Did the Founding Fathers Support a Separation of Church and State?
General Reference (not clearly pro or con)
For more about what the Founding Fathers thought about religion in the government, see our resource.
Noah Feldman, JD, PhD, Cecelia Goetz Professor of Law at the New York University School of Law, stated in his 2002 article, “The Intellectual Origins of the Establishment Clause,” published in the New York University Law Review:
“Judges, lawyers, academics, and politicians have not ceased laying claim to the legacy of the Framers’ ideas about church and state since the modern debate over the subject started in earnest in the 1940s.”2002
The Freedom Forum Institute in an undated article, “The First Amendment Says Nothing about ‘Separation of Church and State’ or a ‘Wall of Separation Between Church and State.’ Where Did This Idea Come From? Is It Really Part of the Law?,” accessed on July 14, 2021 and available at freedomforuminstitute.org, stated:
“Although the words ‘separation of church and state’ do not appear in the First Amendment, the establishment clause was intended to separate church from state. When the First Amendment was adopted in 1791, the establishment clause applied only to the federal government, prohibiting the federal government from any involvement in religion. By 1833, all states had disestablished religion from government, providing protections for religious liberty in state constitutions. In the 20th century, the U.S. Supreme Court applied the establishment clause to the states through the 14th Amendment. Today, the establishment clause prohibits all levels of government from either advancing or inhibiting religion.
The establishment clause separates church from state, but not religion from politics or public life. Individual citizens are free to bring their religious convictions into the public arena. But the government is prohibited from favoring one religious view over another or even favoring religion over non-religion.
Our nation’s founders disagreed about the exact meaning of “no establishment” under the First Amendment; the argument continues to this day. But there was and is widespread agreement that preventing government from interfering with religion is an essential principle of religious liberty. All of the Framers understood that “no establishment” meant no national church and no government involvement in religion. Thomas Jefferson and James Madison believed that without separating church from state, there could be no real religious freedom.”July 14, 2021
Garrett Epps, JD, retired Professor of Law at the University of Baltimore, in a June 15, 2011 article, “Constitutional Myth #4: The Constitution Doesn’t Separate Church and State,” available at theatlantic.com, stated:
“Because the words ‘separation of church and state’ do not appear in the Constitution, the argument runs, the document provides for merger of the two.
It’s bosh: ahistorical, untextual, illogical.
Patriots like Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and James Madison were profoundly skeptical about the claims of what they called “revealed religion.” As children of the 18th-century Enlightenment, they stressed reason and scientific observation as a means of discovering the nature of “Providence,” the power that had created the world. Jefferson, for example, took a pair of scissors to the Christian New Testament and cut out every passage that suggested a divine origin and mission for Jesus…
The words “separation of church and state” are not in the text; the idea of separation is. Article VI provides that all state and federal officials “shall be bound by oath or affirmation, to support this Constitution; but no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.” The First Amendment’s Establishment Clause (which Christine O’Donnell had apparently not read) provides that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion”–meaning that not only no church but no “religion” could be made the official faith of the United States. Finally the Free Exercise Clause provides that Congress shall not make laws “prohibiting the free exercise” of religion. (These prohibitions were extended to state governments by the Fourteenth Amendment, whose framers in 1866 wanted to make sure that the states maintained free, democratic systems instead of the old antebellum slave oligarchies that spawned the Civil War.)
