Church-State Separation and the Obama Mandate

A mistaken understanding of the separation of church and state has shaped the debate over the contraception mandate.

Church-State Separation and the Obama Mandate

“The beliefs of Catholics should have no impact on government policy,” yelled a voice from my kitchen radio, a talk-radio caller, a medical doctor. “We have separation of church and state in this country!”

The caller’s sentiment is far too common. For too long, this country has suffered under the yoke of a severely misguided understanding of church-state separation, fostered by secular liberals/progressives. And now, those same forces—or at least those devoted to President Obama and “abortion rights” above all else—are employing that very misunderstanding in an assault upon the religious freedom and consciences of Catholics and many other believers. They are doing so, of course, via the Obama-HHS mandate on contraception and abortion drugs.

The problem begins with the very notion of “separation of church and state.” Huge numbers of Americans mistakenly believe that those words are found in the Constitution, thus ascribing to them a tremendous weight and power that plainly do not exist. These words are revered as if they were the first words chiseled into the First Amendment. They are not. They are not found in the Constitution at all.

As a professor and lecturer, I have dealt with this mistaken notion my whole career. I’ll never forget a moment when giving a talk on the faith of Ronald Reagan at the National Presbyterian Church in the nation’s capital, a church Reagan attended as president. The talk was well-received, except for an elderly gentleman who approached me afterward with fury in his eyes. He leveled his finger at me and angrily wanted to know how a Christian like myself could bear such “false witness,” and in a church of all places. What had I allegedly lied about? “You didn’t tell us about the Constitution’s separation of church and state!” the man steamed. “Ronald Reagan was not allowed, under our Constitution, to bring his personal faith into the public square!”

Right there, at that moment, was a display of everything wrong in this debate, which liberals have nurtured for a long, long time. So long, in fact, that this educated, well-off, well-dressed Washingtonian had been a victim well into his late 80s.

I attempted to calmly, carefully inform this man that those words are not in the Constitution, and that, to the contrary, the First Amendment has two clauses related to religion: 1) the establishment clause and 2) the free exercise clause. As to the former, it essentially means the federal government cannot establish or favor a particular national faith or denomination. As to the latter, it means that we Americans—our public officials included—are permitted to freely exercise our faith without government interference or intrusion or obstruction. The government cannot dictate our faith. The entirety of the passage reads: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

The scandal is that modern liberals/progressives have vastly exaggerated and misinterpreted the establishment clause, and often to the almost complete exclusion of the free exercise clause. Thus, you will often hear secularists argue that a “constitutional” “wall of separation” prohibits public officials—that is, public officials who are conservative Republicans (they don’t apply the same rigid standard to liberal Democrats)—from exercising and often even merely mentioning their faith in the public square.

Liberals/progressives, who dominate our educational system, have advanced this mistaken notion with stunning success.

And so, when I informed my elderly friend at the National Presbyterian Church that “separation of church and state” appears nowhere in the Constitution, he gave me an incredulous, embarrassed look of horror, disbelief, and confusion. “Well, then,” he huffed, partly in doubt, “where is it found?”

The phrase is found in an 1802 letter from Thomas Jefferson. Here is the context.

On October 7, 1801, the Danbury Baptist Association of Connecticut, which was a beleaguered religious minority, wrote to Jefferson: “Our sentiments are uniformly on the side of religious liberty: that Religion is at all times and places a matter between God and individuals, that no man ought to suffer in name, person, or effects on account of his religious opinions, [and] that the legitimate power of civil government extends no further than to punish the man who works ill to his neighbor.”

Jefferson, the newly elected president, responded with a letter on January 1, 1802. He assured his Connecticut friends that they had nothing to fear from the federal government, which would not intrude upon them and the practice of their faith, given that their relationship with God was between them and God, and not the purview of the state. Jefferson stated: “Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, & not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should ‘make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,’ thus building a wall of separation between Church & State.’”

Interestingly, in light of the current Obama mandate, Jefferson’s next line emphasized the critical importance of “Adhering to this expression of the supreme will of the nation in behalf of the rights of conscience.”

