Gospel of Life -- Study Guide
Understanding "Separation of Church and State"
The phrase "separation of church and state" is found nowhere in
the Constitution. It was originally used in a personal letter of Thomas
Jefferson, and was not employed by the Supreme Court until the mid-twentieth
We need to get a handle on what this phrase means and what some people try to
make it mean. Of course there is a division of labor, which is very legitimate,
between Church and State. The Church does not have a standing army. The Church
does not deliver the mail. The Church cannot say that there are 51 states
instead of 50. At the same time the State does not administer the Sacraments or
lead people in Sunday worship or determine where pastors are assigned. The State
cannot say that there are eight sacraments instead of seven. There is a certain
legitimate autonomy, then, that we all acknowledge and accept and can live with.
The problem is that people forget the third element of the equation. Because
in our lives, in our world, in our nation there is the Church, there is the
State, and then there is morality, which overlaps the concerns of both
the Church and the State.
Our Founding Fathers understood that the great experiment of self-governance
on which they were embarking would never succeed if God were separated
from the State or if the State were separated from morality. They knew better.
The First Amendment to the Constitution is sometimes used to defend
"separation of Church and State." But the amendment says nothing about that.
What it does say is that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment
of religion…" When the Federal government was established, all but one of the
states had established religions. The decision of our Founding Fathers was that
the federal government would not establish any religion itself, but
rather leave that decision to the people and the individual states. This has
nothing to do with a separation between government and God or between religion
and public life. It had everything to do with the proper role of the federal
government versus the states.
The very same Congress that crafted the First Amendment passed what was
called the Northwest Ordinance.
This ordinance, which was signed by our first president George Washington,
set up some of the criteria that had to be followed by new states and
territories. Among its provisions was the following: "Religion, morality, and
knowledge being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind,
schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged." In other
words, we have to encourage schools because our children have to be imbued with
knowledge, morality and religion. It is impossible that, having declared this
ordinance, the same body of lawmakers would have intended in the First Amendment
to separate religion and morality from government and public life.
Pastors or politicians?
This paragraph of Living the Gospel of Life also mentions the
Church's right and duty to comment upon political matters. There is a difference
between such commentary and partisan politics. The Church is always free to
speak about the issues of the day, even when those issues are being debated by
political parties and candidates. The Church can also comment upon the duties of
government and the actions of specific political leaders.
But it becomes clear that the Church's message is not partisan as such when
we reflect on the fact that if tomorrow each candidate and party swapped
positions with their opponents, the Church would not need to change a single
word of its message. The Church does not endorse candidates or merge with
political parties. The Church, like her Lord, bears witness to a Kingdom that
precedes all human governments and institutions, and will outlast them all.
While political platforms change, the message of the Gospel does not change. At
particular times, that Gospel message may, in effect, present more of a
challenge to one candidate or party than another. But the preaching of that
message nevertheless cannot be reduced to or categorized as a partisan
statement. A statement of Gospel truth may indeed have political implications,
but it is no less for that reason a statement of Gospel truth which preachers of
the Gospel must in fact preach.
How are the Church and State independent of each other?
What are the common misunderstandings of the phrase "Separation of Church and
Click here to read the
papers, or listen to the talks, of the Legal Symposium "The Church and
Politics: Are we as Restricted as we Think?"
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