“Blessed is the nation whose God is the LORD, the people He has chosen as His own inheritance” (Psalm 33:12).
Even a cursory reading of the Bible reflects the truth of the Psalmist. The Nation that looks to the Lord for direction is blessed indeed. As a Nation we embraced this truth for nearly two centuries, and we were blessed. But something seems to be eroding our blessing. Something has changed. Since we know that God doesn’t change (see Malachi 3:6), then we must have changed.
We have. And I think I know where it may have started.
What would you say if I told you that the phrase “separation of Church and State” exists in neither the Declaration of Independence, nor the Constitution of the United States? It’s true. In fact, “separation of Church and State” appears in none of the documents used in the organizational framework of our Nation.
“But,” you might protest, “what about the First Amendment?”
What about it? Separation of Church and State is not in the First Amendment. So that we can be sure, let’s look at it together. Here is the First Amendment in its entirety. “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”
If you look again, you’ll see that in matters of religion and faith, the First Amendment was not given to restrain the actions of the Church – it was provided to restrain the actions of the State. Remember: those who made the difficult voyage across the Atlantic were searching for religious freedom. For all intents and purposes, the State and the Church had become essentially the same thing in England.
“Then where,” you may continue, “did the phrase ‘separation of Church and State’ come from, and furthermore, why do so many people believe that phrase is actually in our Constitution?” Great questions! Permit me to answer the second question first.
Simply stated – in many cultural settings, something that is repeated enough times, by enough people, will come to be viewed as true, whether it is or not. (For example, the Chicago Daily Tribune headline of November 3, 1948 that read “Dewey Defeats Truman.”)
Now to our first question. The actual phrase “separation of Church and State” can be traced back to its use by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1947. In Everson v. Board of Education, the Court said: “The First Amendment has erected a wall between church and state. That wall must be kept high and impregnable. We could not approve the slightest breach.” With that ruling, the phrase “separation of church and state” was elevated to Constitutional status, and separation became the law of the Land.
That is unfortunate because in 1947, the Justices used a line from a letter authored by Thomas Jefferson and made new law.
According to his writings and his actions, Thomas Jefferson was not opposed to the inclusion of faith and religion in matters of government. What he, and the other founding fathers both wrote and spoke against was the infringement of government upon faith and religion. Remember, the colonists had left England searching for religious freedom.
When Mr. Jefferson was elected President, members of the Danbury Baptist Association of Connecticut (who were his supporters in his run for election) wrote him a congratulatory letter and shared their hopes that the new President would continue his position of restraining the actions of the government in matters of faith and religion. Here’s President Jefferson’s reply with his “separation phrase” in its original context. “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 legislative 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. Adhering to this expression of the supreme will of the nation in behalf of the rights of conscience, 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. I reciprocate your kind prayers for the protection and blessing of the common Father and Creator of man, and tender you for yourselves and your religious association assurances of my high respect and esteem” (Jefferson, Writings, Vol. XVI, pp. 281-282, to the Danbury Baptist Association on January 1, 1802). In matters of faith, Jefferson said they were “natural rights” (God-given), and it seems Mr. Jefferson believed the First Amendment was intended to keep the State out of the Church, and not (as it is interpreted today) to keep the Church out of the State.
At this point, you may be wondering how could Supreme Court Judges – as smart as they must be – get it wrong for so many years? Well, how could so many intelligent people (maybe including you) be convinced that separation of Church and State was in the Constitution? Being wrong is easier than you think.
As a Christian, I love God. As an American, I love my Nation. I don’t think the two are incompatible. In fact, the Bible teaches Christians to be good citizens. However, if we’re going to keep asking God to bless American – then I think America needs to reaffirm our historic view of God. As we do, we’d be well served to remember: “Blessed is the nation whose God is the LORD, the people He has chosen as His own inheritance” (Psalm 33:12).