Paul Kengor On Church/State Separation

An insightful new audio commentary by Dr. Paul Kengor: 

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For too long, this country has suffered from a severely misguided understanding of church-state separation, fostered by secular liberals/progressives. And now, those same forces—or at least those devoted to President Obama and so-called “abortion rights” above all else—are employing that very misunderstanding in an assault upon the religious freedom and consciences of Catholics. They are doing so, of course, via the Obama mandate on contraception and abortion drugs.

The problem begins with the very notion of “separation of church and state.” Huge numbers of Americans mistakenly believe those words are chiseled into the Constitution, ascribing to them a tremendous weight and power that plainly do not exist. In fact, those words are not found in the Constitution at all.

To the contrary, the First Amendment ensures “the free exercise” of religion.

Well, if the words “separation of church and state” appear nowhere in the Constitution, then where are they?

The phrase is found in an 1802 letter from Thomas Jefferson, written to the Danbury Baptist Association of Connecticut.

Jefferson, the newly elected president, assured his Connecticut friends that they had no fear from the federal government, which would not intrude upon them and the practice of their faith—nor, as Jefferson put it, their “rights of conscience”—given that their relationship with God was between them and God. The purpose in this historic Jefferson-Baptist exchange was to protect not government from religion but religion (that is, religious people) from the intrusion of government.

And now, 200-plus years after Jefferson’s letter and the signing of the Constitution and Bill of Rights, we are left with too many liberals/progressives too often incorrectly telling us that at the crux of religion in America is a sacred “Constitutional” anchor called “separation of church and state,” which means that your individual faith should not disrupt or disorder society and the state. You must take your faith out of the public square and confine it to yourself, your home, your church.

That’s wrong. And that wrong is now breeding yet more wrongs.

For Catholic Exchange and Ave Maria Radio, I’m Paul Kengor.


Dr. Paul Kengor


Dr. Paul Kengor is professor of political science at Grove City College and executive director of The Center for Vision & Values. His books include “The Crusader: Ronald Reagan and the Fall of Communism” and “Dupes: How America’s Adversaries Have Manipulated Progressives for a Century.”

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  • Ema Goldman

    Yes, the first commandment in the constitution should read “THOU shall keep THY religion to THYSELF”

  • edmund burk

    miss goldman the constitution is a secular document unlike the 10 commandments which are a spirtial document. one of the commandments is “I AM THE LORD THY GOD, THOU SHOULD NOT HAVE ANY STRANGE GODS BEFORE ME.’ This means God informs and direct our lives. therefore we bear witness to god with our lives and DO NOT keep our god to our selves. 

  • Karen

    I understand people have different views on contraception and abortion.  The rights of people who believe in contraception and abortion are protected by the laws of our country.  Could someone please explain to me WHY this isn’t enough?  Why do those of us who do not believe these things as moral have to have them forced on us?

  • Lorenzo

    You talk of about moral have to have them forced upon us. It is your kind that is forcing your morals on the rest of us.

  • DougIndeap


    Kengor fundamentally
    misunderstands separation of church and state. 
    First, its existence.  It is a
    bedrock principle of our Constitution much like the principles of separation of
    powers and checks and balances. In the Constitution, the founders did not
    simply say in so many words that there should be separation of powers and checks
    and balances; rather, they actually separated the powers of government among
    three branches and established checks and balances. Similarly, they did not
    merely say there should be separation of church and state; rather, they
    actually separated them by (1) establishing a secular government on the power
    of “We the people” (not a deity), (2) saying nothing to connect that
    government to god(s) or religion, (3) saying nothing to give that government
    power over matters of god(s) or religion, and (4), indeed, saying nothing
    substantive about god(s) or religion at all except in a provision precluding
    any religious test for public office.  Given
    the norms of the day, the founders’ avoidance of any expression in the
    Constitution suggesting that the government is somehow based on any religious
    belief was quite a remarkable and plainly intentional choice.  They later buttressed this separation of
    government and religion with the First Amendment, which constrains the
    government from undertaking to establish religion or prohibit individuals from
    freely exercising their religions. The basic principle, thus, rests on much
    more than just the First Amendment.

    That the phrase
    “separation of church and state” does not appear in the text of the
    Constitution assumes much importance, it seems, to some who may have once
    labored under the misimpression it was there and, upon learning they were
    mistaken, reckon they’ve discovered a smoking gun solving a Constitutional
    mystery. To those familiar with the Constitution, the absence of the metaphor
    commonly used to name one of its principles is no more consequential than the
    absence of other phrases (e.g., Bill of Rights, separation of powers, checks
    and balances, fair trial, religious liberty) used to describe other undoubted
    Constitutional principles.

