Perspective: Separation of church and state is a gift
If the separation of church and state means that individuals can practice their religion, share their religious insights without fear and use their religious principles as a foundation for a just and civil society, then we will see an increase in the well-being, prosperity and success for all
Editor’s note: For years, the Deseret News’ editorial page carried the epigraph: “We stand for the Constitution of the United States as having been divinely inspired.” In honor of Constitution Month, the Deseret News is publishing a variety of articles examining the Constitution’s continued importance.
Separation. To some, the word spells relief. For others, it can evoke distress. It can increase clarity or muddle meaning. Separation is the division or process of distinguishing between two or more things into constituent, or distinct, elements. In the case of religion and government, both of these “constituent elements” are essential to the flourishing of a healthy democracy. How those components are separated is critical to the success of our nation.
More than 15 years before Thomas Jefferson wrote the phrase “separation of church and state” in a letter to the Danbury Connecticut Baptist Association in 1802, he included the concept in the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, ratified in 1786. His view that government did not have the right to interfere with personal religious opinion also included the stipulation that churches should not exercise political power.
Those two concepts, written into the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1791, have been grappled with ever since. Their interactions are more like the definition of separation used in physics: “a turbulent boundary layer between the surface of a body and moving liquid, or between two fluids moving at different speeds.” The turbulence caused by varying definitions of the separation of church and state have caused ripples of dissatisfaction and misunderstanding for decades.
Let’s go back to the beginning. As most Americans are aware, the First Amendment prohibits the federal government from “establishing” or “sponsoring” religion. This meant that the national government could not designate one sect as the official government religion nor levy taxes to support a state church.
This legal practice had been common in the countries where the first immigrants to the North American seaboard originated. In those countries, it had caused significant trauma and disruption to those who held different religious views than the government-mandated religious majority. Interestingly, some of the initial immigrants brought the same practices of exclusion and persecution of other religions to the new areas they established, and it took some time for that concept to change.
Yet the 39 signers of the U.S. Constitution were all religious men and saw a vital link between religion and government. Indeed, the Founding Fathers understood that moral leadership and a righteous citizenry were necessary for their great democratic experiment to succeed. They structured a political climate that was encouraging and accommodating to religion, rather than hostile to it.
George Washington expressed the shared feelings of his fellows on this topic in his Farewell Speech as first president of the fledgling United States of America, written as a letter to the nation and published Sept. 19, 1796, in a daily newspaper:
Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports. … And let us indulge with caution the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion. Reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principles.
In support of Washington’s perspective, numerous studies have demonstrated that religious practices and values have a positive impact on developing and maintaining united communities, which in turn build a strong democracy. Principles of compassion and selflessness, which are common to many religions, provide a foundation for societal harmony and unity, if allowed to be expressed and acted upon in the public square. And actively religious individuals are significantly more likely than the nonreligious to vote in national elections, provide philanthropic funds to secular entities and volunteer in causes that support healthy community development.
A close-to-home example of the significant impact of faith-based volunteering is the 1983 experience of severe floods that occurred in Utah. In that emergency, hundreds of thousands of sandbags were filled, and untold hours of muscle-wearying service were provided by individuals who responded to the calls for help from faith-based groups — even before the Federal Emergency Management Agency and other governmental services asked for volunteers. A 1983 Time magazine article noted that the robust contributions of Latter-day Saint congregations were not unique in that effort, but were joined by volunteers from all religious backgrounds. With the recent flooding in Utah communities due to last winter’s record snowfall, high appreciation is again felt for the faith-based groups who stepped up to help control the potentially catastrophic flooding.
So yes, the gifts of “love thy neighbor” principles, as well as time and financial resources from religious individuals, strengthen the fabric of democracy, creating an environment that lifts all involved. Today, the separation of church and state has come to be viewed by many as a call for government entities to disallow the public expression of religious beliefs and to remove their influence and contributions to civil society. The opposite is actually true; one wise friend succinctly expressed this concept:
“Society cannot screen out religious influence without harming itself because religious influence promotes peaceful coexistence, obedience to law, and respect for human rights in a way unmatched by other influences.”
In the United States, women who combine weekly church attendance with active participation in religious practices in their home were twice as likely as less-religious women and five times as likely as secular women to report frequently feeling that their life has meaning and purpose as well as high levels of personal happiness.
Women in particular experience an enhanced quality of life in a nation that appropriately balances church and state without compromising the positive impact of either one. Faith plays an incalculable role in women’s lives — 83% of women are estimated to identify with a faith group. In the United States, women who combine weekly church attendance with active participation in religious practices in their home were twice as likely as less-religious women and five times as likely as secular women to report frequently feeling that their life has meaning and purpose as well as high levels of personal happiness. Those who feel that their lives are generally happy and productive bring those characteristics to the communities in which they live, fostering a spirit of cooperation and kindness that translates into greater civic good for all.
Internationally, women who live in locations that support freedom of religion and belief also have a higher health and happiness rating and are greater contributors to the economy. In nations where freedom of religion is allowed, there is enhanced peace and stability in government and business as well as less corruption. Faith communities in action around the globe provide substantial health and education benefits as well as social safety nets for orphans, people who are disabled and others who fall behind. Faith groups of all kinds bring communities together and provide a space and setting for individuals to serve people they otherwise would not.
If the separation of church and state means that individuals can practice their religion as they choose, share their religious insights without fear of reprisal or rejection, and use the religious principles they have embraced as a foundation for a just and civil society, then the positive impact from these activities will increase the well-being of a nation’s citizens, leading to increased prosperity and success for all. Wherever these principles from the First Amendment are fostered throughout the world, there are happier and more productive people. That is a gift that will keep on giving!
Jean B. Bingham was the 17th Relief Society general president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints from April 2017 to August 2022.