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The Magazine of The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America

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Church & state

Exploring the superstitions behind the wall of separation

The civic catechisms of our day still celebrate Thomas Jefferson’s experiment in religious liberty. To end a millennium of repressive religious establishments, we are taught, Jefferson sought liberty in the twin formulas of privatizing religion and secularizing politics. Religion must be “a concern purely between our God and our consciences,” he wrote in 1802. Politics must be conducted with “a wall of separation between church and state.” “Public religion” is a threat to private religion, and must thus be discouraged. “Political ministry” is a menace to political integrity and must thus be outlawed.These Jeffersonian maxims remain for many today the cardinal axioms of a unique American logic of religious freedom to which every patriotic citizen and church must yield.

Flag & Bible Religious privatization is the bargain we must strike to attain religious freedom for all. A wall of separation is the barrier we must build to contain religious bigotry for good.

Separation of church and state was certainly a prominent part of American law when many of today’s public opinion-makers were in school. In the 1940s the U.S. Supreme Court for the first time used the First Amendment religion clauses to declare local laws unconstitutional. The court also read Jefferson’s call for “a wall of separation between church and state” into the First Amendment. In more than 30 cases from 1947 to 1985, the court purged public schools of their traditional religious trappings and cut religious schools from their traditional state support. Hundreds of lower court cases struck down many other traditional forms and forums of church-state cooperation in the public square.


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