Separation of Church and State is Essential
Our Constitution is a product of the European Enlightenment of the eighteenth century.
This was a cultural and intellectual movement which held that all people have certain
fundamental rights regardless of their position in the social order. This also represented a shift in the relationship between a Judeo-Christian God and human society. The medieval tradition held that the social order and all of its inequalities was all part of an inscrutable divine providence. The great thinkers of the Enlightenment argued that humanity has the ability and even the responsibility to improve its condition through the use of science and reason. As Voltaire says in the final words of his satirical novel Candide, “We must cultivate our garden”.
The freedom of worship which is enshrined in our Constitution is also part of Enlightenment thought, but it was also influenced by the painful lessons learned over centuries of sectarian violence in Europe. The worst of these conflicts was the Thirty Years War (1618- 1648) which was fought largely in what is today Germany. This war was particularly devastating on the civilian population which suffered all of the same atrocities we see in the most chaotic failed states today. Parts of the war zone lost more than 60% of their population did not recover demographically until the nineteenth century.
The sectarian divides in these wars were more than simply Protestant versus Catholic.
Both had internal factions based on how uncompromising they should be in their own view of religious absolutism. The Anabaptists, who were the forerunners of today’s Amish and Mennonites, were universally targeted with Catholics and Protestants uniting at times to stamp them out. We commonly associate the Middle Ages with horrific torture and public executions, but it was really the sixteenth and seventeenth century when this barbarism reached its peak in Western Civilization.
One of the most important results of this was the realization that religious pluralism is
preferable to religious violence. The destruction of religious warfare was far more harmful than allowing others to worship God in a different way. For eighteenth-century intellectuals, religion should be a private affair lest it become a source of bigotry and persecution. A democratic A democratic state must give all of its citizens equal status, regardless of cultural difference such as religion. This is what Thomas Jefferson was referring to when he called for a “wall of separation between church and state”.
Modern conservatism is heavily influenced by the Christian Nationalist movement. This
is the belief that our Founders intended the United States to be a Christian nation with laws determined by Biblical principles. Christian Nationalism is at the root of the culture war we’ve been seeing locally and nationally. It explains why some view having Muslims in Congress or LGBT+ children in schools are perceived as a personal attack on their own beliefs. When society is not conforming to their personal principles, they are the ones being persecuted for their Christian beliefs.
This obviously comes from a distorted view of our history and the context in which our
Constitution was written. But even if that were not the case, what would a Christian nation
even look like? Whose Christianity is Christian? Who can argue that Christianity is about
“traditional” marriage when so many Christian churches around us are flying Pride Flags
precisely because they it to be their obligation as Christians to show love for one another? Christian Nationalists are, for the time, united by their fear of cultural change, but if their dream of forming a Biblical nation ever came true, what would they do with the Christians they don’t agree with? Would we become like some intangible past version of ourselves, or would we be like Central Europe during the Thirty Years War? Are Christian Nationalists really following Christianity or are they using it as cover for their own bigotry?
There are many reasons why our Founders intended religion to be a strictly private
matter that go beyond the question of individual liberty. Religion can motivate us to do very good things, but only when it encourages us to think beyond ourselves and our personal interests. As our Founders and other Enlightenment intellectuals understood, religion is easily corrupted when it becomes aligned with political power. Religious liberty is an important part of our society, but the word liberty loses any meaning when you use it to limit the choices of others.
Eric F. Johnson, Ph.D.
Associate Professor of European History
Kutztown University of Pennsylvania