Stephen Coonts' Journal

Christmas in America

with 2 comments

Christmas Eve, and once again the newspapers are full of commentary about the “separation of church and state”, which, they say, is enshrined in the United States Constitution.

Perhaps this Christmas Eve is a good time to actually read what is in the U.S. Constitution, specifically the First Amendment, which states, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…”

Most folks, reading this amendment, will agree with the authors of the Federalist Papers that the language explicitly forbids Congress from establishing a state religion, such as the Church of England, or Islam, or Shintoism, or the Church of the United States.  Nor can Congress ban a religion.  

Somehow this plain statement got transformed into “the separation of church and state” by various court decisions, some wise, some not.  Under this doctrine, courts have banned school prayer and nativity scenes.  Various politicians anxious to get re-elected have gone a great deal further and banned Christmas trees, wreathes, decorations, and so on, all in the name of political correctness.  People urge Congress to abandon the morning prayer.  They want “In God We Trust” taken off the U.S. currency.  They want “under God” taken out of the pledge of allegiance.  None of this is required by the language of the constitution, and on this Christmas Eve, it might be well to reflect on this fact.  

Also not required by the language of the First Amendment is the tax exemption on church funds and real property which has somehow become traditional at every level of government in the United States, no doubt because generations of politicians wished to curry favor with and get votes from various church groups.  Repeal of this exemption would probably balance the budgets of a great many local and state governments.

Note also, the First Amendment’s prohibition is directed at Congress, not state or local governments.  If a state constitution did not prohibit it, one suspects that a state could indeed establish a state religion and fund it from tax coffers, as several did when the constitution was adopted.  Imagine the Church of California, with Governor Moonbeam as High Priest.  Or, in Nevada, The Church of the Seven Virgins.  Or in Utah, the Church of the Latter-Day Saints.  The Supreme Court put a stop to all this with Everson v. Board of Education (1947) which extended the prohibition to the states.  

The court, in subsequent cases, did indeed began to interpret the Establishment and Free Exercise clauses of the constitution in such a manner as to lead to the present day doctrine of “separation of church and state.”  It was Justice David Souter, writing for the majority in Board of Education of Kiryas Joel Village School District b. Grumet (1994) who said, “government should not prefer one religion to another, or religion to irreligion.”  

The truth of the matter is that western democracy, political philosophy and our ideas of justice are  indeed derived from, or founded upon, Christian precepts.  People who deny this basic fact are ignorant, or fools, or anti-religionists, or all three.  Sorry Justice Souter, but our entire American civilization is founded on the principles you refuse to prefer, one over another.  

Merry Christmas to you, and the joys of the season.

Steve Coonts











Written by stephencoonts

December 24, 2011 at 1:07 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

2 Responses

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  1. Separation of church and state is a bedrock principle of our Constitution much like the principles of separation of powers and checks and balances. In the Constitution, the founders did not simply say in so many words that there should be separation of powers and checks and balances; rather, they actually separated the powers of government among three branches and established checks and balances. Similarly, they did not merely say there should be separation of church and state; rather, they actually separated them by (1) establishing a secular government on the power of “We the people” (not a deity), (2) saying nothing to connect that government to god(s) or religion, (3) saying nothing to give that government power over matters of god(s) or religion, and (4), indeed, saying nothing substantive about god(s) or religion at all except in a provision precluding any religious test for public office. Given the norms of the day, the founders’ avoidance of any expression in the Constitution suggesting that the government is somehow based on any religious belief was quite a remarkable and plainly intentional choice. They later buttressed this separation of government and religion with the First Amendment, which constrains the government from undertaking to establish religion or prohibit individuals from freely exercising their religions. The basic principle, thus, rests on much more than just the First Amendment.

    While the First Amendment undoubtedly was intended to preclude the government from establishing a national religion as you note, that was hardly the limit of its intended scope. The first Congress debated and rejected just such a narrow provision (“no religion shall be established by law, nor shall the equal rights of conscience be infringed”) and ultimately chose the more broadly phrased prohibition now found in the Amendment. During his presidency, Madison vetoed two bills, neither of which would form a national religion or compel observance of any religion, on the ground that they were contrary to the establishment clause. While some in Congress expressed surprise that the Constitution prohibited Congress from incorporating a church in the town of Alexandria in the District of Columbia or granting land to a church in the Mississippi Territory, Congress upheld both vetoes. In keeping with the Amendment’s terms and legislative history and other evidence, the courts have wisely interpreted it to restrict the government from taking steps that could establish religion de facto as well as de jure. Were the Amendment interpreted merely to preclude government from enacting a statute formally establishing a state church, the intent of the Amendment could easily be circumvented by government doing all sorts of things to promote this or that religion–stopping just short of cutting a ribbon to open its new church.

    I agree with your overarching thesis that the founders would not establish a government that is inherently at odds with their religious convictions, which were largely Christian in nature. Moreover, given the republican nature of our government, I think it is only natural and expected that the laws enacted by our government–in both the founders’ time and today–largely reflect Christianity’s dominant influence in our society.

    That said, there is no reason to suppose that Christianity or theism is an inherent aspect of our constitutional government. Indeed, any such claim is antithetical to the constitutional principle against government establishment of religion. By founding a secular government and assuring it would remain separate, in some measure at least, from religion, the founders basically established government neutrality in matters of religion, allowing individuals to freely choose and exercise their religions and thus allowing Christianity (and other religions) to flourish or founder as they will. While it is to be expected that the values and views of the people, shaped in part by their religions, will be reflected in the laws adopted by their government, there is nothing in the Constitution that requires or calls for this; it is simply a natural outgrowth of the people’s expression of political will in a republican government. To the extent that the people’s values and views change over time, it is to be expected that those changes will come to be reflected in the laws adopted by their government. There is nothing in the Constitution to prevent this; indeed, just the opposite–the Constitution establishes a government designed to be responsive to the political will of the people. It is conceivable, therefore, that if Christianity’s influence in our society wanes relative to other influences, that may lead to changes in our laws. Nothing in the Constitution would prevent that–and moreover the establishment clause would preclude Christians from using the government to somehow “lock in” (aka establish) Christianity in an effort to stave off such an eventuality.


    December 24, 2011 at 4:38 pm

  2. ? – – rather surprisingly unsophisticated comment from you, Steve… do we chalk it up to a burst of personal religious fervor? All civilisations, including our own, are constantly evolving and the US Constitution, modeling more of the Rhode Island and Providence Plantations state model rather than of the Massachusetts Bay Colony model, sought to reserve religious freedom for the individual and to limit government to secular affairs and concerns. That nearly unprecedented separation of church and state was an evolved response to State-sponsored wars, massacres and persecutions in the name of religion – Catholics killing protestants, Protestants killing Catholics, both killing dissident sectarians, christians killing muslims and vice versa in the crusades, etc… The American experiment endured because a nearly uniquely successful system of checks and balances has limited efforts to merge our secular and religious lives… & if there is a deity, I thank God for that! Proselytize all you want on your own time/dime, but keep your faith to yourself when it comes to anything publicly funded beyond neutral balanced studies of religion… that’s all that that’s about.

    I do agree with you that the tax exemption for church property and the donation exemption for religious contributions are political panderings that, done away with, would account for a significant increase in the fiscal health of our governments. So, too, would limiting the number of deductions for child dependents to 2 or 3 per family, but just try getting either of those tax code changes accepted!!

    Merry Christmas to you, and hallelujah for surviving another winter’s solstice for me!


    December 26, 2011 at 5:07 pm

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