Did you know the word “nice” used to mean foolish or stupid? Ironically, people started using it as a way to describe someone as “pleasant” or “decent,” unaware of its original meaning, and over time, “nice” completely lost its original meaning.
The phrase “separation of church and state” is the same way. It meant something to America’s founding fathers, but over time, it took on a new meaning. Today, the phrase means that if something is related to the state, then discussion of religion is forbidden.
What did the phrase “separation of church and state” originally mean in the Constitution? Let’s look at a few insights.
The first thing to note is that the phrase doesn’t occur anywhere in the Constitution. It is a phrase that people have inaccurately invented in an attempt to explain the First Amendment: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”
In its original context, this passage meant that the U.S. would not have an official “state Church” like England. The English government officially supported the Church of England, using taxes to support Anglicanism. The founding fathers, who promoted the Revolutionary War, did not want the same kind of church.
This is the extent of this passage from the First Amendment. There is nowhere in the Constitution that forbids individuals from mixing faith and politics or from sharing their faith in a state-related function or location.
Also, the following facts show that, historically, no one interpreted the First Amendment to exclude religion from the political sphere:
- The U.S. Congress used to hold Christian worship services at the Capitol on Sundays.
- The Supreme Court Building was used to house church services on Sundays.
- Twelve of the original 14 states required religious tests for those seeking public office.
- After the Civil War, the First Congregational Church of Washington used the House of Representatives as a worship building.
- In 1863, the U.S. Senate requested that Abraham Lincoln designate an official day of national prayer and humility.
- In 1944, Franklin D. Roosevelt (as well as many presidents before him) went on the radio and prayed nationally for our troops and our nation.
- When the First Amendment was implemented in 1791, it was intended to only limit the natural (federal) government and not the state government.
We have seriously misunderstood what “separation of church and state” means. To the founding fathers, the First Amendment existed to keep the state out of the church, not the church out of the state.
There are two applications here for Christians today:
First, we as believers should use our rights and our freedom of religion to promote what is righteous. We are not allowed to be silenced in the public sphere by the government. We should use our rights to stand up, not only for our faith but also against issues such as abortion and the restriction of religious liberty.
Second, we must understand that good interpretation matters, whether we are interpreting the Bible, the Constitution or any other document. If we interpret someone’s words in a way that wouldn’t make sense to the original audience, we have developed an incorrect interpretation.
May we seek to be good students of interpretation, good students of history and good students of the rights we have as believers in our country.