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The Unraveling: Erecting a “Wall of Separation” Between Church and State

March 14, 2017 0 Comments


In 1954, Dr. George Docherty preached a sermon to commemorate the 150th birthday of Abraham Lincoln.  Drawing from Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, in which President Lincoln stated  “this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom,” Docherty made the following statement:

“We face, today, a theological war.  It is not basically a conflict between two political philosophies – Thomas Jefferson’s political democracy over against Lenin’s communistic state.

The pledge of Allegiance seems to me to omit this theological implication that is fundamental to the American way of life.  It should be “One nation, under God.”  Once “under God,” then we can define what we mean by “liberty and justice for all.”  To omit the words “under God” in the pledge of allegiance is to omit the definitive character of the American way of life.” (emphasis added)

In retrospect, Dr. Docherty came to regret that his sermon actually was used to insert the words under God in the Pledge of Allegiance. Reflecting back on that time in his autobiography, I’ve Seen the Day, Docherty went on to say:[i]

I still consider my reasoning to be valid, but the times should have overruled my philosophical arguments as irrelevant in light of the greater issues at hand. … As such, the new Pledge unfortunately served as one more prop supporting the civil religion that characterized the institutional Christianity of the fifties.

Did We Ever Consider America to be a Christian Nation?

The printing press led to the rise of pamphleteers such as John Locke and Thomas Paine, and eventually to the birth of the modern newspaper.[i]  Interestingly – perhaps due to the fact that the McGuffey readers played such a prominent role in American education – those very same newspapers made heavy use of the Bible, and did so through much of America’s history.  This observation is supported by the research of Dr. Lincoln Mullen, Assistant Professor in the Department of History and Art History at George Mason University.  He has compiled a database cataloguing references from the Bible in American newspapers from 1837 to 1922.[ii]

Bible verses were once everywhere in newspapers. Nineteenth-century periodicals printed Sunday school lessons, ran Bible clubs for readers and circulated sermons. Editorials alluded to well-known scriptural references, and verses even turned up again and again as the punch lines of jokes.

This practice extended into adulthood the moral and ethical teachings children learned at school and their growing-up years.  Thus, even though socio-economic stratification increased, ideological core beliefs, though stretched by “info wars” launched through the period of the muckrakers and yellow dog journalism, were not snapped.  These ideological core beliefs reinforced personal responsibility for one’s actions.  It was a natural outgrowth of the educational and socialization process that had followed on the heels of the founders’ desire to nurture a society guided in private morality.

Today, the newspapers rarely include Bible passages. And so, having forgotten our history, a hotly debated topic of the early twenty first century has been the question: Did we ever consider ourselves to be a Christian Nation?

A key piece of evidence in this debate is the Supreme Court decision in the case of The Holy Trinity Church in New York. That church brought Pastor E. Walpole Warren from England to become its pastor. However, the federal government blocked the Church, alleging that the agreement with Warren violated a federal statute prohibiting companies from entering into contracts for the importation and migration of foreign workers for manual labor. The church sued.

In rendering the Court’s decision in the case Church of the Holy Trinity v. United States 143 U.S. 457 (1892), Justice Brewer reviewed the history of America up to that point in time and concluded that neither at the state or federal level had any legislation been anti-religious because the people of America were “a religious people.” At the end of the court’s ruling, writing for the majority, he concluded with the statement:

These, and many other matters which might be noticed, add a volume of unofficial declarations to the mass of organic utterances that this is a Christian nation.

In the case United States v. Macintosh 283 U.S. 605 (1931), an ordained Baptist minister was denied naturalization because he was unwilling to take an oath to bear arms in defense of the country unless he believed the war necessitating the defense to be morally justified. In the course of deciding the case, Justice Sutherland cited the case of the Church of the Holy Trinity in denying Mr. MacIntosh citizenship, writing:

When he speaks of putting his allegiance to the will of God above his allegiance to the government, it is evident, in the light of his entire statement, that he means to make his own interpretation of the will of God the decisive test which shall conclude the government and stay its hand. We are a Christian people (Holy Trinity Church v. United States, 143 U. S. 457,143 U. S. 470-471), according to one another the equal right of religious freedom and acknowledging with reverence the duty of obedience to the will of God. But, also, we are a nation with the duty to survive; a nation whose Constitution contemplates war as well as peace; whose government must go forward upon the assumption, and safely can proceed upon no other, that unqualified allegiance to the nation and submission and obedience to the laws of the land, as well those made for war as those made for peace, are not inconsistent with the will of God. (emphasis added)

While the circumstances of the two cases are different, it is instructive that as late as 1931, the Supreme Court affirmed that the United States was a nation that was Christian in nature.

moralrelativismThe Progressives Seek to Erect a Wall Between Church and State

Just as the Progressive Movement sought to redefine the schools of education so as to change the world view taught in the public schools, they also set out to change how lawyers understood the Constitution.  They promoted the concept of a “living document” that “evolved” with the times.  And part of the changing times was an attack on what was meant by the Establishment Clause and the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment.

It was not until Everson v. Board of Education (1947) that the Jefferson’s words “separation of church and state” found their way into a Supreme Court ruling.  The Board of Education of Ewing Township in the State of New Jersey approved reimbursement to parents who paid to have buses transport their children to Catholic parochial schools.  Mr. Everson, a resident of Ewing Township, sued the board of education, claiming that reimbursing parents of parochial school students violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.

