The American Tradition of Separation of Church and State

Under our constitution, the United Statues must keep church separate from government. The history of the church state debate started in colonial America.
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Is America a theocracy? Are we in fear of becoming one? A theocracy is a state with an official religion and whose rulers have civil and religious authority. In a theocracy, rulers pass religious laws. If the rulers of a state do not have religious authority, but do endorse a religion or religious belief, that endorsement by definition is a state religion, or established religion. An established religion is not allowed, nor desired, in America.

Let’s explore…

First Amendment: No Religious Laws

Under our constitution, America cannot prefer one religion over another. Here is the First Amendment of the Constitution of the United States of America:

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.”

Roger Williams, the Founder of Freedom of Conscience

Let’s explore where the first amendment came from and why. As Americans, we tend to think our history started with the Declaration of Independence in 1776 as if nothing occurred prior to that date. For more than a century and a half prior to the Declaration of Independence, America was debating freedom of and from religion. In fact, there were many religions present in the American Colonies.

Roger Williams is arguably the founder of modern American society. The founder of our modern pluralistic American society led by and blending multiple languages, religions, and cultures with a focus on freedom of conscience. The government’s primary goal is to facilitate the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Williams was a minister, and author who was a staunch advocate for religious freedom including a lack of religion, separation of church and state, fair dealings with Native Americans, and one of the first abolitionists. At a minimum, Roger Williams influenced the founding fathers and the constitution of the United States. Many consider him to be one of our founding fathers. Roger Williams is my 10th Great Grandpa! I consider him to be our most important founding father.

At the founding of the American Colonies, back in England, the Protestant Church of England tolerated little from Puritan rebels within the Protestant faith, and nothing from Roman Catholics or any other religion. Your only choice, was to figure out how to fit in within their society abiding by all religious and civil laws. If you could not fit in, the church-state would fine, jail, and/or whip you. If you refused to repent, you were banished or killed. The thought police would persecute anyone who thought differently then they did.

Those Puritan rebels, and others, fled to America for freedom of conscience reasons, one of the primary reasons for the Great Migration of the 1600s. Soon after the arrival of Puritans, they established several religious church-state colonies of their own. In these first colonies, the thought police would fine, jail, and whip you if you did not attend church and conform to their religious ideas. If you did not repent, they would hang or banish you from their jurisdiction. If you tried to return to the safety of the colony and still refused to repent, they would sentence you to death, and hang or shoot you. The Puritans and Pilgrims brought England’s religious persecution with them. The  hypocritical persecution was exactly the same as the persecution they fled from back in England.

Enter Roger Williams (1603?-1683) and the great liberal debate. Starting from the very first weeks of his arrival on February 5, 1631, Williams dissented from the Plymouth colonial church-state, debated, and persuaded. After five years, he lost the battle and was banished from the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Rather than face going back to England for trial, he escaped into the wilderness in January 1636, bought land from the Narragansett tribe, and founded New Providence, which became Providence Plantations, and later the colony of Rhode Island, and eventually the state of Rhode Island.

From the very first months in the summer of 1636, Providence was a safe haven for anyone banished from the other colonies by the thought police. Providence had civil laws, but no laws limiting freedom of conscience. Roger Williams established the first freedom of conscience colony in the American Colonies. He allowed free thinking of all. He welcomed Muslims, Jews, Quakers, Native Americans, non-believers, everybody. They had a right to participate in any religion they wanted, or not.

Like everybody, Roger Williams thought his particular religion was correct. He thought others were wrong, and felt for them because they were risking their soul. He tried to persuade them through debate, but allowed them to believe whatever they wish so long as civil laws were obeyed. Prior to about 1638, he faithfully preached the Protestant faith. In late 1638, he lost faith, became a Seeker, and converted to the Baptist faith in 1639. Over the next four decades, he debated anyone who would answer his call to debate religion.

His colony became the state of Rhode Island and the Providence Plantations. He was a key figure in changing religious persecution. He is best known for planting the seeds of freedom of and from religion in New England, and Old. He persuaded the King who then included the same verbiage for other colonies around the world. From my viewpoint, my 10th Great Grandpa Roger Williams represented the soul of America. Although one man could not take full credit, one could legitimately argue that modern society all around the world owes their liberty and freedom of conscience to this one man. His input had a lasting influence around the world.

