Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Understanding the Idea of “Separation of Church and State”

CNN host Lou Dobbs last week criticized church leaders for speaking out on the immigration debate. Here are my thoughts, which I sent to Mr. Dobbs:

It seems to me that you – like most in the MSM – have a completely backwards understanding of the whole concept of the separation of church and state. The intent of the so-called “separation of church and state” principle was to stop government from intruding into church affairs, not to stop the church from intruding into government affairs.

The founders were quite familiar with what happens (i.e. The Church of England) when government without boundaries intruded into church affairs. That is why under the Establishment Clause in the U.S. Constitution (Article 2 of Amendment 1) our government does not have the right to establish religion.

However, when the founders opposed a governmental establishment of religion, they did not mean they opposed a governmental establishment from religion. In fact, the founders believed religion was good for society. George Washington said, “Reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.” In 1783, Dr. Benjamin Rush stated, “Without religion, I believe that learning does real mischief to the morals and principles of mankind.” In 1785, James Madison said, “Religion is the basis and foundation of government.”

The separation of church and state idea was intended to prevent the government from intruding in the affairs of religious expression; it was not intended to stop religious people from being involved in governmental affairs. The First Amendment insures that all people – even those in government (e.g. the President himself) – freely have the right to practice their religious beliefs in all aspects of their life. This should therefore impact their public policy. Where the constraints of a government official’s duties come in under the Constitution would be to not infringe on other citizen’s right to believe what they want, and their “free exercise” of those beliefs. That is why Christians like Patrick Henry could celebrate the fact that “peoples of other faiths have been afforded asylum, prosperity, and freedom of worship here.”

In conclusion, the idea of a separation between these two social institutions was originally intended to protect religious people from a government establishment of religion while allowing religious people to establish government. Let me be clear: the whole concept of separation of church and state was intended to protect the church from the government, not to protect the government from the church.

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