September 1, 2006October 8, 2006Meeting Report

September 17, 2006

Dr Leigh Johnsen

Early American Origins of Church/State Separation

Dr. Johnsen has a PhD in American History from the University of California at Riverside. He is a member of the Seventh Day Adventist Church and is active in Americans United for the Separation of Church and State.

Dr. Johnsen began with a quote from former United States Senator Zell Miller, which exposed the senator's lack of understanding of the full implications of the establishment clause of the First Amendment. Sen. Miller thought that it simply meant that Congress could not establish any particular church as a state religion. Dr. Johnsen said that it is actually much broader than that, which anyone can see if one understands the history of the writing of the Constitution and of the First Amendment. For one thing, Article VI of the Constitution prohibits religious tests for public office under the United States. Also, Article II Sec. 2 allows the alternative of affirmation to swearing in the presidential oath. Furthermore, the preamble of the Constitution begins with "We the people." thus implying that the people, not some other entity, were sovereign. The treaty with Tripoli, ratified by the Senate in 1798 without a dissenting vote, explicitly stated that the United States government was not based on Christianity. These facts are significant. They clearly show that the Founders, after debating what the federal government should be like, decided to set up a secular government. Separation of church and state is implicit in the Constitution although those exact words do not appear there. The establishment clause of the First Amendment also was consistent with the spirit of the Constitution. 

Why did the Founders decide to separate church and state when most of the state governments at that time had a state religion? We sometimes hear from humanist sources that it was simply the results of the Enlightenment and of such heroes as Jefferson and Madison. According to Dr. Johnsen it was not only that but also such men as Isaac Backus, an evangelical Christian who ran afoul of the established Congregational Church in Connecticut and Massachusetts. Minority Christian denominations resented the favoritism given to the established churches. It was the political alliance between freethinkers and non-conforming Christians that led to the complete separation of church and state in Virginia in 1787. Patrick Henry proposed a system of multiple establishment, but James Madison successfully deflected that proposal, again with help from evangelicals.

Dr. Johnsen pointed out that in the early 1830s Alexis de Tocqueville noted in his classic study, "Democracy in America," that clergymen of all denominations credited the lack of sectarian strife in America at that time to the separation of church and state.

Report prepared by Wayne Luney, Recorder


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