First and Second Tables

When discussing law and the separation of church and state during the time of Roger Williams, it’s important to understand the first and second tables. According to the Hebrew Bible, the “Tables of the Law”, or Stone Tablets, were the two pieces of stone inscribed with the Ten Commandments. For analysis, you can split the 10 commandments into two categories, or tables. The First table consists of purely religious matters. The Second Table consists of civil matters.  These concepts are useful for discussing the role of government and church in making and enforcing all laws, not just the ten commandments. You can assign new laws to either the first or second tables. Essentially splitting laws into religious and civil.

Roger Williams and many others of the time struggled with many questions like the following:

  • Should the government have a say in religious matters?
  • Should the church have a say in enforcing civil matters?
  • Should the church enforce religious matters? If so, how strict? Can they fine? Jail? Kill?
  • What actions can and should a church take to enforce their rules?

The Separation of Religious and Civil Laws

The separation of church and state is about separating religious laws from civil laws and enforcing only the civil laws. It’s not only about religious freedom, it’s also about no punishment of any kind no matter what you believe. Yes, that also means religious freedom as well as freedom from religion. True individual freedom of thought.

1644 Book: The Bloudy Tenent of Persecution by Roger Williams

The Bloudy Tenet of Persecution. Printed in the Year 1644.

The year 1644 is the year the world received a great gift. Roger Williams published his “Bloody” book. Many historians consider The Bloudy Tenent of Persecution his most famous work. He wrote Bloody after traveling from New England to London and arriving in midsummer 1643. His book was on sale by July 15, 1644.

It is a fierce attack on religious and political intolerance in both Old England and New. He advocated for free thought and belief because he felt that punishing those that did not believe was not part of his faith and government must be separate from religion.

Roger Williams advocated for and wrote extensively about…

…a hedge or wall of separation between the Garden of the Church and the Wilderness of the world.

His ideas raised questions and challenges but his ideas endured over time.

Roger Williams promoted the concept of liberty of conscience; of freedom of and from religion.

A good example of how Roger’s concerns differed from aristocratic traditions of the time is demonstrated in the preface of his “Bloody” book.

“Two mountains of crying guilt lie heavy upon the backs of all men that name the name of Christ, in the eyes of Jews, Turks, and pagans.
First, the blasphemies of their idolatrous inventions, superstitions, and most unchristian conversations.
Secondly, the bloody, irreligious and inhuman oppressions and destructions under the mask or veil of the name of Christ, etc.” –R.W., preface to Bloudy.

In the above passages, Roger Williams was concerned with how Christians were being perceived by “others”, and how Christians were using their religion to justify various punishments on those that did not believe.

Later, in 1655 when the Providence colony shocked the other colonies by welcoming Jewish settlers. Roger Williams visited with them in Newport and wrote a famous letter in response to the charge that he advocated infinite liberty of conscience. The story in the letter has become known as the Parable of the Ship and is used as an illustration of separation of church and state.

Parable of the Ship by Roger Williams, 1655

Here is the relevant passage–edited for clarity:

“…There goes many a ship to sea, with many hundred souls in one ship, …and is a true picture…[of a] society. …papists and protestants, Jews and Turks, may be embarked in one ship; …All …I pleaded for… [were these] two hinges –

[FIRST] that none of the papists, protestants, Jews, or Turks, be forced to come to the ship’s prayers or worship, nor compelled from their own particular prayers or worship, if they practice any.

[SECOND] …the commander of this ship ought to command the ship’s course, …and also command that justice, peace, sobriety, be kept and practiced, both among the seamen and all the passengers. If any of the seamen refuse to perform their services, or passengers to pay their freight; if any refuse to help…towards the common …defense; if any refuse to obey the common laws …if any shall mutiny …if any should preach…that there ought to be no commanders or officers…the commander …may judge…and punish such transgressors…” –Roger Williams, 1655.

The seeds of freedom and liberty he sowed, lasted. For example, in 1802 Thomas Jefferson authored a letter with the following passage:

“Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God, …the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, & not opinions, …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 & State.” –Thomas Jefferson, January 1, 1802

Article VI: Reps Must Uphold the Constitution; and No Religious Test

Article 6 of the Constitution requires representatives to uphold the Constitution no matter what their personal beliefs. Reps can have their own beliefs because of freedom of conscience, but they must uphold the Constitution. It’s up to that Rep’s constituents to vote them in, and out. For example, a KKK White Supremacist could be elected to Congress (and has), but they must uphold the Constitution. They must uphold the separation of church and state.

