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Church and State Separation

Updated on June 2, 2011

The issue of church and state separation marks one of the most important divisions in American political life. It has an impact on short term policy, but also carries profound implications for the nature and destiny of the country. One side of the debate sees the US as a society of people who freely choose to follow whatever religion they want, or lack thereof, and should be protected by an impartial state. The other views the country as not just having a Judeo-Christian heritage, but actually occupying a unique spiritual place in the world, and enjoying a special relationship with God not unlike that enjoyed by the nation of Israel in the Old Testament.

Obviously, these two worldviews are incompatible and irreconcilable. Although they can persist for a time without coming into direct conflict, ultimately only one can triumph. For most of American history, including the founding of the colonies, what may be called the "Providential" narrative has enjoyed ascendancy and legitimacy. However, in recent decades, the secular narrative has been encroaching and has made significant headway.

The secularization of the US has occurred through two primary paths. First, there is the legal path, in which federal, state and local laws increasingly accommodate a society with a greater diversity of moral values and religious experience. Seven states now recognize homosexual marriage or civil unions in some way, with more debating similar legislation--an unthinkable phenomenon in earlier times speaking to a moral sensibility fantastically foreign to previous generations of Americans.

The landmark Roe v Wade case of 1973, which legalized abortion across the country, is another major piece of the secularization pie, of which conservative Christians are acutely aware. The teaching of evolution has withered countless legal attacks from religiously-motivated creationists, while going on the legal offensive itself, and come out stronger every time. All of these kinds of legal changes speak to the progress that a secular mentality has made in the US.

Second, there is the cultural path, in which American social values have loosened and become more tolerant. Even many staunchly conservative people today would have been considered "liberals" in previous eras.

Insofar as the modern American Christian or conservative--who may very well accept the providential narrative--believes that young women should be allowed to wear miniskirts in public, believes that pornography should not be made illegal, that homosexual sex should not be punishable by law, or that the entire city of Las Vegas should exist, that staunch conservative is a staunch liberal by the standards of early 20th century (or earlier) America.

Despite all of this secular progress, the US remains a country where many people buy into the providential narrative. One wonders if the US retains its special "chosen" status when it accepts homosexuality, sex and violence in the media, or an increasingly distant relationship between church and state. Eventually, the providential narrative must wither and die out if the US continues on its historical trajectory of granting more freedom, more recognition, greater tolerance and greater neutrality (and therefore secularism) in the public sphere.

America today is a basically secular society composed of basically secular people, who nonetheless largely convince themselves they follow traditional Christian values. When Americans begin to realize that they really are secular, except in name, and recognize that their secular status has not had a negative social outcome, but rather has enhanced their society and made it more free and more creative and more prosperous, the final piece of the secular puzzle will be in place. Americans, by embracing and affirming secularism instead of pointlessly fighting it, will then realize significant cultural and economic prosperity.


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    • secularist10 profile imageAUTHOR


      7 years ago from New York City


      Yes, the Founding Fathers emphasized avoiding government interference in religion, rather than the other way around. They also constructed a system that constitutionally legitimized race-based slavery. So what. Times change.

      The fact is that if the government is not going to impose a religion on the people, then the government itself must be free from religious interference.

      Here is a similar situation: suppose Democrats enjoyed special privileges in the government. They could pass laws more easily, set policy more quickly than Republicans, etc. Would you think that is fair? Probably not. You would say the government must be a neutral body with respect to political ideology so that people who do not accept that ideology are not forced into it unfairly. Well, it's the same thing with religion.

      This is NOT a Christian nation (see my hub on this topic). This is a nation where millions of people live, some of them Christians, most of them not (even if they claim to be so-called "Christians"). It is a diverse society that permits freedom of religion.

      You cannot have true freedom of religion for all citizens if the state favors one religion over others. It's very simple.

