Will the Real First Amendment Please Stand Up

There is much ado about the Christine O’Donnell and Chris Coons debate in regard to the matter of church and state. Many have tried to portray Ms. O’Donnell as ignorant of Constitutional Law. I cannot vouch for her overall knowledge of Constitutional Law but Ms. O’Donnell is right on this matter, the phrase, “separation of church and state” occurs nowhere in the US Constitution. Here is what the First Amendment actually says,

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances. (Amendment 1)

To establish a religion is to set forth an officially endorsed State religion and grant it special favor over and against other religious bodies and denominations. The amendment is clear that Congress shall do no such thing. And neither shall Congress act to prohibit the free exercise of religion. There is no call here for some radical separation, as though somehow religion, or religious expression can never interact with Government. Congress opens daily with prayer. The Founding Fathers prayed together and often referenced God.

It is said that Thomas Jefferson wrote in a private letter of a “wall of separation” but, for the record, a private Letter of Jefferson is not the US Constitution and if Jefferson really intended a wall of separation then he never got his own memo. He himself, as President, permitted the funding of Christian churches among the native Americans [1] and frequently, as a public official, mentioned God. One of my favorite series of Jefferson quotes are chiseled on the wall at the Jefferson Memorial:

God who gave us life gave us liberty. Can the liberties of a nation be secure when we have removed a conviction that these liberties are the gift of God? Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just, that his justice cannot sleep forever. Commerce between master and slave is despotism. Nothing is more certainly written in the book of fate than that these people are to be free.

These are primarily quotes from several sources but are from his time as Governor of Virginia. Of the four panels of quotes in the Jefferson Memorial, three of them have Jefferson mentioning God.

The Establishment clause does not forbid a role for religion in the public square or in government. An extreme position is proposed today that seeks to eliminate all public display of religion and to scour the mere mention of religion from public schools and in public buildings and gatherings. This is extreme and novel. It has reached a peak in our time, but most of us who are a little older, remember a time when prayer and religious expression were not banished from public settings. There was a time not long ago when it was still possible to mention Jesus Christ in public schools and refer to Christian teaching as an essential component of American ethics, law and heritage. Today even Santa Claus (hardly a religious figure if you ask me) is shown the door. The word Christmas is banished from schools and replaced by the word holidays (don’t tell them it is just a mispronunciation of “Holy Days”). Go ahead and mention Mohamed and learn the tenants of Islam in the name of “diversity” but don’t even think of mentioning Jesus.

All of this is an extreme misinterpretation of the Establishment Clause and it marches under the banner of “Separation of Church and State” a phrase that  doesn’t occur in the Constitution at all.

A final thought. I have  heard some secularists say that, although God is referenced in the Declaration of Independence, He appears nowhere in the Constitution and that this should be the model, no mention of God. But they are wrong. God, in the person of Our Lord Jesus Christ IS mentioned in the US Constitution. He is saluted in the very closing words, just above the signatures of the Founding Fathers. Here is how the Constitution concludes:

Done in Convention by the Unanimous Consent of the States present the Seventeenth Day of September in the Year of our Lord one thousand seven hundred and Eighty seven and of the Independence of the United States of America the Twelfth. In Witness whereof We have hereunto subscribed our Names:

There  He is, “our Lord,” and there follows a year (1787) which is calculated based on the year of our Lord’s birth. If the founding Fathers intended the radical interpretation of Establishment Clause employed by secularists today, they would never have concluded their seminal document with a reference to “our Lord.”

The phrase “separation of church and state” appears nowhere in the US Constitution.