How did “Separation of Church and State” get into the US Constitution anyway?

On Facebook today, a Conservative was discussing the typical Conservative positions regarding separation of curch and state, then took the dramatic and unexpected turn of asking if anyone knew the actual history or not from source documents, as he him self  did not.

I wrote the following in response, off the top of my head, so it may contain minor errors to the most detailed scholars. Still, the information below is something every American should know and internalize, and we will all be better off for it.

@Tim – I wonder how you came to your position without knowing the history of the First Amendment and the rest of the Constitution?

This lesson is going to be necessarily brief, but all supporting original documents are available online and in print, owing to their age and freedom from copyright.

The Constitution did not simply fall out of thin air. It was not even the first form of government for the United States. In fact, the first form was on the verge of failure and collapse and recognition of that by the public and the Founding Fathers is what spawned the Constitutional Convention of 1787 in Philadelphia.

During the Convention, the Constitution itself was created by all the signers over a period of many months. James Madison kept voracious notes of the debate during the entire era. So you can see for yourself who said what, and for what reasons, and when.

If you deign to read this important document, you will find that the Founders sought to create a government that was radically different from what they (and individually and collectively they were scholars of history of government and philosophy) knew of in the world prior.

In particular, you can see that they were quite concerned that the combination of a state government with religion could be pointed to as a weakness of both. The specifics of the religion, be it Protestant, Catholic, or anything else, was irrelevant to them. Similarly, the form of government, be it a monarchy, a democracy, or a republic, when encumbered by a religion did not matter either.

Quite simply, they felt that a State  so encumbered was doomed to fail, either by internal collapse or external attack. There is no doubt that regardless of the level of commonality of their own religions (and they did vary but that is neither here nor there), in order to succeed at their task of creating a radical new government form that would succeed where others had universally failed, the new form of state would have to be separate from religion. Meanwhile the citizens of the state would be free to practice their religions (or not) as the individuals saw fit.

This intent is all very clearly recorded in Madison’s contemporaneous notes. So there is really no excuse for anyone, conservative or not, for not knowing it. Many conservative positions are patently false as a result of not knowing these basic facts in public domain documents written by the Founding Fathers.

Now, while the Founders did in fact intend to create a radical new form of government – they had just fought a Revolution after all, the ideals expressed in the Constitution and in the Declaration of Independence (have you read that closely in its entirety lately Tim?) were not strictly the creation of the Founders themselves.

As Scholars and Diplomats, interested in the free flow of ideas, they were part of the broader philosophical movement dating back to at least the early 17 century regarding the nature of freedom of an individual and their relationship to the State. John Locke is perhaps the best known name in this area today, but far from the only one. There was a rich school of thought that the Founders understood well, and intended to implement.

Many documents from that school of thought have phrases that are echoed and almost repeated wholesale in the Declaration, the Constitution, and other earlier historical founding documents, and they are referred to during the Constitutional Convention according to Madison’s own notes.

Even prior to the 17th Century, dating back to the 13th, there are extant documents that are important milestones in the path to our Liberty, such as the Magna Carta. For the first time in our tradition at least, the limits between the power of the state (a Monarch in that case) and the liberty of the individual began to be delineated. Much of what is in that document we take for granted today, but it is still there to read, even online.

There is no excuse not to learn about these source documents, because they provide a now-almost-800 year line of thought regarding our liberty and relationship with the power of the State, and include the very documents and reasoning that the Founders referred to in creating the Constitution and amending it (actually clarifying) with the Bill of Rights immediately upon its adoption.

And there is even less excuse for Conservatives to wield random statements about what the Constitution is or isn’t, as though it fell from space, in an attempt to use it as a sledge hammer on the liberties of man.

Posted in Thoughts and Comments.