“No one would be more zealous than myself to establish effectual barriers against the horrors of…every species of religious persecution…”
-President George Washington
It’s election season. So naturally, there’s a lot of talk about the separation of Church and State, and it’s no surprise. That kind of talk has been going on since before the First Amendment was ratified. The First Amendment, which states that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…” seems to make it pretty clear that our new nation would maintain a clear separation between religion and government. In 1801, Thomas Jefferson further expanded this view when he wrote about “…building a wall of separation between Church & State” (AllAboutHistory.org).
Yet, even before Jefferson described this “wall of separation,” other politicians grappled with the concept. Roger Williams, the first Governor of Rhode Island (1654 – 1658) had the “vision of a ‘civil state,’ a vibrant, diverse community that is free of political, cultural and ethnic division” (spiritual-politics.org). However, we need to remember that the esteemed scholar and clergyman Mr. Williams had been driven out of both Massachusetts and Connecticut for disagreeing with the established church.
In more modern times, on September 12, 1960, Presidential Candidate John F. Kennedy gave a speech responding to questions about whether his allegiance as a Catholic was to Rome or to the U.S. Constitution. Here’s what JFK said: “I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute.”
To understand what “separation of Church and State” means, we first need to consider what the framers of the Constitution envisioned in the context of that time. Europe was dominated by governments intertwined with religions: in essence, Church-States. When they established this new democracy, the founding fathers wanted to change that construct. Over the years, we have become more like “the vibrant, diverse community” Governor Williams envisioned. Still, we have not quite managed the “absolute” separation that President Kennedy visualized.
Other than recognizing that this country does not have a “national religion,” we remain conflicted about what the separation of Church and State means today. What should NOT be in conflict, however, is the reliance on religion to persecute others for who they are. Jefferson, who clearly had a lot to say on the subject of religion says, “On the dogmas of religion, as distinguished from moral principles, all mankind, from the beginning of the world to this day, have been quarreling, fighting, burning and torturing one another, for abstractions unintelligible to themselves and to all others, and absolutely beyond the comprehension of the human mind” (1816).
We still don’t seem to get that part: religious dogma does not dictate moral principles. Many politicians turn to religious doctrine to justify their position on maintaining inequality. And, while the framers of the Constitution could not have foreseen what the First Amendment would mean over 200 years after its ratification, I think they would be surprised and maybe a little indignant too, that religious dogma is still used to justify the persecution of Americans.
Surprised by the word persecution? But, that’s what inequality brings…the persecution of Americans. And that is wrong. It is wrong to deny equal rights because who a person is does not conform to a particular religious doctrine. It is wrong, not only from a moral perspective, but because the First Amendment makes the separation of Church and State perfectly clear. Religion must not dictate the law.
Abraham Lincoln, vilified in his own time for his radical views, knew something about equality. In his Gettysburg Address, he espoused that, “Four score and seven years ago, our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation: conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” If we are to take his words literally, anyone who is not male is excluded from being equal. But, as we have evolved as a nation, we understand that the definition of “men” has broadened.
It is not a stretch to include LGBT persons in that broader definition of equality. To do this, however, means we must separate Church from State and State from Church. If we are to continue to have the democratic society the United States Constitution guarantees its citizens, that “wall of separation,” while fluid and ever-changing with the times, must remain standing.
Broadening the definition to include LGBT individuals does not infringe on anyone else’s rights, nor does it trample on religious freedom. And we must maintain this integrity.
The founding fathers may not have been able to predict a time when women were in Congress. They may not have seen a time, either, when a minority would be elected to the highest office of the land. But, the spirit of their framing the United States Constitution compels us, in the context of our own time, to finally get the separation of Church and State right and include equality for LGBT individuals. That requires not that the State get out of the Church; rather that the Church remains outside of the State.
When the day of full equality comes, and it must, I believe we will have fulfilled the goal of “liberty and justice for all” that the founding fathers had in mind when they created the Constitution of this great nation.
…And I’m just a mom who loves her son…