    To the extent
    that some nonetheless would like confirmation–in those very words–of the
    founders’ intent to separate government and religion, Madison and Jefferson
    supplied it.  Some try to pass off
    the Supreme Court’s decision in Everson v. Board of Education as simply a
    misreading of Jefferson’s letter to the Danbury Baptists–as if that were the
    only basis of the Court’s decision. Instructive as that letter is, it played
    but a small part in the Court’s decision. Perhaps even more than Jefferson,
    James Madison influenced the Court’s view. Madison, who had a central role in
    drafting the Constitution and the First Amendment, confirmed that he understood
    them to “[s]trongly guard[] . . . the separation between Religion and
    Government.” Madison, Detached Memoranda (~1820). He made plain, too, that they
    guarded against more than just laws creating state sponsored churches or
    imposing a state religion. Mindful that even as new principles are proclaimed,
    old habits die hard and citizens and politicians could tend to entangle
    government and religion (e.g., “the appointment of chaplains to the two houses
    of Congress” and “for the army and navy” and “[r]eligious proclamations by the
    Executive recommending thanksgivings and fasts”), he considered the question
    whether these actions were “consistent with the Constitution, and with the pure
    principle of religious freedom” and responded: “In strictness the answer on
    both points must be in the negative. The Constitution of the United States
    forbids everything like an establishment of a national religion.”

    Second, its scope and effect.  It is important to distinguish between
    the “public square” and “government” and between
    “individual” and “government” speech about religion.  The constitutional principle of separation of
    church and state does not, as Kengor supposes, purge religion from the public
    square–far from it. Indeed, the First Amendment’s “free exercise”
    clause assures that each individual is free to exercise and express his or her
    religious views–publicly as well as privately. The Amendment constrains only
    the government not to promote or otherwise take steps toward establishment of
    religion.  As government can only act
    through the individuals comprising its ranks, when those individuals are
    performing their official duties (e.g., public school teachers instructing
    students in class), they effectively are the government and thus should conduct
    themselves in accordance with the First Amendment’s constraints on government.
    When acting in their individual capacities, they are free to exercise their
    religions as they please. If their right to free exercise of religion extended
    even to their discharge of their official responsibilities, however, the First
    Amendment constraints on government establishment of religion would be
    eviscerated.  While figuring out whether
    someone is speaking for the government in any particular circumstance may
    sometimes be difficult, making the distinction is critical.

    Nor does the constitutional separation
    of church and state prevent citizens from making decisions based on principles
    derived from their religions. Moreover, the religious beliefs of government
    officials naturally may inform their decisions on policies.  The principle, in this context, merely
    constrains government officials not to make decisions with the predominant purpose
    or primary effect of advancing religion; in other words, the predominant
    purpose and primary effect must be nonreligious or secular in nature. A
    decision coinciding with religious views is not invalid for that reason as long
    as it has a secular purpose and effect.

    Constitution, including particularly the First Amendment, embodies the simple,
    just idea that each of us should be free to exercise his or her religious views
    without expecting that the government will endorse or promote those views and without
    fearing that the government will endorse or promote the religious views of
    others. By keeping government and religion separate, the establishment clause
    serves to protect the freedom of all to exercise their religion. Reasonable
    people may differ, of course, on how these principles should be applied in
    particular situations, but the principles are hardly to be doubted. Moreover,
    they are good, sound principles that should be nurtured and defended, not
    attacked. Efforts to undercut our secular government by somehow merging or
    infusing it with religion should be resisted by every patriot.

    Wake Forest University has published a short, objective Q&A primer on the
    current law of separation of church and state–as applied by the courts rather
    than as caricatured in the blogosphere. I commend it to you.

  • QuoVadisAnima

    Lorenzo, I think you are misunderstanding Karen’s question – which actually fits right in with your statement:  People who believe in contraception & abortion are forcing them on those of us who do not.

  • QuoVadisAnima

    Fortunately the Founding Fathers were too wise to write any such nonsense & so it does not.  What it does read is that the govt needs to keep itself out of religion.  How paradoxical (not to mention hypocritical) it would be to have written that & then order people to keep their religion to themselves.

  • QuoVadisAnima

    It sounds like you have fundamentally misunderstood what Dr. Kengor was – and was not – saying.