A very important concept outlined in the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights in the US Constitution.

Simply put, it means that the government will have absolutely nothing to do with religion. It will neither support nor supress any set of religious beliefs. It will remain completely neutral. The lack of mention of the word God in the Constitution is good evidence in this favor - as it was common to mention God in just about every legal document at the time - all of the state constitutions before the USA was formed not only mentioned God, but made their beliefs clear in those documents. The total exclusion was highly unusual at the time.

Also see the Letter to the Danbury Baptists.

Some have suggested this term is not accurate enough, and should be changed to fit the words of James Madison, as "separation of religion and government".

Many of the Religious Right believe that seperation doesn't/shouldn't exist, or claiming it was only to prevent a national church from being set up - however, if this was intended, why did they, during the debates when creating the Bill of Rights, reject that wording?

To Sudderth:
Is it possible to have Christian control over government and not have governmental control of Christianity in return? If religious belief exerts control over laws and decisions of the government, then you're controlling which form of religious belief is acceptable. If the government passes a law making something considered bad by one religion illegal, then any other religion in that country is then bound by that law - and a religion that considers that action good is no longer free, and is being controlled by the government.

The portion of the Constitution which defines the separation of church and state is as follows:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.

Unfortunately part of the problem is that we were kinda-sorta-but-not-articulately founded on the concept of religious freedom, but certainly not on religious pluralism. On this subject, you could probably count the founding fathers in two categories:

  1. The intellectuals, such as Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, who meant what they said. (Jefferson's gravestone epitaph lists the three things he was proudest of: the Declaration of Independence, founding the University of Virginia, and author of the Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom. Franklin was an avowed deist.)

  2. The rest of them, who were far more worked up about the King's role as head of the Church of England. For them, religious freedom meant freedom from governmental control of Christianity; Christian control of the government wasn't altogether offensive.

That's one of the wacky things I love about this country; the schizophrenic split between the rustic Puritan influence and intellectual liberalism was there at the founding and survives today.

This phrase is kind of ambiguous. Some people actually mean separation of church and state, while others mean separation of religion and state, or perhaps even separation of religious morality and state. If you want to make yourself clear, refer to something more meaningful, like the part of your constitution/law regarding laws about religions. The following writeup is somewhat muddled in definition, but I hope you can extract my message. I seem to be treating it as a single idea that we should either take fully or not at all.

There are so many reasons why this separation is a good thing for even us Christians:

  • Churches don't need extra power. Their duty can be accomplished just fine as merely a meeting of people.
  • Avoiding infiltration of politics into the church. Without the separation, not only would goverment become a tool of the church, but the church would be a tool of the government.
  • Freedom. If there is a quibble within the church, you should not get a forced silencing of one side. You may be called a heretic, but you are not burned. The separation is especially good if the leading theology is crazy (see previous item).
  • ...
I could go on with the specifics, but I'll just say that these two organisations do not work together. Constantine screwed up things pretty badly, in my humble opinion.

On one hand, we want a law that says "do not kill", yet we want to lawfully allow people to be selfish in their choices, which is just as much a condemning sin as murder. The conflict between allowing people to be selfish and giving other things precedence has resulted in a few controversies. Perhaps the basis of our laws should be secular morality - to leave the judging to God.

Write-ups so far have discussed only the benefits of the separation of church and state. I agree and as a non-believer I have actually no choice but agree. But it amazes me quite a lot why religious people embrace the separation of church and state.

Right, the Bible, the Quran, Talmud and alikes are words of God. Some rules are so clear there's no danger of misinterpretation. It is written that there are certain things you shouldn't do and some things you really should. And the words of God, well, they should be taken a bit more seriously than, say, a moral statement of a layman. A layman may be wrong but God hardly is, don't you think so?

If I ever convert to Christianity or return to Islam or find any other religion to be the one and only I would plead the reunion of religion and state with the great fervour. Doing otherwise would be like handing a fellow-man a one-way ticket to hell. The political system of a country like Iran would be the pursuit of dream. (Note: I don't know the details of the political system of Iran but this is my impression.) You should care about your brother and told him to do the right thing.

Yes, I see the problem here. When pleading for your, your God's moral discipline to consist the totality of country you may cause more hatred than good. For example, the prohibitionary liquor law begot more harm than it prevented - at least in short term, say 10 years or so. We don't know if the next generation would have abandoned alcohol if had been criminalized for good and thus the supply limited. Would the damage have been acceptable during the period of transition compared to the bliss of drastically lesser consumption of liquors of future generations? I would go for it.

To conclude, I would say that everyone would like to see her values spread over the society. A liberal layman like me tolerates many things one personally disapproves. If someone harms none but herself it's not my business but if she offends the words of God she has just stepped over the line. Or is it just me being a potential fundamentalist..?

