J. Brent Walker: Top 5 myths of separation of church and state
J. Brent Walker is not some sort of atheist commie, but is the executive director of the Baptist Joint Committee. In this piece he addresses five myths about the separation of church and state, and explains why they are wrong.
Myth #1: We don’t have separation of church and state in America because those words are not in the Constitution.
True, the words are not there, but the principle surely is. It is much too glib an argument to say that constitutional principles depend on the use of certain words. Who would deny that “federalism,” “separation of powers” and the “right to a fair trial” are constitutional principles? But those words do not appear in the Constitution either. The separation of church and state, or the “wall of separation,” is simply a metaphor, a shorthand way of expressing a deeper truth that religious liberty is best protected when church and state are institutionally separated and neither tries to perform or interfere with the essential mission and work of the other.
We Baptists often hold up Roger Williams’ “hedge or wall of separation between the garden of the church and the wilderness of the world,” and point to Thomas Jefferson’s 1802 Letter to the Danbury Connecticut Baptist Association where he talked about his “sovereign reverence” for the “wall of separation.”
But we sometimes overlook the writings of the father of our Constitution, James Madison, who observed that “the number, the industry and the morality of the priesthood and the devotion of the people have been manifestly increased by the total separation of church and state.”1
Even Alexis de Tocqueville, in his famed 19th-century “Democracy in America,” a work often cited by those who would disparage separation, writes favorably of it:
“In France, I had seen the spirits of religion and freedom almost always marching in opposite directions. In America I found them intimately linked together in joint reign over the same land … [A]ll thought that the main reason for the quiet sway of religion over their country was the complete separation of church and state. I have no hesitation in stating that throughout my stay in America I met nobody, lay or cleric, who did not agree about that.”2
The Constitution may not have those words — church-state separation — in it, but those who wrote the Constitution and other early observers had the words in them.