The Constitutional Principle: Separation of Church and State
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Benjamin F. Underwood: The Practical Separation of Church and State (1876)

This address, presented to the 1876 Centennial Congress of Liberals, is a ringing call for the separation of church and state. Underwood's speech is important not only for it's philosophical and practical arguments on behalf of separation, but for it's historical arguments that separation was intended by the framers.

Additionally, Underwood argues against what turned out to be an unsuccessful attempt to amend the Constitution to officially acknowledge Christianity.

Researched by Jim Allison

To some it may seem superfluous, in this country, and at this day, to make a plea for the separation of Church and State. There are persons ready to declare that with us there is no connection between the two, that nobody wants them united, that everybody believes in and exercises religious liberty in this country, and that there is no use and no reason in agitating this subject, especially at a time when we should all join in viewing the results and celebrating the triumphs of our hundred years of national existence. Loud professions and boastful claims never fail to impress the crowd. The majority of men assume that what they have always heard must be true. Loudness of assertion is take X for argument, and extravagance of statement for evidence. The fact that millions of human beings were held in slavery under our flag a few years ago, never modified the claims of the ordinary Fourth of July orator, nor did it abate in the least the enthusiasm of the average audience, whenever reference was made to this country as the exclusive abode of the goddess of Liberty,-- as the "land of the free and the home of the brave."

Now the inconsistency is seen and acknowledged by those, even, who a few years ago were ready to cry "fanatic," "freedom shrieker," "traitor," whenever any one hinted at the inconsistency between profession and performance, pretension and practice, in this American Republic. The time will come, when it will be seen, not less clearly, that the popular notion that there is an utter disconnection between Church and State in America, and that all our laws are in harmony therewith, is a notion which is at variance with the real facts. Nor is there a universal recognition of the right of all persons to avow and advocate their religious beliefs. There is in this country a class by no means inconsiderable in numbers or insignificant in influence that show by their acts, and a certain party among them by the frank avowal of their purposes, that they are opposed to equal rights and impartial religious liberty. Nothing will satisfy them but the incorporation of their own religious dogmas into the National Constitution, so as to make them a part of the organic law. Then, while we should not be insensible to the great achievements of a century, while indeed, we should feel gratified with the numerous evidences of progress, and among them the undoubted increase in liberality of sentiment, yet patriotism does not require, nor will a reasonable prudence and forethought permit us, to ignore the existence of evils which have descended to us, or those which have sprung up and assumed prominence in our own time, and, if not checked, may be a source of mischief in the future.

Here, as in other countries, there is a large class in whose education the principles of morality have been subordinated to the dogmas of theology, and whose devotion to their religion, in consequence, is far stronger than their sense of justice, or their understanding of its requirements in their relations with their fellow men. They are willing, at any time, to support measures that they think will promote the interests of their faith, without regard to the personal or legal rights of those who cannot adopt their views. Many of them lack the breadth of thought and catholicity of spirit to understand that there is any wrong in censuring and punishing those who reject their creeds, which they not only firmly believe to be true, but regard as surpassing in importance all other truths. Hence they would conscientiously, to the extent of their ability, prevent all discussions and suppress all doubts tending to disparage them, and interdict any denial of their truth or divine origin. They would gladly have the government changed to correspond with their religious views, and so administered as to favor and enforce exclusively their religious beliefs.

There are others who are more intellectual, but quite as much under the influence of theological creeds, who are in favor of a union between Church and State, because they see that, from their standpoint, there is a logical necessity for it, to make the government harmonize with the teachings and demands of their religion. Upon the acceptance of their views depend the eternal interests of mankind, as well as that less important concern -- the welfare of the State. They, therefore, ask that their religion be sustained by the government and enforced, if necessary, by coercive measures, for reasons compared with which all other reasons seem petty and insignificant: namely, to save multitudes from eternal torture, and secure for them an inheritance of eternal glory. If Christ died for this, can they be true followers of him (they argue) if they allow any mere theories of religious liberty -- which are nowhere sustained by the word of God-- to Prevent their using all means within their power for crushing every error and delusion that stands in the way of the religion of the Cross Bigoted and fanatical the men who reason thus may be; but they are earnest and conscientious, consistent, possess the courage of their opinions, and are really the most dangerous class that we have to contend with in opposing the Christianization of this government.

We have also an army of political demagogues who are ever watching and waiting to spring to the support of any movement, however unjust, which promises them office or influence. The moment they discover a large and increasing public sentiment in favor of a measure, it has for them, a special attraction. They are not less zealous in opposing any reform, however beneficent, than the removal of any abuse, however great, if behind it there is not sufficient numerical strength and popular approval to make it for their personal interest to come out in favor of it. Their assumed piety and reverence are so great that it pains them to hear of any movement which threatens to disturb the institutions of the past, or the time-honored customs of their fathers, so long indeed as they are sustained by popular ignorance and prejudice; but just as soon as they see a growing sentiment in favor of the movement, their veneration and pious regard for the notions of their ancestors forsake them, and they are profuse with words of approval and admiration. These are men to be ranked among the enemies of all reforms in their inception, and their influence with the masses makes them formidable foes of progress. Morally, they are most despicable men...