I think it is safe to say that an education, be it formal or not, is necessary for active and cognizant participation in government. In a word, participation in the State is necessarily dependent on thinking. In most cases, religions require a minimal amount of education. In fact, education can be detrimental to religious aims. It seems to be the general trend that as more people are aquiring a university education, more people are becoming atheist. I'd argue that essentially, government and religion have the same aim: to provide a moral structure that protects the individual from the actions of other people. In the case of government, law and criminal justice provide this system of protection. In religion, either faith in God and living in a moral fashion or fear of God and the afterlife provide the system of protection. After all, in reference to the United States' predecessors, religion used to be the government. So we have two systems with the same aim, and yet we treat them as two very different entities and deem their separation as necessary. But if religion and government have the same aim, why is separation necessary at all? Is it that religion provides a moral background for the citizens under a particular government? Is it that people should be able to worship God in whichever way they choose? Because they have the same aim, it means that 1) one is unfitting and the other is correct, or 2) that they are both fruitless and another single, perhaps unifying, perhaps completely different system is ultimately appropriate. I'm not saying that separation of church and state is wrong or right. I'm saying that it would be unnecessary if we had the true and best government and/or religion.
Post Scriptum (May 25, 2003): Firstly, before I rebut on althorrat's points raised below, I would like to expand a bit on my ideas above. Capitalists the world over would assert that progress of a community is attainable (?) and efficient through competition between indiviuals and between individual corporations. Needless to say, the United States, for better or for worse, is a capitalist country. Intense capitalist competition effects the need for protection of individual rights; and the state exists, as John Stuart Mill et al would rightly argue, to protect the individual from the actions of other individuals. The church (any religion), more or less, is a communal entity, based on shared ideas, shared values, and shared goals. Most religions mandate the leading of a humble lifestyle, including donations to the poor and the idea of not storing up treasure on earth. Already, we can see the dissonance between church and state: a community of people with shared religious ideas has no place (at least no direct place) in a state that emphasizes and proliferates individuality and competition. Thus with the dawn imperialism and expanding markets (and later the industrial revolution), a necessary separation of church from state has ensued. Sure, our Founding Fathers wanted to ensure complete separation from the Anglican church to ensure freedom, but I'd argue that it has its basis in the ideas of an evolving society leading to the twilight of the church. In fact, religion would have died by any Darwinian definition had it not evolved to the ever-changing and advancing science and technological realms (which essentially sprung from the competitive market forces). Consider the bibical creation story. Certainly 500 years ago, Christain leaders would have said that the creation story was literal, while today, the seven "days" mentioned in the creation story are interpreted as illiteral and as lasting a different period of time than an Earth "day." Why the change? Because in order to survive, the church needed to evolve. Before literacy, it could simply excommunicate the "heretics," but now that people can read, it has evolved. Conclusively, separation of church and state is existent because church and state have similiar aims(see my original WU) yet different ideals. Now to respond to althorrat:
1) I have no figures to back my atheism claim, but I do have first-hand observation and historical knowledge to go off of. Certainly it can't be argued against that the number of atheists has risen since the dawn of modern academia AKA literacy and education for all. 2) Perhaps my use of the word "moral" has been misinterpreted. I simply meant that a legal system has been established to ensure the protection of the individual from other individuals and from the government. Whether or not you want to take this legal system as a "moral" code the way the Ten Commandments are taken as a moral code is in the eye of the beholder. No matter if it's the fear of the wrath of the law and criminal justice system or the fear of hell, both provide motivation to individuals to uphold a moral system, whether or not they believe in it. This is certainly not to say that the legal system the U.S. government has implemented is one hundred percent correct by any means. And dude, theocracy is not the preferred nomenclature (to the what I proposed above). What are states like Iran and Afganhistan but modern replicas of the Western world's middle ages Catholic Church dominance? They're practically identical. What I was arguing, more concisely, is that theocracies, in your sense of the word, are incorrect and that states where church and state are separate are also incorrect. Theocracy is simply not religous freedom while separation of church and state is simply the illusion of religious freedom. For example, if your religion conflicts with your government, you must choose which to obey. If you choose to abide by your religious convictions, then you may face reprimand from the government. If you choose to obey your government, you may face negative repercussions from your God(s). They are oppositional yet both must be followed. Our nation being founded by Christains, our nation works best for those adhering to the Christian Dogma. This country does not have religious freedom. If there were religious freedom in this country, there would be no religion at all (though this is definitly not to say that our system without any religion at all would be ideal). It is to say, simply, that something is amiss with our ideas of religious freedom and the role of state.
Separation of church and state is absolutely necessary to the continued health of a democracy or republic1. History has shown time and again that any time a religion is put in a position where it has political power, it will proceed to use that power in ways malevolent to opposing religions and ideologies, as well as to anything else it considers immoral or in some way a threat to its doctrines or authority.2