“The Senators and Representatives…and the Members of the…State Legislatures, and all executive and judicial Officers…shall be bound…to support this Constitution; but no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.”

American Values

Was America founded on Judeo Christian values? No! That’s absurd. Someone claiming that is trying to disparage other religions and cultures using a passive aggressive technique. When someone says that statement they are both cherry picking a few values and ignoring so much about the founding of America. They are ignoring all the other unique non Judeo Christian values, the values in common with others, and the invention of values unique to America.

On the other hand, one could argue that America was founded on the core values of Rhode Island–a multi-cultural, multi-religion society based on equality and freedoms. The King of England sanctioned the lively experiment of freedom of conscience in Roger Williams’ Providence Plantations. That experiment grew into complete freedom of conscience, freedom of and from religion, in a civil multi-religious multi-cultural society. That freedom and liberty was manifested by our founding fathers in the constitution.

In 1663, King Charles the Second granted an updated Royal Charter to the Colony of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations. It had much of the same text as the original charter crafted by Roger Williams from 1644. The charter was in force 180 years from July 8, 1663, until the adoption of the R.I. Constitution in May, 1843.

Here is just a bit of the pertinent text–edited for clarity:

“Charles the Second, by the Grace of God, King of England, Scotland, France and Ireland, Defender of the Faith, etc.

To All to whom these presents shall come, greeting.

Whereas, we have been informed…on the behalf of …Roger Williams, Thomas Olney…and the rest…that they…have freely declared, that it is much on their hearts…to hold forth a lively experiment

…that a most flourishing civil state may stand and best be maintained…with…full liberty in religious concernments.

…know ye, that we, being willing to encourage the hopeful undertaking…to secure…the free exercise and enjoyment of all their civil and religious rights…and because some of the people…cannot, in their private opinions, conform to the public exercise of religion…or take or subscribe the oaths…our royal will and pleasure is, that no person within the said colony…shall be…punished, disquieted, or called in question, for any differences in opinion in matters of religion…

…all and every person…may…freely and fully have and enjoy…their own judgments and consciences, in matters of religious concernments…

…And that they may be in the better capacity to defend themselves, in their just rights and liberties, against all…enemies…”

The conflict between liberals and conservatives is part of our American heritage! It is false to claim America was founded on Judeo-Christian values. True, Judeo-Christian values were around, but so was Judaism, Islam, polytheistic religions, and non-believers such as agnostics, and atheists. The religious right can take pride in their Judeo-Christian values, but should realize that America was founded on a complete separation of church and state — a complete freedom of thought, believe, and actions so long as no others were hurt or persecuted, and all civil laws were obeyed.

Speak Up!

The American liberal progressive movement goes back to the very beginning of the American colonies in the 1630s, and directly influenced our founding fathers. If you agree with the constitutional viewpoint of this article, realize you have a right, perhaps an obligation, to stand up for the separation of church and state. This includes correcting people who claim America was founded on Judeo Christian principles. In my opinion, the belief that we are a Judeo Christian country, is Un-American. Don’t get me wrong, people are entitled to Un-American beliefs because of their right to freedom of conscience. However, the rest of us have a right to put forth a valid argument against that belief to support those with the same viewpoint, for discussion by all, and to persuade as many as we can toward our well established constitutional viewpoint and American tradition.

 

Hidden Div…

All of us can and should take pride in our heritage. Native Americans were here many generations before Europeans and perhaps can and should take the most pride. The Spanish, French, Dutch, and many others immigrated during this time as well. The rest of us immigrated here. You can take pride in your heritage whether you are Native American, 1/1024th Native American, your immigrant ancestors came here during colonial times, or your immigrant parents came here a few generations ago. But, one should also see their history clearly using the sober lense of time.

Influence on the Founding Fathers and Others

…Benedict Arnold was a traitor. His name lives on in infamy, but his legacy is only that.

…Plato’s legacy was large. He influenced many.

