Let’s set the record straight for those who might be misinformed. First, “the separation of church and state” is not mentioned or alluded to in the Constitution.
Second, the concept of “the separation of church and state” is found in the First Amendment, the relevant part of which simply reads, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” In other words, the state needs to stay out of the church’s business. It was not until 1947 that the Supreme Court invoked the principle of “separation of church and state” in a legal ruling.
Third, the wording for “separation of church and state” is based on Thomas Jefferson’s reply to the Danbury Baptist Association in Connecticut in 1802, but as Yale law professor Stephen Carter pointed out, “The separation of church and state, properly understood, comes from the work not of Thomas Jefferson, as is widely perceived, but from the insights of Roger Williams.”
It was Williams who “developed the metaphor of the garden and the wilderness. The garden was the place where the people of faith would gather to struggle to understand God’s Word. The wilderness was the rest of the world; the world where the light had not yet been received. Between the garden and the wilderness stood a wall. The wall existed for one purpose only. It was not there to protect the wilderness from the garden; it was there to protect the garden from the wilderness.”
What does this mean to us today? Listen again to Prof. Carter: “The wall of separation between church and state is not there to protect the state from the church; rather, it is there to protect the church from the state. It stands as a divide to preserve religious freedom. And one needs to protect the church from the state because the latter will utilize its enormous powers to do what the state has always done – either subvert the religion or destroy it. If we continue our slide toward a state that breaches the wall of separation whenever it is convenient, then I worry about the great risk to religious freedom. In the end, such a breach could destroy our ability to form the communities of resistance that are crucial if we are going to have a chance to transform the nation.” (This quote is worth reading again and posting as widely as possible.)
Based, however, on modern misconceptions of the separation of church and state, there could have been no abolition movement to eradicate slavery, since it was led by Christians with the Bible as their principle ideological text, nor could there have been a Civil Rights movement (other than, say, the Malcolm X version), since it too was a church-based movement led by ministers quoting the Bible.
Dr. Martin Luther King, who was one of those ministers, expressed things succinctly when he said, “The church must be reminded that it is not the master or the servant of the state, but rather the conscience of the state. It must be the guide and the critic of the state, and never its tool.” But King also gave a sober warning: “If the church does not recapture its prophetic zeal, it will become an irrelevant social club without moral or spiritual authority.”
What America really needs, and what many of our country’s founders envisioned, is a vibrant, healthy, non-hypocritical church functioning as “the conscience of the state.” As John Adams famously wrote in 1798, “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”
But let conservative Christians invoke the Bible or quote the words of Jesus or point to their religious traditions in opposition to redefining marriage, and comments like this one come pouring in faster than you can count them: “I live in North Carolina where the separation of Church and State doesn’t exist.”