Church or State?

The mariner thought he understood the legal and philosophical intent of the separation of church and state. However, when he reads the news of the day, confusion seems to reign over the subject and affects everything from getting married, to pro-choice or pro-life, to the rights of execution and euthanasia – not to mention many other conflicts between citizenry and the Constitution of the United States. Consequently, the mariner is confused as well.

For the benefit of the reader as well as the mariner, he will go back to the beginning. As a legal basis, the Constitution of the US, written in 1787 and the Bill of Rights, written in 1788, says exactly:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Denis Diderot was a French philosopher, art critic, and writer. He was a prominent figure during the Enlightenment and is best known for serving as co-founder, chief editor, and contributor to the Encyclopédie. Diderot was a partisan of a strict separation of church and state, saying in 1747, “the distance between the throne and the altar can never be too great“.

In English, the exact term is an offshoot of the phrase, “wall of separation between church and state”, as written in Thomas Jefferson’s letter to the Danbury Baptist Association in 1802. In that letter, referencing the First Amendment to the United States Constitution, Jefferson writes:

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 and State.

Jefferson was describing to the Baptists that the United States Bill of Rights prevents the establishment of a national church, and in so doing, they did not have to fear government interference in their manner of worship. The Bill of Rights was one of the earliest examples in the world of complete religious freedom. [Wikipedia – church and state]

For our purposes, make note of the phrase, “…that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, & not opinions…” meaning that the government will not interpret or reinforce religious definition and will limit government action to matters of governance. The inverse of this, applying the intent to religion, means that there is freedom for any religion to practice and believe as they choose but religious opinion will not apply to matters of governance.

On the surface, the separation appears to be clear and distinct. Why, 277 years later, is the citizenry having so much difficulty?

At this point, the reader must tolerate the mariner’s meandering. To state the conflict succinctly, the confusion is caused by secularism. Secularism excludes religious opinion. This seems to be in concert with the 1st Amendment and Jefferson’s letter. But this is simpler said than understood. If we can travel back to the time of the Mayflower landing at Plymouth Rock (1620), we would be in the midst of the Reformation (1517-1685). The established church still was the law of the land in most intra-human activities. In fact, the Pilgrims combined religious opinion and governance into one authority. The political leader also was the interpreter of the faith.

Ever so slowly, it became clear that there must be some separation so that government could govern without having to judge every opinion raised by the common folk. There had to be rules applied to situations that were stolid and did not change with every change in opinion. This slow, evolutionary process continues today. We are not finished with the separation of church and state.

The role of government, with its authority to govern without opinion, has expanded to include virtually all elements of intra-human activity. One can get married in a government agency – without opinion, mind you. But one may also be influenced by opinions of faith. The religious element takes umbrage that the government can perform the same ‘action’ as the religion but without the religious opinion.

The mariner now understands why there is conflict. For the conclusion, we must wait for the movie version – perhaps released in 2150.

Ancient Mariner


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