As noted by Dr. Daniel Dreisbach, the preeminent authority on this subject, “Jefferson’s missive was written…to reassure pious Baptist constituents of his continuing commitment to their rights of conscience…. Jefferson, in return, expressed solidarity with the Baptists in their aspirations for political acceptance and religious liberty.”

Simply put, the purpose in this historic Jefferson-Baptist exchange was to protect not government from religion but religion (that is, religious people) from the intrusion of government.

And even then, this was only one man’s opinion. Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence, not the Constitution. He was not even at the Constitutional Convention. The 1802 letter, which is not insignificant, nonetheless has been granted infinitely more authority than it merits—and by secularists who have misinterpreted it.

And now, in the 21st century, 200-plus years after Jefferson’s letter and the signing of the US Constitution and the Bill of Rights, we are left with too many liberals/progressives too often incorrectly telling and teaching us—or giving the false impression—that at the crux of religion in America is a sacred “constitutional” anchor called “separation of church and state,” which means that your individual faith should not disrupt or disorder society, the culture, the state, and other citizens. In short, you must take your faith—which is assumed to be unhealthy and even destructive—out of the public square and confine it to yourself, your home, your church. Your faith should not interfere with other modern “rights” that now reign more significant and supreme in enlightened culture, such as the pinnacle of modern rights: a “woman’s right to choose.” And that new post-Roe right apparently is in the process of morphing into another new right (if not an entitlement): the “right” to taxpayer-funded contraception.

Adding insult to injury, this misbegotten and mis-ordered hierarchy of rights is especially amazing given that a woman’s “right to choose,” or “right to an abortion,” or even “right to privacy”—the words upon which Roe v. Wade’s “abortion rights” are based—are words themselves not even found in the Constitution. They are invented, inflated, and elevated at the expense of words like “right to life,” which are found in the Constitution. The shocking levels and layers of mis-education continue and careen with truly reckless abandon.

So, where are we today? We face the spectacle of liberals/progressives like Barack Obama and Kathleen Sebelius and Barbara Boxer and Nancy Pelosi and Frank Lautenberg and Maxine Waters insisting that Catholics and other religious believers be denied their historic, constitutional conscience exemption and religious liberty, clearly underscored in the First Amendment. They insist that these people of faith be forced by the federal government to provide contraception, sterilization, and abortion-inducing pharmaceuticals. They are essentially arguing that a so-called “right” to taxpayer-funded abortion drugs trumps religious freedom.

And thus, what they’re really doing here is once again deploying this fundamentally incorrect notion of church-state separation that they’ve been pushing for a long, long time—and for purposes that further empower the state to deprive certain people of certain religious freedoms. They’re not at all protecting religious believers from the government. Instead, they’re acting as if society, the culture, the state, and other citizens need to be protected from the religious beliefs of certain believers. They’re demanding that these believers confine their beliefs to themselves, their homes, their churches; that they be banished from any influence in the “public square.”

This was never what Jefferson, nor any of the Founders, intended.

Really, if we’re looking for a Jefferson statement that accurately applies to the current situation, it is his January 1786 Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, in which he wrote: “to compel a man to furnish contributions of his money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves, is sinful and tyrannical.” Indeed, it is not right to ask Catholics or any group of believers to forcibly pay for practices they deem sinful. To do so is tyrannical.

What’s happening with this Obama-HHS mandate is the natural manifestation of all the misguided and mistaken and misbegotten “constitutional” notions that liberals/progressives have been foisting upon the American public for decades. Now, they’re reaping what they have sown. And when vast numbers of American citizens don’t even realize the level of infraction, don’t be surprised.

If you value the news and views Catholic World Report provides, please consider donating to support our efforts. Your contribution will help us continue to make CWR available to all readers worldwide for free, without a subscription. Thank you for your generosity!

Click here for more information on donating to CWR. Click here to sign up for our newsletter.

About Dr. Paul Kengor 54 Articles
Dr. Paul Kengor is professor of political science and executive director of the Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College. His books include The Crusader: Ronald Reagan and the Fall of Communism, Dupes: How America’s Adversaries Have Manipulated Progressives for a Century, Takedown: From Communists to Progressives, How the Left Has Sabotaged Family and Marriage, and, most recently, The Devil and Karl Marx: Communism's Long March of Death, Deception, and Infiltration.