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What Does Separation of Church and State Mean?

Updated on January 1, 2018

Supreme Court Building

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The History of Separation of Church and State

Many people say the phrase “separation of Church and State”, but they have no idea where it came from or what it means. Most know that it came from Thomas Jefferson but few know what the context was. To most people it means that the churches, or religion, has no place in political affairs. To most people it means that religion needs to stay out of people’s lives.

Furthermore, most people today think that Christianity has to get with the times and be forced to go against their own beliefs. The fight against Christianity is real and the war is raged on multiple fronts. And leading the charge is the phrase "separation of church and state".

However, that is not at all what the phrase means. Going back into time we can see the first instance of the phrase. Thomas Jefferson had become elected President of the United States of America. The Danbury Baptist Church wrote a letter to President Jefferson.

The Danbury Baptist Letter

"Our sentiments are uniformly on the side of religious liberty: that Religion is at all times and places a matter between God and individuals, that no man ought to suffer in name, person, or effects on account of his religious opinions, [and] that the legitimate power of civil government extends no further than to punish the man who works ill to his neighbor. But sir, our constitution of government is not specific . . . And such has been our laws and usages, and such still are, [so] that Religion is considered as the first object of Legislation, and therefore what religious privileges we enjoy . . . we enjoy as favors granted, and not as inalienable rights . . . It is not to be wondered at therefore, if those who seek after power and gain, under the pretense of government and Religion, should reproach their fellow men, [or] should reproach their Chief Magistrate, as an enemy of religion, law, and good order . . ."

The Danbury Baptist Church was afraid of what is going on right now. They feared that the Government would overstep its bounds and make policies and laws that restricted religious practice and infringe on their rights. They wrote this letter to congratulate Thomas Jefferson on his win as President and to ask his views on religious freedom and the first amendment.

They wanted to make sure that they could practice as they saw fit and to insure religious freedom for all. In their eyes the first amendment was not enough to have peace in their minds that the Government would not protect religious liberty and freedom.

They foresaw how enemies of religion would us the government as a weapon and they wanted to have the insurance of Jefferson that this would never happen. We can see in the letter how desperate they were in wanting to know if their religious freedoms would indeed be protected. They wanted to know that the liberties and freedoms they enjoyed were indeed rights and not merely favors granted to them by the government.

The White House

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Thomas Jefferson's Reply


In reply Thomas Jefferson sent his own letter.

"Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between man and his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legislative powers of government reach actions only, and not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature would 'make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,' thus building a wall of separation between Church and State."

http://www.billofrightsinstitute.org/founding-documents/primary-source-documents/danburybaptists/ for the full correspondence.

As we can read from Jefferson's own words that the first amendment was indeed a wall separating the religious liberties from the Government. He made it plain and clear that all religious freedoms were protected under the first amendment.

He believed that only God can dictate how man practices his faith and that no outside forces, including the government can interfere. The government cannot say how, where, or even when to worship. Government cannot even dictate that churches have to do something contrary to their belief.

In his letter, Jefferson put at ease the minds of the church leaders. Their religious freedoms were indeed inalienable rights and the government could not take away those rights. No matter what other people said or did, religious freedom was to be protected as rights under the first amendment. This amendment was to be an impenetrable wall between religious freedom and a corruptible government.

The United States of America was founded on Religion

From this exchange of letters we see that Thomas Jefferson reciprocated the feelings of this congregation. He believed that the government had no right or power over the churches and religion. He knew that America and the constitution were created on the basis of religion. The power of religion was within the people and the government could never take that away. This is what is meant by separation of Church and State. The State cannot take control of the Church, or religion. The letter clearly states that the first amendment was the wall of separation between religion and government. The government cannot create a State Church, like the Church of England, and the government cannot and does not have the power to tell religions to do something contrary to their religion.

The creation of the US and the Constitution was done on the basis of Judeo-Christianity. The reason why the first amendment talks about the freedom of religion is based on the idea that God gives us these rights and privileges. It is by His goodness that we exist and we can live in a free land. Without His grace and mercy we are not. The Founding Fathers wanted religion to be a major part of the nation. They knew how important religion was to them and to the people and so they wrote the first amendment to protect that right. And with these two letters the first amendment is even further cemented into the nation and the people.

Even though the Founding Fathers were diverse in how they practiced their faith, they were all Christian men and followed their own dictates to follow God. Those who profess that the Founding Fathers were otherwise take some of their words out of context. James Madison and Thomas Jefferson are often quoted of their views about religion and are always misconstrued and quoted out of context. They certainly had different views on religion but as they both of said many times they were Christians.

The First Amendment Combined with Jefferson's Letter Shows the Importance of Religious Freedom

When people think of the first amendment, they usually only think of freedom of speech. However, that phrase is only said once. The majority of the writing talks about the freedom of religion.

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

This amendment, along with Jefferson’s letter, shows how much religion was important to the Founding Fathers.

From the first amendment to the actual letter from Jefferson that talks about the separation of church and state we see clearly that the wall between church and state is for the freedom of religion and the freedom to worship without government interference. The phrase has been misused by people who don’t have the same views as those that are found in religious organizations. These people try to use these phrase as a government-guided club against religion. The Founding Fathers understood how easily the government can become corrupt and destroy the lives of the people. And so they created documents to help ensure the freedoms of the people. It is no coincidence that the first amendment talks about the freedom of religion, speech, press, assembly, and petitioning the government. For when a government starts to become corrupt, they first target these things to silence the people and spread their own words and propaganda. We must always be vigilant in our freedoms or we will see them all gone and a tyrannical government will have risen.

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© 2018 RichardBBenson

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