History, History Column

Separation of Church and State

Written by ©2020 Sarah Becker

Separation of Church and State

“A nation’s character, like that of an individual, is elusive,” Congressional candidate John F. Kennedy [D-MA] said on July 4, 1946.  “It is produced partly by the things we have done and partly by what has been done to us…It is well for us to consider our American character, for in peace, as in war, we will survive or fail according to its measure.”

“The informing spirit of the American character has always been a deep religious sense,” Kennedy continued.  “Our government was founded on the essential religious idea of integrity of the individual.  It was this religious sense which inspired the authors of the Declaration of Independence.”

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

“Today [America’s] religious ideas are challenged by atheism and materialism,” Kennedy then concluded.  “Inspired by a deeply religious sense, this country…has always met and hurled back the challenge of those deathly philosophies of hate and despair.”

“Whilst we assign ourselves a freedom to embrace, to profess and to observe the Religion which we believe to be of divine origin, we cannot deny an equal freedom to those whose minds have not yet yielded to the evidence which convinced us,” James Madison wrote in his 1785 Memorial and Remonstrance.  According to a 2007 Pew Research Study “fully one in four adults under 30 (25%)…describe their religion as atheist, agnostic or ‘nothing in particular.’”

The Bill of Rights, Amendment 1, as ratified in 1791: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof….”  Alexandria’s St. Mary’s Catholic Church was first suggested on St. Patrick’s Day 1788, “a little brick one, built in 1793 on South Washington Street and what was later known as Church Street.”

“The name of American, which belongs to you in your national capacity, must always exalt the just pride of patriotism more than any appellation derived from local discriminations,” President George Washington said in his 1796 Farewell Address.  “With slight shades of difference, you have the same religion, manners, habits and political principles.”

“To the efficacy and permanency of your Union a government of the whole is indispensable,” Washington continued.  “Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports.”

President James Madison [VA-DR], father of the 1791 Bill of Rights, tried hard “to avoid the slightest interference with the right of conscience or the functions of religion, so wisely exempted from civil jurisdiction.”

“Notwithstanding the general progress made within the last two centuries in favor of this branch of liberty….there remains…a strong bias towards the old error, that without some sort of alliance or coalition between Government & Religion, neither can be duly supported,” Madison wrote in 1822.

“Such indeed is the tendency to such a Coalition, and such its corrupting influence on both the parties, that the danger can not be too carefully guarded against,” Madison continued.  “And in a Government of opinion, like ours, the only effectual guard must be found in the soundness & stability of the general opinion…Every new & successful example therefore of a perfect separation between ecclesiastical & Civil matters is of importance…I have no doubt that every new example will succeed, as every past one has done, in showing that Religion & Govt. will both exist in greater purity, the less they are mixed together.”

“If a further confirmation of the truth could be wanted, it is to be found in the examples furnished by the States which have abolished their religious Establishments,” Madison concluded.  “We are teaching the World the great truth.  Governments do better without Kings & Nobles [and] The merit will be doubled by the other lesson that Religion flourishes in greater purity, without the aid of the Government.”   

On October 3rd The Economist asked: “Can a Catholic vote for Joe Biden and avoid damnation?…America’s political polarization is reflected in the leadership of the Catholic church, which constitutes the country’s biggest single religious voting group.  But the nomination of a Catholic as the Democratic [presidential] candidate has accelerated the process.  Although the church says clergy should not tell the faithful how they should or should not vote—such activity also imperils churches exemption from certain taxes—several prominent priests have castigated Mr. Biden, claiming his pro-choice position on abortion means he is not Catholic.”

John F. Kennedy, the nation’s 35th President, was also Catholic.  “Because I am a Catholic and no Catholic has ever been elected President, the real issues in this campaign have been obscured—perhaps deliberately,” candidate Kennedy said in 1960.  “Apparently it is necessary for me to state once again—not what kind of church I believe in, for that should be important only to me—but what kind of America I believe in.”

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,” Kennedy explained.

“I believe in an America that is officially neither Catholic, Protestant nor Jewish—where no public official either requests or accepts instructions on public policy from the Pope, the National Council of Churches or any other ecclesiastical source—where no religious body seeks to impose its will directly or indirectly upon the general populace or the public acts of its officials—and where religious liberty is so indivisible that an act against one church is treated as an act against all,” Kennedy continued.

“For while this year it may be a Catholic against whom the finger of suspicion is pointed, in other years it has been, and may someday be again a Jew—or a Quaker—or a Unitarian—or a Baptist,” Kennedy exclaimed.   “It was Virginia’s harassment of a Baptist, for example, that helped lead to [Thomas] Jefferson’s statute of religious freedom.”

“Finally, I believe in an America…where every man has the same right to attend or not attend the church of his choice—where there is no Catholic vote, not anti-Catholic vote, no bloc voting of any kind—and where [all], at both the lay and pastoral level, will refrain from those attitudes of disdain and division,” Kennedy said.

