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.
-The Declaration of Independence, 1776
Foes of "separation of church and state" often point out that that phrase never appears in the Constitution and cite the above quotation as "proof" that the founding fathers intended America to be run as a Christian nation. It is ironic then that the phrase about unalienable rights to "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" appears nowhere in the Bible and that the "Creator" the signers of the Declaration were talking about bears a greater resemblance to the deistic concept of God than the Christian one.
It is interesting too that these theists never quote the next sentence of the Declaration of Independence either. It goes: “That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just Powers from the consent of the governed…” Regardless of where they thought those rights originated, the signers of the Declaration assigned no role to God in government.
Even if that were not the case, the Declaration of Independence is not the document that defined how the country is governed. That's the job of the Constitution with its associated Bill of Rights. And God doesn’t get a government job in them either.
They are right about one thing though. Part of what Jefferson meant in using the term “separation of church and state” is that church would be protected from interference by the government. The Establishment Clause is, however, a two way street. And it’s not because the government needs protection from religion either. It’s because a government that guarantees equal protection under law to all its citizens, cannot compromise that principle by promoting or allowing itself to be used to promote anyone’s sectarian agenda. In other words, separation of church and state is guaranteed in order to protect the freedom of conscience of each individual as well as each church. This does not constitute an endorsement of secularism or atheism as some claim. It’s simply what’s required for the maintenance of strict neutrality towards all religious viewpoints.
It is entirely beside the point that the phrase “separation of church and state” doesn’t appear in the Constitution or Bill of Rights. It doesn’t have to. The term "separation of powers" (into the three branches of the federal government) never appears in the Constitution either, yet it is understood to represent the doctrine that document establishes. The same is true of "separation of church and state." Jefferson used the term to describe what the Establishment Clause of the 1st Amendment does. That’s also what James Madison, the guy who actually wrote the Establishment Clause, was doing when he used the same phrase a couple of years after Jefferson.
It is a shame that so many o not recognize this because it was a great thing those founding fathers provided for us. It gives everyone the same kind of protection from what Madison called “the tyranny of the majority” in matters of conscience. It provides a level playing field where all ideas on religion can compete freely for our hearts and minds. The proof of its success can be found by looking at the great diversity of churches that are available in the pages of almost every town’s phone book. It’s a diversity that few, if any, other nations on Earth can equal. And it’s a testament to what protecting individual freedom of conscience through separation of church and state means. It is worth celebrating. It is worth being thankful for.
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