In 1791, the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States was ratified. Part of this amendment, often called the “establishment clause,” states that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”
It is this phrasing that provides the idea of having a separation of church and state within the United States.
The First Amendment was then reinforced by the Treaty of Tripoli in 1797, when Article 11 stated: “As the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion…”
The pros and cons of separation of church and state are a relatively new concept to consider in the scope of humanity’s history. Even during the Middle Ages, most rulers governed under the idea that they had a divine right to do so. The Pope even claimed the right to depose European kings.
That’s why these key points are so important to think about.
List of the Separation of Church and State Pros
1. It allows decisions to be made from experience instead of perspective.
One of the best aspects of personal faith, no matter what it is called or looks like, is that it is formed from an individualistic perspective. People choose to believe what feels right for their own perspective. From a societal standpoint, however, individual perspectives cannot apply in blanket terms. We are all each a little different, even if we believe similar things. By separating perspective away from real-life experiences, society benefits by having both.
2. It encourages capability over divine right.
In the past, many rulers governed because they claimed a divine right from God to do so. You won’t have to go far to find politicians and rulers claiming the same rights today. The difference between then and now is the separation factor. All we have is a person’s word that they have received a divine right to govern. That can be easily manipulated. By separating that belief from the governing process, it becomes easier to elect someone based on their capability instead of their claims.
3. It takes the church out of the role of governing.
In governments where the church is intertwined with the state, there is often a need to clear laws with the church before they can be implemented. If the church feels an action is morally wrong, such as requiring businesses to pay for birth control services through health insurance, then the government could not take any action. Because there is separation, the church is taken out of the role of governing. That allows the government to focus on the body while the church focuses on the soul.
4. It allows for personal choice.
Without a separation of church and state, there is the possibility of having the government dictate which religion a person can follow. Other religions could be fully outlawed. By separating these two entities, people have the freedom to pursue their own faith instead of having it dictated to them. It also allows for people to choose not to have a religion or religious faith if that is their personal preference.
5. It stops the government and church from influencing families.
Without a separation of the church and the state, schools could indoctrinate children in a “national religion” and families would be able to do little to stop it. Government jobs could be offered to only people from the national religion. Other religions might be welcome in that society, but they might not have the same rights or freedoms if publicly displayed. By keeping a separation between the two entities, people and families have the ability to make up their own mind when it comes to faith.
6. Separation encourages discussion.
People will always be different from one another. It is that which makes us different that also makes us stronger. By creating a separation between church and state, we create the need for discussion. For cooperation. For listening. When that can be done successfully, we learn and grow together as a society.
List of the Separation of Church and State Cons
1. Separation creates limitations for both.
With the church and state separate, both are limited in the scope of what they can accomplish. Many people take advantage of positive influences provided by both entities to carve out a life for themselves. Religion, at its core, should be based on love and acceptance when taken in context. Because there is separation, a religious education cannot be encouraged or enforced, which could impact the daily lives of the society.
2. Governments can take advantage of the separation.
Not having the church involved in the lawmaking process can be a strong negative, just as it can be a strong positive. If a group of leaders decide to pass unjust laws that encourage segregation, hatred, or worse, the church can be a positive influence on design process for the legislation. By pointing out places where ethics or morality may be lacking, society benefits because one group cannot be specifically targeted.
3. Churches can take advantage of the separation.
Churches can also take advantage of the separation between them and the state. They can encourage their members to not support the government or to rebel against it. The church can be used to create division within a society between those who share a similar faith and those who do not. Because these decrees come from the church, followers will feel that they are “right” and others are “wrong,” giving them the justification they need to commit negative actions – or even atrocities.
4. It can limit personal freedoms.
Many people in the United States find employment through some form of governmental work at local, state, or national levels. This ranges from a public-school teacher to a Federal contractor. The jobs may be different, but the approach to faith is still the same. If the employee is acting as a government representative, then they cannot act at the same time as a religious representative. That separation forces the worker to make a choice regarding their allegiances.
5. The establishment clause may not be an actual separation.
In the United States, the court system has ruled multiple times that the establishment clause in the First Amendment is a viable separation of church and state. Some argue that when the Constitution was written, the original purpose of the establishment clause was very different. The goal was to protect the church from the government, not to separate it from the government. There is no clear verbiage in the Constitution that direct a clear separation between the two entities.
The pros and cons regarding separation of church and state will always be controversial at some level. By taking each key point on its own merit, we have the chance to build a respectful society for all people, all faiths, and all perspectives.
How do you feel about the separation of church and state?