Lifestyle & Belief

In the US, church and state are not always so separate


Rev. Rob Schenck and Grace Nwachukwu pray together with a display of the Ten Commandments in front of the Supreme Court in Washington, DC.


Joe Raedle

LONDON — The US Constitution guarantees separation of church and state. Americans learn from an early age that this is one of the key things that makes our country unique.

Yet the US is more religious than many other high-income countries. 

According to the Pew Research Religion and Public Life Project, 67 percent of Americans say they never doubt the existence of God, compared to the UK’s 38 percent who believe in God, according to a Eurobarometer report

This strong religious voice in the US often influences the secular government, the latest example of this influence being the Supreme Court’s agreement Tuesday to hear a case based on religious objection to the Affordable Care Act’s provision requiring employers to provide health insurance covering birth control. 

So this Thanksgiving, I have been thinking about how far the legal separation of church and state really extends in American society and history.

Religious feeling, expressed in biblical language — words and rhythms — is an essential part of the various agreements, compacts and declarations of revolutionary purpose that set the precedents for the US Constitution.

The first of these was the Mayflower Compact.

God was a living spiritual and political presence among those who sailed on the Mayflower, even those who were not part of the Pilgrim community.

In November of 1620 the Mayflower made landfall in Plymouth, Massachusetts. The Pilgrims and the "strangers" among them were actually meant to be in Virginia. That's where they had been given a grant of land and where their backers in the City of London (not for religious reasons but for business reasons) had contracted with them to go. 

Some of the "strangers" decided that the contract they were under was now null and void because they weren't in Virginia. They would do what they pleased and keep the profits. Anarchy threatened. Instead, without King or judge present, the Pilgrims and their fellow travelers wrote a brief agreement, pledging themselves to cooperation and to be part of a "civil body politic." Of course, they invoked God in the first sentence.

A year after the compact was signed, the Pilgrims, strangers, and some of the indigenous people they met celebrated the first "Thanksgiving."

The idea of separation of church and state hadn't even been proposed for discussion as the first Thanksgiving was celebrated.

Fifty years later, John Locke wrote his treatise on tolerance among religious groups, which provided the philosophic underpinning for the idea of separation of church and state. It would be another century before Madison, Hamilton et al sat down to hammer out the contract for a more perfect union, based in considerable part on the guarantee of religious freedom.

But by then the former English colonies' population had swollen with dissenters, Catholics, and Quakers, each group bringing its own intense religious feeling and identity into the society.

Heightened religious language was essential to binding them together to a higher purpose: union and liberty.

But Biblical language didn’t stop at the US Constitution.

Last week saw the 150th anniversary of the Gettysburg Address, which at one level can be taken as a great statement of faith - a faith in the experiment of liberty and union that were undergoing a bloody test.

Possibly the most famous words ever uttered by an American president are: "and that government of the people, by the people, and for the people shall not perish from the earth."

But Lincoln is not the originator of those words. In 1384, John Wycliffe wrote in the general prologue to his English translation of the Bible, "This Bible is for the Government of the People, by the People, and for the People."

Wycliffe undertook his translation against a background of revolutionary strife, just as Lincoln wrote his address in the midst of a rebellion — the Peasants Revolt took place in 1381. Wycliffe's rendering the Bible into everyday language fit in with the populist spirit of the agricultural workers and artisans rebelling against high taxation and corruption.

So, while church and state are separated by the Constitution, the connection between faith and politics in the US can be traced all the way back to medieval England. Two days after the Gettysburg Address anniversary, I took part in a debate at St. Andrew's University Union Debating Society in Scotland.

The motion being debated: "This House Would Rather Have Britain's Constitution than America's."

I led the team arguing against the motion and thought it would be an easy win. After all, Britain doesn't really have a constitution. It has a series of laws and agreements and other precedents going back 900 years to Magna Carta, which some people call a constitution. It has "constitutional experts” who explain what this mass of material means. But that doesn't mean Britain has a constitution.

In my remarks, I acknowledged that many Americans regard the US Constitution as almost holy writ, even though it was the work of men and not delivered from on high.

But a couple of my opponents fixed on the idea that Americans have a religious belief in their Constitution, particularly the Second Amendment and its guarantee of the right to bear arms.

I hear this a lot in Britain because in the wake of a tragedy like Sandy Hook, British television reports can always find someone to say owning an assault rifle is a "sacred" right.

At St. Andrew's most of the speakers in favor of the non-existent British Constitution spent a lot of time attacking the Second Amendment as proof that the US Constitution is a deeply flawed contract.

Though I thought our arguments were persuasive, one of the last speakers was an American woman who gave a speech the NRA would have approved of. On and on she went - testifying in the Church sense to her right to bear arms — and pleading for tolerance in the John Locke sense for this belief.

The room slid away from us and we lost the vote.

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