Letter: Thoughts on the separation of church and state

To the editor:

Since the Constitution was ratified May 29, 1790, the doctrine of the separation of church and state has been a source of passionate debate, depending on one’s interpretation of the seemingly contradictory clause — “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof …” — in the First Amendment.

Prevalent legal views that define the proper relationship between organized religion and the state have consistently emphasized that religious practice has no place in public government institutions. In 1947, in the case Everson v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court declared, “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.”

Among political figures in American history, surely George Washington would rank at or near the top of any list of great American statesmen. In his farewell address leaving the presidency in 1796, Mr. Washington had this to say about a crucial element for success in governmental policy:

“Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, Religion and Morality are indispensable supports. And let us with caution indulge the supposition that Morality can be maintained without Religion.

“Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that National morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.” (Note that he didn’t specify which religion, confirming his view that, “The government of the United States is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion.”)

Other founders of our nation said virtually the same, if not in such lofty speech. John Adams observed that, “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”

Gouverneur Morris, who contributed to the drafting of the U.S. Constitution, said, “For avoiding the extremes of despotism or anarchy … the only ground of hope must be on the morals of the people. I believe that religion is the only solid base of morals and that morals are the only possible support of free governments. Therefore, education should teach the precepts of religion and the duties of man towards God.”

Members of the Continental Congress of 1778 agreed: “Whereas true religion and good morals are the only solid foundations of public liberty and happiness … it is hereby earnestly recommended to the several States to take the most effectual measures for the encouragement thereof.”

Former President Ronald Reagan once observed that, “Christmas can be celebrated in the school room with pine trees, tinsel and reindeers, but there must be no mention of the man whose birthday is being celebrated. One wonders how a teacher would answer if a student asked why it was called Christmas.”

Despite claims to the contrary, Thomas Jefferson was a man of deep religious conviction. He was adamant for the separation of church and state, his conviction being that religion was a very personal matter, one which the government had no business getting involved in. Jefferson wrote that, “… our sentiments are uniformly on the side of religious liberty: that religion is at all times and places a matter between God and individuals.”

Jefferson’s idea of the “Wall of Separation” is the notion that the government will not interfere with people’s right to worship God. Advocates of the notion that the government has ruled to regulate religious practices, “… indicates that the government has crossed that wall of separation.”

One American sociologist, commenting on education in the 21st century, said, “On what foundations are curriculums of public education based today? The courts in this country have revised the First Amendment, thus erecting a wall of atheism around every public school in America, wherein God is not allowed to be mentioned.”

And how is that working for us, America?

Jim Brunnemer, Nashville

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