With such elements as these in the country, and with the lessons of the past before us, the relation of the State to the religious beliefs of the people cannot be a matter of small concern. Although I am of the opinion that there is a very large element in this country in favor of the complete secularization of the State, sufficient, if aroused to its importance, to give us, through legislative enactments, all needed guarantees of impartial religious liberty, yet, if there were but twelve individuals in sympathy with the movement, it would be none the less the duty of those twelve persons to work for its triumph. Indeed, to the truly wise mind the disposition to labor for it would be even greater -- greater in proportion to its need of friends and the amount of work to be accomplished. . . .

The American Revolution found and left every State, Rhode Island only excepted, so related to the Church that there was a complete inter-dependence. This relation was continued by special provision in the new Constitutions which were adopted after the Declaration of Independence, in every State, with the exception of New York. Some of the States, among them Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Delaware and Maryland, inserted a clause requiring a statement of religious belief as a condition of office. In 1780, Benjamin Franklin wrote to Richard Price:

North and South Carolina and Georgia required all officers of the State to be of the Protestant faith. Since those days, the Constitutions of all the States have been revised, and the connection between Church and State has been made more indirect and greatly lessened. Yet there are several States in which belief in the existence of a God is required as a condition of office, and in nearly all it is impossible for an atheist to testify in the courts, if he frankly avows his opinions. Only by compromising with his conscience, by equivocating, or by concealing his own views, can he avoid the humiliation of having his testimony excluded, What a premium on dishonesty and hypocrisy is thus offered by the State! But we are not here so much concerned with the moral effects as with the great injustice of such a religious test, and its utter incongruity with the principles of equal rights and religious liberty. How can any man who is in favor of such a law look a freethinker in the face, and say that he is in favor of impartial liberty!

Then in every State we have official legislative prayers, which, being acts of devotion, involve a connection between Church and State, as must any official act of any department of the government which enforces, favors, or aids any religious doctrine or duty. The direction or performance by the State of religious worship is a combined clerical and political service. When our political representatives convert the legislative halls into rooms for religions worship, and transform the legislative bodies into prayer meetings, such association of political and religious acts is an actual union of Church and State.

So the custom of appointing days of fasting, thanksgiving, and prayer, by the State, through its chief magistrate, is another link connecting the two. It is an official declaration of the existence of a God, the duty of fasting, praying and giving thanks to God.

Nearly all the States have laws enforcing the observance of Sunday as the Sabbath, and not unfrequently individuals are arrested and fined for doing work or indulging in amusements on that day, when their acts in no way disturb others. If the State is independent of the Church, what right has it to require the observance of one day as a Sabbath more than another? And how can it punish any man for doing work at any time, when he does not thereby infringe on the rights of other members of society? The judicature of the country is disgraced, so long as our courts serve as tribunals for such sectarian purposes.

The use of the Bible and the performance of religious exercises in our public schools, sustained and enforced by State authority and public appropriations for religious institutions, are utterly inconsistent with that complete separation of Church and State which is so often declared to exist in this country.

The exemption of churches, church property and religious institutions from taxation, thereby forcing indirectly into their support persons who do not believe in their utility, is an outrage on the rights of all such persons, and a remnant of that religious despotism which once treated mankind as slaves, and robbed its victims, in the name of God, to build costly cathedrals, and enable ecclesiastics to live in luxury and ease.

Our National Constitution, thanks to the wisdom of our fathers, is a purely secular instrument. It declares that Congress shall make no laws respecting an establishment of religion, and that no religious test shall be required for any office or public trust. In the treaty with Tripoli, which was signed by George Washington, it was declared that the United States Government is not founded on the Christian religion. Undoubtedly the feeling of the framers of the Constitution on this subject were well expressed by Franklin, when, in a letter to a friend, he wrote:

But notwithstanding the entirely secular character of the National Constitution, from the first there was in the administration of the general movement a yielding to ecclesiastical influence backed up as it was by a strong religious sentiment. Days of fasting, thanksgiving and prayer were appointed by the early Presidents, as well as by the Governors of States. The first by Washington, was at the close of his first administration, by the special request of Congress. Jefferson refused to follow the example of his predecessors, and thereby incurred the wrath of the clergy and all persons of Puritanical proclivities. "I know," he wrote, "it will give great offence to the clergy; but the advocate of religious freedom is to expect neither peace nor forgiveness from them." "I consider," he wrote, "the government of the United States as interdicted by the Constitution from intermeddling with religious institutions, their doctrine, discipline, or exercises." "Fasting and prayer are religious exercises; the enjoying them is an act of religious discipline. Every religious society has a right to determine for itself the time for these exercises, and the objects proper to them, according to its own Peculiar tenets; and this right can never be safer than in their own hands, where the Constitution has deposited it. Civil powers alone have been given to the President of the United States, and he has no authority to direct the religious exercises of his constituents."

