When Wisconsin public high school senior Rachel Horner provided the school faculty with the lyrics of a song she planned to sing at her graduation ceremony, they came “unglued.” The reason? The song mentions God three times. The school principal told Rachel that “God” might offend some of the audience and would violate the “separation of church and state.” The principal suggested Rachel replace references to “God” with “He,” “Him” and “His.”
When Miss Horner filed a federal lawsuit, the school reversed its decision concerning the song but nevertheless insisted she not mention God in the introduction to her performance.
In another instance, first grader Zachary Hood was not allowed by his teacher to read a story titled “A Big Family” from his own The Beginner’s Bible. Although the teacher rewarded students’ reading proficiency by allowing them to bring from home and read to the class a story of their choice, and even though Zachary’s selection does not mention God, the teacher refused to allow him to read it “because of its religious content.” 1
How have we come to the place that public school officials are afraid of having the word “God” mentioned in public places? Does this represent the correct way to apply the concept of “separation of church and state”? Or is this a gross misunderstanding of the founder’s intent regarding the role of religion and government? To better understand why we are experiencing restrictions on religious freedom, we must first understand the influence of Secular Humanism in law and politics.
Separating Church and State?
Although the concept of “separation of church and state” dates back to Thomas Jefferson, it has taken on a radically different meaning in recent years. Chuck Colson explains the background when he writes:
Radical separationists see themselves as heirs of Thomas Jefferson. During his presidency, Jefferson wrote a letter to a Baptist group in Danbury, Connecticut, in which he described the First Amendment as having set up a “wall of separation” between church and state.
That is the origin of the “wall of separation” metaphor: not the Constitution, or any of its amendments; not the Declaration of Independence — just a letter from a president to the Danbury Baptists. He wrote the letter to assure them that the federal government could not set up a state church and thereby disenfranchise those, like Baptists, who would be unwilling to join that state church. This had been the history of Baptists in England, and they were concerned. The president’s letter put their minds at ease by assuring them that, as religious believers, they had a place in the public square that could not be taken away from them.
Regrettably, the Supreme Court took up the “wall” metaphor [in 1947] and misapplied it. Thus the phrase that Jefferson used to reassure religious people became the instrument of radical separationism — government, that is, cannot help religion at all. 2
Because it is repeated so often, the idea of “separation of church and state” has become like an urban legend that takes on a life of its own. This misapplied notion has led to bizarre incidents such as the ones mentioned above, where in a nation founded on religious liberty, a high school senior is intimidated for trying to sing about her religiously held belief in God at her high school graduation or a child is kept from reading a Bible story to his classmates. Yet, these two examples could be multiplied hundreds of times.
Uniting Religious Ideas with Politics
However, the truth is quite different from the current myth of separation. The founders of this nation never intended for religious ideas to be eradicated from public discourse and political deliberations, nor even the education of our children. The late John F. Kennedy understood the connection between religion and government. As President, Kennedy wrote the following words in a speech:
We in this country, in this generation, are by destiny rather than choice the watchman on the walls of world freedom. We ask therefore, that we may be worthy of our power and responsibility, that we may exercise our strength with wisdom and restraint, and that we may achieve in our time and for all time the ancient vision of peace on earth, goodwill toward men. That must always be our goal. For as was written long ago, ‘Except the Lord keep the city, the watchman waketh but in vain.’
Kennedy never delivered these words. The day was November 22, 1963, and as his motorcade slowly wound through the streets of Dallas, Texas, an assassin’s bullet took his life. Yet his words are an echo of another politician from 174 years earlier, Benjamin Franklin, inventor and statesman from Pennsylvania. Franklin was 80 years old when he attended the Constitutional Convention that gave birth to the United States. After several weeks of bickering between the delegates, Franklin rose to speak. As a hush came over the room, the most senior delegate addressed his remarks to the President of the Convention, George Washington:
I have lived, Sir, a long time, and the longer I live, the more convincing proofs I see of this truth — that God governs in the affairs of men. And if a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without His notice, is it probable that an empire can rise without His aid? We have been assured, Sir, in the sacred writings, that ‘except the Lord build the House they labour in vain that build it.’ I firmly believe this.
Franklin went on to recommend to the delegates that they begin each day in corporate prayer. George Washington, in his Farewell Address after his second term in office, said, “Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports . . . . Virtue or morality is a necessary spring of popular government.” 3 Similarly, our second President, John Adams, wrote “religion and morality are the only foundations . . . of republicanism and of all free governments.” 4
And we even find the following words of Thomas Jefferson etched into the memorial dedicated to him in Washington, D.C., “God who gave us life gave us liberty. And can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are of the Gift of God?” We could cite hundreds more examples of similar comments made by those who formed our government, as well as later politicians, Supreme Court Justices, and political historians. 5
As is evident from these examples, there has been a sea change in how our politicians and public officials approach religious liberty. Unless Christians wake up soon, they will find themselves engulfed in a secular humanist society that no longer tolerates any expression of religion — public or private. It has happened as recently as this past century under Marxist and Nazi governments, and it could happen again. 6
- George F. Will, The Censoring of Zachary, Newsweek, March 20, 2000, p. 82.
- Charles Colson, Historic Preservation: The Wall of Separation, BreakPoint Commentary #030708, 07/08/2003.
- George Washington, Address of George Washington, President of the United States . . . Preparatory to his Declination (Baltimore: George and Henry S. Keatinge, 1796), p. 22-23.
- John Adams, Works, Vol. IX p. 636, to Benjamin Rush on August 28, 1811.
- For additional resources on the original intent of the founders concerning their understanding of religion and government, see David Barton’s well-researched book, Original Intent, or search his website at www.wallbuilders.com.
- This article, slightly revised, was first published in Truth & Consequences on September 2004.