A well known phrase in the United States, this standard of government has been a cornerstone since the founding fathers. Even today, however, much controversy surrounds it. Just where did this idea come from? What does it actually mean? Does it work?
The very idea of seperating church and state came from the very founding of this nation. Reading from Article Six of the United States Constitution, it is said that "no religious test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States". This would mean that there would be no religious requirements to hold any sort of political office, preventing the dominance of one religious group's official power over another. Furthermore, the First Amendment within the Bill of Rights reads that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof". Forming what are known as the "establishment clause" and "free excercise clause", the amendment prevents the government from establishing a national religion nor preventing someone from following whatever religion they so please.
Both James Madison and Thomas Jefferson have written their own thoughts on the topic. Within Madison's papers, in an August 15, 1789 entry, he "said he apprehended the meaning of the words to be, that Congress should not establish a religion, and enforce the legal observation of it by law, nor compel men to worship God in any manner contrary to their conscience....”. While fully supporting the amendment, some controversy surrounds just what is meant by "[enforcing] the legal observation of it by law". Though it relates to an established religion, speculation arises whether this lega observation also extends to all religions. This could mean that laws based on the ideals of a religion would in fact be infringing on the rights of those who do not follow them.
Originally coined by Baptist theoligian Roger Williams in 1644, the term "seperation of church and state" is attributed to Thomas Jefferson. In a letter to the Danbury Baptists in 1802, Jefferson wrote of the religious portion of the first amendment and how it was "building a wall of seperation between church and State". Much controversy surrounds this document and Jefferson himself. Many argue that the quote is made up and deny the existence of this letter, despite the fact that it is real and public knowledge that is readily accessible from the internet. Controversy around Jefferson mostly comes from fabrications of his own religious beliefs, dispite documented evidence and historical accounts of his lack of faith it is argued that he was a highly religious figure with very limited and often questionable evidence.
Following the strictest of interpretations, the seperation is a success. There have been no national religions since the ratification of the Bill of Rights and the 14th Amendment now prevents any state from establishing their own state religions. Previous religious tests were removed and now people of any belief are free to pursue any office they so choose. People are free to practice their faiths free of government persecution.
Controversy still stems from what truly does seperate religion from the government, however. With many social subjects arising today that were not common, recognized, or simply not created at the founding, debate of these subjects are often left unchecked and riddled with religious ideals. Subjects such as same-sex marriage, stem cell research, and abortion are plagued by the religious beliefs of those against it, often times the basis of laws against them. However, is this really the government forcing the ideals of one religion on the people? Are those that argue that we are based on an overtly Christian beginning and preaching their religious beliefs trying to force their religion upon us?
Is the church really seperated from the state?
tl;dr: Article 6, 1st Amendment. Madison & Jefferson liked it. Did its job. Government still used to force religion on people.