    • profile image

      Tony Thomas 

      7 years ago

      A lot of the Laws- Roe V Wade, The Madelin O'Hara Lawsuit, the Guy who wanted the Pledge of Allegience removed from schools on behalf of his daughter- If you read the facts, They were all "holow and Unlawful Cases- Based on lies. Roe- Withdrew- The lawyer pressed it on, If there is no accuser how can you have a case? YOu Can't. But These people sought out those who willfully diregard the law to push their political aggenda. The Guy for his daughter- She loved the "Pledge", and when asked, she smiled, said she loved it and happily recited it. Watch the Youtube Video on 'The Pledge'by Red Skelton. The Prayer out of Schools- Madeline O'hara used her son as the patsy for it, and he said he never had a problem- Yet the woman had it and the 10 Commandments removed from schools. Chief Justice Warren said He pushed for it: "Because kids may read the Ten Commandments and actually do them." That was the Quote! Um, What is wrong with that?!? You also have this MYTH of "The Separation of Church And State" Nowhere in the Constitution or any Legal Documents is there a "Separation of Church and State" The premise the Anti- Christian heritage groups and Athiest as well as other Anti-religious establishment 'revisionists' decry is pulled from Thomas Jefferson. They twisted the issue. Where it is even mentioned- and they had to pour through tens of thousands of letters and documents and in a Letter to the Danburry Baptists, there is a sentence out of the multiple page letter-which actually has "...a hedge of separation of the church and the Government". The concern was, as in England, that there would be an establishment of ONE DENOMINATION for the whole country. Since that Denomination in England was Episcipalian- A Puppet Church- King Henry VIII and his other lackeys in Parliament pulled the strings to keep taxing, and put under oppression the people of the land. Thomas Jefferson said ', that will not happpen, you will be free to worship under ANY denomination and have any church in the area to go to. You will be free to exercise your faith and prostelitize freely and without the Government interfering, there will be a hedge of separation of church and state...'. The letter went on, and was established in the 1st Amendment for the freedom of speech, and free exercise of religion. Jefferson and others who established the Country, the laws, and promoted the lifestyle the Colonies would adhere to put the responsibility of behavior squarely on the people. It also said the Bible is important in all our duties, that we should not 'take off' our religious convictions as one would their coat when entering their workplace or halls of governing. He established many Christian based models into effect. George Washington expressed the necessity of the bible being taught in schools, and the Founders countributed to ensuring that everyone in the schools, or other places of Office could have a bible there for study,meditation, guidance in the times of turmoil. But see, history in schools are shorter , general, and now being rewritten to omit any of the fact- you actually can go and read the documents and there are thousands of volumes which are from believers and non-believers, and those who sat on the fence, but all agreed, that for asociety to prosper- it was not under an Earthy King, but by a 'Divine' one which 'reins in the Heavenlies' and the accountability on each individual for their behavior and character. Funny, People want to cry out this is a Democracy. Well, if that were true. then how come ONE PERSON, then a group of FOUR, gained power through the Courts to dictate to 60 million Christians that they cannot do prayers before a game; That they cannot have holidays and displays on property or schools of a Christian nature, While other 'Cultural and Religious holidays-even NNEW AGE CELEBRATIONS are not only allowed, but forced down the throats of others?!? If "SOMEONE MIGHT BE OFFENDED" Is the only excuse-Then SCREW THEM! People at a ball game who support one team may have people offend them who support