Separation of Church and State Has Always Been Good for Religion

By Ed Simon | June 30, 2022

People pray outside the US Supreme Court in Washington, DC, on June 27, 2022. (Photo by STEFANI REYNOLDS/AFP via Getty Images)

During the autumn of 1831, as the United States was in the midst of fervent religious revivals known as the Second Great Awakening, the French intellectual Alexis de Tocqueville attended a service at a Quaker meeting house in Philadelphia. Tocqueville was initially confused by the experience, writing in his classic 1835 account Democracy in America how he was unsettled by the silent gathering of women and men in a plain church. He finally said to a worshiper next to him, “I wanted to attend a divine service, but you seem to have conducted me to an assembly of deaf-mutes.” He was then gently corrected by the Quaker, who answered: “Dost thou not see that each one of us is waiting for the Holy Spirit to illuminate him? Learn to moderate thy impatience in a holy place.” Benevolently chastised, Tocqueville sat alone with himself and the spirit, contemplating the man’s words, until there was an interruption. Another Quaker stood up and spoke of the “inexhaustible goodness of God and of the obligation of all men to help each other, whatever might be their beliefs or the color of their skin.” After the U.S. Supreme Court’s rulings these past two weeks, it would be helpful to revisit this history.

Of aristocratic stock and nominally Catholic, Tocqueville had never quite observed anything like this Quaker service. This denomination was periodically persecuted in Europe but had found a home in Pennsylvania since that colony’s founding in the 17th century. It had thrived alongside other non-conformist denominations since the new Republic had been founded as an officially disestablished state which recognized no official creed. Leo Damrosch writes in Tocqueville’s Discovery of America that “Philadelphia had every possible shade of belief on view. One visitor counted thirty-two churches representing seventeen different sects, as well as two synagogues.” This must have been dizzying to the Frenchman who came from the land—as his countrymen Voltaire had joked—of a thousand sauces and one religion.

This month, the Supreme Court released rulings for Carson v. Makin and Kennedy v. Bremerton School District, both 6-3 decisions which broke among the justices according to predictable ideological lines. In the first case, the court ruled that it was unconstitutional for the state of Maine to deny taxpayer funded educational vouchers for parents to pay for student tuition at schools with an explicitly sectarian curriculum. The second case ruled in favor of a Washington state football coach, employed by a public high school, who officially ended each game with a Protestant prayer and reprimanded students who refused to join. By setting this dangerous precedent, the Supreme Court threatens a truly distinguishing feature about American democracy. It breaches the wall of separation between church and state, betraying the ethos which so impressed Tocqueville.

In America, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion,” the First Amendment reads. But its piety was ensured by what follows that comma, for the state shall not prohibit “the free exercise thereof.” Such latitudinarian tolerance in the combination of the establishment clause and the free exercise clause was responsible for transforming America into a veritable spiritual laboratory. Tocqueville understood that the greatest aid for faith was removing it from its position of direct political power, noting that “religion cannot share the material strengths of the rulers without suffering some of those animosities which the latter arouse.” This was a lesson well understood in Tocqueville’s America. When the Frenchmen would inquire as to the reasons for such spiritual vibrancy in the New World, Americans “mainly attributed the peaceful dominion of religion in their country to the separation of church and state.”

The establishment clause is America’s unique and singular contribution to political theory. Yet, it’s the radical principles of American secularism which empowered faith and they are the reason why the U.S. remains among the most religiously engaged in the Western world. To observe that public displays of religiosity were common in civil settings during de Tocqueville’s era is to miss the point. While it’s true that mandated prayer in public schools was only ruled unconstitutional in 1963 with Abington School District v. Schempp, the fact is that the establishment clause implied ever greater separation of church and state. In recent years, many of the wins in that regard have become shakier, with the current court’s rulings particularly damning in this regard. Most recently, the court’s decisions were certainly out-of-step with the spirit of secularism present during the era of the Second Great Awakening.

Not only is mandated, state-sanctioned belief damaging to the government and to all of those whom the state represents, but such decisions are also destructive to religion. Drawing upon that vibrant religious tradition of non-conformism, exemplified by theologians like Rhode Island founder Roger Williams and Pennsylvania’s founder William Penn, Thomas Jefferson coined the phrase “separation of church and state.” He reflected that if God will “ever please to restore His garden and paradise again, it must of necessity be walled in peculiarly unto Himself from the world, and all that be saved out of the world are to be transplanted out of the wilderness of the World.” Jefferson, the anti-Trinitarian deist, understood well the intrinsic religious value of disestablishment; in the intellectually separated quiet of non-compelled religion, there is a flourishing of faith’s flowers.

