Religion and U.S. Government

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The role of Religion and U.S. Government has been a central Constitutional issue since the American Revolution.

American Revolution

One of the causes of the revolution was fear that the British government was about to impose on the American colonies a bishop from the Anglican Church of England.

The Declaration of Independence acknowledges the existence of God when it refers to "the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God" and says all men "are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights." That statement was inserted by the author, Thomas Jefferson, a Deist. Most Americans were Protestants; the Anglican Church of England, which had been the established church in several colonies, was disestablished. That is, it was no longer supported by taxes. Massachusetts and Connecticut later dropped their taxpayer support of the Congregational Church, and the principle of legal separation of church and state became established.

Bill of Rights

James Madison in 1791 wrote the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, stating "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." The first clause is referred to as the Establishment Clause, and the second the Free Exercise Clause. An informal letter that President Thomas Jefferson wrote to the Danbury Baptists, called the First Amendment as "a wall of separation between Church and State."[1]

Supreme Court

In recent decades, the U.S. Supreme Court has used the "Lemon test" as a means for determining whether or not a particular controversy causes excessive entanglement between government and religion, though in some cases has allowed religious icons (such as the Ten Commandments display in Texas.[2])

Federal aid to education

Statements of religious leaders in denominational journals and before congressional committees show that during the 1930s Catholics abandoned their objections to federal aid to education in favor of qualified support, provided children in parochial schools were to benefit from it. However Protestants reacted to giving federal aid to private schools by protesting a breach in the wall of separation between church and state. They also characterized such aid as a step towards totalitarianism, bureaucratic centralization, federal paternalism, and collectivism. The result was no federal aid to public education was possible before 1965, and still no federal aid to religious schools.[3]

Public Opinion

Americans see their country as a predominantly Christian nation. A Pew Report showed 76% of Republicans, 63% of Democrats,and 67% of independents view the U.S. a Christian nation. Secular categories are the only subgroup in which fewer than a majority sees the U.S. as a Christian country. Although the public clearly sees a strong link between Christianity and the country's national identity, most Americans think citizen preferences should outweigh the Bible as an influence on American law. When asked which should have more influence over the laws of the country ­ the Bible or the will of the people, even when it conflicts with the Bible ­ most Americans (63%) say the people's will should have more sway. A significant minority (32%), however, believes the Bible should be more important.[4]

Further reading

  • Goldberg, George. Church, State and the Constitution. (1987), conservative attack on Supreme Court decisions; argues in favor of prayer in the public schools
  • Hammond, Phillip E. "American Church/State Jurisprudence from the Warren Court to the Rehnquist Court," Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, Vol. 40, No. 3 (Sep., 2001), pp. 455–464 in JSTOR
  • Healey, Robert M. "Thomas Jefferson's 'Wall': Absolute or Serpentine?" Journal of Church and State 1988 30(3): 441-462, history of usage by Supreme Court
  • Ivers, Gregg. To Build a Wall: American Jews and the Separation of Church and State. (1995). 272 pp. shows strong Jewish support for a high wall
  • Kleeberg Irene Cumming. Separation of Church and State (1986), introduction at high school level.
  • Levy Leonard W. The Establishment Clause. (1986) by leading historian
  • McWhirter, Darien A. The Separation of Church and State (1994) 189pp; summary of the issues online edition
  • Reichley A. James. Religion in American Public Life. (1985), history of the relationship between religion and politics
  • Segers, Mary C. and Jelen, Ted G. eds. A Wall of Separation?: Debating the Public Role of Religion. (1998). 191 pp.
  • Stokes Anson Phelps, and Pfeffer Leo. Church and State in the United States.(1964), famous classic.
  • online books on Separation

See also


  1. Jefferson's Letter to the Danbury Baptists, January 1, 1802. Retrieved November 11, 2008.
  3. Ambrose A., Clegg, Jr. "Church Groups and Federal Aid to Education, 1933-1939" History of Education Quarterly 1964 4(3): 137-154. in JSTOR
  4. Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, August 24, 2006. Retrieved June 7, 2007.