In America today there seems to be a growing sentiment that the Constitution’s Establishment and Free Exercise Clauses in the First Amendment do not imply a separation of church and state. Apparently the lack of specific wording about this separation has led some, such as Delaware’s Republican candidate for the Senate, Christine O’Donnell, to deny this interpretation. By the way, I am not weighing into the Delaware Senate race in order to help the Democrats score points, but simply attempting to illuminate some history and clarify some philosophical views, so I hope I don’t scare any Conservatives away. In fact, the logic of a separation between church and state is a sound conclusion regarding the specific wording of the First Amendment. Before I demonstrate this, it is helpful to also recognize the philosophical arguments for religious freedom.
Roger Williams was the first American to be identified with the promotion of church and state separation. As a fervent Puritan minister in early colonial New England, Williams held strong religious convictions, yet he regarded government entanglement with religion as a corrupting force. He was against a religious test for holding public office, and thought that the qualities needed for good civil leadership were not possessed by fervently religious people, making them poor potential governors. He thought that the church should also be independent from government, because one’s own relationship with God could not be granted by the state. According to Williams there should be no state established church, or tax money to support churches or religious pursuits. Nor should the state force people to attend church, or follow particular doctrine. (Krammick, Moore 55)
My own family’s legacy is fatefully intertwined with Roger Williams and his expulsion from Massachusetts Bay Colony, as well as the early establishment of the colonies themselves. My ancestor, Caption John Endecott, after an eleven week journey from England aboard the Abigail, arrived at Massachusetts Bay on September 6th, 1628. He had been sent to be the acting Governor of the newly established Massachusetts Bay Company, of which he was one of five owners. The company was created out the failed Dorchestor Company, and the remains of a previous colonization attempt led by Roger Conant at Naumkeag. When Captain Endecott arrived at the settlement and assumed authority, the name Naumkeag was changed to Salem. Governor Endecott was the first chief executive of the colony until Governor John Winthrop arrived in 1630 to found Boston. In subsequent years Endecott went on the serve for a total of 14 non-consecutive yearly terms as Governor of the colony, as well as many other leadership roles in government and the military. (Mayo)
Governor John Endecott was an exuberant Puritan, who certainly did not favor a separation between church and state. As a civil leader, he demonstrated his religious convictions in his official capacity often, and with impetuous and controversial methods. When he arrived in Salem in 1628, one of his first acts was to ride to a town formed by outcasts from Plymouth colony, called Merrymount, and hack down the town’s may pole with his sword. Puritans did not believe in religious observance of holidays or the use of talismans, and dancing around the may pole represented pagan celebration to this view. The early New England Puritan settlers did not just flee England to worship in their own way. They also believed that God would judge the entire community collectively for the non-adherence by any of its residents to strict divine commandments. Governor Winthrop spoke of creating a Shining City on a Hill with these sentiments in mind. I am ashamed to say that Governor Endecott himself oversaw the hanging of Quakers, including Mary Dyer, for violating banishment from the Massachusetts Bay Colony. This was the punishment due to those who had prior convictions under Puritanical anti-proselytizing laws, and then returned to the colony to proselytize again. (Mayo) This is a law that resulted from the establishment of religion by the colonial government.
