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Separation of church and state debate essay

Whatever the reason, the imprisonment of local Baptists marked a turning point in the life of James Madison. It steered him toward a career in politics as well as a lifelong partnership with his fellow Virginian, Thomas Jefferson.

The Separation of Church and State in the United States

Over the course of many decades devoted to public service including a combined 16 years in the presidencythese two men would decisively shape the relationship between church and state in the new American republic.

That did not go far enough to satisfy Jefferson, so in 1779 he presented a bill to the state legislature guaranteeing full religious liberty to all Virginians—not merely tax exemptions to non-Anglicans—only to meet with resistance from those who deemed his measure too radical. By 1785, Madison was pursuing another strategy: But it does me no injury for my neighbor to say that there or twenty gods or no God.

It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.

The first challenge loomed with the meeting of the Constitutional Convention at Philadelphia in the spring of 1787. At that time, nearly all state constitutions required office-holders to swear to their belief in either the divine inspiration of the Old and New Testaments or the truth of Protestant Christianity, and one-third of the states still levied taxes to support Christian churches. Yet the delegates at Philadelphia wished to avoid protracted controversy over religious matters—which, in any case, most believed should be left to the states—and hoped to reach consensus on the Constitution as quickly as possible.

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More surprisingly, none of the delegates objected that the proposed Constitution did not refer to God. That omission marked a departure from the founding documents of 1776: While unequivocally affirming liberty of conscience as a fundamental private right, it pronounced ambiguously on the separation of church and state and the relationship between religion and society.

Could the state governments many of which still had religious establishments in 1791 continue to mandate taxpayer support for Christianity in general or for any religious denomination in particular?

And to what extent could religious ideas and observances figure in the conduct of civic life?

  1. The Supreme Court case off 1962, Engel versus Vitale, was a case about whether prayer should or should not be allowed in public schools.
  2. May search browse essays research papers; title.
  3. The first Georgia and Maryland Constitutions had allowed for religious assessments but neither state instituted a system.
  4. At the national level, the authors of the Constitution inserted a ban on any religious test for public office holding, while the First Congress drafted a constitutional amendment prohibiting a religious establishment and protecting the free exercise of religion. The point is that the Founders imbibed multiple sources that promoted various conceptions of religious toleration, freedom of conscience, disestablishment, and church-state separation.
  5. Personal use only; commercial use is strictly prohibited for details see Privacy Policy and Legal Notice. Like you would have taught church and state, leading church-state.

But the founding generation could not foresee our concerns: Those steeped in the ideals of the Enlightenment were determined to ensure that the religious wars which had wracked Europe would not engulf the new republic and that its clergy and churches would not acquire the wealth and influence which would enable them to play a prominent role in civil government.

At the same time, many Americans who cleaved to Christian orthodoxy—especially those who dissented from former or current religious establishments—were determined to ensure that no denomination would enjoy the unfair advantage of government support. In the decades after 1790, all of the states abolished taxpayer support for religion and religious tests for office-holders, and state courts, deeming that churches were private institutions, ruled that religious bodies could not receive public funding to provide education or poor relief.

Even so, those changes proceeded slowly: Most of the Founders believed that religion would promote public morality, which in turn would strengthen both republican society and government in the United States. That being the case, what constituted an appropriate inclusion of religious ideas and rituals in the conduct of civic life?

In wrestling with that question, presidents from Washington to Madison played a delicate game of brinksmanship.

  • But even in those states, the idea of a religious establishment was not particularly popular, and opposition to tax assessments and religious preferences was strong and growing;
  • Even before the political crisis arose in 1765, these Americans overwhelmingly identified with the opposition Whigs in England, who criticized the corruption and authoritarianism of the established church.

All of them strove to keep religion from becoming the fodder for controversy by affirming that expressions of spirituality had a legitimate place in the public square while also upholding what they regarded as a due separation between church and state. In their efforts to strike the right balance, George Washington and John Adams proclaimed national days of thanksgiving and fasting during their administrations and voiced no objections to the appointment of salaried Congressional chaplains, who opened legislative sessions with prayers.

Separation of Church and State Debate

In their public addresses, too, they often expressed confidence in the power of divine providence to guide the new republic.

He approved bills authorizing Congressional chaplains and granting financial aid to Protestant missions for Indians in the Ohio valley; he regularly attended Sabbath worship services conducted in Congress, and, in his second Inaugural Address, called upon Americans to join him in prayer.

The Real Meaning of the Separation of Church and State

Even James Madison, who objected to the appointment of chaplains to both Congress and the military, relented during the darkest days of War of 1812 and declared a national day of fasting. In short, while the Founders spoke with one voice in affirming religious liberty as an inalienable private right, it is hard to discern a consensus among them about how to define the appropriate separation of church and state and the proper role for religion in civic life.

With a national agenda so crowded with pressing demands, the course of prudence dictated leaving religious matters mainly to the states. Then, too, some of the Founders expected that the passage of time would resolve the religious divisions among Americans and fulfill their vision of the new political order in which private religious convictions would play no part in determining the fitness of individuals for public office.

By the middle decades of the nineteenth century, only a minority of Americans adhered to Unitarianism and other rationalist religions, but hundreds of thousands had embraced evangelical Christianity. And those revival converts of the Second Great Awakening were investing their energies in an ever-expanding number of voluntary associations promoting moral and social reform, which immeasurably strengthened the influence of evangelical Protestants on public opinion and political culture in the United States.

In This Article

In my experience, the best approach is to acquaint students with the broad historical context, to introduce them to a selection of sources, and then to raise probing questions as class discussion ensues about how the principal architects of the early republic envisioned both the ideal relationship between church and state and the ideal relationship between religion and society.

But in 1998, an FBI laboratory analysis revealed what Jefferson had omitted from his first draft in the course of composing his final draft. And some conservative jurists and politicians have claimed even more, construing the FBI findings as evidence that Jefferson did not intend to erect an insurmountable barrier between church and state.

And for a fresh and provocative take on the subject, check out Johann N.

Steven K. Green

Spring, 2007139—154. On the contrary, they argue that the Founders meant for the First Amendment neither to impose a strict separation of church and state nor to prohibit federal support for religious institutions, but only to prevent government from favoring one Christian denomination at the expense of others. The best brief synthesis is Gordon S.

  • While unequivocally affirming liberty of conscience as a fundamental private right, it pronounced ambiguously on the separation of church and state and the relationship between religion and society;
  • By 1785, Madison was pursuing another strategy:

Gaustad, Without King, Without Prelate 2nd ed. If you wish to delve even deeper into this timely topic, recent books that beckoned me to turn the page and to think harder are John G.

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She holds a Ph. Heyrman is the author of Commerce and Culture: