The Myth of “The Myth of Church–State Separation”
Since the Supreme Court decision of Everson vs. Board of Education in 1947, the guiding principle embraced by the Supreme Court for the interpretation of the nonestablishment and free exercise clauses of the Constitution of the United States has been that of the ‘separation of church and state.’ As Justice William 0. Douglas wrote in the 1952 decision, Zorach vs. Clauson,:
“There cannot be the slightest doubt that the First Amendment reflects the philosophy that Church and State should be separated. And so far as interference with the ‘free exercise’ of religion and an ‘establishment’ of religion are concerned, the separation must be complete and unequivocal. The First Amendment, within the scope of its coverage permits no exception; the prohibition is absolute.” (quoted in Miller and Flowers, Toward Benevolent Neutrality: Church State, and the Supreme Court, 326)
Court decisions have determined that no Christian church or denomination should be established as a national state church, nor should any such Christian religious institution receive preferential governmental support over other Christian bodies. They have also held that Christianity as a religion cannot receive preferential government recognition or support in preference to other religions or to those professing no religion.
Recently, the doctrine of church-state separation has come under attack from advocates of a “Christian America” among some fundamentalist and evangelical Christians and churches. They assert that the phrase ‘separation of church and state’ is not found in the constitution itself and they declare that it is an invalid construal of the original intent and meaning of the unamended constitution and the religion clauses of the Bill of Rights. Anti-separationist apologists such as David Barton and William Federer make their rounds of conservative Christian churches, radio, and television shows claiming that the doctrine of church-state separation is a ‘myth’ and extolling the biblical and Christian origins and foundations of our system of government and nation.
A purportedly true story of the constitutional convention of 1787 is offered as a demonstration that the founding fathers of our nation did not practice or intend the separation of church and state, but instead sought to establish a specifically Christian nation, directly and primarily based upon specifically Christian and biblical teachings… The story goes something like this:
The convention was hopelessly divided and at an impasse, facing self-destruction over heatedly disputed issues such as the method of representation in the Senate. At the height of the crisis, Benjamin Franklin stood and called the convention to prayer. Members of the convention, deeply moved and convicted by Franklin’s appeal and motion, approved Franklin’s motion and subsequent meetings began with prayer. This ‘religious revival’ in the convention broke the impasse and established fraternity and harmony among the delegates. In dependence upon God and biblical precepts, this ‘prayer-meeting convention’ subsequently crafted a constitution based upon the doctrines of the Christian religion and established the United States as a Christian nation.
It is asserted that biblical and Christian theological teachings directly and determinatively influencing the thought and deliberations of the delegates. It is claimed that specifically Christian motives and purposes were at work in the efforts of the delegates. It is asserted that prayer and dependence upon God in the convention demonstrate that the doctrine of church-state separation is a myth—a false story foisted upon constitutional origins and interpretation by modern-day secular humanists and belied by the history of the convention itself.
Now most of us who took sophomore English in high school learned that there are at least two general senses of myth. One sense of ‘myth’ is that of a ‘false story.’ But there are other senses of ‘myth.’ ‘Worldview myths’ serve to order and explain one’s experience of history, society, and world. They provide direction for one’s practical (and political) activities.
David Barton, author of The Myth of Separation: What is the Correct Relationship Between Church and State?, uses ‘myth’ in the first sense of the word — that church state separationism is a false story of the origins and meaning of constitution and the religion clauses. But in fact, the story of the ‘prayer-meeting convention’ is a myth. It is a false story of the proceedings — an easily and embarrassingly demonstrable falsehood.
Also, the notion of “Christian America” that underlies this false story is a ‘world-view myth.’ The notion that our nation was founded primarily and directly upon the Christian religion as a specifically Christian nation is used by some Christians to rationalize a particular view of how (fundamentalist/evangelical) Christianity and civil government should relate in the United States. It justifies the preservation or pursuit of a socially and governmentally privileged position for (fundamentalist/ evangelical) Christianity over other religions and over those who may claim to hold to no religion at all.
It cannot be denied that the Christian religion, through its theological teachings and cultural/social influence, had a significant personal influence on the delegates of the constitutional convention. Yet, it is difficult for modern Americans to recapture the religious spirit of the country’s great early leaders… because these brilliant men, surely the most capable generation of statesmen ever to appear in America, were at once genuinely religious but not specifically Christian. Virtually all these great men had a profound belief in “the Supreme Judge of the world” and in “the protection of Divine Providence,” to use the words of the Declaration of Independence. Yet only a few believed in the orthodox teachings of traditional Christianity. (Noll, Hatch, and Marsden, In Search of Christian America, 72)
As John Eidsmoe, one of the more responsible conservative Christian writers on this issue observes: The term ‘Christian’ can be used in two contexts. First, it can describe someone who is “born again,” or “saved,” or “regenerate,” a dedicated follower of Jesus Christ and His teachings… The term ‘Christian’ is also loosely used to denote a person whose beliefs about God, the world, and man are generally in accord with those of the Christian religion but who may not be a dedicated follower of Christ. In this second context, a person’s beliefs, actions, and/or demeanor may be “Christian” (decent, generous, moral) but he or she might not be regenerate. (Eidsmoe, Christianity and the Constitution, 78-79) Eidsmoe recognizes that it is only in a looser sense of the word that the majority of the founders and the origins of the constitution may be considered ‘Christian.’
The view that the founding fathers were fundamentalist/evangelical Christians in wigs and knickers is clearly mistaken. Tim LaHaye’s contention that “Were George Washington living today, he would freely identify with the Bible-believing branch of evangelical Christianity that is having such a positive influence on our nation” is laughable. (LaHaye, Faith of Our Founding Fathers, 113.)
It is false, first of all, that biblical and Christian teachings exclusively, or primarily, or directly, determined the content of our constitution and form of government. It is false that the delegates to the Convention intended to establish a specifically Christian nation with the Christian religion, as opposed to any particular Christian denomination, as the governmentally-endorsed and supported religion of the new nation.
It is also false that the separation of church and state is an invalid principle for understanding the underlying philosophy held by the majority of the delegates to the constitutional convention and for interpreting and applying the first amendment to the sphere of state and church relations.
Finally, the charge that the separation of church and state is a false story myth about the philosophy and intent of the convention is itself a false-story myth.
Benjamin Franklin did in fact make an appeal and motion for prayer in the convention on June 28, 1787. David Barton assumes that the motion passed as a matter of course and states: Franklin’s admonition— and the delegates’ response to it—had been the turning point not only for the Convention, but also for the future of the nation. While neglecting God, their efforts had been characterized by frustration and selfishness. With their repentance came a desire to begin each morning of official government business with prayer… returning God to their deliberations. (Barton, 110)
But Madison’s notes on the convention, our primary historical source for those proceedings, record that dissension and debate ensued over Franklin’s motion. Alexander Hamilton and others expressed misgivings that the motion might bring on “some disagreeable animadversions” (Madison’s way of referring to heated vocal disputes) and cause the public to believe that “embarrassments and dissensions” within the convention had brought on the measure. (Madison, 210) One of the delegates pointed out that the convention had no funds with which to pay a minister to offer prayers (Madison, 210) even though, if Barton’s claims are correct, local clergymen had volunteered to offer such prayers at no charge! (Barton, 109-10)
Edmund Randolph proposed an alternative motion that a special service be held on the 4th of July and prayers be offered then. Franklin seconded Randolph’s motion recognizing, as he later acknowledged, that the convention, “except for three or four persons, thought prayers unnecessary.” (quoted in Levy, Establishment Clause, 64) James Madison wrote, “After several unsuccessful attempts for silently postponing the matter by adjourning, the adjournment was at length carried, without any vote on the matter.” (Madison, 211)
On July 2, after the purported but non-existent introduction of prayers and God into the convention on June 29, the dissension was still as heated and the division as deep as ever. Roger Sherman declared that “We are now at a full stop” and recommended that a committee work on resolution of the issue of Senate representation. (Madison, 212) Governor Morris stated on the same day that “Reason tells us that we are but men and we are not to expect any particular interference from heaven in our favor.” (Madison, 234) — What a statement in contrast to sentiments of Franklin!
And the controversy and impasse continued long after the July 4 religious service. On July 10, George Washington wrote to Alexander Hamilton: “The crisis is equally important and alarming. Our councils are now, if possible, in a worse train than ever; you will find but little ground on which the hope of a good establishment can be formed. In a word, I almost despair of seeing a favorable issue to the proceedings of the convention.” (Quoted in Bowen, Miracle at Philadelphia, 140)
Much later, on July 15th, Caleb Strong summarized the convention’s situation: “The convention has been much divided in opinion… It is agreed on all hands Congress are nearly at an end. If no accommodation takes place, the union itself must soon be dissolved.” (Madison, 293)
Finally, on July 16 the report of the committee, the so-called “great Compromise,” was adopted and only then was the dispute over Senate representation ended.
Please note: The constitutional convention had begun with no concern or provisions for prayer as a matter of the proceedings of the convention. If the founding fathers were intent on creating a new system of government primarily based upon and for the Christian religion, desiring to establish a Christian America, how was this omission possible?
Additionally, Franklin’s proposal for prayer was never voted upon. No prayers were ever offered in the convention. There was little sentiment in favor of prayers in the convention—they were viewed as neither necessary nor desirable. In a true expression of the separation of church and state (but not necessarily the separation of religious convictions, religious persons, and governance), a religious service was held outside of the convention meeting for those who wished to attend.
The division and rancor of the convention did not miraculously end after the purported introduction of prayer into the convention. There was continuing concern that the convention would dissolve and that the union of the states under the Articles of Confederation would fall apart. If a ‘miracle’ took place at the convention, it was not the result of public prayers in the convention.
Additionally, neither the preamble nor the body of the constitution that resulted from the convention make any appeal to religious authority or motives underlying the constitution. The only substantive mention of religion in the constitution is in the rejection of any religious tests for office in the new national government. Such omissions are simply incomprehensible if the story of the ‘prayer convention’ were true and the separationist interpretation of the history and philosophy of the constitution false.
As Leo Pfeffer observes: “It is deeply significant that whereas there was scarcely a document or promulgation issued by the Continental Congress that did not contain an invocation to “God” or one of the numerous synonyms for deity, the Constitution emerging from the Convention contained no such invocation or reference. The omission was not inadvertent; nor did it remain unnoticed…” At a meeting of Congregationalists in June 1788 a request was presented “that some suitable Testimony might be borne against the sinful omission in the late Federal Constitution in not looking to God for direction, and of omitting the name of God in the Constitution.” (Pfeffer, Church. State. and Freedom, 122).
And furthermore, as Walter Berns has well-stated: “If the Founders had intended to establish a Christian commonwealth… it was remiss of them—indeed, sinful of them—not to have said so and to have acted accordingly.” (Berns, Religion and the Founding Principle, 210)
How does one account for the manifest falsehoods, and the apparent ignorance, incompetence or dishonesty in the use and interpretation of historical sources that we have observed by the purveyors of the false-story myth of the “prayer convention?” Such an account is found in the function of the second sense of ‘myth’: “world-view myth.” A ‘world-view myth’ is a narratively embodied world view. World view myths serve to order the experience of an individual or of a group of people. World-view myths constitute and empower individual and group identity. They provide ideological direction for the practical (and political) activities of the individual and group. And a world-view myth, particularly when it serves a power interest and becomes an ideology, can distort one’s perceptions and interpretations of historical evidence and reality.
Many mythologies are related to a ‘creation’ and “tell how something came into existence… By knowing the myth one knows the origin of things and hence can control and manipulate them at will.” (Eliade, Myth and Reality, 18) “Myth fulfills… an indispensable function: it expresses, enhances, and codifies belief… [It is] a pragmatic charter of primitive faith and moral wisdom.” (Eliade, 20)
The “myth of Christian America” is in part a creation myth or myth of origins. It functions as such for the present-day “heirs” of the “Christian nation” purportedly created by the convention. It has its roots in the religious origins of the Plymouth and Massachusetts Bay colonies and in the Puritan vision of America as a “City on a Hill” and “a Light to the Nations.” That vision has never disappeared from American society, although as a distinctively religious vision it in fact was already waning by the time of the convention and was seriously held only by a by a minority of the founders. Many fundamentalist evangelical Christians still identify with this vision of Christian America and many assume that they are the rightful heirs of the true nature and calling of the nation. They hold that their America is the true America and they are the true Americans.
Because America is, in their tradition and world-view, a Christian nation by God’s election and their definition, and because they are the true Americans, they believe that the origins of the nation must have been specifically, primarily, and directly Christian. The founders must have been Christians essentially like them and the foundations, content, and intent of the constitution must have been biblically and theologically formed. The success of the convention must have been the result of specifically Christian influences and purposes. Their world view and myth of origins cannot and does not allow them to see things any other way.
And because of the way things “must” have been, fundamentalists believe that they are the true Americans and theirs is the true America— you will note the circular reasoning at work here. They must therefore earnestly contend for the nation once and for all delivered to the saints.
So when Benjamin Franklin calls for prayer in the constitutional convention, it is inconceivable that his call would have been rebuffed, his motion must have been adopted. When success comes to the convention, it must have been the result of Franklin’s call and subsequent prayers. When the constitution is finally formulated, it must be a Christianity-based document. One does not even notice the absence of positive evidence for these conclusions or the presence of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. And, naturally, the success of the convention in initiating “Christian America” must be attributed to Christianity.
Therefore, the world-view myth of Christian America held by many fundamentalist/evangelical Christians distorts their perception of the evidence of the proceedings and results of the constitutional convention of 1787 and their understanding of the constitutional relation of church and state.
It should also be recognized, in contradistinction to secularists and strict separationists, that the view that the unamended constitution and the religion clauses of the first amendment require absolute separation between church and state is also a myth. The world-view myth underlying strict-to-absolute separationism also distorts the historical evidence as to the nature and function of our constitution, though not as severely as its counterpart. The myth of “Secular America” functions for its adherents individually and socially in similar ways to the distortions and functions of the “Christian America” myth of governmental recognition and support of the Christian religion. It engenders false stories about the historical relations between religion and government.
Historical evidence demonstrates that governmental accommodation of religion has been widely practiced to one degree or another. Even strict separationists like Thomas Jefferson and James Madison found it neither desirable nor possible to practice absolute separation between church and state. As William O. Douglas further stated in the decision, Zorach vs. Clauson:
“The First Amendment, however, does not say that in every and all aspects there shall be a separation of Church and State. It studiously defines the manner, the specific ways, in which there shall be no concert or union or dependency one on the other. That is the common sense of the matter. Otherwise the state and religion would be aliens to each other—hostile, suspicious, and even unfriendly.” (Miller and Flowers, 326)
It is both a politically inevitable and necessary consequence of the content of the religion clauses that there will be tension and conflict between the implementation of the non-establishment clause in separationism and the implementation of the free exercise clause through accomodationism. One person’s free exercise and permissible accommodation will be another’s impermissible establishment of religion. And another persons’ non-establishment and separationism will be someone else’s impermissible prohibition of free exercise of religion. Both strategies must be followed in the cause of liberty and each must qualify and restrict the other.
One need not wonder at nor fault the lack of a formula by which the Supreme Court or legislatures may cleanly and precisely reconcile the demands of separation and accommodation, non-establishment and free exercise of religion. Contemporary philosophy is well aware of the difficulties of the Enlightenment ideal of reason to find sufficient formulas or rules for thought or action.
(Revised, 7 March 1996 for Texas Baptists Committed from an address delivered at Tomball College on 25 January 1996.)
In addition to the following selected bibliography, two recent publications not used as resources for this essay are of special importance:
Kramnick, Isaac and Moore, R Laurence. The Godless Constitution: The Case Against Religious Correctness. W.W. Norton, 1996.
Miller, Nicholas P. “Wallbuilders or Mythbuilders?” Christian Ethics Today 3 (October 1995):17-21.
Barton, David. The Myth of Separation: What is the Correct Relationship Between Church and State? WallBuilder Press, 1992.
Berns, Walter. “Religion and the Founding Principle.” In The Moral Foundations of the American Republic, pp. 204-29. Third ed. Edited by Robert H. Horowitz. Virginia University Press, 1986.
Bowen, Catherine Dinker. Miracle at Philadelphia. Little, Brown, and Co., 1966.
Eidsmoe, John. Christianity and the Constitution: The Faith of Our Founding Fathers. Baker, 1987.
Eliade, Mircae. Myth and Reality. Harper and Row, 1963.
Federer, William J. America’s God and Country: Encyclopedia of Quotations. Fame Publishing, 1994.
LaHaye, Tim. Faith of Our Founding Fathers. Wolgemuth and Hyatt, 1987.
Levy, Leonard. The Establishment Clause: Religion and the First Amendment. Macmillan, 1988.
Madison, James. Notes of Debates in the Federal Convention of 1787. Norton edition, 1987.
Miller, Robert T. and Flowers, Ronald. Toward Benevolent Neutrality: Church, State, and the Supreme Court. Markham/Baylor University Press, 1977.
Noll, Mark A., Hatch, Nathan 0., and Marsden, George M. The Search for Christian America. Crossway Books, 1983.
Pfeffer, Leo. Church, State and Freedom. Revised ed. Beacon Press, 1967.