Church and state: Must they be separate?

The controversy over the separation of church and state was reignited during a debate between Republican Senate candidate Christine O’Donnell and her Democratic opponent Chris Coons.

Does the U.S. Constitution require the “separation of church and state”? asked William Saletan in Delaware Republican Senate candidate Christine O’Donnell reignited that controversy last week, when Democratic opponent Chris Coons said that the Constitution prohibited the teaching of religious beliefs in public schools. “Where in the Constitution is separation of church and state?” O’Donnell shot back—prompting gusts of laughter from the law-school audience. A raft of conservative pundits later rushed to O’Donnell’s defense, noting that she is literally correct: The phrase “separation of church and state” does not appear in the Constitution. What she and her defenders chose to ignore, said Leonard Pitts in The Miami Herald, is that the First Amendment prohibits government “establishment of religion”—and the teaching of religious ideas in public schools.

It is the snide liberal elites who know nothing about our history, said John R. Guardiano in The American Spectator. The phrase “separation of church and state” was coined by President Thomas Jefferson in an 1802 letter in which he sought to reassure Baptists that he would protect their right to exercise their religion. The letter has no binding legal effect, and as president, Jefferson endorsed the use of federal funds to build churches and support Christian missionaries. Unfortunately, our modern courts seem bent on “protecting people from religion,” so they’ve interpreted Jefferson’s words to that end. As Columbia Law School professor Phillip Hamburger has argued, “the constitutional authority for separation is without historical foundation.”

When Tea Party candidates get into power, said John Avlon in, you will hear that argument again. Despite the movement’s emphasis on fiscal issues, it is serving as “a Trojan horse” for religious conservatives who hope to ban abortion and gay marriage, and restore America to some idealized, Christianized past. But America “is not a Christian nation and never has been,” said Michael Gerson in The Washington Post. It’s true that the Founders’ moral convictions were informed by their own religious faith; but what they believed in, most of all, was that “all men are created equal” and should have the right to follow their own consciences. “America was designed to be a nation where all faiths were welcomed”—and for that to be true, church and state must remain separate.

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