John Endecott became good friends with Roger Williams when the minister moved to Salem and became a teacher at the town’s church, where Endecott was a member of the congregation. Although Williams had already done much to ruffle the feathers of the political and religious establishment in Massachusetts, a particular escapade involving then Captain Endecott appears to have been the final issue that caused Williams to be permanently exiled. Williams intently denounced the English Royal Navy’s use of a flag with the red cross of St. George. He argued that it was a Catholic talisman that promoted faith in idolatry. Captain Endecott, inspired by Williams’ sermons on the matter, and in his capacity as the commander of the train-band at Salem, cut the red cross of St. George out of the flag. When news of this act made it’s was to Governor Winthrop, he feared that Williams outspoken ways would lead to harsh English retribution on the colony. The last straw for the leaders of Massachusetts took place after the General Court would not grant Salem land that they requested, specifically as admonishment for electing Roger Williams as their church teacher. Endecott and Williams were prosecuted for a subsequent letter writing campaign to churches in the colony that attempted to get them to denounce the General Court for its reproach. Captain John Endecott was sentenced to jail for a day, and barred from serving public office for a year, but Roger Williams was officially booted from the colony. (Mayo)
After being exiled from Massachusetts Bay Colony, Williams founded Providence, Rhode Island as a city with a secular government that allowed the freedom of different religious sects to practice without persecution, such as Baptists, Quakers, and even pagan Native Americans. Williams thought that government was the domain of people, while religion was a relationship with God and the individual. The only purpose of government was for the proper administration of secular laws that preserved the peace. The redemption of God could not be granted by any government or ruler, so these groups had no place getting involved in it in any way. In fact, when government gets involved in religious matters it marginalizes faith. (Krammick, Moore 55)
The British philosopher John Locke thought that governments only purpose was to preserve life and liberty, and to maintain the security of private property. Government had no role in religion, because every person had the right to know the truth of things through their own internal reasoning. Truth stands on its own, and cannot be decreed by political or religious authority. Any attempt by the state to impose on peoples conscience what they ought to believe, is tyrannical and contrary to personal liberty, running counter to the state’s duty to protect these liberties. This concept of personal liberty was not limited to religious views, but also to economic and political liberty as well, according to Locke’s liberal philosophy. (Krammick, Moore 73-74) However, Locke’s views on religious freedom only centered on differences within Protestant faiths, and did not include non-Christians, but the logic of his sentiments extends beyond Christian differences.
Locke’s views heavily inspired America’s founding fathers, especially Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson was responsible for penning the U.S. Declaration of Independence and much of his general statements about liberty come directly, almost word for word, from Locke’s liberal philosophy. Along with James Madison, Jefferson created the Virginia Statue of Religious Freedom. Jefferson’s intent with the law was to go further than even Locke had suggested by guaranteeing religious freedom to Catholics, Atheists, and other non-Christian religions as well. The statute opens with the line, “Almighty God hath created the mind free.” Jefferson was attacked for his promotion of these ideals when he ran for President and accused of being Atheist. The idea of a separation of church and state may have been just as controversial to religious minded people then as it is now. (Krammick, Moore 88-97)
The metaphor of the “wall of separation” was made popular by Thomas Jefferson, but it was originally written by the Englishman James Burgh. Jefferson has tied this idea to the First Amendment of the US Constitution in the following quote:
“Believing with you that the religion is a matter which lies solely between man and his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legislative powers of government reach actions only, and not opinions, I contemplate with solemn reverence that act of the whole America people which declared that their legislature should ‘make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,’ thus building a wall of separation between church and state.” (Krammick, Moore 97)
I find this classical liberal approach to religious freedom very compelling. The arguments that Williams, Locke and Jefferson make already fit closely with my own views regarding what the relationship between religion and government ought to be. Once the government is involved with enforcing particular religious doctrine, which has no civil purpose other than church dogma, it is a violation of personal freedom. What one believes is truly personal and the state could never impose true belief anyway. Forced salvation is not real salvation. Even if you do not agree with the philosophical arguments for separating church and state, denying that the First Amendment implies a separation does not follow. Jefferson, a logical and mathematical thinker, likely used the phrase, “thus”, to demonstrate that a separation follows from the Establishment and Free Exercise Clauses, and is not simply a matter of interpretation. And I follow his logic. If there were no separation of church and state, then this would imply a combination of church and state. A combination of church and state is an establishment of religion by the state, since the establishment of religion by the state is a condition by which the church and the state are the same authority…and thus are combined.
Jared Roy Endicott
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Mayo, L. S.. John Endecott: A Biography. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1936. Print.
Krammick, Isaac, and R. Laurence Moore. The Godless Constitution: A Moral Defense of the Secular State. New York: W. W Norton & Company, 2005. Print.