Welcome to RelPol, a student peer reviewed online magazine. This magazine is part of the assessment for the module "In God We Trust" @ the University of Hull.
America is often seen by the rest of the world as a Christian nation, in 2007 a U.S Religious Landscape Survey showed that of the 30,000 people questioned, 78.4% of them identified with a Christian faith. In addition, the words “In God We Trust” are printed on U.S currency and not a Presidential inauguration speech goes by without a reference to God, (In fact every President since Ronald Reagan has ended their inauguration speech with “God Bless America” or “God Bless you all!”).
Using this evidence, it is easy to understand why the rest of the world perceives an intense relationship between Church and State in the United States today. However, at no point within the constitution does it say that there should be a “separation of church and state”, it does state that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…” This is the very first sentence of the First Amendment in the Bill of Rights section of the Constitution. This was written two years after the signing of the Declaration of Independence, so even back then, religion within politics created debate.
To understand where this desire to distance religion and government stems from it helps to look briefly at American colonial history; The New England settlers arrived after fleeing England due to the monarchy and government restricting their religious freedom, in this new world their goal was to make a better Christian nation, where government would be unable to interfere with personal beliefs, as had been the case in England.
But the relationship between church and state grew closer over time. This did not go unnoticed and by 1786, a statute was passed making Virginia a religious free colony. The reasons for this according to Edward Humphrey were simple; “the separation was merely intended to keep the church out of politics and vice versa.”- (Page 360). It was to prevent interference and persecution based on religion, the experience of which was so fresh in American minds.
The issue that the United States now faces today, it that sometimes, the government cannot help but endorse a relationship between Church and State, whether they support or oppose the link between these two institutions. This above picture from 2004 shows the beliefs of many that the government and the church have too close of a liaison. This tight partnership between Church and State is supported a year after this image in 2005 during the Supreme Court case of Van Orden vs. Perry. This case focused around a stone monument that depicted the Ten Commandments. The monument itself is harmless, allowing anyone of the Christian faith, or those who do not affiliate themselves with any religion to appreciate the morals that it expects of the people. The issue arises when it is made apparent that this monument is displayed on the grounds of Texas State Capitol –It seems that the government is promoting a religious text.
The Supreme Court ruled that this was not in violation of the establishment clause of the First Amendment of the Constitution.
The interesting thing about this court case is that it divided opinion between the Supreme Court judges with a decision of five against four. Chief Justice Rehnquist (who voted that this was not constitutional) ruled that; “simply having religious content or promoting a message consistent with a religious doctrine does not run afoul of the establishment clause”.
We could all sympathize with this ruling and say that the Ten Commandments can be seen as a moral message for all Texan citizens with the religious origin of said commandments being irrelevant, yet, and this is where it gets confusing; If the Supreme Court felt that this did NOT violate the establishment clause under the First Amendment as “promoting a message consistent with a religious doctrine” why then, on the very same day, under the ruling of McCreary V ACLU did the same Court declare that the display of the Ten Commandments inside Kentucky courthouses and Public schools was unconstitutional because it DID violate the establishment cause of the First Amendment? It would seem the Chief Justices were unwilling to upset Senators and Representatives, but Judges and school teachers are easy pickings.
Judges voted the same on both cases with obviously a single exception of the swing voter Justice Breyer, who declared the Ten Commandments display outside a State Capitol constitutional, yet the same display inside a courthouse he believed was unconstitutional. Even members of the Supreme Court, who are supposed to be the ultimate authority on the constitution, cannot make up their minds over the link between Church and State. What hope does this give to the millions of ordinary Americans?
Ultimately, the constitution is clear about the extent to which Church and State should be connected. yet the Supreme Court is having difficulty in interpreting where the line is. How can it be okay for a religious monument to be portrayed on certain government property, but not all government property? You can’t pick and choose parts of the constitution. This indecisiveness does not give citizens, or those in other branches of government, a clear idea on how they should go about their lives regarding politics and religion; and this ambiguity leads to confusion and conflict.
Even today, in 2014 religious involvement in politics is one of the most controversial factors of American life, most notably gay marriage. We know that gay marriage was declared unconstitutional in The Baker v Nelson (1971) Supreme Court case that ruled “The institution of marriage as a union of man and woman… is as old as the book of Genesis.” Religious reasoning was used to ban gay marriage. As of November 20th 2014 gay marriage is legal is 35 states. This is showing a separation of Church and State and once again adding just a little more confusion as to whether religion has a place within politics.
So in conclusion, does America really have a separated Church and State? Well…not really. Politics and religion have been in a metaphorical tug-of-war since the Mayflower arrived and now it is up to the people of America, and those on the Supreme Court, to define how far that relationship should extend, but by all accounts, it cannot be both.