Writing for the Court, Justice Hugo Black wrote:

The “establishment of religion” clause of the First Amendment means at least this: Neither a state nor the Federal Government can set up a church. Neither can pass laws which aid one religion, aid all religions, or prefer one religion over another […] No tax in any amount, large or small, can be levied to support any religious activities or institutions, whatever they may be called, or whatever form they may adopt to teach or practice religion […] In the words of Jefferson, the clause against establishment of religion by law was intended to erect “a wall of separation between Church and State.”5

In the end, the Court ruled that the Establishment Clause was not violated, as the reimbursement of busing costs did nothing to promote the parochial schools.  The goal of the program was to simply provide all students of public and parochial schools equal access to affordable transportation.

However, Justice Black’s new legal test invoking Jefferson’s “separation of church and State” language triggered a tug of war over what constituted an “establishment” of religion.  In 1956 a group of Catholics, Jews and Protestants erected a Christmas crèche at a  high school in Ossining, a suburb of New York.  Even though classes were not in session, and no public funds were used to set up the crèche, some local residents sued.  In light of the Everson ruling, a local judge allowed the crèche, writing:

While it is necessary that there by a separation of church and State, it is not necessary that the State should be stripped of all religious sentiment.  It may be a tragic experience for this country and for its conception of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness if our people lose their religious feeling and are left to live their lives without faith.

The case finally progressed to the New York State Supreme Court where, in 1958, Judge Elbert T. Gallagher, writing for the majority, wrote that the crèche did not violate the First Amendment.  In issuing the ruling, he wrote the following:

Much has been written in recent years concerning Thomas Jefferson’s reference in 1802 to “a wall of separation between church and State.” It is upon that “wall” that plaintiffs seek to build their case. Jefferson’s figure of speech has received so much attention that one would almost think at times that it is to be found somewhere in our Constitution. Courts and authors have devoted numerous pages to its interpretation. This court has no intention of engaging in a dispute among historians as to the meaning of a metaphor. The only language which we are called upon to interpret and apply is the plain language quoted above from the Federal and State Constitutions.

In spite of what Justice Gallagher wrote, many legal scholars came to hold the concept of “separation of church and state” to be a part of the First Amendment.  For example, Stephen K. Green, in an article for the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of American History titled “The Separation of Church and State in the United States,” wrote:

For approximately fifty years, separation of church and state was the touchstone for church-state jurisprudence, endorsed by liberal and conservative justices alike. Particularly in the earlier years, justices opined that the separation must be “absolute,” “uncompromising,” “high and impregnable,” and “complete and permanent,” although the rhetoric was usually more absolute than the ultimate holdings.

The State of Religion in America

The above quote was published in 2014.  It is an example of the damage the “separation of church and state” metaphor has had on our understanding of American history with regard to how much religion, education and government were once intertwined.

Efforts to derail the expansion of the effects of the “separation of church and state” metaphor have been made in the past.  For example, Chief Justice William Rehnquist wrote a dissenting opinion in the 1985 case, Wallace v. Jaffree on this topic.  In his dissent, Rehnquist wrote:

But the greatest injury of the “wall” notion is its mischievous diversion of judges from the actual intentions of the drafters of the Bill of Rights. The “crucible of litigation,” ante, at 2487, is well adapted to adjudicating factual disputes on the basis of testimony presented in court, but no amount of repetition of historical errors in judicial opinions can make the errors true. The “wall of separation between church and State” is a metaphor based on bad history, a metaphor which has proved useless as a guide to judging. It should be frankly and explicitly abandoned.

Today, those advocating “separation of church and State” are attempting to expand that understanding.  In the 1960s, the rulings of the Supreme Court in cases like Engle v. Vitale began to change the historical definition of separation of church and state from “a federally established denomination” to “church,” meaning that religious activity in public was what the First Amendment’s establishment clause proscribed.  Indeed, in recent years, the Freedom from Religion Foundation is working hard to have courts find that the First Amendment a right to be protect  “freedom from religion,” not just “freedom of religion.”

Many argue that these trends have contributed significantly to the lack of moral instruction in our schools, leading to increased moral decay and various social problems.  Just as President Washington predicted, without a strong emphasis on building up private morality, the nation would ultimately unravel.  As Dr. George Docherty concluded, the character of the American people had changed from the time of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address to the time of the late 1950s and 60s.

In the eighth article in my series of posts on The Unraveling, I will explore how the erection of this wall of separation between church and state has led to a growth of weeds and brambles on either side of our wall.  We’ll consider how the pillars of Murray’s Four Founding Virtues have crumbled under the cultural onslaught of moral relativism and situational ethics.that we have witnessed in recent decades. If you have a desire to review the previous posts in this series, click to read the previous posts in this series.

This series is based on an essay that I have written which you can find at  In that essay I lay out my thoughts as concisely as I can, with a full series of references endnotes (27 for those with a scholarly bent).  In this series of posts, I wish to expand on the original essay, and make it easier to digest via social media.

I also wish to invite a discussion on this topic.  To do so, please see my posts at DISQUS.

It’s time that all of us work together to reverse course, and restore the American spirit of self-reliance and pride in self-accomplishment exemplified the American spirit.

[i] Oliver, James A. (2010). The Pamphleteers:  The Birth of Journalism, Emergence of the Press & the Fourth Estate. London, England.  Information Architects, accessed at 11/25/2016.

[ii] Zauzmer, Julie. The Washington Post. “Newspapers were once full of Bible quotes – and a local professor’s tool lets us learn from them,”  8/3/2016.  Accessed at on 11/25/2016.

[i] Docherty, George M. (1984) I’ve Seen the Day, p. 160. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., Grand Rapids, MI.

About the Author:

David Lantz is a self-published author, adjunct college professor and leadership consultant. Visit my online courses at and like my facebook page at and

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