For Tocqueville, to see such a variety of accepted religions was both shocking and thrilling. At the time that he was traipsing through the American frontier, a number of new faiths were being born in this officially secular land. Mormonism and Seventh-day Adventism emerged during the Second Great Awakening. Methodism and Presbyterianism thrived. New religions would continue to be founded, from Christian Science and Spiritualism to Pentecostalism and the Jehovah’s Witnesses. American soil would bear the fruits of new religions, more than almost any corner of the earth. Over the centuries, the U.S. has been the origin of the Longhouse Religion and the Ghost Dance, the African Methodist Episcopal Church and American Unitarianism, New Thought and Moorish Temple Science, Theosophy and Discordianism.

By comparison, in European nations with established churches, there were the extremes of either the frequently ignored ritual of England, the authoritarianism of the Russian Orthodox Church, or the occasional anti-clericalism of France. In America, however, secularism was the mother of faith. Not just a prerequisite for religion, secularism is itself a theology: the religion which ensures the independence of all others.

That there is a religious component to disestablishment appears to be a paradoxical claim. Yet, the tradition of American secularism arrived not sui generis, but rather out of the theologies of the radical Reformation. To maintain that church and state can be separated is itself a theological formulation, one that theocrats would notably object to. But the one free exercise of faith that can’t be countenanced is that of the theocrat. David Sehat explains in This Earthly Frame: The Making of American Secularism that, “In a society with a high degree of religious adherence, a secular democracy requires religious support to have success and legitimacy. In the United States, secularism had that support… Religious Jews, ecumenical Protestants, apocalyptic sects, and even Protestant missionaries joined heterodox and nonbelieving intellectual to promote public secularism.” To this list we can add American Catholics who established independent parochial schools so that their children couldn’t be mandated into Protestant prayer as part of public education.

What these groups understood at one point in time is that secularism is distinguished from both theocracy and from the anti-clerical state. Both of those are merely mirror images of each other, upside down. Secularism rather carefully balances all theological positions in a divine agnosticism, circumscribed from the mundane reality of the government. It lets all manner of belief – and disbelief – on those issues of fundamental meaning thrive. Understood in this way, to filch tax money to fund Christian education, to demand that students pray with an authority figure, all of this has nothing to do with the open thriving of religion and everything to do with the impositions of power.

Regarding Carson v. Makin, Chief Justice John Roberts argued in his majority opinion that Maine had violated the “Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment.” Kelly Shackelford, President and Chief Counsel for the conservative advocacy group First Liberty Institute claimed that the rulings represented a “great day for religious liberty in America.” In actuality, it was the exact opposite. Neither this ruling nor the one in Kennedy was in the tradition of a vibrant American secularism; neither decision will encourage a rich agora of religious introspection and theological contemplation. Those attributes of American society which so impressed de Tocqueville will be further blunted, allowing agents of the state to give official sanction to their own personal faith to the detriment of all others. The decree of those six justices wasn’t just anti-American – it was also anti-religious.

“Christian nationalism,” explains Katherine Stewart in The Power Worshippers: Inside the Dangerous Rise of Religious Nationalism, is “a political ideology. It promotes the myth that the American republic was founded as a Christian nation. It asserts that legitimate governments rests not on the consent of the governed but on adherence to the doctrines of a specific religious, ethnic, and cultural heritage,” looking backward “on a fictionalized history of America’s allegedly Christian founding.” The goal of the Christian nationalist isn’t to nurture the conditions that allow for the individual to derive their own sense of transcendent meaning – it’s the opposite. Secularism, instead, is the faith that acknowledges all faiths, the first font of all of our rights of conscience.

While I look back and contemplate Tocqueville’s visit to a quiet meeting house, what does the spirit move me to affirm? That the lines are already visible, that theocracy and secularism are contending for the soul of a nation. The coming holy war is between the Christian theocrats and the secularism that made American great in the first place.


Ed Simon is a staff writer at The Millions and contributing writer at Belt Magazine. His most recent book is Binding the Ghost: Theology, Mystery, and the Transcendence of Literature.

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