Many including Roger Williams had a profound impact on the founding fathers. Two biographies of Roger Williams were published in 1776 reminding Americans of WiIliams’ progressive ideas just as we ourselves were rebelling against Britain. One of the biographies was written by a signer of the Declaration of Independence,

…King liked it so much, he used it in other colonies despite the fact that England itself was intolerant of hertics…King ??? deserves much credit too. By planting those seeds left by Roger Williams, he seeded free thinking and the value of the individual…about a hundred years later, those seeds would lead to rebellion…

Sir Edmund Coke

???…did he contribute?

Roger Williams (1602-1683)

Roger Williams …

[Endicott…including “under god” “in god we trust”]

Bill of Rights

No Establishment of Religion

Freedom to Practice Religion

John Locke ()

???

John F. Kennedy:

John Kennedy gave a speech on his religion and said, “I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute.”

Trump and his Wall

There is a meme going around about Trump’s wall:

???

Jeff Sessions:

Jeff Sessions believes that the judicial branch of government has over interpreted the Establishment Clause of the Constitution and is ignoring the Free Exercise Clause. He believes there is an unnecessary prohibition of expressions of faith in public spaces.

“The Constitution says we shall not establish a religion — Congress shall not establish a religion. It doesn’t say states couldn’t establish a religion.” –Jeff Sessions

 

 

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8 thoughts on “The American Tradition of Separation of Church and State”

  1. Pingback: The First Religions of Colonial America | TouchstoneTruth.com

  2. Pingback: Parable of the Ship by Roger Williams, 1655 | TouchstoneTruth.com

  3. This article explains why Islam is far less tolerant of separating church and state than in Christianity:

    QUOTE

    Differences between Christianity and Islam also are evident in each faith’s central figure. Unlike Jesus, who was a dissident, Muhammad was both prophet and politician. And more than just any politician, he was a state-builder as well as a head of state. Not only were the religious and political functions intertwined in the person of Muhammad, they were meant to be intertwined. To argue for the separation of religion from politics, then, is to argue against the model of the very man Muslims most admire and seek to emulate.

    https://www.latimes.com/opinion/op-ed/la-oe-hamid-islamic-exceptionalism-burkini-20160909-snap-story.html

    AND THIS

    So how are Muslims to approach the modern trend of separation of religion and state in their countries? The basic belief in Islam is that the Qur’an is one hundred percent the word of God, and the Sunna was also as a result of the guidance of God to the Prophet (peace be upon him). Islam cannot be separated from the state because it guides Muslims through every detail of running the state and their lives. Muslims have no choice but to reject secularism for it excludes the laws of God.

    http://english.islammessage.com/ArticleDetails.aspx?articleId=778

  4. Good article! You can be especially proud that Roger Williams is one of your ancestors.

    Just a couple of thoughts…

    You state that Williams’s thinking is a foundation of liberal progressivism, but I wonder about that when the people elect to congress representatives that hold to religious beliefs that are absolutely antithetical to seperation of church and state. Islam, for instance, holds that church and state are one and the same; inseperable. How would such voters qualify as “liberal” or “progressive?”

    We’ve long had a tradition of having federal officials take their oaths of office with one hand on the Bible. I’ve often wondered about how that conforms to the first amendment. I wonder even, more though, when such officials choose to take their oath on the Koran. Seems like a total slap in the face to our ideal of seperation.

    I’d never claim that the U.S. is a “Christian” nation, but I wouldn’t disagree that its founding was informed by Judeo/Christian principles. Consider our bankruptcy laws, founded on the ancient Jewish custom of forgiving debt after seven years.

    Whether or not the U.S. is/was a Christian nation was the subject of fairly intense debate, a debate, I’m glad to say, was won by the doctrine of seperation. See here:

    https://journals.openedition.org/ejas/8882
    See sections 16 and the following

    Much more to say but, you know, so much to do, so little time.

  5. By Muslim, I meant someone of the Islamic faith. It seems to me you are supporting a religious test? Is that correct? Are you saying that people of an Islamic faith should not be allowed to run for office here in America?

    Shouldn’t we judge a person by their actions? Not what you think they might do in the future?

    Do you also have a problem with Roman Catholics? After all, they have a single leader. Many Christians believe the bible is the literal word of God. Should we have a religious test for that?

