When church meets state

Our confused church-state discourse and its Jeffersonian roots.

Hunter Mellon

February 7, 2023

The “separation of church and state” is a familiar concept in American political discourse. It is a defining characteristic of American republicanism and is widely associated with the First Amendment’s prohibition on Congress’s interference with the establishment and free exercise of religion. The Fourteenth Amendment later enforced the separation doctrine against all tiers of American government. This concept, however, does not deny religion any place in civic life. Although many claim that the Supreme Court’s decision in Lawrence v. Texas, which found a Texas statute criminalizing sodomy to be unconstitutional, effectively ended all morals legislation, legislating is fundamentally a values-driven enterprise. People often derive their values from their religious paradigms, and they do not need to renounce all these convictions when they become voters or politicians. No court has ever held that it is unconstitutional, for example, for a senator to support welfare because she believes that it accords with the Christian values of compassion and concern for the poor, or for her constituents to elect her for those beliefs.

Despite the saliency of the separation doctrine, it is nevertheless contentious and frequently misunderstood by Americans across the political spectrum. A quick search on Twitter for the term “separation of church and state” yields a plethora of these misconceptions. For example, Americans United, a prominent political action group, recently tweeted that “abortion bans violate the separation of church and state,” presumably because anti-abortion activists often root their support for the “right to life” in ostensibly Christian notions of personhood. More broadly, those on the left tend to complain that politicians violate the separation of church and state when they make references to God or invoke religiously inspired morality. Some politicians on the right have bought into this misconception as well. For example, former Pennsylvania Republican gubernatorial candidate Doug Mastriano recently declared that the separation of church and state is a “myth.” Mastriano has not indicated support for restricting worship or establishing a state church, but in the face of mistaken criticisms that legislating on the basis of his Christianity runs counter to the separation doctrine, he has taken a stand against the doctrine itself.

If the separation of church and state is such a hallmark of American political life, why do misconceptions about its meaning persist? The answer may be that these misconceptions originate from the very man who was pivotal in ensuring that the notion be codified into the American civic tradition: Thomas Jefferson.

Although concerns about church-state interplay long predated Jefferson, he was a key figure in the debate over this issue. In 1777, he drafted the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, which was incorporated into Virginia law and influenced the First Amendment. Jefferson deserves enormous credit for ensuring a meaningful separation of church and state in America. However, he is also responsible for much of the confusion that arises today. Jefferson’s writings on the separation of church and state, particularly in the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom and his 1802 Letter to the Danbury Baptist Association, set the stage for our present misconceptions. Jefferson outlined a misguided notion about the social nature of ideas, overlooked the indelible role of government in advancing opinions and values, and poorly analogized the church-state relationship within the separation paradigm.

Jefferson opened the Virginia Statute by writing that men’s opinions and beliefs “depend not on their own will, but follow involuntarily the evidence proposed to their minds.” He adds that “God hath created the mind free, and manifested his supreme will that free it shall remain by making it altogether insusceptible of restraint.” Here, Jefferson advanced a view that the human intellect is impervious to coercion, internal or external, and suggested that people only exercise control over the opinions of themselves and others through the dialectic presentation of compelling evidence.

This view is misguided in three ways. First, as numerous studies confirm, the human intellect is not immune to groupthink or social pressures. In one of the most famous studies on conformity, the psychologist Muzafer Sharif demonstrated that when people are shown a stationary point of light on a wall, they will come to believe that the light is moving if people around them espouse that view, contradictory to the evidence provided by their own sense perception. Second, people’s beliefs do often depend at least in part upon their own will. The first—but often enduring—stage of the Kübler-Ross model of grief is denial. When confronted with tragedy, people’s initial response is typically to deny the evidence if it conflicts drastically with their will. In a similar vein, it cannot be proven that other humans have minds. But people who understand this axiom typically reject the solipsistic position because they don’t want to live in a world in which we take that position seriously at every interaction with another person. Third, Jefferson is wrong to suggest that belief is not subject to coercion. Human beliefs are resistant, but not impervious, to external coercion. Stockholm Syndrome, a phenomenon in which people admire their captors for psychological reasons detached from rationality and evidence, exemplifies this tendency. Jefferson’s mistaken beliefs about human psychology and ideation may not be tied specifically to the issue of the separation of church and state. However, they are important in establishing that Jefferson approaches this subject with confused notions about human psychology and ideation in ways that obscure the legitimate value of the separation doctrine.