“A President’s religious views are his own private affair,” Kennedy concluded.  “[C]ontrary to common newspaper usage, I am not the Catholic candidate for President…Whatever issue may come before me as President—on birth control, divorce, censorship, gambling or any other subject—I will make my decision…in accordance with what my conscience tells me to be the national interest.  And no power or threat of punishment could cause me to decide otherwise.”

“God intended us to be free,” President Ronald Reagan [R-CA] professed on January 20, 1981.  Yet he flip-flopped on the Equal Rights Amendment, preferring Reconstruction rhetoric instead.  “The constitution of the family organization, which is founded in the divine ordinance as well as the nature of things, indicates the domestic sphere as that which properly belongs to the domain and functions of womanhood.” [Bradwell v. Illinois, U.S. Supreme Court, 1873]

“When I ran for President 17 years ago I was told I was behind the times,” Senator Barry Goldwater [R-AZ] said eight months later.  “Now everybody tells me I was ahead of my time.  All I can say is that time is an elusive companion.”   

“Through foreign wars and civil wars, through political scandals and economic disasters, through civil disorders and Presidential assassinations, our flag has flown high,” Goldwater clarified.  “Through it all we’ve survived every possible attack on our freedom.”

“But another force could succeed in dividing our country,” Goldwater explained.  “The specter of single issue religious groups is growing over our land.  One of the great strengths of our political systems always has been our tendency to keep religious issues in the background—by maintaining the separation of church and state.”

“There is no position on which people are so immovable as their religious beliefs,” Goldwater clarified.  “There is no more powerful ally one can claim in a debate than Jesus Christ, or God, or Allah or whatever one calls his Supreme Being.  But, like any powerful weapon, the use of God’s name on one’s behalf should be used sparingly.”

“The religious factions that are growing in our land are…trying to force government leaders into following their positions 100%,” Goldwater continued.  The U.S. Supreme Court decided Engel v. Vitale, prayer in schools in 1962; Roe v. Wade in 1973.  Congress passed the Equal Rights Amendment in 1972.

“The uncompromising position of these groups—the Moral Majority, prolife, and other ‘new right’ religious groups—could tear apart the very spirit of our representative system,” Goldwater said.  “No single issue ever should decide the fitness of a Supreme Court Justice.”

“To retreat from that separation [of church and state] would violate the principles of conservatism and the values upon which the framers built this democratic republic,” Goldwater concluded.  Time will tell to what extent newly confirmed U.S. Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett, a devout Catholic and mother of seven agrees.

“Goldwater, a practicing Episcopalian, writes in his book [Conscience of a Conservative] that man is ‘a spiritual creature with spiritual needs and spiritual desires…that reflect the superior side of man’s nature,” Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. penned.  “He understood religion to be a private search for existential truths and a framework for improving the individual’s spiritual condition.”

“Goldwater regarded right-wing preachers like [Pat] Robertson, [Jerry] Falwell, and James Dobson as charlatans,” Kennedy, Jr. continued.  “I look at these religious television shows, he said, and they are raising big money on God…Goldwater recognized that fundamentalism within any faith not only distorts the underlying religion—it poses a threat to democracy.”

“The truth unquestionably is, that the only path to a subversion of the republican system of the Country is, by flattering the prejudices of the people, and exciting their jealousies and apprehension, to throw affairs into confusion, and bring on civil commotion,” Alexander Hamilton wrote in 1792.  The same year Alexandria Quaker Edward Stabler opened his Apothecary Shop.

“When a man unprincipled in private life desperate to his fortune, bold in his temper, possessed of considerable talents, having the advantage of military habits—despotic in his ordinary demeanour—known to have scoffed in private at the principles of liberty—when such a man is seen to mount the hobby horse of popularity…It may justly be suspected that his object is to throw things into confusion that he may ‘ride the storm and direct the whirlwind,’” Hamilton construed.

1 Corinthians 15.33 [NIV Archaeological Study Bible] “Do not be misled: ‘Bad company corrupts good character.’”

The holidays approach and this year’s religious gatherings are pandemic limited.  Singing is discouraged; face masks and social distancing are encouraged.         

Romans 12:12 [NIV Archaeological Study Bible] “Be joyful in hope…Share with God’s people who are in need.”

A New Year awaits!

Sarah Becker started writing for The Economist while a graduate student in England. Similar publications followed. She joined the Crier in 1996 while serving on the Alexandria Convention and Visitors Association Board. Her interest in antiquities began as a World Bank hire, with Indonesia’s need to generate hard currency. Balinese history, i.e. tourism provided the means. The New York Times describes Becker’s book, Off Your Duffs & Up the Assets, as “a blueprint for thousands of nonprofit managers.” A former museum director, SLAM’s saving grace Sarah received Alexandria’s Salute to Women Award in 2007.  Email: abitofhistory53@gmail.com

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