The Separation Of Church And State

[ Posted Thursday, December 6th, 2007 – 17:17 UTC ]

[While I generally abhor writing about the subject-du-jour, I decided to challenge myself today and write about Mitt Romney's speech on religion while not making any references to John F. Kennedy's speech on religion while doing so. This alone, I believe, will set this post out from the pack, since I'd be willing to bet nobody else has managed to do so.]


While many have commented on various different quotes from Mitt Romney's speech on religion today, there was one passage that stood out for me:

Today's generations of Americans have always known religious liberty. Perhaps we forget the long and arduous path our nation's forbearers took to achieve it. They came here from England to seek freedom of religion. But upon finding it for themselves, they at first denied it to others. Because of their diverse beliefs, Ann Hutchinson was exiled from Massachusetts Bay, a banished Roger Williams founded Rhode Island, and two centuries later, Brigham Young set out for the West. Americans were unable to accommodate their commitment to their own faith with an appreciation for the convictions of others to different faiths. In this, they were very much like those of the European nations they had left.


You don't hear that sort of thing very often from politicians, especially not ones running for president. Instead, you normally get spoon-fed platitudes straight out of a fourth-grade textbook: "The Pilgrims came here for religious freedom. This freedom was enshrined in our Constitution and has grown and grown in America, until today."

Romney's version is a lot closer to the actual truth than anything I've heard lately from any politician of either party. I guess being from Massachusetts brings these uncomfortable facts closer to the surface.

The truth is that the Pilgrims (who didn't call themselves that, that was a later addition) came here to preserve religious intolerance. They didn't come from England, they came from the Netherlands. They had indeed fled England so they could practice their religion, but the famously tolerant Dutch didn't have a problem with that. The trouble was, their children were being seduced by those same tolerant Dutch into realizing there were other ways to worship than the harsh and unrelenting ways their parents were forcing on them. Because this problem was so threatening (there would be no Puritans left if all the kids abandoned the faith), they hit upon a novel idea -- take the kids to America, live in the wildernesses of the New World, and the kids wouldn't have any choice but to follow their creed.

Got that? The Pilgrims came here in order to deny their own children religious freedom. Which they then proceeded to deny to anyone else in their colony who didn't believe exactly as they did (the Quakers really got the short end of the stick on this one).

But just because that is our true history doesn't mean politicians usually point it out. Which is why I give Romney credit for doing so. Sure, there are plenty of things wrong with other parts of his speech, which you can read about just about anywhere in the blogosphere today, but I still have to give him credit for mentioning the names of Ann Hutchinson and Roger Williams.

As for the rest of his speech, I'm going to totally ignore it for now.


Instead, I'd like to provide a snapshot of America, circa 1830, by Alexis de Tocqueville. Now, Tocqueville's seminal work Democracy In America is (ironically enough) similar to the Bible in one important respect: no matter what side of an argument you're on, if you look hard enough, you can find something in it to justify your position. This is why DIA is so frequently quoted at length by both conservatives and liberals alike.

Something often lost in the debate is Tocqueville's intended audience -- he was writing for the French intelligentsia, trying to influence a violent political debate in his own country. He was reporting on the then half-century old "American Experiment" in democracy to a Europe astounded those upstart Americans had been able to pull off such a successful revolution in government (most Europeans thought the grand experiment was going to die within ten or twenty years, so a half a century was seen at the time as unprecedented and unbelievable). France, you have to remember, was at the time going through a cyclical upheaval in government that had started with their own revolution, continued through Napoleon's reign and fall, and was right in the middle of the Les Misérables revolutionary times -- meaning the heavy thinkers of the day were still pondering the bedrock question "What form of government is best?" The two strong contenders were democracy and aristocracy (or monarchy). Tocqueville was trying to view America in the 1830s through the lens of: which pieces of this experiment would work successfully back in France, and which pieces just would not?

While there are many passages in DIA which extol Christianity and Christian mores and Christian nations, Tocqueville devoted a whole chapter to "The Main Causes That Make Religion Powerful in America." Again, you have to consider his audience. France had been Catholic under its monarchy, then violently anti-religion after its revolution (they even started their own calendar to get away from the Christian "BC / AD" calendar), then a confusing tug of war of factions grabbing for power, with one side or the other in the ascendancy. So the question of "separation of church and state" was a very important one to French thinkers at the time, not just a quaint phrase from the New World.

So, as kind of a snapshot in time, here are two rather long passages from this chapter of Democracy In America.

Eighteenth-century philosophers had a very simple explanation for the gradual weakening of beliefs. Religious zeal, they said, was bound to die down as enlightenment and freedom spread. It is tiresome that the facts do not fit this theory at all.

There are sections of the population in Europe where unbelief goes hand in hand with brutishness and ignorance, whereas in America the most free and enlightened people in the world zealously perform all the external duties of religion.

The religious atmosphere of the country was the first thing that struck me on arrival in the United States. The longer I stayed in the country, the more conscious I became of the important political consequences resulting from this novel situation.

In France I had seen the spirits of religion and of freedom almost always marching in opposite directions. In America I found them intimately linked together in joint reign over the same land.

My longing to understand the reason for this phenomenon increased daily.

To find this out, I questioned the faithful of all communions; I particularly sought the society of clergymen, who are the depositories of the various creeds and have a personal interest in their survival. As a practicing Catholic I was particularly close to the Catholic priests, with some of whom I soon established a certain intimacy. I expressed my astonishment and revealed my doubts to each of them; I found that they all agreed with each other except about details; all thought that the main reason for the quiet sway of religion over their country was the complete separation of church and state. I have no hesitation in stating that throughout my stay in American I met nobody, lay or cleric, who did not agree about that.

This led me to examine more closely than before the position of American priests in political society. I was surprised to discover that they held no public appointments. [4] There was not a single one in the administration, and I found that they were not even represented in the assemblies.

In several states the law, [5] and in all the rest public opinion, excludes them from a career in politics.

When I finally came to inquire into the attitudes of the clergy themselves, I found that most of them seemed voluntarily to steer clear of power and to take a sort of professional pride in claiming that it was no concern of theirs.

I heard them pronouncing anathemas against ambition and bad faith, under whatsoever political opinions those were at pains to hide. But I learned from their discourses that men are not guilty in the sight of God because of these very opinions, provided they are sincere, and that it is no more a sin to make a mistake in some question of government than it is a sin to go wrong in building one's house or plowing one's field.

I saw that they were careful to keep clear of all parties, shunning contact with them with all the anxiety attendant upon personal interest.

. . .

When governments seem so strong and laws so stable, men do not see the danger that religion may run by allying itself with power.

When governments are clearly feeble and laws changeable, the danger is obvious to all, but often then there is no longer time to avoid it. One must therefore learn to perceive it from afar.

When a nation adopts a democratic social state and communities show republican inclinations, it becomes increasingly dangerous for religion to ally itself with authority. For the time is coming when power will pass from hand to hand, political theories vanish or alter daily, and that not for a limited time but continually. Agitation and instability are natural elements in democratic republics, just as immobility and somnolence are the rule in absolute monarchies.

If the Americans, who change their head of state every four years, elect new legislators every two years and replace provincial administrations every year, and if the Americans, who have handed over the world of politics to the experiments of innovators, had not placed religion beyond their reach, what could it hold on to in the ebb and flow of human opinions? Amid the struggle of parties, where would the respect due to it be? What would become of its immortality when everything around it was perishing?

The American clergy were the first to perceive this truth and to act in conformity with it. They saw that they would have to give up religious influence if they wanted to acquire political power, and they preferred to lose the support of authority rather than to share its vicissitudes.

In America religion is perhaps less powerful than it has been at certain times and among certain peoples, but its influence is more lasting. It restricts itself to its own resources, of which no one can deprive it; it functions in one sphere only, but it pervades it and dominates there without effort.


Now, as I said, elsewhere Tocqueville comes out pretty strongly for Christianity being the bedrock of society, and "separation of church and state" may not have meant the same thing to him in his day that it means to us today.

From the previous chapter, there is a telling footnote:

This is how the New York Spectator of August 23, 1831, reported the matter: "The court of common pleas of Chester county a few days since, rejected a witness who declared his disbelief in the existence of God. The presiding judge remarked that he was not before aware that there was a man living who did not believe in the existence of God; that this belief constituted the sanction of all testimony in a court of justice; and that he knew of no cause in a Christian country, where a witness had been permitted to testify without such belief."


The text of this chapter has a paragraph which could have been quoted by Mitt Romney today:

For the Americans the ideas of Christianity and liberty are so completely mingled that it is almost impossible to get them to conceive of the one without the other; it is not a question with them of sterile beliefs bequeathed by the past and vegetating rather than living in the depths of the soul.


Also telling are the two footnotes referenced above:

[4] Unless the phrase is taken to cover their work in the schools. The greater part of education is entrusted to the clergy.

[5] Tocqueville cites the constitutions of New York, North Carolina, Virginia, South Carolina, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Louisiana; then goes on to quote from New York's:

"And whereas the ministers of the gospel are, by their profession, dedicated to the service of God and the cure of souls and ought not to be diverted from the great duties of their functions, therefore, no minister of the gospel or priest of any denomination whatever. . . be eligible to or capable of holding any civil or military office of place within this state."


So while both sides of the religion debate can find quotes in Tocqueville's Democracy In America which seem to support their stance, what I conclude from all this is that Alexis de Tocqueville wouldn't be shocked at Mitt Romney, Mormon, running for president -- but that he would indeed be shocked at Mike Huckabee, ex-minister, running for the same job.


-- Chris Weigant


7 Comments on “The Separation Of Church And State”

  1. [1] 
    fstanley wrote:

    Very interesting post. How has the concept of "separation of church & state" evolved thru the years? Members of government are "sworn" in over a bible, the supreme court has a mass, congress has a chaplin etc....

    Religion seems to have become interwoven into society and it often seems that you are judged and found wanting if you do not believe in god.

    Can you be a good, ethical, moral person if you do not believe in the existance of a god? That is the question that seems to be out there these days.


  2. [2] 
    Michale wrote:

    My views on religion is clear.

