The Separation of Church and State

Robert Peate
3 min readAug 5, 2022

“This only I say, that, whencesoever their authority be sprung, since it is ecclesiastical, it ought to be confined within the bounds of the Church, nor can it in any manner be extended to civil affairs, because the Church itself is a thing absolutely separate and distinct from the commonwealth.”

— John Locke, A Letter Concerning Toleration, 1689

Theocrats confuse me, in addition to horrifying and repulsing me. The reasons they horrify and repulse me are fairly obvious, but they confuse me for the reason that they undermine their own authority. If I proclaim God’s Eternal Truth, why should that truth require government enforcement? Any position that requires force undermines its own efficacy by conceding that the position alone is not sufficient to persuade. “I will force you because I cannot persuade you.” There is something wrong with that, the general failure of the general public to appreciate what is right and good aside. It not only dismisses the obligation to persuade, it assumes its own failure to persuade. As such, it is a concession of the imperfection (or impossibility) of its own persuasiveness.

If a view — any view — is just and wise, this should be readily apparent. We certainly need just and wise government. But just and wise religious views (it is good to feed the poor, perhaps?) should be observable by all without requiring the force of law. Of course, government programs to feed the poor should exist regardless of religion, but if religion wishes to add to the help given by government, it is free to feed the poor without requiring governmental power to do so.

“The distance between the throne and the altar can never be too great.”

— Denis Diderot, “Observations on the Instruction of the Empress of Russia to the Deputies for the Making of the Laws”, 1774

More recently, Thomas Jefferson wrote to the Danbury Baptist Association in 1802:

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 and State.

This is important not only for its refraining from creating state-sponsored religion. Refraining from prohibiting the free exercise of religion protects religion both directly and indirectly. Yes, the Congress may not create a state religion. Yes, the Congress may not prohibit a religion. But it also may not take any action that might “prohibit” the free exercise of a religion (or otherwise interfere in matters of belief or opinion) indirectly. For example, if a government orders that only one belief be promoted, this immediately prohibits all others. The words “we prohibit” need not be included. Of course, we have seen this type of abuse for many years with the “marriage is between one man and one woman” policy. Saying that obviates all other views, which is its goal.

Nowadays, in the United States, there are those who wish to overturn centuries of freedom of conscience in favor of forcing their views onto others in the name of “religious freedom”, a perversion of the phrase to mean the freedom to oppress others. They will not succeed, but they are dangerous and must be countered with speech and action.

When government and religion are separate, freedom of thought and belief may flourish. One religion dominating all else leads only to conflict and the discrediting of a faith that requires force. Any view that relies on more than truth and justice to persuade lacks both.