If government can’t require its officials to support a church; may not support a church itself; and may not interfere with the worship or belief of any church, is there a serious argument that church and state are not separate?”June 15, 2011
Michael W. McConnell, JD, Professor and Director of the Constitutional Law Center at Stanford Law School, and a Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution, ” as quoted by Charles Creitz in a June 23, 2019 article, “Constitutional Expert On ‘Separation Of Church And State’: Framers Said Nothing Wrong With Religion In Culture,” available at stanford.edu, stated:
“The words ‘separation of church and state’ are not in the Constitution… I think this is a shorthand version of what the establishment clause means.. [The phrase, separation of church and state] does have a deep history because there were, in the 18th century, prominent writers who openly advocated for a union between church and state. There’s actually a famous essay by one of the Bishops in the Church of England by that very title… And, our framers did not did not believe in a union between church and state… This did not mean that the framers believed that the American people should be any less religious than they choose to be…It didn’t mean that the culture — that there was anything wrong with having religious elements in the culture. What it meant is that we would not have a system in which the government was able to tell us what to believe, was able to control churches, decide what their doctrines, decide who their personnel would be, and so forth.”June 23, 2019
The Anti-Defamation League stated in its article titled “Founding Fathers and U.S. Presidents: Statements on Religious Freedom,” available on the ADL website (accessed Oct. 30, 2013):
“Recognizing the unique and intimate nature of religion, the Founding Fathers wisely put religion on a different footing in the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment from other forms of speech and observance – mandating strict separation of religion and government to ensure religious freedom for all individuals and faiths. Largely because of the First Amendment’s prohibition against government regulation or endorsement of religion, diverse faiths have flourished and thrived in America since the founding of the republic.
Some claim that the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause does not really require separation of religion and government because the phrase ‘separation of church and state’ does not appear in the First Amendment. And others go farther – claiming that the Constitution and our nation’s government are based on a particular faith or religious beliefs.
Both claims are false. While it is true that the words ‘separation of church and state’ do not appear in the Constitution, the writings of key Founding Fathers, other documents from the period, and statements by subsequent U.S. Presidents demonstrate that our government is not based on any religion, and the founders intended a separation of church and state to ensure religious freedom.”Oct. 30, 2013
Garrett Epps, JD, LLM, Professor of Law at the University of Baltimore, stated in his June 15, 2011 article for the Atlantic titled “Constitutional Myth #4: The Constitution Doesn’t Separate Church and State”:
“James Madison, the father of both the Constitution and the First Amendment, consistently warned against any attempt to blend endorsement of Christianity into the law of the new nation…
The words ‘separation of church and state’ are not in the text; the idea of separation is. Article VI provides that all state and federal officials ‘shall be bound by oath or affirmation, to support this Constitution; but no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.’ The First Amendment’s Establishment Clause… provides that ‘Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion’–meaning that not only no church but no ‘religion’ could be made the official faith of the United States. Finally the Free Exercise Clause provides that Congress shall not make laws ‘prohibiting the free exercise’ of religion…
If government can’t require its officials to support a church; may not support a church itself; and may not interfere with the worship or belief of any church, is there a serious argument that church and state are not separate?”June 15, 2011
In Everson v. Board of Education (decided Feb. 10, 1947), the US Supreme Court, in a 5-4 decision written by Justice Hugo Lafayette Black, held that:
“The ‘establishment of religion’ clause of the First Amendment means at least this: Neither a state nor the Federal Government can set up a church. Neither can pass laws which aid one religion, aid all religions, or prefer one religion over another. Neither can force nor influence a person to go to or to remain away from church against his will or force him to profess a belief or disbelief in any religion. No person can be punished for entertaining or professing religious beliefs or disbeliefs, for church attendance or non-attendance. No tax in any amount, large or small, can be levied to support any religious activities or institutions, whatever they may be called, or whatever form they may adopt to teach or practice religion. Neither a state nor the Federal Government can, openly or secretly, participate in the affairs of any religious organizations or groups and vice versa. In the words of Jefferson, the clause against establishment of religion by law was intended to erect ‘a wall of separation between church and State.'”Feb. 10, 1947 - Everson v. Board of Education
Susan Jacoby, author of the 2004 book Freethinkers: A History of American Secularism, wrote in her Dec. 1, 2005 article “Original Intent” in Mother Jones:
“The justice’s [Antonin Scalia’s] impassioned dissent in McCreary County v. the American Civil Liberties Union of Kentucky is a revealing portrait of the historical revisionism at the heart of the Christian conservative campaign to convince Americans that the separation of church and state is nothing more than a lie of the secularist left.
The marvel of America’s founders, even though nearly all of the new nation’s citizens were not only Christian but Protestant, was that they possessed the foresight to avoid establishing a Christian or religious government and instead chose to create the first secular government in the world…
Regardless of the framers’ private beliefs about God, it is more important to look at their public actions in crafting the legal foundation for the new republic… And here the right-wing script goes awry, for it cannot explain why, if the founders intended to base the government on Christianity or monotheism, they failed to spell out their intentions in the Constitution itself. There was certainly ample precedent for doing so, not only in the Articles of Confederation but in nearly every state constitution.
Custom, rather than law, is the basis of the most common arguments for breaching the wall between church and state… Handed a tabula rasa [something in its original pure state] by a public uneducated in civics, right-wing revisionists are free to ignore not only the strong anticlerical views of so many of the nation’s first leaders but also their loathing of all entanglements between religion and government.”Dec. 1, 2005
Barry Goldwater, former US Senator (R-AZ), said on Sep. 15, 1981 in a US Senate speech, available in the 2013 book A Documentary History of the United States by Richard D. Heffner:
“By maintaining the separation of church and state the United States has avoided the intolerance which has so divided the rest of the world with religious wars… Can any of us refute the wisdom of Madison and the other framers? Can anyone look at the carnage in Iran, the bloodshed in Northern Ireland, or the bombs bursting in Lebanon and yet question the dangers of injecting religious issues into the affairs of state? The religious factions will go on imposing their will on others unless the decent people connected to them recognize that religion has no place in public policy. They must learn to make their views known without trying to make their views the only alternatives… We have succeeded for 205 years in keeping the affairs of state separate from the uncompromising idealism of religious groups and we mustn’t stop now. To retreat from that separation would violate the principles of conservatism and the values upon which the framers built this democratic republic.”Sep. 15, 1981
Steven Waldman, Co-Founder, Chief Executive Officer, and Editor-in-Chief of Beliefnet, wrote in his Apr. 2006 article “The Framers and the Faithful” published in the Washington Monthly:
“It is ironic, then, that evangelicals—so focused on the ‘true’ history—have neglected their own. Indeed, the one group that would almost certainly oppose the views of 21st-century evangelicals are the 18th-century evangelicals… In state after state, when colonists and Americans met to debate the relationship between God and government, it was the proto-evangelicals who pushed the more radical view that church and state should be kept far apart. Both secular liberals who sneer at the idea that evangelicals could ever be a positive influence in politics and Christian conservatives who want to knock down the ‘wall’ should take note: It was the 18th-century evangelicals who provided the political shock troops for Jefferson and Madison in their efforts to keep government from strong involvement with religion.”Apr. 2006
Thomas Jefferson, Third President of the United States, stated in his Jan. 1, 1802 letter to the Danbury Baptist Association:
“Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, & not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof, thus building a wall of separation between Church & State.”Jan. 1, 1802
Mark David Hall, PhD, Herbert Hoover Distinguished Professor of Politics at George Fox University, stated in his June 7, 2011 report titled “Did America Have a Christian Founding?”:
“[C]onsideration of a wide range of Founders and their public actions shows that few if any embraced anything approximating modern conceptions of the separation of church and state…
America’s Founders were committed to the idea that religion (by which virtually all of them meant Christianity) was necessary for public happiness and political prosperity…
America’s Founders did not want Congress to establish a national church, and many opposed establishments at the state level as well. Yet they believed, as George Washington declared in his Farewell Address, that of ‘all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, Religion and morality are indispensable supports.’ Moreover, almost without exception, they agreed that civic authorities could promote and encourage Christianity and that it was appropriate for elected officials to make religious arguments in the public square. There was virtually no support for contemporary visions of a separation of church and state that would have political leaders avoid religious language and require public spaces to be stripped of religious symbols.”June 7, 2011
Rick Santorum, JD, MBA, former US presidential candidate and US Senator (R-PA), stated in his Mar. 30, 2012 article titled “It Is Hard to Be Catholic in Public Life,” available at the Real Clear Religion website:
“The idea of strict or absolute separation of church and state is not and never was the American model…
Far from reflecting hostility toward religion, our founders, rooted in their own faith convictions, knew that faith was not just an essential element, but the essence of civilization and the inspiration of culture…
The phrase ‘wall of separation’ [between church and state]… comes from a letter written by a founder who didn’t even attend the constitutional convention, Thomas Jefferson… Jefferson’s ‘wall of separation’ was describing how the First Amendment was designed to protect churches from the government and nothing more. Note that the Sunday following the day he wrote the letter, Jefferson attended religious services in the Capitol building — so much for the founders’ hostility or indifference to religion… [M]isuse of the phrase constructed a high barrier that ultimately would keep religious convictions out of politics in a place where our founders had intended just the opposite.”Mar. 30, 2012
Bill Flax, writer for Forbes, stated in his July 9, 2011 article titled “The True Meaning of Separation of Church and State,” available at forbes.com:
“‘Separation of Church and State’ is nowhere found in the Constitution or any other founding legislation. Our forefathers would never countenance the restrictions on religion exacted today…
Our forefathers never sought to evict the church from society… The framers were a diverse bunch with wildly divergent opinions on many issues, but eliminating the very foundations of America’s heritage would have horrified them. On few issues was there more unanimity.”July 9, 2011
Joseph Farah, Founder, Editor, and Chief Executive Officer of the World Net Daily website, in his Mar. 28, 2007 article “Stark, Raving Atheist,” wrote:
“Let me put it this way: None of America’s founding fathers supported – strongly or not – the notion of separation of church and state. None. Nada. Zip. Zilch. Bupkis…
If someone out there in Internet-land would like to challenge that statement, please simply provide some evidence. And please don’t tell me about Thomas Jefferson’s 1802 letter to the Danbury Baptist Association in Connecticut. It is in this letter – and only in this letter – that any founder ever used the phrase ‘separation of church and state.’
Yet, throughout Jefferson’s long life in politics and government, we see a man who, by today’s standards, would be viewed by people like Stark [US Representative Pete Stark (D-CA)] as a card-carrying member of the religious right.
Jefferson not only went to church as president. He did so inside the House of Representatives. That’s right. This man who supposedly believed in an eternal wall of separation between church and state regularly attended church services inside Congress. The church services were presided over by every Protestant denomination. And this was really Jefferson’s idea of separation of church and state – meaning no establishment of a state sect.”Mar. 28, 2007
William Rehnquist, JD, former Associate Justice of the US Supreme Court at the time of the quotation who later became Chief Justice, wrote in his June 4, 1985 dissenting opinion in Wallace v. Jaffree (131 KB) :
“It is impossible to build sound constitutional doctrine upon a mistaken understanding of constitutional history, but unfortunately the Establishment Clause has been expressly freighted with Jefferson’s misleading metaphor for nearly 40 years. Thomas Jefferson was, of course, in France at the time the constitutional Amendments known as the Bill of Rights were passed by Congress and ratified by the States. His letter to the Danbury Baptist Association was a short note of courtesy, written 14 years after the Amendments were passed by Congress. He would seem to any detached observer as a less than ideal source of contemporary history as to the meaning of the Religion Clauses of the First Amendment…
The ‘wall of separation between church and State’ is a metaphor based on bad history, a metaphor which has proved useless as a guide to judging. It should be frankly and explicitly abandoned.”June 4, 1985
Antonin Scalia, LLB, Associate Justice of the US Supreme Court, wrote in his June 27, 2005 dissenting opinion in McCreary County, Kentucky v. American Civil Liberties Union of Kentucky (163 KB) :
“I shall discuss first, why the Court’s oft repeated assertion that the government cannot favor religious practice is false…
George Washington added to the form of Presidential oath prescribed by Art. II, §1, cl. 8, of the Constitution, the concluding words ‘so help me God.’ The Supreme Court under John Marshall opened its sessions with the prayer, ‘God save the United States and this Honorable Court.’ The First Congress instituted the practice of beginning its legislative sessions with a prayer. The same week that Congress submitted the Establishment Clause as part of the Bill of Rights for ratification by the States, it enacted legislation providing for paid chaplains in the House and Senate. The day after the First Amendment was proposed, the same Congress that had proposed it requested the President to proclaim ‘a day of public thanksgiving and prayer, to be observed, by acknowledging, with grateful hearts, the many and signal favours of Almighty God.’…
The same Congress also reenacted the Northwest Territory Ordinance of 1787, 1 Stat. 50, Article III of which provided: ‘Religion, morality, and knowledge, being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged.’ And of course the First Amendment itself accords religion (and no other manner of belief) special constitutional protection.
These actions of our First President and Congress and the Marshall Court were not idiosyncratic; they reflected the beliefs of the period. Those who wrote the Constitution believed that morality was essential to the well-being of society and that encouragement of religion was the best way to foster morality.”June 27, 2005
David Barton, Founder and President of WallBuilders, wrote in his Jan. 2001 article “The Separation of Church and State” posted on the WallBuilders website:
“[T]he inclusion of protection for the ‘free exercise of religion’ in the constitution suggested to the Danbury Baptists that the right of religious expression was government-given (thus alienable) rather than God-given (hence inalienable), and that therefore the government might someday attempt to regulate religious expression…
There is probably no other instance in America’s history where words spoken by a single individual in a private letter-words clearly divorced from their context-have become the sole authorization for a national policy.
The ‘separation’ phrase so frequently invoked today was rarely mentioned by any of the Founders; and even Jefferson’s explanation of his phrase is diametrically opposed to the manner in which courts apply it today. ‘Separation of church and state’ currently means almost exactly the opposite of what it originally meant.”Jan. 2001
Tom Schneider, Founder and Editor of the JerseyGOP website, wrote in a Feb. 22, 2002 editorial:
“The truth is that this country was built on the foundation of religious belief and survives to this day because of those beliefs. There is no ‘separation of church and state’ called for in the U.S. Constitution or any other founding documents. Our founding fathers and greatest leaders have in fact warned time and again, against such a separation. Our nation was founded, in order to secure for the ages, the liberty and freedom granted to us by God.”Feb. 22, 2002
James Hitchcock, PhD, Professor of History at St. Louis Universtiy, wrote in his Jan. 5, 2005 article “The Myth of the ‘Wall of Separation,'” posted on his James Hitchcock Column of the Women for Faith & Family website:
“Modern separationists invoke the names of James Madison and Thomas Jefferson to ‘prove’ what the Founding Fathers intended. But Jefferson had nothing to do with the drafting of the Bill of Rights. Madison did, but the Religion Clauses were the work of someone else. The hallowed phrase ‘wall of separation’ does not appear in the Constitution, as some people seem to think, but in a private letter that Jefferson wrote some years later. For almost a century afterwards the ‘wall’ metaphor was largely ignored.
Those who believe the myth of strict separationism find it impossible to explain why we have military chaplains, prayers in courts and legislatures, the claim ‘In God We Trust’ on coins, an official Thanksgiving day, oaths that end ‘so help me, God,’ and many other things that bring religion into the public sphere…
Thus, not surprisingly, until 1948 the Supreme Court never found a violation of separation of church and state, and on numerous occasions it upheld arrangements whereby religion received official public support… The Court in 1947-8 made a revolution simply by bold assertion, without regard for historical or judicial evidence… Some of the leading constitutional scholars pointed this out at the time, but the new understanding of the First Amendment quickly became enshrined as definitive, and ever since separationists have reacted with shock and horror when anyone recalls how arbitrary these decisions really were.
How and why this happened in 1947-8 is a complicated story, but a key part of it is the fact that most of the Supreme Court justices who brought about this revolution, and many of the people who then enshrined it in our national, lore, frankly regarded traditional religion as outmoded and in some ways dangerous. They did not really care what the Founding Fathers intended, or what the real tradition of the country was. They simply believed that the time had come to marginalize religion. Those who today seek to undo some of the damage stemming from that fallacy are not undermining the Constitution but seeking to recover it.”Jan. 5, 2005
William J. Brennan, Jr., former Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court, argued in his Oct. 12, 1985 address, “The Constitution of the United States: Contemporary Ratification,” given at Georgetown University:
“There are those who find legitimacy in fidelity to what they call ‘the original intentions of the Framers.’ In its most doctrinaire incarnation, this view demands that Justices discern exactly what the Framers thought about the question under consideration and simply follow that intention in resolving the case before them. It is a view that feigns self-effacing deference to the specific judgments of those who forged our original social compact. But in truth it is little more than arrogance cloaked in humility. It is arrogant to pretend that from our vantage we can gauge accurately the intent of the Framers on application of principle to specific, contemporary questions”Oct. 12, 1985