Questions For Those Who Oppose The Wall of Separation Between Church and State

I imagine that nearly everyone agrees that just because you may do something legally does not mean morally that you should do it.

Now, I am firmly convinced that Thomas Jefferson’s ideal of a “wall of separation between church and state” is constitutional. But, let’s say you do not. Let’s say the Founders left it open whether or not government could or should actively promote religion itself or specific religions, rather than stay completely neutral on the question of religious belief and practice for as long as someone’s exercise of religion or lack thereof violated no other legal rights.

Let’s say that religious (or secular) people, should they come into power, constitutionally may use their legal powers to advance religious belief itself or unbelief itself, or to favor religious institutions at the expense of anti-religious ones, or to favor specific religious sects over others, or to legislate religious practices, or to base legislation for all citizens on specifically religious values that are not rationally sensible to people outside a given faith, etc.

Should they do such things? I think that even were my interpretation of the constitution wrong and there were no mandated rule against the government promoting religious belief as a good or a bad thing, or religious unbelief as a good or a bad thing, that it would still be wrong and an abuse of power for legislators, executives, and judges to take it in their hands to manipulate people’s consciences in these matters through their governmental roles.

But there are some of you out there who think that the constitution does not prohibit the government taking sides and advocating that religious belief is a general good, believe not only that the government may do that but that it should do that and that Jefferson’s call for a “wall of separation between church and state” is not only unconstitutional but actually bad policy.

So, I would like it it if for once, instead of deflecting the question of moral rightness and moral wrongness of the separation of church and state into a debate about its constitutionality, we could debate squarely why we should or should not use laws, civic ceremonies, and government run institutions to deliberately promote or to deliberately undermine people’s tendencies towards religious belief or unbelief, or to specific religious traditions’ beliefs or against them. I would like to know in specific detail what is wrong with this statement* (often incorrectly attributed to Jefferson himself) of why there should be a separation of church and state:

Because religious belief, or non-belief, is such an important part of every person’s life, freedom of religion affects every individual. Religious institutions that use government power in support of themselves and force their views on persons of other faiths, or of no faith, undermine all our civil rights. Moreover, state support of an established religion tends to make the clergy unresponsive to their own people, and leads to corruption within religion itself. Erecting the ‘wall of separation between church and state,’ therefore, is absolutely essential in a free society.

We have solved, by fair experiment, the great and interesting question whether freedom of religion is compatible with order in government and obedience to the laws. And we have experienced the quiet as well as the comfort which results from leaving every one to profess freely and openly those principles of religion which are the inductions of his own reason and the serious convictions of his own inquiries.

I am not interested in a debate about what Jefferson meant or what the other members of the founding generation thought or felt, etc. Please, no appeals to authorities for once.

Even if you do not think this is the right way to read the constitution, can you at least explain to me why you do not think it is the right way to read morality?

Do you disagree that even religious non-belief is (or at least very well can be) an important part of someone’s life, such that deliberately disrespecting and disregarding the existence of conscientious non-believers in your laws is never a moral violation? Do you think it is irrelevant whether we object to your praying for us in civic ceremonies because only religious consciences and feelings towards the concept of the divine matter?

Do you think that religious institutions should use government power in support of themselves? Why or why not?

Do you think that religious institutions should use government power to force their views on persons of other faiths or no faith? Why or why not?

Do you think the use of government to impose religious views and support religious institutions does not undermine all our civil rights? Why or why not?

Do you think that state support of an established religion does not tend to make the clergy unresponsive to their own people and does not corrupt religion itself? Why or why not?

Do you think that a wall of separation between church and state is not absolutely essential in a free society? Why or why not?

If you do not believe the constitution forbids you from using whatever governmental means to impose your religious views and practices on your fellow citizens, on what moral grounds are you entitled to impose your religious views and practices on your fellow citizens? On what moral grounds do you think you have the right to tell me to pray through a proclamation, lead me in prayer at a civic ceremony, tax me to subsidize your church activities and your clergy’s provisions, teach your religious interpretation of science in the schools secular kids also attend, marginalize me by declaring my country “Christian” when I am not, deny gay people the rights to marry or serve in the military, prevent teenagers and young adults from getting adequate knowledge about safe sex because of your religious views about sex, etc.?

For just one moment, let’s forget the constitution and all the legal precedent for over two centuries affirming the separation between church and state. Even if you have, or had, or get, the legal right to legal impose your religious will on me, what exactly makes you think you have the moral right?

Do you have evidence that freedom of religion is not consistent with order in the government and obedience to the laws such that it is necessary to impose religious teachings through legislation and public pronouncements meant to sway citizens’ religious feelings and beliefs?

Do you believe that it is less peaceful to leave people to their own private, serious inquiries about religion without public favoritism by the government to any one side of the question?

Why are you not comfortable in letting atheists or members of faiths other than your own legally profess their views on religion as much as you are presently entitled to? Why is your discomfort an adequate basis for laws?

If you are interested in my frank reasons for supporting the wall between religions and government, you can find them in posts like the following:

Why Clergy Rightfully Have No Place At A 9/11 Memorial (Or Any Civic Ceremonies)

9 Vital Points About The Public Relevance of Political Candidates’ Religious Beliefs

On The Conflict Over The Meaning And Cultural Influence of Political Secularism

The Religious Conservative’s False Choice: “Big Brother” Or “Heavenly Father”

American Values vs. Fundamentalist Values

How Christian Beliefs And Values Are No More Creditable With America’s Founding Than Islamic Ones

Thoughts on the Ethics of Private vs. Publicly-Mediated Generosity

Santorum’s Hypocrisy and Backwardness on Questions of Epistemic Authority

Your Thoughts?


