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While We Were Sleeping

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So how did we get from being a Christian nation to whatever we are now? How did the First Amendment change from being a protection of our religious liberties to one that disavows them? When did a phrase written in a letter from Thomas Jefferson come to mean that prayer, Bible reading or any other religious activity establish a religious denomination? After all, Jefferson used the phrase to  insure the Baptists of Danbury, Connecticut that the First Amendment erected a wall of “separation of church and state” so that all religious practices would be protected from intrusion by the state, unless they “worked ill to their neighbor.”   And when did the public come to believe that this phrase written twelve years after the First Amendment was in the Constitution, and in fact, was the meaning of the First Amendment?

To find out, we must follow the trail of the phrase “the separation of church and state through the Supreme Court.

  • Reynolds v. United States (1878): The court used Jefferson’s letter in context to determine that individuals could not use their religious rights to violate civil laws, thus, defining the roles of religious and civil jurisdiction. In this case, Mr. Reynolds could not use his Mormon religion as a reason to violate the law against bygamy. Other possible violations might be polygamy, human sacrifice, infanticide, and, now, honor killings.
  • Everson v. Board of Education (1947): The opinion of the court surgically excised the phrase “the separation of church and state” from the context of Jefferson’s letter and added ” which must be kept high and impregnable”.  But they ruled that using the establishment clause of the First Amendment in this case would violate the free exercise rights of the defendants.
  • McCollum v. Board of Education (1948): The court ruled that the school’s provision of 30 or 45 minutes of voluntary, religious instruction was not allowed because the founders wanted children to learn Bible precepts, not a particular denomination. So the opinion distinguished between Biblical Christianity which was Constitutional and denominational Christianity which was not.
  • Engels v. Vitale (1962)The court disallowed the following, generic prayer to be said at the start of a school day: “Almighty God, we acknowledge our dependence upon Thee, and we beg Thy blessings upon us, our parents, our teachers and our country. Amen.” Since the prayer was non-sectarian, any religious activity was now seen as the establishment of a religion.
  • Abington v Schempp (1963): was joined by Murray v. Curl: This is the famous Madelyn Murray O’Hair case in which the the Court ruled that Bible reading in school violated the establishment clause. This is said to be the case that kicked God out of our schools.

Several atheist plaintiffs and nine justices on the  Supreme Court had finally succeeded in breaking down the “wall of separation of church and state” and did it by using Jefferson’s phrase against us. Now, most Americans believe that the First Amendment of the Constitution is “separation of church and state” which means that God is not welcome in our schools or government. As a result, He’s not in our culture either.

Thomas Jefferson warned in his letter to Judge Spencer Roane, Nov, 1819:

If the judiciary is the last resort in relation to the other departments of the government, …then the Constitution, on this hypothesis, is a mere thing of wax in the hands of the judiciary, which they may twist and shape into any form they may please. It should be remembered, as an axiom of eternal truth in politics, that whatever power in any government is independent, is absolute also; in theory only, at first, while the spirit of the people is up, but in practice, as fast as that relaxes. Independence can be trusted nowhere but with the people in mass. They are inherently independent of all but moral law …


About Patti Wells

I'm a concerned American. I grew up in the fifties, and came of age in the sixties, so I've seen both sides of the cultural revolution that took place in the late sixties. As a Baby Boomer, I'm part of the last generation to really know the liberty that this country has provided for its citizens. I'm the widowed mother of two adult children and a retired mathematics professor at a local community college. I lead a weekly Bible study and sing in the choir at church. I play canasta with a group of friends each week, and I enjoy sports and movies.

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  1. Pingback: Have We Been Deluded? « Heart to Heart

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