Separation of church and state on the radio

On the trip home from Dave’s on Sunday, I caught the last half of this week’s episode of the radio show On Being, which explores themes of religion and spirituality. Luckily enough, later in the evening I caught the whole show a few miles further down the road.

This week’s episode, special for Independence Day, dealt with the history of the principle of separation of church and state in the U.S. The guests were two authors, Steven Waldman, who wrote Founding Faith: How Our Founding Fathers Forged a Radical New Approach to Religious Liberty, and Philip Hamburger, author of Separation of Church and State.

My prime takeaway from it was, what most Americans think of as “separation of church and state,” what they’ve always thought of, in fact, is the separation of the state from the hierarchy of the Catholic Church. In the early days of this country, they were not concerned with religion in general. In fact, most of the colonies had official, established faiths—Protestant ones, though. The last state with an established faith, Massachusetts, finally disestablished it in the 1830s. Anti-Catholic sentiment existed for decades and decades, if it’s even gone today. But to say, as some of us do today, that the separation notion means things should be especially secular is something that many Americans vehemently disagree with.

Should “separation of church and state” mean all churches? The wording tends to be broad enough to imply yes.

Another interesting tidbit was the role of the Ku Klux Klan in supporting the separation of church and state. Well known for its racist tendencies, the Klan was at least as anti-Catholic as it was anti-black. So it supported separation of church and state because it kept Catholics down. Supreme Court justice Hugo Black, who wrote several opinions that defined a broader reach of separation, was in his younger days a member of the Klan, though late in life he said it was mostly because he thought it was good for his political career to do so (he was a U.S. Senator before his Supreme Court tenure).

This is all stuff I should’ve learned long ago. And the radio show covered more, too. Take a listen at the link in the first paragraph.


About songdogmi

I'm a longhaired almost-hippie stuck in the inner suburbs of a major rust-belt metropolis who's thoughtful, creative, and kind of geeky. In exchange for a paycheck I run around in a cubicle maze most days. When I escape, I play music, hang out in coffee houses, dink around on the computer, take naps, and think I should be off in the woods somewhere. Every once in a while I get in my car and drive far, far away, though I've always come back so far.
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4 Responses to Separation of church and state on the radio

  1. Anonymous says:

    “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion. . . .” (1st Amendment to the Constitution of the United States)

    This seems clear enough to me. Any construction of law based on the attitudes or beliefs of any particular religion amounts to an “establishment of religion” as an official arbiter. Yes, individuals have the right to believe whatever they choose. Government does not “believe” however, and must act rationally in all respects.

    • songdogmi says:

      Well, yes, that is plain enough language. What struck me from the show was that Americans didn’t exactly understand what the founders said, and even some of the founders didn’t exactly understand what that line said. They thought it meant a narrower thing (no Rome-appointed bishops in public office), but they wrote it so broadly that it’s almost amazing that it took as long as it did for courts to start ruling based on exactly what it said. That certain American citizens don’t agree only indicates they don’t read the Constitution. But they don’t really read their Bible, either, apparently.

      • Anonymous says:

        I think the meaning of Establishment with respect to religion was quite clear in English at that time. The Church of England (rather than the Roman Catholic Church) was and is “established” in England and the connections between church hierarchy and political power are still in place there though somewhat weakened in the years since Cromwell. The remaining entanglement between church and state in England showed itself once again when special reservations were written into law concerning the celebration of same sex marriages by the Church of England. While other churches were allowed to make their own decision in this respect, Parliament specifically prohibits the Church of England from permitting the celebration or consecration of gay marriages.

        An Establishment of some particular church in the US would have had similar impact on many aspects of law and freedom.

  2. Anonymous says:

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