With this year’s Thanksgiving holiday at our door, it is fitting that we ask an important question that has so much to do with our Constitutional liberties: What is the Separation of Church and State?
Why is it fitting to ask this question as we approach the Thanksgiving holiday? Well, it’s precisely the Thanksgiving holiday that reminds us of the origins of the phrase, separation of church and state.
In 1620, a group of Christian pilgrims known as the Separatists washed ashore in what came to be known as Plymouth, Massachusetts. They first left England to escape religious persecution there. They landed in Holland but realized Holland was not a place that allowed their faith to flourish. They set sail again; this time for America.
When the pilgrims set up their colony in Plymouth, Massachusetts, they soon employed a policy that came out of their own struggles for religious freedom. They employed the first American policy of a separation of church and state.
This may seem like a counterintuitive decision for a group of deeply religious people. However, the Separatists knew full well that when the power of the church is placed under the control of the government, the government then begins to mandate its own sanctioned religious practice. The Separatists had endured the religious persecution of the state in England and wanted to ensure that no such persecution would occur in America. Unlike the Puritans, who believed in establishing some form of a Theocracy, these Separatists, being true to their name, decided to separate the two entities of the church and the state so as to allow the free expression of religion to flourish. That is precisely what happened. Early America in the 1600’s saw many religious groups and sects set up colonies that were specifically designed for the free expression of their religion without government interference. That is what the separation of church and state is really all about: keeping the government out of the church’s business.
Fast forward to the writing of our nation’s Bill of Rights in 1789. Founding fathers like Patrick Henry and James Madison knew that allowing a mandated government religious practice would stifle religious expression in the new nation. They decided to embrace what is the most harmonious balance between the federal government and the church that the world has ever seen. They wrote the First Amendment of the Constitution.