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Separation of Church & State: A Thumbnail Sketch

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I recently made a website about Thomas Jefferson's views on religion and science, using excerpts from his letters and papers. Please consider visiting it at http://ThomasJeffersonSpeaks.blogspo...

Some responses I got made me realize that many Americans don't know why the Founders advocated the separation of church and state; they don't know the relevant history and they don't know the work of John Locke. I'm hoping that readers of this site will read the following and spread the word.

Evangelical, fundamentalist Christians write as if all Christians agreed with one another, sharing the exact same faith and all its tenets. But historically, this has never been the case. Christianity is not homogeneous; that's why we have Baptists, Catholics, Unitarians, Methodists, Lutherans, Presbyterians, Jehovah's Witnesses, and Evangelicals of various stripes. Even today, you hear some skepticism from Christians like Al Sharpton about Mormons like Mitt Romney. Here's a thumbnail sketch of some high points of religious conflict.

Early modern Europe and Britain were rife with religious strife. When Henry VIII declared himself head of the English church, and when the illustrious Sir Thomas More would not acknowledge his claims, Henry had him beheaded (see the movie, A Man for All Seasons). Henry's daughter Mary, however, was Catholic. During her reign, many Protestants were burned at the stake, earning her the nickname "Bloody Mary." Mary was succeeded by her Protestant sister, Elizabeth, who worried about the popularity of her Catholic cousin, Mary Queen of Scots and eventually had Mary beheaded. Although Mary's son, James I, was a Protestant, his descendants had Catholic leanings, and James II was kicked off the throne for his covert Catholicism. The Brits vowed never again to have a Catholic monarch, and the succession was arranged accordingly.

In France, where church and state were united and the church in question was Catholicism, persecution of Protestants had been extremely violent at times. The Edict of Nantes legalized religious toleration; when it was revoked, Protestants were massacred in the streets of Paris. Two of the Founders that I know of--Alexander Hamilton and Gouverneur Morris--were of Hugenot descent. Hamilton inveighs against "popery" in some of his early political pamphlets. Indeed, I can't think of a Founder who was Catholic; can you? (This is something people like Bill O'Reilly should ponder, if they are able to ponder. For example, would the Founders be shocked at a Supreme Court in which 5 of the 9 members are Catholic? I'm afraid so.)

Many people assume that hostility only existed between Protestants and Catholics, but in fact, different Protestant sects--Anglicans, Puritans, Presbyterians, Lutherans, and sects that have since vanished from the scene--were hostile to one another. For a quick sense of the differences, look online at Calvin and Luther. These fellows did not agree with one another, hence the resulting different denominations. Calvin executed heretics. Luther was a notorious anti-Semite. In Edinburgh, Patrick Hamilton was burned alive at the stake for 6 hours because he had converted to Lutheranism. 

John Locke grew up in a Puritan family, and his father fought in the English Civil War. Locke attended university and became friends with Issac Newton and other luminaries. A devout and pious Christian, Locke was concerned about the religious violence of the recent past. In his writings on government and religion, which profoundly influenced all the Founders, he proposed a neutral public sphere, where no religion or denomination could silence, oppress, or marginalize another.

Ergo, the separation or church and state is not anti-religious. It was intended to protect the beliefs of individuals and their chosen denominations/sects from the kind of strife and violence that Europe had endured for centuries. It protected citizens from the state and its ruler, so that a particular set of beliefs--say, Calvin's Five Points, which both Jefferson and Franklin disliked extremely--would not be imposed upon the people at large. (Jefferson was harshly critical of John Calvin and Presbyterianism. Franklin was reared in that denomination, but gave it up because he didn't accept Calvin's principles, like predestination. To read about this, go to my aforementioned website.)

There is an excellent article on Locke at the website of the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Here is one passage from it:

"Locke's arguments for religious toleration connect nicely to his account of civil government. Locke defines life, liberty, health and property as our civil interests. These are the proper concern of a magistrate or civil government. The magistrate can use force and violence where this is necessary to preserve civil interests against attack. This is the central function of the state. One's religious concerns with salvation, however, are not within the domain of civil interests, and so lie outside of the legitimate concern of the magistrate or the civil government."

You can read Locke himself on toleration at

Again, please spread the word. The ignorance on this issue demonstrates a failure of our education system.

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Carol V. Hamilton has a Ph.D. in English from Berkeley and teaches at the University of Pittsburgh. She also writes for History News Network ( and
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