This view, so clearly the only correct and just one, has been generally disregarded, and the appointment by the President of the United States of days for religious exercises has become established as a custom. There are persons, now indifferent to its religious character, who justify it on the plea of custom alone. But the repetition of practices unauthorized by, and contrary to, the Constitution, is no reason for their further continuance. Custom, in legal parlance, signifies a usage from time immemorial neither against law, nor individual nor public right. It is no justification of any wrong that the aggressor has for a long time been accustomed to wrong-doing.

The presence of Chaplains in the halls of legislation, in the army and navy, and in other departments of the general government, is as unconstitutional as it is unjust. Congress, having been invested with no ecclesiastical authority, has no constitutional right to create an ecclesiastical office, or to induct any person into such office created by the Church. The appointment of Chaplains by the Government of the United States is an unauthorized act of political legislation, as little in keeping with the spirit of our Constitution as praying in public places -- for instance in Congress -- is in accordance with the teachings of the Nazarene reformer.

Not content, however, with these unjust discriminations in favor of believers in the Christian religion, some of them now demand that such changes be made in the Constitution and in the government as shall be necessary to make the main dogmas of this religion part of the organic law. The movement, having for its object the accomplishment of this change by Constitutional amendments and such legislature as may be necessary to enforce them, has during the past few years acquired considerable strength and influence. It numbers among its friends eminent clergymen, Presidents of Colleges, Governors of States, Members of Congress, and Judges of the Supreme Court. We cannot ignore it.

In all ages and countries, in proportion as the adherents of religion have come to agree in belief and be consolidated in organization, their disposition and power have increased to influence the government to enforce theological dogmas and impose disabilities on dissenters. Fortunately for us, the number of sects, and the competitive strife between them in this country, have been unfavorable to the encroachment of the Church on the State. Occupied chiefly with increasing their numbers and adding to their wealth, and more or less envious of one another, they have had but little disposition to unite their forces and organize for concerted and concentrated action. But, with the growth of Liberalism and the subordination of many of the doctrinal points which have heretofore distinguished them as separate bodies to those fundamental doctrines which they hold in common, one of the chief obstacles to their union has been removed, and the danger of their interference with the government is thereby greatly increased. The rapid growth of anti-Christian sentiments, with the more bigoted and intolerant of all sects, is the strongest reason for a union, when in the absence of danger to their faith their chief pleasure consists in cursing and anathematizing one another on account of differences so small that they are scarcely perceptible to the unregenerate mind.

Evangelical alliances, presenting to us the spectacle of sects heretofore hostile assembled on terms of apparent friendship for a common purpose, even though they are an evidence of a growing liberality of the sects towards one another, are not without portentous significance, well calculated to arouse apprehensions in the minds of those who are acquainted with history and are lovers of religious liberty. A religious element that will maintain the rightfulness of forcing all tax-payers to pay taxes which religious societies only should pay, of excluding from the courts the testimony of citizens who differ from it on speculative subjects, of keeping in our schools a religious service that is objectionable to a large and respectable portion of the patrons of these schools, who are taxed equally with others for their support, goes no farther, simply because it lacks the power. If it could, it would force Jews, spiritualists, and free-thinkers of every phase of thought to attend churches and help pay the salary of the clergy, and prevent all gatherings and prohibit all expressions of belief not in accordance with its own belief, as was done in New England by the Puritans and their pious and persecuting descendants. Whatever those who are petitioning Congress for an amendment to our Constitution that shall recognize "God as the source of all authority, Jesus Christ as the Ruler among Nations, and the Bible as the supreme authority" may disclaim now, it is plain that they purpose to make belief in Christianity a test of office and of citizenship, and thereby disfranchise all Jews, Infidels, Buddhists, Mohammedans, and others who cannot accept Christianity as a supernatural religion. The incorporation of their dogmas in the Constitution means the legislative and executive enforcement of them by governmental authority. To be consistent, the government will have to give directions in regard to the worship of God, and see that the citizens make their conduct conform to the revealed will of God, which is to be the authority from which no appeal can be made.

The sect that finds itself in the numerical majority will have the power to enforce by acts of Congress its own Peculiar dogmas as the supreme law, because these will be declared authoritatively the revealed will of God. Free-thinkers and non-Christians of all classes have no rights the Church will be bound to respect. Says the Methodist Home Journal: