beginning to have strong influence on the voters.  So, Mr. Johnson simply had his friends in the system to incorporate a ruling in the tax code which stated that churches and religious organizations could not enter into the political arena as long as they received consideration from the IRS and did not have to pay taxes.  If they violated the ruling then the IRS would investigate them and fine them for their offense as well as revoke their tax exempt status.  So, let’s think for a moment about what this ruling really implies.  It says that of all people in America, only the preachers and the churches have a point at which they are not totally free and that is at our most cherished point: the freedom of speech.  It is also, in effect, holding the churches and preachers hostage at the price of whatever their taxes would be if they paid taxes.  If we speak certain things and if the church does certain things, we will lose our tax exempt 501 C 3 status. The one place that should be kept free, our pulpits, is held hostage for the price of tax monies.  This should not be.

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I would also like to ask this question:  Does this mean then, that if a church decided to voluntarily surrender its 501 C 3 status, that it could enter the political arena? Churches in Georgia already pay state sales tax so just suppose that a church said: “ok, we voluntarily agree to pay all taxes.”  Would that set them free?  If the price of tax monies is holding them hostage then it follows that if that is paid they would be free from the current restrictions. The only difference it would really make is that the church would have to pay property taxes (it already pays state sales tax in Ga.) and the people would lose a tax deduction.  If a church voluntarily surrendered its 501 C 3 status and therefore paid the appropriate taxes, it would then be free to enter into the political arena and say whatever it desires.  If that is true, then it is proven that the, so called, separation of church and state is NOT a constitutional issue.  If it were a constitutional issue then whether a church paid taxes or not would make no difference.  If a church is set free from the applied restraints by paying taxes, then it is demonstrated that the constitution is not the governing force but the IRS is.  Incidentally, prior to 1953, churches and their pastors were not restricted.  That is why the aforementioned evangelist could speak out on Lyndon Johnson’s senate race as he did.  Since that IRS ruling, religion in the public square has been restricted to the point of almost total exclusion and if the ACLU and The Americans United for the Separation of Church and State had their way that is exactly what would happen.  The church and its followers should not be quarantined or walled off from where civic discourse takes place.  The restrictions on religion have reached the point of absurdity such as: threatening fixed income housing project residents with eviction for displaying signs about prayer in their apartment windows; prohibiting students from praying at graduation ceremonies or football games; having public displays of the Ten commandments removed from public buildings; telling an eight year old girl that she cannot pass out handmade Valentines that read “Jesus Loves You”; making pupils who have on a t-shirt with anything remotely religious inscribed on them to go home and change; telling employees that they cannot wear a piece of jewelry to work if it is in the shape of a cross. I could go on and on, but you would get bored with the absurdities of how the Jeffersonian metaphor has been extrapolated into our society.

But, I think the tide is turning.  Recently, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit, expressed its frustration over the misuse of Jefferson’s metaphor.  Ruling on the constitutionality of a Ten Commandments display in Kentucky, the court wrote, “This extra-constitutional construct has grown tiresome.  The First Amendment does not demand a wall of separation between church and state.”  They are right…it does not.

Additionally, the tide is also turning in dealing with liberal groups such as the ACLU and the Americans United For the Separation of Church and State.  Of course, the mainstream media reports to the nation every time the ACLU wins a court case or when they extort obeisance from a small county or town by threatening them with a multimillion-dollar lawsuit unless they do whatever it is the ACLU demands.  But, the media has been strangely silent on how many cases the ACLU is now losing because of defeats in the courtroom as they have faced informed lawyers from organizations such as The Alliance Defending Freedom.  They are losing case after case but the public will never know it because a liberal media base will not tell them about it.  Also, the ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit signals that the courts are tiring of the ACLU’s endless appeals to the First Amendment for the basis of their endless, insipid lawsuits.  The American public must be wise enough to see that the ACLU and such groups would go out of business if the First Amendment and their appeal to the supposed “separation of church and state” were taken from them.  They have no other basis for their suits.

Finally, I would hope that a day is coming in which this nation will demand the proper interpretation of the First Amendment.  I would hope that we could return to the common sense approach of our founding fathers when they provided that our federal government could not tell people which faith they should follow while, at the same time, making room for the public discourse to contain input from the religious community.

Again, I want to thank the organizers of this forum for being so gracious in extending me an invitation to participate.

Reverend William (Bill) Harrell has been in ministry 48 years. He served as the pastor of Abilene Baptist Church in Martinez, GA for over 30 of those years. He can be reached at [email protected]. You can also check out his blog at www.williamfharrell.com

The author credits The Alliance Defending Freedom for some of the information contained in this article.     

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  1. This is an excellent article full of facts. Some well known and some unknown to most people. LBJ impact on the IRS is an example of the latter. One thing not discussed or broached in the article is how the black churches get away with the mixing of politics in their churches. They even have political candidates come on Sundays and talk. It is truly a double standard and I commend the black ministers for having the guts to mixing the politics in because they impact on the people and the community as what is passed in government. Abortion is a clear example. People say religion has no place in politics. Well, morality is based on religion and there are those who say you can’t legislate morality. I say what are you going to legislate? Immorality? Things are one or the other. I just wish more white ministers had the courage of the black ministers.

  2. Thanks to the Reverend Bill Harrell and to the editors for this enlightening piece. The use of a lawsuit to bludgeion those who cannot afford to defend themselves is a real tragedy. Thank God for organizations like The Alliance Defending Freedom who have the wherewithal to fight the ACLU and others.

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