*ON EDIT:  Initially I was misled by numerous sources into thinking the block-quoted statement came from Thomas Jefferson. Many thanks to Russell Turpin for the correction in the comments section. As he noted, the language and style should have been a dead tip off that this quote was of much more contemporary origin.

Regardless of authorship, the arguments the quote contains still stand and, as the post is about the strength of arguments for policies and not the strength of authorities for determining mere constitutionality, the mistake should not materially affect the rest of the post or its main argument in any way. But, in either case, I apologize for the sloppy sourcing and any confusion that resulted from the initial posting.

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About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • rturpin

    Most of what you highlight as “Jefferson’s argument” was not written by Jefferson. I was immediately suspicious because the first paragraph sounds not at all like Jefferson, and is phrased in a much more modern style. See here, for its source:

    Now, admittedly, you didn’t say, “Jefferson wrote.” And it is a fair summary of Jefferson’s argument. But you also didn’t cite its source, and some reader might think you were intending to quote Jefferson.

    • Camels With Hammers

      Crap. Many thanks, Russell. Numerous sites I checked attributed it to Jefferson so I was deceived. I will amend the post to make the distinction clearer.

  • Jim

    Well said. This is exactly my view on the issue. As we saw with the Daily Show interview, it can be very difficult for a non-historian to debate someone like David Barton over obscure documents relating to our founding. Like creationists, these historical revisionists will try to overwhelm you information that can take a lot of time to refute. While its very important to expose revisionism (thank you Chris Rodda)its even more important to advocate for the separation of church and state for its own sake. If the founders intended to establish a Christian nation (they didn’t) then I would still advocate for separation of church and state, even if that means a very explicit 28th Amendment establishing separation, because its the right thing to do.

  • Tisha Irwin

    I would like to further ask these people: If we assume that Christianity is the way to go, which specific version of Christianity would you prefer to have imposed on you?

  • sailor1031

    Those people who are in favour of the state allowing religion to intrude into government, or worse yet the state actively introducing religion into government, only want this government power for their own religion. Note that these are the same people who are pushing laws in several states to outlaw application of sharia. The impossibility of deciding which religion to favour and when is one of the reasons that the first amendment was adopted. Along, of course, with the founders’ utter distaste for an established religion – having seen how the anglican establishment worked under the british.

  • Pen

    I know you were addressing the ‘other side’, but I have a historical take on this question.

    In the couple of centuries before America was founded, Europe experienced wave upon wave of religious persecution (by all groups against all groups). Countless people, ordinary citizens and respected public figures, were massacred, imprisoned or executed. This left deep wounds, repeatedly reopened. A few of these are still festering today, and the scars can be found all over our landscapes and literatures. The revulsion and dismay many educated Europeans eventually felt for religious civil war is similar to our own revulsion and dismay at the Holocaust, and our desire to make sure it can’t happen again.

    I’m pretty certain that America’s founders were motivated by that desire specifically. I’m equally convinced that most Americans know nearly nothing about this piece of European history, or its scale, or can’t muster much horror about the fates of such distant people if they do. It’s a shame because if you remove the church/state barrier, bloodbaths can and probably will happen again. History should have taught us that there is simply no other way of settling these matters of faith (or conscience as they called it), than by the extermination of opponents: by conversion perhaps, by imprisonment, exile or murder otherwise.

  • fastlane

    Bible riots of 1844 (I think I got the year right, that’s off the top of my head).

    Religion is actually too important to most people to allow the government to try to dictate what should be ‘official’. And, as usual, the right wing in the US, being completely immune to irony, thinks they should be able to impose their religion via the government, and that the government is completely incapable of doing anything correctly….

  • Marta Layton

    Longer reply over at my own blog, but I also wanted to comment here. I agree with you on so much and quite agree that there’s no moral ground to think some dogma should impose itself on others by force. That includes things like gay marriage and DADT, obviously, and what we might call fairy-tale-based sex ed.

    I put non-coercive religion in the public square in a different category, though. Your example of a religious invocation at a general ceremony reminded me of a story I once heard about a Jew who was baptized (and given a Catholic baptismal certificate) during the Holocaust to escape the Nazis. Someone later asked her whether she rejected going back on her heritage, and she noted that if you didn’t believe it was just water. I tend to approach situations like the 9/11 memorial seriously: it doesn’t harm the atheist to be around someone offering the prayer, because (if the atheist is right) the prayer is just empty words. It may be boring and not for you, but I’m not sure I’d put that in the same category as actual laws based on theology.

    As for the science bit: again, I’m with you, but for a slightly different reason. Science shouldn’t have to do with what people find meaningful or comforting or affirming. It has to do with truth and – contra Colbert – truth doesn’t have a liberal (or conservative) basis. So I’d see teaching ID is wrong, not because it’s offensive but because it’s awful methodology.

    Anyway, thanks for laying this out – as always, a very thought-provoking read.

    • Camels With Hammers

      Thanks, Marta. The prayers at civic ceremonies issue is a big one for me and this post explains a major part of why. Another issue barely touched on in that post is that it sends a strong message to all impressionable people assembled that “we all believe this”. It’s offensive and it’s propaganda and exactly the kind of subtle message sending that reinforces religious privilege and spiritual hegemony.

  • Rando

    If you want to end the separation of church and state argument you only need to ask ONE question… If there is no separation of church and state than why are churches exempt from paying taxes?

    I have NEVER gotten an answer to this question that did not involve some form of a separation.