Joshua Charles, co-author of a book with Glenn Beck and now a law student at Pat Robertson’s Regent University, appears to have learned at the feet David Barton, the Jedi master of distorting the views of the founding fathers. In a Worldnetdaily column, he uses every dishonest trick in the book.
The phrase “separation of church and state” comes from a letter written by President Thomas Jefferson in 1802 to the Danbury Baptists, and has since become perhaps the most misunderstood phrase in American history. For the founders, separation of church and state was a separation between two institutions. Unfortunately, “separation of church and state” has become, in our own day, the separation of religion from society, a twist the founders did not, and probably could not, anticipate arising from the idea of institutionally separating the church and the government.
And we have lie #1. What Charles is doing here is the same thing done when people like him claim that advocates of church/state separation want to “remove religion from the public square.” His equivalent is “separation of religion from society.” They use these very broad, undefined phrases intentionally, because they want their followers to read it in the broadest possible way. The result is the creation of a straw man version of the separationist position.
Can he actually name someone who advocates church/state separation who believes that the First Amendment demands the “separation of religion from society”? What would it even mean to separate religion from society? Churches are not only part of society, they are one of the most influential institutions, but no one thinks that the First Amendment requires that they be eliminated. Nor does anyone think that people should not be allowed to express their religious beliefs in society. What we do believe is that the government should not endorse or provide financial support for religion. That is not even close to his dishonest characterization of it. But the dishonesty has just begun.
“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 legitimate 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 should ‘make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,’ thus building a wall of separation between Church and State.”
Jefferson was speaking very particularly about a person’s religion, his style of worship and his opinions regarding each. Nowhere is there any indication whatsoever that he envisioned religion being separated from public life. This is confirmed by the next few lines of the letter, which are rarely quoted:
“I shall see with sincere satisfaction the progress of those sentiments which tend to restore to man all his natural rights, convinced he has no natural right in opposition to his social duties.” [emphasis added]
Among the natural rights of mankind of which Jefferson was speaking was the right to freedom of religion. But what is most interesting is what he said about those natural rights: They are compatible with man’s social duties, meaning his actions within society. In other words, Jefferson himself, in the letter made famous for the supposed opposite reason, affirms religion’s role in society, while maintaining that, institutionally, church and state are and ought to remain separate. This comes as no surprise, for the founders constantly reiterated the importance of morality to a free society and what they saw as religion’s role in maintaining that morality, while also asserting that the church and the government ought to remain separate institutions.
Boy, that is really straining to read something into that next sentence that simply isn’t there. Yes, Jefferson supported freedom of religion. So do I. So do nearly all advocates of strict separation. Indeed, we argue — both us and Jefferson — that the only way to maintain religious freedom is by keeping the government out of it entirely. Jefferson argued that even non-coercive, rhetorical support for religion was a violation of the First Amendment.
And notice in that last paragraph, how he suddenly switches from Jefferson to talking about “the founders” (no names given, of course), who “reiterated the importance of morality to a free society and what they saw as religion’s role in maintaining that morality.” And while he’s right that many of the founders did believe that religion was an important support for public morality (Washington, for instance), Jefferson quite emphatically did not believe that. He wrote of this in an 1814 letter to Thomas Law:
Some have made the love of God the foundation of morality. This, too, is but a branch of our moral duties, which are generally divided into duties to God and duties to man. If we did a good act merely from the love of God and a belief that it is pleasing to Him, whence arises the morality of the Atheist? It is idle to say, as some do, that no such being exists. We have the same evidence of the fact as of most of those we act on, to-wit: their own affirmations, and their reasonings in support of them. have observed, indeed, generally, that while in protestant countries the defections from the Platonic Christianity of the priests is to Deism, in catholic countries they are to Atheism. Diderot, D’Alembert, D’Holbach, Condorcet, are known to have been among the most virtuous of men. Their virtue, then, must have had some other foundation than the love of God.
His sudden change of subject, from Jefferson to unnamed founders, was quite intentional, I suspect.
The founders were influenced and inspired by many aspects of their Puritan past, and, as we have seen, the Puritans were extraordinarily religious people. John Adams pointed out to Jefferson how the separation of church and state, or at least the beginnings of it, was a fundamental principle of these highly religious people: “… And independence of Church and Parliament was always kept in view in this part of the country, and, I believe, in most others.”
So it was in fact the very religious settlers of what would become the United States who inspired the idea of separation between church and state (even while not living up to it perfectly or uniformly in the early colonial governments themselves). In other words, separation of church and state was a religious idea, based on the teachings of Christ in which He differentiated between the church and Caesar and in reaction against the “divine right of kings” that was asserted by tyrannical monarchs throughout Europe.
Isn’t it funny how no one society in the entire history of Christianity had ever discovered a command for religious liberty until the Enlightenment? And that includes those Puritans he astonishingly credits with the very idea they so flagrantly violated when setting up their own governments. The Mayflower Compact that established the first Puritan colony not only did not include anything resembling a separation of church and state, it was a brutal theocracy — not just a Christian theocracy, but an explicitly Puritan one (indeed, even one of the two specific types of Puritanism, the separatists).
They didn’t just impose Christianity on everyone through the government, they imposed their particular brand of Christianity against other types of Christians, including Baptists, Quakers and Catholics. To be caught teaching the wrong Christian theology was to be subjected to fines, imprisonment, exile and sometimes even death. Anyone who would dare to point to the Puritans to claim that separation of church and state is a religious idea is either abysmally ignorant of history or a rather audacious liar.