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Coffee & Wisdom 02.58: The Wobbly Wall: Separation of Religion and State Part 4

David Breeden is speaking all week about Church/State Separation.


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Hello, I’m David Breeden, I’m the Senior Minister, First Unitarian Society of Minneapolis, a historically humanist congregation. This is Coffee and Wisdom. This week we have been looking at that “Wobbly Wall: Separation of Religion and State.” I was mentioning yesterday where the word secular comes from, Latin: saecular, meaning a “generation or an age.” It was used in Church Latin to mean “the world (as opposed to the Church),” really meaning that it’s “in time” rather than “beyond time,” (the churchly kind of thing of) “eternity.” A little bit odd to make a huge distinction in the world anymore that way. But we are kind of stuck with this terminology in European languages. Yesterday I was asking the question: “Is it even possible to be secular?” Or, as many philosophers argue, most or many of secular people are simply inverted religious people, that is, they merely stop being religious and use that then as a religion. We were talking about the outcomes of that kind of assumption. I mentioned yesterday, an April 2021 article called: America Without God. “As religious faith has declined, ideological intensity has risen. Will the quest for secular redemption through politics doom the American idea.” You can catch that online or in The New Atlantic Monthly by Shadi Hamid. He has this to say. very quickly: “…what was once religious belief has now been channeled into political belief. Political debates over what America is supposed to mean have taken on the character of theological disputations. This is what religion without religion looks like.” Again, that argument of the inversion of secular and religious as being what most secular people are doing. This is a debatable point. But his main focus here is about the extremes in American politics now being religious in nature. Yes, we we think of the Christian Nationalists on the right as being about religion. We don’t, however, think about the secular folks on the left as having developed religious attitudes about these issues, so that we demonize, just as religious people do, each other on the two extremes of American politics, and that those extremes are increasing and the numbers on both sides of that chasm then are increasing. Very interesting article to take a look at. All of this is about something called the Establishment Clause from the First Amendment, which was ratified December 15, 1791. You’ve heard it all your life, probably. But here, let’s take a peek at it. “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof….” (That is the Establishment Clause.) It goes on to say “…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.” These are the things that Congress, that would be the Federal Government will not do, make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof. “When the First Amendment was adopted in 1791, the establishment clause applied only to the federal government.” (This is something we too easily forget in American history,) “…prohibited the federal government from any involvement in religion. Only by 1833 had all the states disestablished religion from government providing protections for religious liberty in those state constitutions.” This book on: “Disestablishment and Religious Dissent.” It’s a scholarly look at how the 13 colonies developed in religious traditions. “Church State Relations in the New American States, 1776-1833.” In that book, it says, “Neither the U.S. Constitution of 1787-88 nor the First Amendment of 1789-91 contributed to the disestablishment process of the original thirteen states.” The First Amendment was not used as a model for early U.S. state constitutions. This is important to remember that the effects of the Establishment Clause took some time in American history to develop. The state of Massachusetts was the last to disestablish religion, in 1833. That’s important to Unitarian Universalists because Unitarians were part of the establishment saying we want to keep a state religion. They dated all the way back to those Puritans who had formed the Massachusetts Bay Colony. It says there: “An act respecting Public Worship and Religious Freedom.” This is Massachusetts, 1833: “Any person may separate from one Parish or Religious Society and join another, either of the same or of a different denomination, by filing with the Clerk of the Society…” (That would be with the church itself.) “No citizen of this Commonwealth, being a member of any Religious Society in the Commonwealth, shall be assessed or liable to pay any tax for the support of Public Worship or other Parochial charges, to any Parish, Precinct, or Religious Society whatever, other than that to which he is a member.” So suddenly, if you’re a Baptist, you don’t have to pay taxes to keep up the Unitarian churches or the Congregationalist churches. If you’re a Quaker, you don’t have to pay. And this is the changeover that the U.S. states then have respected since 1833. Where did that idea of a Wall of Separation come from? Well, it’s first used, so far as we know, by the religious dissenter Roger Williams, who lives 1603-1683. He is a Baptist dissenter. He was expelled by those good Puritan leaders of the Massachusetts Bay Colony for, here’s the charge against him: “…Diverse, new and dangerous opinions” in 1636. So he moves to Rhode Island, is