John Calvin preached religious liberty - right up until he gained power in Geneva, turning it into a theocratic dictatorship where only his personal brand of Christianity could be preached - what we today call Presbyterianism. In Russia, the Orthodox Church for centuries maintained a stranglehold on art and literature. The entire history of the Roman Catholic Church at least up to the Reformation is nothing less than a record of repression, oppression, atrocity and conquest in the name of the Messiah. And (since I seem to be concentrating exclusively on Christianity) let's not forget the brutal oppression in many Muslim nations - most notably Afghanistan under the recently-ousted Taliban, Iran under the ayatollahs, and Saudi Arabia - of women, of religious minorities (including Muslim sects which are a minority in a given country; or even a Muslim sect which is a majority but has no political power), of most anyone with differing cultural or moral values. Why? Not because Islam is necessarily less tolerant than Christianity or other religions (ever actually read what the Bible has to say about "nonbelievers"?), but because in most Muslim nations religious leaders are closely tied to the state (or in some cases, directly in command of it).

Moreover, collusion between the state and a religion will often cause the reduction or evaporation of religious liberty. Why has such a variety of religions and sects thrived in the United States? Because the state cannot dictate doctrine to a church, and because no church has the power to impose its doctrines on the masses by way of the state. This was, in fact, the primary reason that Christian members of the Continental Congress (who did after all greatly outnumber the Deists) agreed to the establishment clause in the First Amendment; nearly every colony wanted its own state church to be made the national church of the new nation, but given the choice between having no national church and having a rival church attain that status, the representatives preferred the former arrangement. Why? Because they knew, as I have written above, that when a religious entity is given political power, it automatically uses that power to destroy its opposition.

To put it succinctly: If you want to live in a theocracy, move to Iran. If you prefer to live in a place where all religious (and irreligious, for that matter) views are tolerated, you must live in a nation where this is a separation of church and state.

1: Someone is bound to point out that many democratic nations in Europe exist which have a state church. My response to this is; yes, there is a legal connection between the church and the state, but in most places it is archaic and state-church separation exists de facto for the most part. (The only notable exception I can think of is the continued teaching of Anglicanism in British public schools.) To make a comparison with another fact of modern government: In Britain, Queen Elizabeth II legally has control over all political power. That is to say, the Crown is considered the fount of the government's legitimacy. Legally, she could dissolve Parliament and declare herself absolute monarch of Britain. However in all practicality, if she did this, she would (I would hope) have little-to-no support from the people. Similarly, the law still on the books in Arizona that says two people of opposite sex can't room together unless they're related or married, while still having legality, is in reality archaic and unenforced and thus de facto has no legitimate power to keep two such people from doing that.

2: I am in no way suggesting that religious entities are the only such that tend to behave in this manner. For instance, under Stalinism, all religions and "subversive" (i.e. anti- or non-Stalinist) ideologies were banned in the Soviet Union (although you could argue, and many have, that communism itself is a kind of religion). I am only stating that most if not all religious entities behave in this way.

This part of the writeup is a response to dghallau's writeup above:

1) I am curious to see what evidence you have that there have been any siginificant trends towards atheism in the United States. I would find it especially interesting, considering that the ARIS 2001 poll1, which took a random sample of 50,000 people (allowing for a very, very tiny percentage of statistical error), found that approximately 2,000,000 Americans - or less than 1% - consider themselves atheists, agnostics, or otherwise nontheistic - and this is probably the most liberal number given in any such poll. Of course, if you include those who consider themselves "non-religious" - not a legitimate assumption to make when many people may be theists but not practitioners of an organized religion, although groups like American Atheists insist on doing it anyway - the number is 29.5 million, or about 14%; but even so, I don't believe this number has changed significantly in the last 30-40 years. Of course, I could be wrong.
2)In what way does government exist to promote morality? Do you believe the government should prosecute people for blasphemy or obscenity? Adultery? Recreational use of marijuana?

It seems to me the only extent to which the government has the legitimate right to promote a moral code is in reference to those actions which cause definite physical (as opposed to spiritual, not neglecting emotional and psychological) harm: murder, rape, child abuse, etc. Anything else is an infringement on the individual's rights and their moral autonomy.