the other team. So, following the logic of those Anti-Christian and Jewish Groups, we should throw them out, or lock them up for "Hate Crimes and INTOLLERANCE" or arrest them because they may Offend someone? Should all memorabilia be forbidden to be in the stadium, or on the vehicles in the parking lot? BY THE STANDARDS FORCED UPON BELIEVERS: YES!! Anyone can be Offended- By anything for any reason, but the Political Correctness Nazis think they should make the rules, and the Constitution, "THE LETTER OF THE LAW AND THE INTENT THEREOF" Which Lawyers and Judges use in argueing the cases and motivations- have been wilfuly omitted/carelessly twisted, or thrown out- When determining all these things we see, hear, and experience in the perversion of our rights. YES,PEOPLE OF DIFFERENT RELIGIONS ARE HERE- EVEN THOSE OF THE ANTI RELIGION RELIGION- BUT THEY ARE FREE TO EXCUSE THEMSELVES FROM OUR ACTIVITIES! If I were in China or Japan, and in an area where the Budhists, the other religious entities are worshipped and I were to say "I am offended, I am uncomfortable" Do you honestly think anyone is going to go "Politically Correct" on them? If I don't like the traditions/culture/history of a land- They will kick me out- or if Gracious, say "If you are offened, you have three options:1. Excuse yourself from the ceremonies. 2. Remain silent on the matter. 3. Pack your belongings and go to another Country." If in the Middle East- They go Gangsta on you if you are not Muslim and it is the Prodominant religion. They extort 'protection money',the kick you out and TAKE your stuff, they kill you if you don't convert to their religion. Oh, and the first 'hint' of infidelity to the faith, they rape your wife, take your kids, kill you and burn your home to the ground. "Have a 'blessed' day!" Nowhere else in the World- Either 'Super Power', or 3rd world dustbowl will behavior like this be tollerated! Yet, people force "POST MODERNISTIC" and "POLITICALLY CORRECT" ideologies uupon everyone-Demanding "TOLLERANCE", yet, when we exercise our religion quietly, or in numbers, then "Tollerance" is tossed out the window, and they become hatefilled people who can't stand the Jewish/Christian way. Also it is a Myth that America- the United States was not founded, was not intended as a Judeo-Christian Nation. It is by the convictions of openess that promoted bringing others to the United States.Pilgrims who were escaping persecution from those intollerant TOLLERANCE groups risked their lives, sold their belongings to go to a new land, where though unknown, would be the opportunity to follow the Lord into a new land of Milk and honey. Other immigrants saw the prosperity and left oppression and worse to come here and begin anew. Man is fallen, man has a carnal and spiritual side. And as that delicious food lures to it, or the sexy person lures you to them when young , man's greed and 'not following the tenants' of religion even the simplest "DO UNTO OTHERS AS YOU WOULD HAVE THEM DO UNTO YOU" is forgortten for greed and selfish ambition, and for that the country went through many dark periods in which it is ashamed. But for people who actually get off their butts and read history and research- They will find, as long as a personal ethics, moral society is in place the society will press forward and grow. When laws and morality are diluded and removed, then the society goes into chaos, turmoil and collapses! Every single one of them. The reason the US is in the crap it's in is because of the same thing. and it is- As in the old Testament, then carrying over into the NEw.... 'God's People, noth the 'HEATHENS/ANTI-RELIGIOUS' are called to turn from other distractions/ idols- to come back to God, to repent, to get right with/Obey God and DO HIS WILL NOT OUR OWN FLESHLY DESIRES- then God will hear His People,forgive them, heal their lands, restore and then bless the people. It is up to us to be the Watchmen- To hold standards, To maintain the laws which coinside with the Word and Will of God, and in that, The "Lost" Can buck and growl, and be offended all they want, But if Christians beha

