Separation of Church and State — Worshipping at the Government Altar of Civil Religion

Recent Macon Telegraph articles and Letters to the Editor continue to discuss "separation of church and state," but frankly, many of them miss the mark. Our Founding Fathers, even Thomas Jefferson, meant something completely different in the "establishment of religion" clause of the First Amendment to the Constitution than what liberal pundits are leading us to believe.

First, the phrase "separation of church and state" does not appear in the U.S. Constitution or any of our founding documents, but only in the fecundity of memoranda of ACLU lawyers and court rulings of activist judges.

First AmendmentWhat the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution says is "Congress should make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof”; it does not proscribe religion from political life. The Founders were very aware that Judeo-Christian religion supports the moral code and ordered liberty. The Founders knew the value of religion upon morality and society and guaranteed religious freedom as one of the first of the Natural and Constitutional rights enshrined in the First Amendment.

And because of the banishment of religion from public life, particularly in our schools, the chickens of unrestrained violence, immorality, and decadence have come home to roost.

By jettisoning the Judeo-Christian principles upon which this nation was founded, coupled with the growth of government in our private and public lives, our children have suffered greatly in their personal and academic lives, and they are growing up devoid of a moral compass, discipline, and even a desire to learn and become better citizens. This is reflected in poor academic performance, and increased illegitimacy, illiteracy, and hooliganism.

We worry about children with guns, violence in schools, and street crime. We wonder why we have so much immorality, crime, broken families, etc. This disintegration of the moral foundations of our society has been the result of the loss of religious and moral principles, leading increasingly to a lack of discipline, self-respect, and moral restraints.

School prayer and the Ten Commandments have already been removed from government schools and most public places. Should we also extirpate such phrases as "God Bless America," "In God We Trust," etc., because someone is offended? There is no Constitutional right of protection against being offended. Flag burning, nude dancing and other forms of offensive speech, as distasteful as they may be to many Americans, are permitted. The Supreme Court has even ruled that as offensive as the Westboro Baptist Church funeral protests were, nevertheless, they were protected free speech. And yet, many politicians want to ban religion completely from public life because it is offensive to various sects and political groups.

Our Constitution gives us freedom of worship, not proscription of religion in personal and public life. All ten of the enumerated rights enshrined in the Bill of Rights secure individual liberties and limit the power of government. They do not establish government policy. Why would the "free exercise of religion" clause be any different?

The “separation of church and state,” if we may call it that, really referred to the refusal of the establishment of a state religion. Our Founders correctly rejected not only the formation of a theocracy but also the establishment of an official state religion, as was the case in Great Britain, the nation from which they had just separated.* 

Our Founders were sons of the Enlightenment and decried an official religion supported by the state to the detriment of other Judeo-Christian denominations. Beginning in the late 1760s through the 1780s, opposition to an official state religion developed in New Jersey, led by Calvinist and Presbyterian leaders like John Witherspoon, Elias Boudinot, and William Livingston.

The Southern Founders, led by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison in Virginia, agreed and were equally and firmly opposed to having the establishment of the Anglican or Episcopalian Church as the state-supported, official religion for the United States. They all strongly concurred in freedom of conscience and freedom of religion.

The phrase "a wall of separation" in church and state affairs is derived from the query made by the Danbury Baptist Association of Connecticut in 1801, regarding an opinion on the establishment of religion in their state, sent to Thomas Jefferson, the newly elected President of the United States. To this query, Jefferson responded: "…I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should 'make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,' thus building a wall of separation between Church and State."Thomas Jefferson

Jefferson’s private opinion is perhaps the strongest among the Founders and has been used repeatedly by activist judges as if the phrase was contained in the U.S. Constitution to ban religion from public life. But this “wall of separation” refers only to the official forbiddance of the establishment of a state religion as enumerated in our U.S. Constitution, and not to a ban on religion in public life or an encroachment on religious liberty.

The Founders were well aware of what state religion meant in Great Britain, where the head of state, the king, was the head of the Church of England; where the monarch appointed bishops; where the House of Lords composed of Temporal Lords (i.e., the nobility) and the Spiritual Lords (i.e., Bishops and Archbishops) ruled as the Upper House; where all citizens including Catholics, Puritans, Methodists, Presbyterians, and other Dissenters, pay taxes for the Church of England, a church to which they did not belong; where Catholics could not even hold public office and were persecuted, including the Irish Catholics in their own country!  

Winston Churchill, the great English statesman, orator, historian, and World War II Prime Minister of Great Britain and a great apologist of the Anglican Church wrote that even as far back as the Reformation and the reign of Henry VIII and his bigamous marriage to Anne Boleyn, “the clergy were prohibited from preaching unless licensed, and a Bidding prayer was prescribed for use in all Churches of England…‘Henry VIII being immediately next unto God…’” And Catholics continued to be excluded from holding office and persecuted in Great Britain until the advent of the Catholic emancipation process in the 19th Century and Irish home rule in the 20th Century.

Faith and religion provide an invisible support to the moral code, encourage discipline, and promote civility. Their influence on moral conduct and overt behavior is certain. Without the prop of religion and our churches, crime would certainly increase, and then the state would have the usual reason or excuse, or even pretext, to step in, to pass more laws against the law-abiding citizens, and to suppress more liberties, all in the name of combating lawlessness and crime.

Thus, I find the Judeo-Christian religion beneficial to the survival of Western Civilization and a just bulwark against anarchy on the one hand and the rise of socialism and tyranny on the other.

Most authoritative biographies of the Founding Fathers reveal that in public life these great men displayed orthodox, Christian thinking, and Judeo-Christian ethics. They rejected theocracy, as most of us Americans do, but that is a far cry from what many liberal academicians espouse today — i.e., that religion should have no role in government and that religious people should not be seen or heard!

There is no chance we will establish a theocracy in the U.S., but the opposite is more likely, the establishment of a completely secular, socialist state, where might is right and where government power becomes the civil religion of the state — to the detriment of our remaining freedoms.

* The English Civil War (1642-1649) was a dark chapter in the history of Great Britain and a lesson on the evils of war, particularly when religion is involved. Reading a book on the history of Scotland, I learned that although the English Puritans and the Scottish Presbyterians favored a Protestant theocracy and followed the stern sobriety of Calvinism, they differed in their outlook and politics during the English Civil War in that the Scotts were influenced by the charitable teachings of the New Testament, whereas the Puritans continued to emphasized by the austerity of the Old Testament. It was the English parliament of Puritans, Roundheads, and Oliver Cromwell that condemned and executed the Stuart king Charles I (r. 1625-1649).

Written by Dr. Miguel Faria

Miguel A. Faria, Jr., M.D. is the author of Vandals at the Gates of Medicine (1995) and Cuba in Revolution: Escape From a Lost Paradise (2002). He resides in Milledgeville, and his website is

This editorial was published in The Macon Telegraph on April 22, 2012. A longer and more illustrated version of this article is also available.

This article may be cited as: Faria MA. Separation of Church and State — Worshipping at the Government Altar of Civil Religion.  The Macon Telegraph. April 22, 2012. Available from:

Copyright ©2012 Miguel A. Faria, Jr., MD

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Comments on this post

Earthly rulers, theological lessons...

Hi Dr. Faria,
I want to share a couple of items with you that you might find interesting. But first -- thank you for your recent remarks in The Telegraph regarding the election.  I noticed in the online version one of the dullards taking exception with the use of your vocabulary -- specifically, "Platonic" and "Aristotelian", used precisely and economically.  When did precision and expressive language become a liability?
I remain deeply concerned about what the choice in this election says about the state of our republic.  And while I know you and Erick Erickson have been less than cordial with each other of late, I thought he did a fine job of analyzing the Christian's attitude toward Trump.  Simply put, it seems we have no alternative than to vote for the man; but I personally think we should be very careful not to indicate approval of his character and behavior; and should resolve to "watch him like a hawk.”

I have been continuing my ongoing tete-a-tete with Dr. Cummings.  My letter in regard to his last column is in today's paper, Viewpoints for Friday, September 30, 2016.

Also, I would like to share my and Trena's latest music video, "Confession".  It is a rather melancholy plaint, (hopefully) lifted up by the reassurance that "I will never leave or forsake you..."(Deut. 31:6; Heb. 13:5).  The video is from Stanley's Kubrick's beautifully cinematographed "Barry Lyndon.” The DOVES -- "Confession”:  “I decided not long ago That I would try to be the last one to know To my surprise, I can’t say I don’t. She lied ... “ God bless, Wade 

Hi Wade,
Excellent song, like usual! You make some interesting theological points. You must remember, though, that when the Puritans ruled in England and New England, they did not create a heaven on Earth, but the very opposite, so we should cut earthly rulers (and would be rulers) a bit of slack and still uphold the law as well as ethical and moral behavior.