For that matter, in what way is religion's aim to promote morality? Certainly, most religions prescribe a moral code in some shape or form, but that is not their primary purpose. The primary aim of a religion is to instill certain metaphysical and epistemological beliefs; the belief in a god, the belief in an afterlife or in reincarnation, the belief that the universe is not truly as it appears to our senses (idealism), etc. Moral standards are set within this framework: If your eschatology is that of a dichotomous heaven and hell, then there must be certain things you can do to get into heaven (or be trapped in hell).

More to the point, whose morality is it anyway? Even if I were to grant that the state and religions have as their ultimate aim the promotion of morality (and I don't), we still have to ask which morality is "best". Certainly the moral code of your average Christian fundamentalist is much different than that set laid out in the Humanist Manifestos. Who decides which is best when there are no objective standards of morality?

Finally: As I've said, all religions have their own metaphysical and epistemological doctrines which their followers necessarily believe in - and even if you disagree that this is the primary purpose of religion, I doubt you'll seriously contest that it is at least *one* of its main purposes. Under a theocracy - even the "truest and best", whatever that means - the religion in power can and almost certainly will enforce these views on the general public, possibly banning all opposing views. But what right does the government have to tell me whether or not I believe in God, or if I do what kind of God to believe in? What authority does Congress or the President have to determine whether I should believe in a heaven and hell, or in reincarnation, or in Valhalla, or in no afterlife at all? The answer is none; none whatsoever. But under a theocratic government, they would nonetheless have the power to do so. *That* is why seperation of church and state would always be necessary; even with the best of governments, even with the best of religions.

1: Source: http://www.gc.cuny.edu/studies/key_findings.htm


The relationship between the Church and the State is one of the most interesting differences between British and US politics. Britain, perhaps oddly, has never officially separated church and state - we still have an established Church of England, with the Queen as its official head and twenty-six bishops permanently sitting in the Upper House of our legislature. Their web site says they are there as 'an extension of their general vocation as bishops to preach God's word and to lead people in prayer.' This arrangement seems even odder when you consider that the Church in Wales was disestablished in 1920, and the Church of Scotland - which is Presbyterian, not Anglican - was granted full independence from the state the next year. So in a country where only a third of the population describes themselves as religious, we have 26 permanent places reserved in our parliament, specifically for old men representing one particular Christian sect, from one of the four nations making up the United Kingdom.


Let me start by saying I find this anachronistic, and offensive to my secularist sensibilities - but what is particularly intriguing to me is that religion seems to have a far smaller influence on British politics than those of the USA - or indeed most of the rest of the world. If you're appalled by the idea of having a state church, it is sensible to weigh that against the fact that very few of our politicians ever talk about religion at all. David Cameron caused an uproar a few months ago with a passing suggestion that Britain is 'a Christian country', and I'm struggling to think of another time in recent memory when any British politician has made a big thing of religion at all; Tony Blair's adviser Alastair Campbell famously said 'we don't do God'. So when we hear about politicians routinely spouting 'God bless America', let alone state governments voting to have Christian mythology taught in science classes, we British secularists count our blessings. I've even seen it argued that our established church has helped save us from this kind of religious politicking, and that having a moderate established church does much to deflate the power of religious extremists. Michael Portillo's argument for establishment, in The Telegraph, is the strongest I have seen - I don't entirely buy it, but he does have a case.

The wishy-washiness of the Church of England, about which many critics complain, is the very point of it. The benefit that Britain has gained from having such a mild and watery institutionalised religion is incalculable.


It is clear that the formal separation of church and state is not sufficient to prevent religious meddling in political affairs, and there is something to be said for the opposite effect. Neither is it any guarantee against the exclusion from political life of anybody with the wrong kind of religious beliefs. Perhaps it helps to avoid the state directly interfering with the religious freedom of its citizens - although as with freedom of speech, the state is only one of many potential barriers to the practical exercise of that supposed freedom. It certainly makes it impossible, in principle, for a church to use the machinery of the state to oppress a country's citizens in the way that so many churches have been known to, throughout history, when they have had the power - but it has been a very long time since the Church of England was the sort of institution that one could imagine applying thumb-screws.

Floccinaucinihilipilificating antidisestablishmentarianism

The practical arguments for disestablishment in Britain, then, seem inconclusive. That leaves us with the arguments from principle. Is it appropriate that the Prime Minister, who may or may not have any religious opinion, is in charge of appointing the Archbishop of Canterbury? No. Is it appropriate that the Head of State should double as Head of Church in a country where two thirds of the population say they are not religious? No. Is it appropriate that representatives of any one religion - let alone one particular sect of that religion, confined to one particular region of our country - should have an automatic voting right in our parliament? No. Is it appropriate that our country should have an official state religion which is so institutionally conservative that in 2012, it still vocally opposes gay marriage, and explicitly forbids women from attaining its highest office? No, it just really, really isn't.

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