U.S. Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito recently said the U.S. is entering a period when its commitment to religious liberty is being tested. People vilify those of faith and cite Thomas Jefferson’s “wall of separation” as the basis for their anger. I have come to conclude that this is the most overused and least understood of his many quotations.
Contrary to the modern interpretation of his “wall of separation”, Jefferson did not want federal interference in our religious freedom. That “wall” was directed to keep government out of religion, not the other way around. The theory that if we allow religion in government we will become a theocracy is irrational.
On the face of it, this makes no sense. Who today does not interpret the “wall of separation” to mean precisely “to keep government out of religion?”
But if we allow our laws to be informed by religion—to “allow religion in government”—then America is no longer a secular nation. What exactly does it mean to keep government out of religion if not to keep religion out of our laws? A secular government is one that is neutral regarding conscientious beliefs, neither imposing anyone’s religious, agnostic, atheistic, or any other personal belief systems by law.
The proper approach to the issue of church-state separation has been provided by presidential candidates John F. Kennedy and Ted Cruz. In 1960, JFK said in a speech:
I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute, where no Catholic prelate would tell the president (should he be Catholic) how to act, and no Protestant minister would tell his parishioners for whom to vote; where no church or church school is granted any public funds or political preference; and where no man is denied public office merely because his religion differs from the president who might appoint him or the people who might elect him.
That is the kind of America in which I believe. And it represents the kind of presidency in which I believe — a great office that must neither be humbled by making it the instrument of any one religious group, nor tarnished by arbitrarily withholding its occupancy from the members of any one religious group. I believe in a president whose religious views are his own private affair, neither imposed by him upon the nation, or imposed by the nation upon him as a condition to holding that office.
But let me stress again that these are my views. For contrary to common newspaper usage, I am not the Catholic candidate for president. I am the Democratic Party's candidate for president, who happens also to be a Catholic. I do not speak for my church on public matters, and the church does not speak for me.
My emphasis. Kennedy concluded not by pledging to “preserve, protect, and defend” the Catholic Church, the Bible, or some other religious text or authority, but the Constitution of the United States.
Likewise, a Milwaukee townhall question asked of then candidate Cruz for the 2016 Republican Presidential nomination by an audience member identified as Thomas went as follows:
QUESTION: Hi, Senator Cruz.The emphasis in those statements are mine. Both affirmed unequivocally their views that religion is strictly a private matter. Both pledged unequivocally not to allow their religion into government. Both recognized that there is nothing unifying about allowing anyone to bring religion into government and imposing his believes on everyone else. Contrary to Prykanowski, to bring religion into government is the precise definition of theocracy.
My question for you is, how and why does your religion play a part in your political decision-making? Don't you think it should be more of a moral belief and not something that can interfere with your decision-making when you're making decisions for all religions in the United States?
CRUZ: Well, Thomas, thank you for that question.
Listen, with Me, as with many people in America, my faith is an integral part of who I am. I'm a Christian, and I'm not embarrassed to say that. I'm not going to hide that and treat it like it's something you can't admit publicly and acknowledge. It's an important part of who you are.
But I also think those in politics have an obligation not to wear their faith on their sleeve. There have been far too many politicians that run around behaving like they're holier than thou.
And I'll tell you, my attitude as a voter when some politician stands up and says, I'm running because God told me to vote - to run, my reaction as a voter is, great, when God tells me to vote for you, we'll be on the same page.
CRUZ: And so, listen, I'm not asking you to vote for me because of my personal faith with Jesus Christ. I'm asking you to vote for me because I've spent a lifetime fighting to defend the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, fighting to defend the American free enterprise system, and we need a leader who will stand up every day and protect the rights of everyone, whether they're Christians or Jews or Muslims or anyone else. The bill of rights protects all Americans. It protects atheists. That's the beauty of the bill of rights, is that we have the freedom to seek out god, to worship and to live according to our faith and our conscience, and I think the Constitution and Bill of Rights is a unifying principle that can bring us together across faiths, across races, across ethnicity. And we need to come together behind the unifying principles that built America.
Many conservatives peddle the notion that America guarantees “freedom of religion, not freedom from religion”—or, in Prykanowski’s words, “to keep government out of religion, not the other way around.” A few minutes of thought will tell you how utterly absurd—and dangerous—that statement is. In fact, you can’t separate “of” and “from”. Indeed, the very first lines of the First Amendment makes this absolutely clear. “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion”—freedom from religion—“or prohibiting the free exercise thereof . . .”—freedom of religion. Not only does the First Amendment tie “from” and “of” together in the same phrase, it establishes the logical hierarchy. It essentially states that without freedom from religion, you can’t have freedom of religion. The first is a vital precondition of the second.
As I argued in an article for The Objective Standard, Freedom Of Religion Demands Freedom From Religion:
Properly understood, the right to freedom of religion means not only the right to embrace your own religious (or non-religious) principles, but also the right not to have others’ beliefs forcibly imposed on you and the right not to be forced to support or disseminate religious ideas—as when government seizes your wealth to finance the propagation of such ideas. Without freedom from religion, you can’t have freedom of conscience.
In a political context, freedom means the absence of initiatory physical force or coercion. Those who promote the idea that there is no freedom from religion undermine the First Amendment, reject the separation of church and state, and seek to impose their religious beliefs through government force.
If by “allow religion in government” Prykanowski means allowing religious persons to serve in government positions so long as they respect and protect everyone else’s right to their beliefs, no matter how different they are, then he is right that this does not mean America “will become a theocracy.” But the right of religious people to serve in government has never been questioned by anybody. In fact, the only reference to religion in the U.S. Constitution is the clause in Article VI, which forbids a religious test as a condition for any individual to hold public office. So Prykanowski can only mean one thing; to reject the stands of Kennedy and Cruz and Jefferson and the rest of the Founding Fathers and allow public officials to govern and serve and make law according to their religious beliefs rather than the constitution. And that, my dear Ron Prykanowski, most definitely does bring us to theocracy.
On Religion, The First Amendment Works Both Ways
My Commentary on Church-State Separation
America Was Not Founded as a Christian Nation
What Does Freedom From Religion Actually Mean in Practice?
Why We Need Freedom From Religion
To Keep Government Out of Religion, Keep Religion Out of Government [This 2012 post is in response to a similar letter from Ron Prykanowski]
The Separation of Church and State By Onkar Ghate