To clarify — in Britain during the Civil War, Commonwealth, and Protectorate, the English Puritans and their sometimes allies, the Scottish Presbyterians, fought against and ruled together for a time against English King Charles I and his Cavaliers and Anglicans followers. The Irish Catholics were nonpersons, treated brutally, particularly in Oliver Cromwell’s barbaric Irish invasion and subjugation.

I was referring specifically to the Parliament of Saints, which Cromwell finally dismissed as totally ineffective and outworldly, unsuitable to rule people, in his several attempt to have an efficient but pliable Parliament in his Commonwealth and Protectorate. This is an interesting part of history that spilled from England to the U.S. and I have written several pieces around it as they relate to political history.

Although I was brought up Presbyterian, as I think you are, I have come to agree with many points of the Catholic Church. As such we may disagree on a few theological points, but the contention with secular humanists was intense, particular the longer version of this article. The illiberal liberals in the Telegraph were furious with this piece when it was published. They do not tolerate any influence of religion, particularly Judeo-Christian thought in government, as you can well imagine.

I and hundreds of others thank you for your labors instructing theological points in the Telegraph and refuting Cummings when he misleads, and if you can derive some amusement, that is even better!—- Dr. Miguel Faria

Hi Miguel,
Excellent points, sir. The Church is wholly unsuitable for the role of state government.  That is not its purpose, role, or function.  Christianity is concerned with individual self governance -- and that, only of the believer.

Are you familiar with an exegesis of the first 3 chapters of Revelation -- the "Seven Letters to the Seven Churches", dictated by Our Lord to John, at Patmos -- that assigns a prophetic application to them?

It is a controversial view.  Most Christian scholars accept that there are at least three applications of those letters:

(1) Historical, local -- seven letters, to seven churches in Asia Minor, extant at that time.
(2) General, admonitory -- they apply to all churches, in all times, to varying degrees -- "he that hath an ear..."
(3)  Personal, homiletic:  they apply to all believers, individually... and (4)  they represent a history of the Church, pre-written.  This would not be so, if they were written in any other order.

Viewed that way, they present the following map:

1. Ephesus -- the Apostolic Church
2. Smyrna -- the Persecuted Church
3. Pergamos -- the "Married" Church; the Church becomes an organ of the state, and the state religion
4. Thyatira -- the Medieval Church
5. Sardis -- the Reformed, denominational, "dead" church
6. Philadelphia -- the evangelical church
7. Laodicea -- the Apostate Church

It is a study that yields some fascinating insights. The point being -- as Adams pointed out, this nation was founded as a secular system of government, to govern a predominantly "religious", or Christian, people.

A "Christian" theocracy is unworkable -- even over a "Christian" people.  Jesus said He "hated" the works of the "Nicolaitans" -- which may be an untranslated term, referring to "Nikos" (victory) over the people (laity).  That is what occurred when Christianity became the state religion, with a priestly class in authority.  And a "Christian" theocracy governing a secular, pagan, Godless people, is simply a recipe for disaster.

What we have now, it seems, is a secular system, governing an increasingly Godless, secular, pagan people.  The nation that fought WWII could be fairly termed "God fearing" (if not "Christian").  I don't think we can make that claim any longer.

Perhaps I'm wrong there.  But my chief concern about this Trump v. Clinton election is how much it seems to support that assertion. Billy Graham once quipped that "if God doesn't judge America, then He owes Sodom and Gomorrah an apology." One of God's judgments is the "judgment of abandonment" -- "very well, have it your way -- THY will be done."

This election certainly sets up as evidence of such a judgment.  No one even mentions Trump's righteous qualities -- e.g., honor, dignity, principles. Yet the alternative is Hillary, which is unthinkable. And the reason I advocate "vote for Trump, of course -- but keep a watchful eye on him; and withhold your approval..." Yours, Wade Stooksberry,

Wade, thanks for the theological lesson! — MAF

Wade Stooksberry is a musician and theological scholar. With his wife Trena he composes and sing songs, like troubadours of yore in their duet The DOVES. His songs features in our video gallery on the front page. He contributes and writes frequently in the Macon Telegraph.

Good day!

The influence of religion on moral conduct and overt behavior is certain. Without the prop of religion and our churches, crime would certainly increase, and then the state would have the usual reason or excuse, or even pretext, to step in, to pass more laws against the law-abiding citizens, and to suppress liberty, all in the name of combating lawlessness and crime.

Great songs!

The Revolution will not be needed, Ben, Romney will win this November, and I hope he has the spine to roll off socialism and get this country back on track. As Barry Goldwater asserted, "We must, and we shall, return to proven ways-- not because they are old, but because they are true."

Great songs, Ben! And thank you for your kindness. I treasure our friendship! MAF

Ben I do like that song. It

Ben I do like that song. It reminds me so much of my childhood and how simple and innocent life was!

I agree with you on Ron Paul. I find something about him most problematic for me and the only thing I can say if asked what I believe it to be;I'd have to say . I don't trust him either.

And Do I believe Romney is the most conservative person the RNC could find? NO, but I would find it hard to believe he could possibly be as socialist minded as the current Administration with the help of George Soros;killer of nations.I am hoping Romney has seen by the chain of events that a socialist nation would be the Death of America.

We're still a long way from cleaning up all Obama has destroyed or tried to destroy. One thing it'll take a long time just to get race relations back WNL(Within normal limits) along with Class Envy.

Country music!

"Remember When " and Elvis' last Song performed on stage, I must say they are great tunes and videos, Ben, even if I have not been a country music fan all these years. And I agree about Willie Nelson. Since he is a partisan Democrat, with him, I would have to go back to rock, e.g., Three Doors Down or Pink Floyd, or classical music, ha, ha ha, and thanks for your instructive posts!

Oh and you never told me if you like Bob Dylan (a hero of mine) and B. B. King! Listen and watch:


A Commentary, "Should there be a shotgun marriage?" was also posted on the MT 4/24/12 in reply to my essay:

"When I saw the title of Dr. Miguel A. Faria Jr.’s “Separation of church and state: Worshiping at the government altar of civil religion” printed in Sunday’s Telegraph I began to read with enthusiasm. I attended a Mennonite College in the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia where the term “civil religion” was code for the religious-like loyalties that many Americans feel for the link they imagine exists between the Constitution and Christianity. I was quickly disappointed, however, when I realized that this was another tired piece of propaganda that connects the ban on administration-sponsored school prayer with a decline in morality.

"Faria makes the completely unfounded statement that 'because of the banishment of religion from public life, particularly in our schools, the chickens of unrestrained violence, immorality and decadence have come home to roost.' There is no evidence whatsoever that an absence of state-sponsored religious activity of any kind is linked to problems in school or society.

"The author goes on to make the outrageous claim that 'There is no chance we will establish a theocracy in the U.S., but the opposite is more likely, the establishment of a completely secular, socialist state,' cleverly connecting atheism and social welfare. Perhaps he should read the Gospels again to see Jesus’ attitude regarding the poor..."

Patrick Pritchard is the alumnae chair of dducation [sic] and director of the Wesleyan Center for Educational Renewal in Macon.

I respond here, although my original essay actually addressed preemptively most of his criticisms:

In reply to Mr. Patrick Pritchard's column of 4/25/12 in response to my article, "Separation of church and state– Worshipping at the government altar of civil religion," I must say that I am surprised that an official in charge of an Educational Renewal Program in a local college is so distraught about an article with a different viewpoint from the usual "separation of church and state" mantra we hear about constantly, especially when the article is supported not by political wrangle or legal arguments– but historical facts.

Contrary to what he asserted, I have no religious agenda and anyone carefully reading both articles will find that his assertions are convoluted distortions, obfuscations, about what I wrote and pure nonsense, inflamed by his own (and the same) secularist zeal and intolerance that pervades academia.

Mr. Pritchard follows the old tired pattern of many academicians wanting to hear nothing but the politically correct, filtered, managed truths, that we get repeatedly, day in and day out, in the press and in academia.

Yes, in the zeitgeist of our times, we have more to fear from the usurpations of freedom by an insatiable, ever-expanding, socialist, omnipotent government than by the establishment of a priestly Christian theocracy.

Once again, let me say that it is the beauty of this nation that not only do we have freedom of religion but we all also have the right to have opinions, whether informed or not, and we have the right to believe whatever we want to believe — sometimes observations, historical facts, and reality (staring us in the face) notwithstanding. MAF