Church, State, and Original Intent

Lee Strang, writing at First Things, has a problem with separation of church and state. Despite Madison and Jefferson, he thinks this wasn’t the original intent of the founders. He thinks instead that this interpretation was forced upon them by anti-Catholic writers of the 19th and 20th centuries–especially Supreme Court justices who selectively combed history to find support for their beliefs. This isn’t his original conclusion–he’s reviewing Donald Drakeman, Church, State, and Original Intent.  Following Drakeman, he thinks the “original meaning” of the First Amendment “was to forbid the establishment of a single national religion”–consequently, it doesn’t prohibit an established Church of Kansas–or funding of Catholic schools.

So, let’s consider the question. Is Separation of Church and State in the Constitution? And is it anti-Catholic?

I’d argue yes, to both questions.

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

Yes, some states continued to have established churches in the decades that followed, but these were gradually eliminated as states came to realize that they could not deny the freedoms granted by the US Constitution.

Yes, this does erect, as Jefferson said, a “wall of separation” between church and state–the state cannot prohibit freedom, nor can the state sponsor and support any religion. The two are separate spheres.

Yes, this is most certainly anti-Catholic. The framers intentionally and deliberately rejected the Catholic interpretation of church and state that had existed in Europe. It rejected the idea that any Church is the conscience of the nation, and that the nation is bound to enact laws in keeping with a Church’s dogmas.

But it is also most certainly anti-Calvinist. This was New England’s version of an established church; this was the idea that America is a covenant nation, bound to establish a theocracy.

And it is also most certainly anti-Anglican. The founders knew of the establishment of Anglicanism, too, in all of the “royal colonies.”

And it is most certainly anti-secularism. Contrary to the anti-religious spirit of the French revolution, the founders affirmed the freedom of religion–including in the public sphere. The Constitution did not restrict religion to the church or the home–it simply said the government couldn’t pay for it or spread it or support it. Otherwise, religion is free throughout all society to speak and to act. And because of this, religion has flourished in the United States as it has no where else in the world.

To understand the founder’s intent, we must understand Madison and Jefferson, that is true. But we also have to understand Roger Williams, and his struggle against the established churches of New England. He is the true father of the American vision of separation of church and state–in which tax dollars support no one, and everyone is free to act and to speak and to persuade.

And that means Catholics are free to use their money and voice to try to persuade their own members to support their schools through sacrificial giving. Catholics aren’t treated differently–all other churches must do the same thing.  So in that sense, separation of church and state isn’t anti-Catholic at all–unless Catholics feel it is “anti-Catholic” to treat them like everyone else.