The Constitutional Principle: Separation of Church and State
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What about quotations that appear to oppose separation?

Copyright © 1996 by Tom Peters. Originally published on the Separation of Church and State Homepage.


As students of the separation debate quickly discover, the "quotation war" between accomodationists and separationists tends to produce a lot more heat than light. There are at least two reasons for this. First, most quotations are ripped out of the context of the documents from which they are quoted, which leads to misinterpretation and misrepresentation. Second, it's easy to read too much into a quotation, especially if the quotation does not directly address the claim one is attempting to prove. The best historical studies on church/state separation take these issues into account when drawing conclusions from quotations; we hope we have done the same in this webpage.

Having said this, we want to argue that there are some systematic problems with the way many accomodationists use quotations. In particular, we believe that many of their quotations are not sufficient to establish their primary claim that the framers intended the Constitution to favor either Christianity or theism, or provide aid to religion. In what follows, we present some guidelines accomodationists should follow if they want to successfully use quotations to prove their points.

So what would a good accomodationist quote look like? Simply put, it would be an authentic quote from someone who was a framer of the Constitution, or someone who was qualified to express a learned opinion about the Constitution, that directly addresses the issue of federal power over religion under the Constitution and the First Amendment.

We think it's interesting that there are plenty of good quotations on the separationist side of this issue. Many framers were adamant that (in the words of Richard Dobbs Spaight of North Carolina), "(n)o power is given to the general government to interfere with it [religion] at all. Any act of Congress on this subject would be an usurpation." Conversely, there is almost nothing that meet our standards on the accomodationist side. We think this discrepancy is both significant and telling.