Separation Anxiety

Church & State in America

An image of "Church and state - No Union upon any terms" by Thomas Nast in Harper's Weekly, Feb. 25, 1871. Source: Library of Congress

“Church and state – No Union upon any terms” by Thomas Nast in Harper’s Weekly, Feb. 25, 1871. Source: Library of Congress

From discussions of the “War on Christmas” to presidential candidates running on the grounds of being a “good Christian,” America’s take on the separation of Church and State seems far from solidified. So, how has Americans’ interpretation and adaptation of the First Amendment changed throughout history?

On this episode of BackStory, we look at the history of the separation of church and state. From Congress’ attempts to block the first Mormon Senator in the 1890s to the federal government’s cracking down of conscientious objectors throughout the 20th century, the History Guys explore how the hazy line that separates church and state in America has been drawn…and redrawn.

Help us shape the show! Do you think that church and state are truly separated in America today? Have we gone too far or not far enough? How do you feel about public prayer and the fact that “Under God” is in the pledge of allegiance? Let us know!

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Comments (6)

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  1. Brian Rezin

    Church and State have become more intertwined in recent years. The proliferation of Religious Freedom Restoration Acts by many state legislatures, along with bills aimed at restricting rights of religious and gender minorities (laws aimed at restricting LGBT rights invariably stem from fundamentalist Christian initiatives) are the most striking evidence. The number of Christians holding public office is at a ratio much greater than their representation in the general populace. Keeping religion out of government (prayers at government/school functions, religious symbols on public property, including religious “alternatives” to scientific principles, etc) are all dangerous to a free and democratic society. Non-Christians and non-believers must feel that the government also works on their behalf and does not favor the Christian majority.

    Finally, even many enlightened Christian clergy support separation of church and state so that a specific branch of Christianity does not become favored over the others. As a nation, we have a long way to go to educate the populace on the importance of guaranteeing separation of church and state.

  2. Brian Rezin

    I’d like to edit one sentence in the above to improve clarity:
    “Keeping religion out of government (prayers at government/school functions, religious symbols on public property, including religious “alternatives” to scientific principles, etc) are all dangerous to a free and democratic society.” should read “Keeping religion out of government (prayers at government/school functions, religious symbols on public property, including religious “alternatives” to scientific principles, etc) is imperative to maintaining a free and democratic society.”

  3. John Ragosta

    You’ll need to start much earlier than the 1890s to understand the origins. Also need to discuss a Jeffersonian distinction between a secular government and a secular society.

  4. Fred T. Meyer

    A case in point: I was born in 1949, and registered for the Draft in 1967. I was keen on avoiding military service, as I was opposed to the unjustified War in Vietnam. I had grown up in Hyde Park (Chicago, IL) near the University of Chicago. There was a lot of Leftist and Radical-Leftist political action in play, there. The national office of SDS was there. There were also people available to coach one through the process of applying for Conscientious Objector status (e.g., Staughton Craig Lynd), which could be granted if one could prove a religious basis for claiming it (e.g., being a lifelong Quaker.) I had no religious beliefs, but crafted a philosophical text and submitted that. People granted CO status were required to perform non-military national service, which I would have happily done. (But, I never got that far in the process. Fortunately, I was able to avoid military service for medical reasons.)

    So, we have two questions, here:

    1. Why grant an exemption from military service based on religious grounds? Is that evidence of separation of Church and State, or of a collusion between the two in order to glorify military service…and thereby support military recruiting? (“Dulce et decorum est, pro patria mori.”)

    2. Who would be the legitimate judges of a claim for CO status? Church experts? State experts? A panel involving both? And how many religious viewpoints would be represented on the Church portion of the panel?

    — Peace! —

  5. Fred T. Meyer

    Here is a clarification of my post about granting an exemption from military service based on a claim of deeply-held religious beliefs.

    In my Question 1, I’m trying to get at the potential problem of the dominant Religion (Christian) of the Nation being the only one approved for claims of exemption from military service. There is also the sticky issue here that the Church would end up effectively endorsing the practice of War by all but a very select few, by not opposing the military’s efforts to recruit all the other Christians.

    Please edit my post as necessary to make it more effective and efficient.

  6. Marne Glaser

    I do not know much about the history—and will be delighted to learn more—but I do know that some of the references to God were added to various patriotic statements ex post facto, and I think they no longer belong.

    Whenever “God” is invoked, it involves issues of identification and projection. Whose God? What are “God’s” thoughts and policies? What would “God” do or approve of? Who speaks for “God”? These are undefinable, unanswerable questions in a pluralistic citizenry. Value religion (and non-religion); more than that, value tolerance and consideration of “the other”, and all that entails. But don’t inject “God”or religion into political life.

    I believe we have gone too far. Patriotism properly involves ideals and values. But stop when it comes to adding God and religion into the mix. Remove “In God We Trust,” “one nation under God,” God-invoking prayer in public schools and government-related meetings and events (there are plenty of ways to invoke wisdom and values at the start of a gathering without invoking God), and, for goodness’ sake, eliminate “God bless America” from our national political vocabulary. It is pandering to out-of-date tribal instincts, a kind of bone thrown out to the conservative Christian vote at the end of almost every political speech. I think many politicians know better, but they do it so they won’t arouse consternation in parts of the electorate.
    I’d like to see more emphasis on golden rule sorts of values, more ethical inspiration and far less “God” talk. Whether you are a believer or not, public discourse is just not the place for it.