considered the founder of Rhode Island, and he founded the First Baptist Church of Providence, Rhode Island in 1638. What did Roger Williams actually mean? Well he has this to say: “God needth not the help of a material sort of steel to assist the sword of the spirit and the affairs of conscience? Let people believe what they wish to believe, what their conscience leads them to believe.” And you don’t have to force them to do that. They will believe that was the idea that Williams had there. He also said: “Enforced uniformity confounds civil and religious liberty and denies the principles of Christianity and civility. No man (person) shall be required to worship or maintain a worship against his will.” That is the idealistic idea that we now, pretty much most Americans anyway, except for extreme Christian Nationalists, do think that if you let this go, let people have their own conscience and, by golly, they will gravitate towards something that they find meaning and purpose in. Again, very forward looking in the way that he was looking at this, but just don’t force people to believe in particular things. The fact that this becomes the idea that is part of the American water that people are drinking during this time period, probably leads to the variety of U.S. religious practice, and the fact that Americans remain some of the most religious people on the Earth, because we have such variety. It is a buyer’s market out there. This Wall of Separation. He goes on to say, “When they have opened a gap in the hedge or wall of separation…,” (This is where it first occurs.) “… between the garden of the church and the wilderness of the world, God hath ever broke down the wall itself, removed the candlestick, and made His garden a wilderness, as at this day.” So, tear down that wall, by golly, and God will make a garden of the Church and everybody will be fruitful and happy with all kinds of beautiful ideas. Get rid of the candles and the incense and the crucifixes and all that stuff. Let her go and by golly, religious freedom will ensue. Remove the wall of separation. In 1802, Thomas Jefferson uses the idea of the wall of separation as well. This is Thomas Jefferson’s gravestone. He wished to have carved on it what he saw as his great accomplishments. One was author of the Declaration of American Independence, but also the Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom, which is the model for that religious separation, and then also as the father of the University of Virginia. So those are the things he wanted carved on his gravestone as his greatest achievements. The most famous articulation of this comes when Jefferson is in office as President. He was President from 1801 to 1809, so this is very early in his incumbency. A committee of the Danbury Baptist Association in the state of Connecticut writes to him, saying (in effect): please, please keep up that “wall of separation.” Let’s do this. Let’s have religious liberty so those darn Puritans don’t go hanging us again. And so Thomas Jefferson has this to say about that as President: “Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between man and his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legislative powers of government reach actions only and not opinions.” And that’s important. Do you see what he’s saying? We don’t care about the thoughts of the citizens. It’s what they do that matters to government. “I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature would make no law respecting an establishment of religion…” (The Establishment Clause: make no law respecting the establishment of religion.) “…or prohibiting the free exercise thereof, thus building a wall of separation between church and state. Adhering to this expression of the supreme will of the nation in behalf of the rights of conscience, I shall see with sincere satisfaction the progress of those sentiments, which tend to restore to man all his natural rights, convinced he has no natural right in opposition to his social duties.” Now, you see how Jefferson is framing this. We have a natural right to our consciences, right?, and we have a natural right to be free in our minds, though not in our actions, if those are detrimental to the social fabric. So that’s the idea that the natural rights, that the deist God that Jefferson appears to have believed in, we’ll talk more about that tomorrow, we have natural rights which are readable by looking at nature itself and that that one, our natural rights should never be in any way stamped down or opposed by government. And that’s the original intent of the founders of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. Well, thanks a lot. Keep thinking about these issues. They continue to this day here in the United States, although we certainly have a better wall than many countries, as we talked about earlier in the week, over 50 in the world today being completely unsecular by law. Thanks for listening. You can sign up to hear my lecture on this coming Sunday, 2:00 p.m. Central Time, 3:00 p.m. Eastern. “Does Humanism Have a Future in Unitarian Universalism?” You have to go to the site of the Pittsburgh Unitarian Church there to sign up (, but it is free. But they would like to know who’s signing on and that kind of thing. The respondent will be a young UU Minister Leika Lewis-Cornwell, who’s President of the Unitarian Universalist Humanist Association. So join us on Sunday afternoon and I’ll see you again tomorrow. Thank you.

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