Additionally, Jefferson overlooks the inexorable role that the state plays in promoting opinions and values. In the Virginia Statute, he writes: “[T]hat the impious presumption of legislators and rulers, civil as well as ecclesiastical, who, being themselves but fallible and uninspired men, have assumed dominion over the faith of others, setting up their own opinions and modes of thinking as the only true and infallible, and as such endeavoring to impose them on others, hath established and maintained false religions over the greatest part of the world and through all time…”

Here, Jefferson writes that it is unacceptable for governments to advocate not only religion but also “opinions” and “modes of thinking” that extend beyond the explicitly religious. This is clear for two reasons: For one, his opposition to the imposition of religion by the state seems predicated upon the independent axiom that “to compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves and abhors, is sinful and tyrannical.” Additionally, at the time of his writing, one’s general values and morality were understood to derive from one’s religious paradigms, and thus “secular” and “religious” moral opinions were not actually differentiated in a meaningful way in the discourse. For example, Jefferson himself takes clear inspiration from his Deism and his belief in a rational creator to underpin the ideas he put forth in the Virginia Statute legislation itself.

Jefferson’s is a naïve view of the proper role of government, because governments are necessarily in the business of promoting certain values, opinions, and modes of thinking, and necessarily require the taxpayers to advance them, even if they do not personally endorse these ideas.

Examples of the U.S. government advancing particular beliefs, values, and modes of thinking are abundant. Public elementary schools promote the “Four Bs” (Be kind, Be respectful, Be safe, Be responsible) as well as the “golden rule” (Do unto others as you would have them do unto you); the Department of Defense has committed itself to “diversity, equity, and inclusion;” the State Department justifies its support for Ukraine in part on the arguably metaphysical claim that “citizens in a democracy have an inherent right to determine their country’s future.” There is room for legitimate debate on whether the government should be promoting these particular opinions and modes of thought. However, what is clear is that the government cannot be entirely value-neutral. Governments must promote opinions and modes of thought, and must require taxpayers to support them even if they disagree with them. For many voters, legislators, and policymakers, these values will naturally have their genesis in religious predispositions. While Jefferson is correct that it is unacceptable for our government to mandate, prohibit, or endorse a specific religion or religious practice, he opens the door to a wide range of confusion by suggesting that the government should not be in the business of promoting values and that the taxpayer shouldn’t be obligated to sponsor opinions. These erroneous views lend themselves to the misconception that all political initiatives inspired by religious convictions violate the separation doctrine.

Jefferson eventually solidified his confused notions concerning the ideal relationship between church and state through the use of an enduring but unfortunate metaphor. In his Letter to the Danbury Baptist Association, Jefferson put forth his famous claim that the First Amendment establishes a “wall of separation between church and state.” That analogy conjures an image of an impermeable and opaque barrier. A wall between church and state implies that there is no interaction between church and state. Situating church and state so that neither can influence or even see the other is both impossible and undesirable in any government, particularly in a democracy. Voters and politicians are in many cases going to be products of their religious paradigms. The abolitionist movement, for example, was in large part born out of New England religious communities that were inspired directly by their faith. If a true “wall” of separation existed, abolitionism would have been impotent to effect change the way it did. The opposite is also true: The aforementioned New England religious communities turned their theological focus to questions of slavery and abolition partly in reaction to government policies. The suggestion that religion and state exist in two totally isolated domains partitioned by an imporous wall is implausible; to truly enforce such a notion would require an impossible totality. A more accurate metaphor would be to envision a sieve between church and state: a very real barrier that prevents total consolidation but nevertheless acknowledges that popular religions and the state affect one another, even when they are institutionally separate.

I don’t take issue with the First Amendment nor with the separation of church and state itself. I strongly support this tradition, and I credit Jefferson with advancing it. However, I hope I have shown that the way that Jefferson frames these concepts has led to the popular misconceptions we see today. Jefferson, in all likelihood, actually did have a generally correct understanding of the separation doctrine and would disagree with many of the mischaracterizations prevalent in present-day discourse, but failed to communicate his vision as artfully as he could have and thus acted as an unwitting midwife to today’s confusions. Perhaps this should be of little surprise, for Jefferson was a genius who suffered many personal and intellectual contradictions. Supporters of the separation doctrine and of the First Amendment would do themselves and the wider public a service to acknowledge the poor framing of this concept from one of its most influential progenitors.

Within America’s civic paradigms, we would be better off recognizing that it is fair game to bring our religious convictions to the ballot box, and that it is fair game for others to question the validity of those beliefs. At present, much of our public discourse involves people not merely disagreeing but talking past one another, with much debate over the constitutionality of various proposals rather than the merits of the proposals themselves. Sometimes, questions of constitutionality are live and warranted, but oftentimes, particularly surrounding the church-state issue, they are moot. A more nuanced public understanding of the relationship between church and state in the United States would render public discourse far more productive. Debates would come to center on the issues themselves, forcing people to reason for or against the actual merits of, for example, legislation ostensibly inspired by Christian values, rather than merely debate its “constitutionality.”

Hunter Mellon is a fourth-year undergraduate at Georgetown University studying political science and theology.