Almost everyone has heard of the doctrine of the "separation of church and state." In fact, this phrase is so central to the discussion of the role of religion in American society that most Americans actually believe it is in the United States Constitution itself.
But there is no such phrase in the Constitution, because the Founding Fathers never intended for church and state to be completely separate. They saw religion as indispensable to the moral foundation of the nation they were creating.
So, where does that phrase come from?
Believe it or not, it comes from one brief letter that Thomas Jefferson wrote in 1802 to a Baptist Association in Danbury, Connecticut.
And what exactly does the Constitution say about religion and its role in public life? The answer is found in the First Amendment to the Constitution. "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof."
Itís plain what those words mean. The new federal government could not establish a state religion to which everyone had to belong. Each American citizen must be free to choose his own religion.
When James Madison first proposed what eventually became the First Amendment, his original wording stated that "no religion shall be established" by Congress. But that language was subsequently modified after it was pointed out that this might be construed to mean that the state had no interest in religion at all.
As George Washington noted in his Farewell Address, "Religion and morality are indispensable supports of our political prosperity," and "reason and experience both forbid us to expect, that National morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle."
Washingtonís view remained the nationís view for one hundred and fifty years. It changed in 1947. In that year, in the case of Everson v. Board of Education, the Supreme Court ruled in a 5-4 decision that under the First Amendment, neither a state nor the Federal Government could "pass laws which aid one religion, aid all religions, or prefer one religion over another. "
By adding the phrase, "aid all religions," in between the ban on preferential treatment, the Court laid the groundwork for the modern "strict separation" view. And where did the majority five Justices look for support for their argument? Back to that one phrase used in one letter by Thomas Jefferson.
How ironic! The Declaration of Independence, which Jefferson authored, of course, grounded the cause of Independence in an appeal "to nature and natureís God." It established the proposition that we have inalienable rights that are not bestowed on us by government, but are a birthright gift from our "Creator." And it concluded from those self-evident truths that governmentís only legitimate purpose is to secure every citizenís God-given inalienable rights.
Does that sound like something that was written by a man who wanted to wall off government from religious belief?
The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution are but two of innumerable examples where our government, both federal and state, acknowledge a debt to God.
As Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, a noted liberal, acknowledged in the 1952 case of Zorach v. Clausen, "We are a religious people, whose institutions presuppose a Supreme Being."
But the damage had been done. The "separation of Church and State" metaphor that the Court borrowed from Jefferson in the Everson decision has been used to remove God and religion, piece by piece, from American public life.
Are we a better society for it? Marriage, except among religious Americans, is in decline.
Birthrates, except among religious Americans, are in decline. The percentage of children born to unwed women has skyrocketed. Behavior in classrooms has deteriorated. Crime rates rose just as religion declined. Almost every cultural and ethical indicator has declined since God and religion started to be removed from American life. And all because of one sentence in one letter.
Iím John Eastman, Professor of Law at Chapman University for Prager University.