The Constitution of the United States decrees that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.” This has commonly been taken to mean, as Thomas Jefferson expressed it in his 1802 letter to the Danbury Baptist Association, that there exists a “wall of separation between church and state” in the American legal and political system.
Some have taken it to signify that the American polity is secular. But — what with presidential proclamations of Thanksgiving, and Senate and military chaplains, and prayers at presidential inaugurations, and oaths sworn on the Bible — this is plainly an oversimplification, to put it mildly. The prohibition of a federally established religion is very different from, say, the secularism or laïcité of modern France.
Federal judicial rulings on church-and-state issues have been all over the map, sometimes, and occasionally rather controversial, but, broadly speaking, Americans have worked out a reasonably good relationship between religious and governmental institutions. France, on the other hand, is heading for trouble, in my opinion, with its increasingly tough restrictions on Muslim women’s dress:
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion,” says the First Amendment to the Constitution, “or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” And we ought to be very grateful for this.