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What Is Separation of Church and State?

Andra Watkins writes: “This is where Madison’s words aren’t ambiguous: The government has no right to impose religious morality on Americans. And that is precisely what Project 2025 aims to do. That is what many red states are already doing. It is a violation of our Constitution. As Americans, we cannot stand for it.”
Published:June 12, 2024

*Andra Watkins is an award winning author, survivor of Christian Nationalism and an expert on Project 2025. Read and support her important work here: How Project 2025 Will Ruin Your Life

By Andra Watkins

Christian Nationalists love to rewrite history. Nowhere is their delight in revisionist history more apparent than with our country’s founding.

“The founders were all Christians and meant for the United States to be a (white) Christian nation,” is revisionist history.

“Slaves were happy on the plantation,” is (insulting, untrue) revisionist history.
“The Constitution should be interpreted using originalism,” is revisionist history.
“Veterans are suckers and losers,” is (also insulting, untrue) revisionist history.

Christian Nationalists are working harder than ever to apply revisionist history to the meaning of the First Amendment and separation of church and state. Here’s how. Plus what it could mean for YOU.

Project 2025 What Is Ordered Liberty?

Since it may have been a while since anyone read the text of the First Amendment to the US Constitution, here it is:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Source: The US Constitution

Though it was a group effort, James Madison is credited with the final text of the First Amendment. Like most of the founders, Madison was problematic. He inherited a plantation that utilized enslaved labor. He owned Black human beings, and while he paid lip service to a certain “discomfort” with slavery, he did not free a single enslaved human being in his will. For his entire adult life, he put fortune above conscience.

Pointing to his thoughts on religious liberty and conscience is therefore loaded and complex.

Heather Cox Richardson wrote an excellent newsletter about Madison on 10 June. Readers can find it HERE.

But our entire discussion of religious liberty and conscience hinges on the meaning of separation of church and state. Did the founders mean for separation of church and state to protect the state from the church, to prohibit an established religion? Or did they mean to protect the church from the state?

Madison was the primary author of the doctrine of separation of church and state. In his Memorial Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments, a precursor to the Constitution, Madison said “Virginians should not be compelled to finance Christianity”:

During almost fifteen centuries has the legal establishment of Christianity been on trial. What have been its fruits? More or less in all places, pride and indolence in the Clergyignorance and servility in the laity, in both, superstition, bigotry and persecution. Enquire of the Teachers of Christianity for the ages in which it appeared in its greatest lustre; those of every sect, point to the ages prior to its incorporation with Civil policy.

Source: Foundation for Economic Education

These are indisputably the thoughts of a man who believed religion had no place in government. Late in life, he believed he didn’t keep religion and government separate enough, citing his calls for national days of prayer as an example of his own failure to separate church and state.

Reader Question: How Do

Montpelier, Madison’s plantation home that is now a national historic site, houses many of Madison’s papers. Here’s how their experts interpret his stance on religious liberty:

Madison would have seen morality as part of the individual, protected conscience. It’s not that he didn’t have his own opinions of rights and wrongs or justice and injustice, but he would insist that those opinions were his own. And, by extension, the state has no right to try to legislate or otherwise stifle your own morality. Madison, who was intensely private about his own religious convictions, pushed the boundaries of how his countrymen thought about the matters of conscience. It was partly due to his work on the subject that minority voices were protected from having the government control perhaps their most fundamental right—what they believe.

Here’s where Christian Nationalists saw a means to rewrite history: The state has no right to try to legislate or otherwise stifle your own morality.

I’m not linking to them, but The Heritage Foundation (P2025’s main sponsor) argues that Madison devised the separation of church and state as a staunch Christian. As such, they define freedom of conscience as belief or conviction about religious matters and insist that’s what Madison meant.

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Montpelier, keeper of Madison’s papers, defines it very differently:

To James Madison, the idea of religion goes much deeper than how one does or doesn’t practice. He called conscience “the most sacred of all property,” and, like a good scholar of John Locke, Madison felt strongly that one’s property was a natural right.

Madison believed the government had no right to dictate one’s moral beliefs just as he believed religion had no place in government.

As we head into a deeper dive into LGBTQIA+ issues tomorrow, where does that leave us?

  • Do Americans have a right to personally believe homosexuality is immoral?
  • Do they have a right to practice those beliefs in society, as long as they don’t use the force of government to foist them on anyone else?
  • Do certain Americans have the right to decide what others should or should not do with their bodies based upon a certain moral code? Especially if that code is Christian Nationalism’s interpretation of the Bible?
  • Do Americans have a right to force other Americans to accept things they don’t want to accept?

Democracy is hard. Living in a democracy means agreeing to live alongside people with whom we profoundly disagree. It sometimes means giving people space to hold beliefs we find repulsive and repugnant.

In the end, Madison’s words mean people can oppose abortion, and others can believe abortion is necessary healthcare and acceptable as a part of individual freedom and bodily autonomy. They mean people can believe their Bibles say homosexuality is a sin, and people can be openly LGBTQIA+ without fear or shame. They mean some Americans can believe their Bibles define marriage as between one man and one woman, while other Americans legally marry the same-sex partner they love. They mean some people stay married to terrible partners out of religious conviction or obligation, while others legally divorce and move on. They mean some people believe one’s sex cannot be changed, even as others change their sexes to be the person they know they are.

This is where Madison’s words aren’t ambiguous: The government has no right to impose religious morality on Americans. And that is precisely what Project 2025 aims to do. That is what many red states are already doing. It is a violation of our Constitution. As Americans, we cannot stand for it.