From Scopes to Dover-13: Rising calls for the separation of church and state

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

At the dawn of the 19th century, while explicit support for specific religious instruction to advance a particular sectarian view was frowned upon, the fact that almost all the colonialists were Protestants meant that much of what we would now view as religious education was seen by them as simply ordinary education. Their view of the purpose of schooling was closely tied with teaching morals and values and these were believed to be religion-based. So while people were cool to the idea of the state supporting specific churches, they did not view a generic Protestant Christian ideology as representing a ‘church’. It was seen as merely the personal beliefs of individuals which just happened to be shared by most people, and thus were ‘natural’.

Since the schools were under local control and thus represented relatively homogeneous groups of Protestants, no challenges emerged to such tacit support for religion in those communities. As Philip Hamburger writes in Separation of Church and State (2002, p. 220), even in New York City, which was more diverse than the rest of the nation, the idea of a generic Protestantism as not being explicitly religious but merely neutral held sway.

Since the early 1820s, when it first acquired authority to distribute public school funds, New York’s City Council had denied such funds to all sectarian institutions, including Baptist, Methodist, and Catholic schools. Instead, it gave most of its funds to the schools run by the Public School Society – a privately operated nondenominational organization. Yet the ostensibly nonsectarian schools of the Public School Society had some broadly Protestant, if not narrowly sectarian, characteristics. One goal of the society was “to inculcate the sublime truths of religion and morality contained in the Holy Scriptures,” and its schools required children to read the King James Bible and to use textbooks in which Catholics were condemned as deceitful, bigoted, and intolerant.

Needless to say, Catholics did not share the view that this was a religiously neutral education, and as the number of Catholics in the city rose due to immigration from Ireland, they started pressing for public funds to create their own schools free of anti-Catholic bias and to teach their own brand of Christianity. But Catholics were widely seen at that time as being too much of a monolithic body, too subservient in their thinking to their priests and the Pope, and thus their allegiance to the new republic was seen as suspect. Some non-Catholics even went to the extent of suggesting that since the Catholic Church seemed to demand great obedience from its parishioners, such people had ceased to be independent thinkers and were thus not even worthy of being allowed to vote in a democracy. (Hamburger, p. 234-246)

Of course, when it was pointed out that the Public School Society still required students to read the Bible and other religious materials and thus could hardly claim to be religiously neutral, it “defended its position that its publicly supported schools were nonsectarian by offering to black out the most bigoted anti-Catholic references in the textbooks. It refused, however, to withdraw the King James Bible, which, although Protestant, no longer seemed to belong to any church.” (Hamburger, p. 223)

The request by Catholics for funding of their own schools was opposed as leading to an alliance of church and state. In fact it was to deny the demands by Catholics for the funding of their own schools that led to the idea of separation of church and state gaining popularity. Up to that point, people had largely viewed the founding principle of the country, as enshrined in its constitution and associated documents, as prohibiting a union of the state with an organized church. The idea of the separation of church and state was an idea contained in a letter that Thomas Jefferson wrote in 1802 to a committee of the Danbury Baptist Association in which he said: “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.” (Hamburger, p. 1)

The latter view (creating a separation of church and state) was a much stronger statement than the former (preventing a union of church and state) and it started gaining ground in the mid-19th century onwards mainly as an argument to prevent Catholics from gaining funding for their own denominational schools.

This idea of separation (as opposed to preventing union) gained further ground when Pope Gregory XVI, in an encyclical published in 1832, condemned the doctrine of separation of church and state. This move backfired because it increased the fears of Protestants in America that the Catholics were seeking to eventually dominate the US, and thus increased support for the doctrine of separation of church and state as a way of limiting the ambition of Catholics. As I said before, the various Protestant sects could embrace this separation doctrine because they did not see themselves as acting as a single “church” but as individuals who happened to share a broad Protestant ethic. They thus excluded themselves from the ‘sectarian’ label and saw the separation of church and state as a way of maintaining the status quo.