    After all, the bible says…

    1. Women cannot teach men, and must be silent (1 Timothy 2:12).
    2. God literally orders genocide of a neighboring people including man and woman, child and infant (1 Samuel 15:3).
    3. The bible says to murder witches (Exodus 22:18).
    4. The bible calls for the killing of the babies of your enemies by throwing them against rocks (Psalm 137:9).
    5. The bible tells a story of a man giving a women to his enemies, who then raped and beat her all night. Later he chops her up and sends the body parts through the mail (Judges 19:25-28).
    6. In Jephthah’s vow, the bible endorses human sacrifice of his own daughter as an example of his faith to God (Judges 11:30-1, 34-5).
    7. God literally tells Abraham to perform human sacrifice of his only son Isaac in tribute to him (Genesis 22:2).
    8. “Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord.” (Ephesians 5:22)
    9. “Slaves, submit yourselves to your masters with all respect, not only to the good and gentle but also to the cruel.” (1 Peter 2:18)

    Rather than debate any of these old books, shouldn’t we focus on the person here and now? Perhaps take in their current and past actions, and positions? And their future promises in Civil matters?

    So long as one promises to separate church and religion, shouldn’t all citizens have the right to mold civil laws?

  6. If by “Muslim” we mean only an ethnic distinction, I’d retract what I said.

    We can’t do that, though, because “Muslim” is not an ethnic distinction. In the U.S., we’ve known black Muslims like Mohammed Ali, and white ones, like the artist formerly known as Kat Stevens. Furthermore, nations like Indonesia and India have significant Muslim populations and these are not black, white or Arabic.

    So, “Muslim” is not merely an ethnic distinction.

    A much more accurate definition would include “follower of Allah,” “adherent to the Islamic faith,” “believer in the Koran,” and “adherent of Sharia law.”

    This article includes some of these distinctions:
    https://www.indieskriflig.org.za/index.php/skriflig/article/view/2244/5014

    Good information here, too:
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Islam_and_secularism

    There is one area, however, that can muddy all thinking about Islam and Muslims. It’s the Islamic judicial term, “Taqiya” or “kitman.”
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Taqiya

    When these permissions are held as valid by Muslims, they are authorized to lie to protect or defend their faith. I’d add that, furthermore, who knows what “defend their faith” can entail?

    It’s possible, then, that a Muslim could take an oath to uphold the U.S. Constitution, even with his/her hand on the Koran and, in their heart, have no regard for the 1st Amendment.

    Is that the case with all Muslims — or with any particular one? I simply submit that, because of Taqiya, we cannot know.

  7. Mike Prestwood

    Thanks Wes for the reply and input. Much appreciated my old friend. Because of your post, I updated the article with info on Article 6 of the Constitution. Thanks for helping me improve the article!

    The following are replies to your points…

    >>…Williams’s…foundation of liberal progressivism, but I wonder about that when the people elect…representatives that hold to religious beliefs that are absolutely antithetical to separation of church and state.

    Are you saying generally that Muslims cannot believe and support the separation of church and state? And specifically that Muslims in America do not believe in the separation of church and state? If so, I disagree.

    I think you are conflating other countries with our country. Other countries are not us. John Kennedy was a Roman Catholic and many Americans had the same fear of him. Afterall, Roman Catholics have one leader for all Roman Catholics on Earth! We overcame that fear. I urge you not to give into that same fear with Muslims.

    Both of the Muslim women took the oath of office to uphold the constitution as required by Article VI. Congressional lawmakers simply can’t refuse to take the oath of office.

    As for Roger Williams, he allowed free thinking of all. He welcomed Muslims, Jews, Quakers, Native Americans, non-believers, everybody. They had a right to participate in any religion they wanted, or not. He still thought they were wrong, and debated them, but allowed them to believe whatever they wish so long as civil laws were obeyed. Multi-cultural, multi-religious community built on tolerance of others. Very liberal. Starting in 1636!

    >>Islam, for instance, holds that church and state are one and the same; inseparable.

    The point of separation of church and state is to support and promote the idea of freedom of conscience and that governments are better off when they allow it. There are plenty of Muslims that believe in the separation of church and state.

    Also, there are still remnants against freedom of conscience in most societies. For example, the Eastern Christian Greek Orthodox Church in Greece is resisting pushes to separate their current Christian church-state right now. Would you vote for a Greek Orthodox Christian over say a Baptist if they better fit with your values and agreed to support the separation of Church and state?

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