‘Don’t tell me about no separation of church and state’

Tom Farr, President Emeritus of the Religious Freedom Institute, writes:

Speaking at a Manhattan interfaith breakfast on March 2, Mayor Adams delivered some street-wise constitutional analysis: “Don’t tell me about no separation of church and state. State is the body. Church is the heart. You take the heart out of the body, the body dies.”
Shocked by this apostasy, Washington Post columnist Jennifer Rubin wrote that his “alarming remarks can only give aid and comfort to right-wing Christian nationalists.” Writing for the New York Times, Dana Rubenstein described the event as “surreal” and quoted a New York rabbi who called Adams’ statement “unhinged and dangerous.” …

Rubenstein helpfully explained, “The phrase ‘separation of church and state’ is not in the Constitution, but the First Amendment’s statement that ‘Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof’ has been widely interpreted to dictate such a separation.”

“Widely interpreted,” that is, by those who wish to ban unacceptable religious views from American public life. Separationism entered our public lexicon with Thomas Jefferson’s 1802 letter asserting a “wall of separation between church and state. The wall, he averred, prevented clergy from engaging in politics.

According to scholar Philip Hamberger, the separation idea garnered little support until later in the 19th century when Irish and other Catholic immigrants began to flood east coast cities, bringing with them the Mass and parochial schools. The wall of separation was adopted by nativist political parties and led to the 19th century Blaine amendments, designed to prevent state aid to Catholic schools.

Only in a 1947 Supreme Court decision, however, did the “wall of separation” enter serious constitutional discourse. Since then, numerous Court decisions have either endorsed or rejected versions of separation.

Mayor Adams is correct. The Constitution erects no wall of separation between civil and religious powers.

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