    At it's base, religion is nothing but extortion, writ-large..

    Romney's "this is who I am, vote for me or not, but I am not going to be something I am not just to get your vote" stance is refreshing and will probably HELP him more than it will harm him. I admire him for saying this and what CW mentioned above. It's refreshing to hear someone say things that are as they are, rather than saying what he thinks people want to hear..

    Personally, I am uncomfortable with any exposure to religion and would be just fine with getting rid of all aspects of religion in public.

    In this regard, I am fully in the camp of the Liberal Left insofar as I believe that FREEDOM OF RELIGION also means FREEDOM ***FROM*** RELIGION.

    Religion is a crutch dreamed up by leaders in the Dark Ages to give the masses something to occupy their minds. Take their minds off the dreary conditions. I can just picture the pope saying, "Whaaa... We just wanted to give the people hope. Who knew they would take it so far???"


  3. [3] 
    Chris Weigant wrote:

    There was a funny comment posted to a HuffPost article that is worth sharing here:

    "I could sum up his speech in three statements!

    1. We should all be tolerant of religions, even ones we don't agree with.

    2. Secularism/atheism is a religion.

    3. Let's all hate on those traitorous, treasonous, blashpemous secularists/athiests!

    Circular logic if ever there was any"

    This was posted by "DemandTruth" and is the best commentary on Mitt's speech I've seen yet.


  4. [4] 
    benskull wrote:

    Great post! Definately an important topic. I attended a 'non denominational' church for a brief stint out of curiosity, and the fact that my girlfriend at the time went. Being raised catholic turned me off a bit, as it was still pretty harsh when I was young, and yes as a kindergartner, I had my knuckles rapped with a ruler by 300lbs sister Delores. I never went back to my girlfriends church after a service right before the last midterm elections, when the Dems took over. They passed out pamphlets with the top Dem candidates and the top Repub candidates in a comparison, and the only info listed about each candidate was whether they were for or against abortion and whether they were for or against same sex marriage. I took one look at it and looked at my girlfriend, who knew my position and passion in politics and she knew I wasn't coming back. It was absurd and totally irresponsible. I still have a hard time understanding why those topics are so important. There are so many other topics addressed by those in public office that matter as well, not to mention that convincing the congregation to vote for these people on these grounds would continue a controversial war that was taking plenty of lives as well. I was equally as angered at Pat Robertsons announced support for Giuliani. What hypocrisy, or more-so an obvious sign of the lack of conviction in Robertsons actions, and the presence of power hunger, and the need for Christian Right and Repub partnership. I wonder too why Christians have not voiced support for Obama, knowing that he is christian. This Speech is a fine picture of religious and political cooperation, with room for everyone. In my opinion it is more sympathetic to a christian view then any of the repub candidates have to offer. If anyone has read Tolstoy, his book, The Kingdom of God is Within You, voices his opinions of the hypocrisy of christian nations going to war, when the Sermon on the Mount in the bible clearly states that a christian should not meet evil with evil, or non-resistance to violence by force. Makes you wonder how much of Bush's rhetoric about 'saving a few souls along the way' is material written by his cronies, because his actions surely do not resonate with "What would Jesus do?" so he shouldn't claim it. But I guess thats what its come to. Empty Rhetoric to gain the support of the Christian Right, and these Righties being taught by the Falwells and Robertsons that they have to vote Repub for God. Thanks for the post Chris, great topic.

  5. [5] 
    benskull wrote:

    Oh, my link didn't work. The Speech by Obama can be found here:

  6. [6] 
    akadjian wrote:

    As a member of a group who have felt themselves persecuted, Romney does seem much more sensitive to some of the realities of our country's religious history.

    The irony of his message is that it appeals to groups that have a tolerance for religious freedom, much of the secular world, for example, and not to the evangelical base that he seems trying to respond to.

    Unfortunately for him, I think he made a big political mistake by giving this speech at all. I think the evangelicals will see the speech as an inauthentic attempt to be something that he is not.

    He is at the same time saying that he is for religious freedom while also believing that "Jesus Christ is the Son of God and the Savior of mankind."

    Why is this message inconsistent in the evangelical world? Because a true evangelical would be preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ (converting people into believers) and not talking about religious freedom. The very argument many evangelicals are trying to make is that church and state should not be separate.

    So if the decision comes down to religion, do you vote for the former Baptist minister or the Mormon who thinks religion matters but should be separate from the state?

    His argument, like JFKs, plays more to centrists/liberals than the base who wanted an answer. And centrists/liberals already agree with this point of view so why give the speech?

    I realize Romney is trying to focus the debate away from religion, but if anything, his speech only seemed to validate that Huckabee and the evangelicals had struck a nerve. If you want to vote for an evangelist, Romney seems like the wrong man.

    Kennedy, when he gave his speech, had a different intended audience. His audience seemed concerned that separation of church and state might be threatened by a Catholic president. Romney's base audience seems more concerned that separation of church and state might be upheld.

    Sorry, Chris. I don't know how you were able to do it without comparing to Kennedy.

  7. [7] 
    Chris Weigant wrote:

    I invite you all over to today's column for a continuation of this subject...


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