On both sides of the political aisle now, you hear the same dumb question: “What’s wrong with putting religion into government?” This has to be in the Top Ten List of the Stoopidest Questions of All Time. It may be Number 1.
The argument, such as it is, goes that one’s faith, as expressed by religion, makes one a better, more humane, more thoughtful, more generous, more forgiving, etc etc etc person who will bring those fine qualities to govt where they will do some good. In the eyes of many people, having politicians and govt officials bring their religion into a central decision-making role can only be positive. Even moderates and centrists initially supported Bush’s program to ladle out govt contracts – and therefore public tax money – to faith-based organizations for any number of social functions, from rehabilitating criminals to combatting teen pregnancy. What harm could it do? they wondered.
The problem here is that virtually all religious folk see their faith as exclusively positive. In theory, that’s true of almost all religions – they all preach brotherhood, tolerance, respect, charity, and peace – but in practice, any institutionalized religion can be turned into an instrument of intolerance, meanness, sanctomonius arrogance, and/or authoritarian rigidity, any one of which characteristics can – and usually does – devolve fairly quickly into a warlike antipathy toward infidels and unbelievers.
The framers of the Constitution knew this, even though they were religious themselves (sort of – they were primarily Enlightenment Deists, which is kind of a religion and kind of not a religion). They had reason to: they had seen what happened to Britain when the monarchy allied itself with the CofE to create a state-sponsored, state-enforced religion. Wisely, they wanted no part of it, thus the Establishment Clause.
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.
The Establishment Clause has been interpreted by various Supreme Court decisions as forbidding the US govt from actively supporting a single religion or denomination, thus separating religion from law. In his letter to the Baptist Church of Danbury, CT, Jefferson (then President) explained:
Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, & not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American 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 & State. Adhering to this expression of the supreme will of the nation in behalf of the rights of conscience, I shall see with sincere satisfaction the progress of those sentiments which tend to restore to man all his natural rights, convinced he has no natural right in opposition to his social duties.
To make a long story short, the letter was written in response to a concern expressed by the leadership of the Danbury Baptist Church that “in their state, the religious liberties they enjoyed were not seen as immutable rights, but as privileges granted by the legislature – as ‘favors granted.'” At the time there was a movement by so-called “Establishment Religionists” to declare a state religion in Connecticut – an early attempt at legalizing a theocracy at the state level. The Baptists were worried because theirs wasn’t the religion that would be picked – that honor would go to the Congregationalists – and they were afraid that it would be outlawed.
As, indeed, it might well have been if the Connecticut legislature had gone along with the Establishmentarians, but it didn’t. The movement never gained much political traction and died out in only a few years, but the Baptists were right to be concerned. They were a distinct minority in Congregationalist New England, and the establishment of a state religion would make them criminals, subject to fines and possibly either jail or banishment from the state. Certainly their form of worship would be banned at the very least. Worse, laws could be passed demanding their adherence to practices they considered to be forbidden by their faith.
And therein lies the connection between Jefferson’s famous phrase and the supporting cast of the US Attorney controversy now raging.