Like so many other Protestants, Baptists desired to exclude any particular church from public institutions but welcomed Bible reading and other elements of Protestant religion, which seemed to be the faith of free individuals. In the 1870s, for example, although some Baptists protested the introduction of the Bible into public schools and argued that “the state had no right to teach religion,” most Baptists saw no reason to go so far. As one Baptist, George C. Lorimer, explained in 1877: “The position of the Bible in the schools is not the result of any union between Protestants and the State; nor was it secured by the political action of one denomination, or of all combined. The Church, as such, did not put it there, and the Church, as such, cannot take it away. Instead, the “people” put the Bible in the schools.” (Hamburger, p. 283-284)

So even as the idea of the separation of church and state was gaining popularity, it was not initially seen as a call for the separation of Christianity and the state. As is usually the case when a belief structure is ubiquitous, its adherents tend to see it as ‘normal’ and ‘natural’ and ‘obviously’ true, and not merely one of a spectrum of possible views.

But as the idea of separation of church and state became more widely accepted, it was inevitable that people, especially those who did not share these common beliefs, would see the benefits of extending that concept to mean that there should be a complete separation of religion (including Protestant Christianity) and the state. As Hamburger points out, initial calls for this stronger separation took the form of arguing that this was what the Founding Fathers had desired but not explicitly provided for in the constitution, and thus there were calls for a constitutional amendment to firmly entrench this principle into law.

These calls for a constitutional amendment mandating the separation of church and state gained ground. As part of this drive, there were calls for the abolition of chaplains in publicly supported institutions, prohibiting the use of the Bible (either as a textbook or as a source of religious worship) in public schools, replacing religious judicial oaths with secular affirmations, abolishing tax exemptions for religious institutions, and so on. (Hamburger, p. 302-304) Even President Ulysses S. Grant urged stronger separation when he ran for reelection in 1875, advocating an amendment that would “[d]eclare Church and State forever separate and distinct, but each within its proper sphere.”

In a speech made in 1875 to the Convention of the Army of the Tennessee, Grant said that the country should “Encourage free schools and resolve that not one dollar appropriated for their support shall be appropriated for the support of any sectarian schools. Resolve that neither the state nor the nation, nor both combined, shall support institutions of learning other than those sufficient to afford every child growing up in the land the opportunity of a good common school education, unmixed with sectarian, pagan, or atheistical dogmas. Leave the matter of religion to the family altar, the church, and the private school, supported entirely by private contributions. Keep the church and state forever separated.”

The separation movement gained ground as members of the various Christian denominations saw it as a means of preventing any particular denomination, particularly Catholics, from gaining supremacy in teaching their particular doctrine to the exclusion of the others. The idea of an amendment to the US constitution implementing stronger separation reached its peak around 1875 but failed to come to fruition, and that plan was eventually abandoned. But it did achieve some results, with Congress passing laws requiring any new state seeking admittance to the union to have clauses in their state constitution mandating the separation of church and state.

Next: A shift in strategy.

POST SCRIPT: Levitation

I sometimes hear from people who have witnessed seemingly paranormal phenomena (such as ‘mind reading’) with their own eyes and are convinced that people with such powers exist. They assert that they would have detected any trickery. I am reminded of what magician James Randi said, that it is really easy to fool people, and the more well educated they are and the more confident such people are of their own smartness, the easier it becomes.

I like magicians. Apart from the fun of watching them do their tricks, such people are a useful reminder of how we must be cautious of taking at face value even the things we “see” with our own eyes unless it is under tightly controlled conditions supervised by people who know the world of trickery and illusions.

Here is Dutch magician Ramana doing a levitation trick.

You can read and see more about Ramana here and here.

Apparently Ramana also does ‘mind reading’.


  1. says

    Your post have explored very good information about the separation of Church and state and it should be known by all Christians. Thank you for sharing such a nice article.

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