    • secularist10 profile imageAUTHOR


      8 years ago from New York City

      Texas beta,

      Right, as I mentioned, some of these measures have improved in more recent years, whereas if you just look at the 1950s to 1990s data it would probably be skewed. Which is precisely the kind of stuff that those who argue "America is going to the dogs" do.

      The stats you cited, though, show that SAT scores have indeed reduced. Not sure I buy the drugs thing you mentioned. Crime is crime, as far as I'm concerned. Yes, laws change. But the idea is that society is the one making these laws, so if someone from society breaks the law, it's a legitimate data point. Otherwise we get into a slippery slope of calling things "real crimes" versus "quasi crimes" or whatever. Only in a dictatorial system like China would that kind of exercise be warranted.

      Bottom line, my main point is right--secularism has contributed to increased American prosperity and wellbeing in a number of ways.

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      That just isn't correct though, as much as I support your point. Only 8000 students took the SAT in 1948, when this law was enacted. The average score was 530 Verbal and 509 Math, but in 2008, the scores were on average 502 MTH and 515 Verbal. So, have they fallen? Nope. Look at the records and you'll find the 70s were the only dip in scores. They haven't gone down, and now we have millions participating.

      Crime has risen since the 60s, but dropped sharply in 1993 and has been dropping ever since. Now, take into consideration that we have moved into a prison culture in the time between 1948 and 2010. It is a for profit industry, and account for the 2nd largest lobby in the US. They get 35k a prisoner, and spend about 3 grand. The rest goes into pockets. The more they outlaw, the more money they make. That in itself skews the results, and then add in for profit prisons and you see the cause/effect. We hold 5% of the population and 25% of the incarcerated. What has changed since 1948? DRUGS. Over 60% in jail are there for drugs, and of those in for drugs, 64% are in there for marijuana. This entire argument for higher crime rates is flawed.

      With regards to teenage birth rates, right now we are at 51.1 birth per 1000 adolescent females, which is EXACTLY the same as in 1920. Though it is impossible to account for all teenage pregnancies, since not all result in births, the technical rates aren't any different. What has changed? Well, now it is illegal to marry children, whereas in your opponent's "golden era", pedophilia was legal. Hell, Elvis moved in Priscilla at age 14 and that was in the 50s. Snap out of it people. In the 40s women were property, beaten and raped with no recourse, and minorities were beaten, raped and lynched as a part of an American institution with little or no recourse. That was by no means a good time, regardless of whether or not Grampa Stew got to say prayers over the intercom in school or not.

    • secularist10 profile imageAUTHOR


      8 years ago from New York City

      Texasbeta, thanks for visiting.

      I actually think James is generally correct on most of the points, from what I have read in the social science literature and crime stats. His flaw is his interpretation of the data, the causes, the remedies, etc, as I detailed in my response.

      I don't know about the specific percentage increases or decreases he is referring to, but that is not really important as far as I'm concerned, because we do know SAT scores have fallen, crime has increased, etc. during the second half of the 20th century.

      However, he neglected to mention that some of these measures have improved more recently, even as religiosity has continued to decline.

      I just think it's too bad he hasn't come back to respond yet.

    • profile image


      8 years ago

      James - I'll mail you $20 bucks right now if you can list when that date was, and reference each statistic you listed. Hell, I'll send you $100. You are pulling it out of your ass is what I am saying.

      Secondly, children CAN read the Bible in school, any school, legally. Additionally, 6 states have Bible classes in elementary schools. Grow up. You are basically full of s$#t and your entire point is void. Try again.

    • secularist10 profile imageAUTHOR


      8 years ago from New York City

      James, thanks for coming. Not sure why you're so surprised, I am the "secularist" after all :)

      Let me take your points one by one:

      1. SAT scores have dropped 25 percent

      Much of the deterioration of American public education can be traced to the stodgy teachers unions, a decline in the value placed on teaching as a profession in the larger culture, superior economic opportunities for well-educated people (finance, law, etc), and a "throw-money-at-it" attitude on the part of state and local governments, instead of addressing the real structural problems. Also curriculum issues and lack of discipline.

      NONE of these things have anything to do with the religious beliefs or lack thereof of anybody. I know this because in other rich countries that are more secular, where God plays little or no role, education outcomes are superior. So God or lack thereof has nothing to do with education outcomes.

      2. violent crime increased 700 percent

      I'm not sure if this is true, but it sounds plausible. This largely has to do with corrupt and inefficient state and local governments, rising inequality, the culture of poverty, glorification of prison and gangs, etc.

      Again, little or nothing to do with lack of religion (in fact many criminals are religious in one way or another, such as devoutly catholic Mafia men). I know this because in other rich countries that are MUCH more secular than the US, there is MUCH less violent crime.

      3. divorce rates doubled

      This has to do with the decline in respect for marriage. Marriage is a traditionally religious institution, therefore divorce is only a problem if one sees religion as important. I, of course, don't see religion as important, therefore marriage, per se, is not important, and therefore divorce is not a concern.

      What really is important is stable relationships. But since stable relationships have only ever occurred within religious bounds in this culture, as those religious bounds are removed, stable relationships are thrown out of whack. Thus we need stable relationships to be maintained outside of religion, and that's the direction (thankfully) the culture is moving in.

      4. unmarried couples living together increased 600 percent

      Again, this is only a problem if one believes this is a problem. This is actually quite common in secular Western Europe, and their societies are just as stable as America. I think this development is perfectly fine, because it does not have negative consequences.

      5. single parent households have tripled

      See #3 and #4 above.

      6. premarital sex increased 400 percent

      This is a good thing. If more people had more sex more often, there would probably be less violence and problems in the world. Sex has been shown to have many positive psychological effects.

      7. illegitimate births quadrupled

      "Illegitimate" is your designation. In some other rich countries that are more secular, the majority of people are born out-of-wedlock, yet the society does not suffer as a result.

      8. pregnancies among girls under 15 years old have increased 600 percent

      This has happened because of greater sexual activity, coupled with inadequate safe sex practices. If teenagers were instructed in proper safe sex (which the conservative Christians will not support), this would not happen. For example, in other rich countries that are more secular (noticing a theme here?), safe sex is taught to young people, and is universally supported by the society, and--surprise, surprise--there are MUCH lower rates of teenage pregnancy and abortion.

      Predictably, in the US, those states that place greater emphasis on safe sex education have less teen pregnancy than states that don't teach safe sex ed (such as in the South).

      9. sexually transmitted diseases have tripled.

      See above. In other rich secular countries, there is more sex education, as much or more sexual activity among teenagers and young people, and yet LOWER rates of STDs.

      10. Coincidence?

      What we have witnessed is the inevitable result when a society shifts from its previously established norms, WHETHER OR NOT THOSE NORMS ARE CORRECT. Religion and church life had undergirded American life for a long time, so when the society shifted away from religion, there were speedbumps. However, as secular values and lifestyle have become more established and normalized, the society has gotten back on track.

      New York City under Giuliani, for example, significantly reduced crime and urban decay in the 1990s, and New York has returned to being a world class city deserving of the name. Yet there has not been an increase in religiosity. Quite the contrary, in fact--religiosity has continued its decline in New York.

      And once again, we can look to other countries, where secularism has been the cultural and political norm for much longer. And yet, these countries have less STDs, less teen pregnancy, less violent crime, less crime in general, better health outcomes, less abortion and better education outcomes.

      One more thing:

      "The godless are not willing to worship a God who makes demands on them about how they should live, especially if it puts some physical pleasures off limits."

      You should know better than to say that by now, James. It's not that I am "afraid" of a judgmental God (I know this is what it says in the Bible about "the godless" but it's wrong). I don't worship any gods because there is no proof that they exist and there is no reason to.

    • James A Watkins profile image

      James A Watkins 

      8 years ago from Chicago

      Most of this is a pretty good article that I enjoyed reading. But I almost fell out of my chair when you said this:

      "recognize that their secular status has not had a negative social outcome"

      You have got to be kidding. Since the Supreme Court of the United States banned God from the public schools, SAT scores have dropped 25 percent; violent crime increased 700 percent; divorce rates doubled; unmarried couples living together increased 600 percent; single parent households have tripled; premarital sex increased 400 percent; illegitimate births quadrupled; pregnancies among girls under 15 years old have increased 600 percent; sexually transmitted diseases have tripled. Coincidence?

      "Men have forgotten God; that's why all this has happened." Alexander Solzhenitsyn

      Here is the philosophy of secular humanism in its simplest form:

      "The purpose of man is like the purpose of a pollywog - to wiggle along as far as he can without dying . . . " Clarence Darrow

      The first amendment of the Constitution never says religion must be separated from society. Today a child cannot read the Bible in school, but can read the Communist Manifesto, which Stalin and Mao held to be their Bible when they murdered 80 million people.

      The Supreme Court has steadily advanced the rights of individuals in regard to non-religious expression; while steadily curtailing the rights of individuals in regard to expression of their Christian faith. The Court has decided that it is a grave harm to godless individuals to hear or see expressions of the Christian faith.

      The godless are not willing to worship a God who makes demands on them about how they should live, especially if it puts some physical pleasures off limits.

      Hostility to the Christian faith has predictably led to a great lowering of standards of personal conduct, civility, self-restraint, and the work ethic; and an explosion of crime, corruption, and the degeneration of our culture. This puts democracy at risk.

    • secularist10 profile imageAUTHOR


      8 years ago from New York City

      Tony, glad you enjoyed it. The evolution thing is indeed quite annoying. If it weren't for some of these fundamentalists, we wouldn't have to worry about creationism and the disrespect for science. The secular state is indeed essential to our modern prosperity and success. It's too bad it isn't recognized enough nowadays. Good to see you.

    • tonymac04 profile image

      Tony McGregor 

      8 years ago from South Africa

      This is an excellent read which has helped me understand a lot of the vituperation I have read on HubPages about atheists and evolution. I think that a secular state is essential to human liberty and human liberty is essential to human development.

      Thanks for the enlightenment.

      Love and peace


    • secularist10 profile imageAUTHOR


      9 years ago from New York City

      Yes, of course! Kansas was in a controversy several years ago for backing the teaching of intelligent design in public schools--very apropos. I've spent a lot of time in New York, and I plan on moving there soon. Great city, lots of energy, and very secular feel.

    • Jane Bovary profile image

      Jane Bovary 

      9 years ago from The Fatal Shore

      No...I never have been to the US. I will one day I hope...and yes it is a dynamic nation. It's also the KIng of popular culture. Over the last 50 years or so Australia has really shifted from a British-influenced culture to an American one. ..although we are not very religious at all. [Thank god]

      The US is very large and diverse as you say...there must be a very different feel if you live in New York to say.. Kansas.

    • secularist10 profile imageAUTHOR


      9 years ago from New York City

      Thank you, Jane. I appreciate the compliments.

      Yes, the US has many complicated and contradictory tendencies--a constant source of tension, but also dynamism. Things also vary significantly by region here, since it is so big with such a large population.

      I seem to recall a study indicating Australia is one of the most secular populations on earth. I think I might enjoy it there, from what I've seen.

      So now I see why your comments tend to come in the middle of the night!

      Have you ever been to the US?

    • Jane Bovary profile image

      Jane Bovary 

      9 years ago from The Fatal Shore

      Another terrific hub live up to your name. And I might add, your writing is flawless and very readable.

      America is an odd blend of religious puritanism and capitalist's a complex place I suppose. Australia has a very secular flavour, although unfortunately at the moment we have a Christian Priminister who on occasion, finds it necessary to impose his moral values on the rest of us through legislation.

    • secularist10 profile imageAUTHOR


      9 years ago from New York City

      HSchneider, the rise of the religious right is something to be expected with every lurch forward the secular side makes. We saw it in the early 20th century with the origins of modern American Christian fundamentalism as a reaction against secularist progress in politics and culture (think of the temperance movement, prohibition and Scopes), and we have seen it since the 1970s as a reaction against progress for women, homosexuals, disco and Howard Stern.

      I always remember the brief period of power for English Puritans in the 1600s, and how their regulations against gambling and prostitution, making church attendance mandatory, and how the English people (even in that earlier time) didn't like it.

      So I would say we on the secular side should be ready to fight the conservatives and fundamentalists whenever necessary, but take heart in the fact that, ultimately, history is very much on our side. Human nature, at the fundamental level, is also on our side--humans are basically creatures of this world, and should therefore put this world's needs and wants first.

      That's why, even though I'm largely unimpressed with the Tea Party talk of reducing deficits, as long as anybody--left or right--is talking standard of living stuff, they are playing right into the secular worldview that has served us all so well. That's what makes the secular modern world different from the medieval world that valued the next life above this one.

      Thanks for visiting.

    • profile image

      Howard Schneider 

      9 years ago from Parsippany, New Jersey

      I agree with you that this country is largely secular and will most likely continue on this road. But I have been alarmed at the extent the fundamentalist Christian right has entered the political fray since Roe v. Wade. They have influenced our politics since then in a very nasty and intolerant way often pushing out more civil discourse. I fear this is rising again with the Tea Party people. Though their main argument is against big government and deficits, I believe they have a hidden agenda that includes a rise of the fundamentalist right. The fears that 9/11 created in our society may have exacerbated this feeling also. Thanks for your thoughtful hub. I very much hope you are correct in your assessment of the growing U.S. secular society. Our democracy is dependent on it.

    • secularist10 profile imageAUTHOR


      9 years ago from New York City

      Thanks for visiting, voice

    • thevoice profile image


      9 years ago from carthage ill

      excellent great read thanks


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