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A Reminder of the Real Meaning of “Separation of Church and State”

Baby Blue’s nice little article on the role of the local church vis à vis the beginnings of the Episcopal Church in Virginia are interesting for the current history of TEC, but they have a broader application:

James Madison and Thomas Jefferson did not think so highly of the former established church’s assertions either. And so we have the Virginia Act for Establishing Religious Freedom (and what religious corporate entity’s past proclamations and actions do we suppose was the object of grave concern in that statute?) opening the door wide to the First Amendment’s protection of individual – not corporate – rights in the United States Constitution. The statute recognized the freedom to dissent.

The Virginia Act for Establishing Religious Freedom was passed by the Virginia legislature in 1786 and it’s no wonder that the shrinking remnant of the institutional church were not pleased. Though they had sent a clergyman over to England to be consecrated by the Archbishop of Canterbury himself, things did not go well back home. The Episcopal Church in Virginia fell into deep decline, not even bothering to show up for the 1811 General Convention where, it was reported, “the Church in Virginia is from various causes so depressed, that there is danger of her total ruin, unless great exertions, favoured by the blessing of Providence, are employed to raise her.”

All of the Southern colonies–Virginia, North and South Carolina and Georgia–had the Church of England as the state church, supported same with tax revenue, and dealt unfavourably with other churches.   The whole point of the disestablishment of same Church of England was to put all of the churches on an equal footing before the law and not to have one of them established (or “official”) at the expense of the other.  By this religious freedom is established.

Today people talk of “separation of church and state” as the exclusion of any religious reference from public life.  But the original concept was more concrete: it was the repudiation of the European practice of an institution being designated as the governing religion of the nation.  When people talk today about the “separation of church and state,” the vast majority of them have no idea about the real meaning of the phrase.

The Episcopal Church finally got over the funk of disestablishment to become for many years the church of choice for those seeking to get to the top of this society, no mean accomplishment.

What worries me is that our government will circumvent our constitution and create a “two-tier” system of churches.  One tier has values which are acceptable to the government, and receives tax exemption, zoning variances, public accolades, and the like.  Another loses the tax exemption, receives unfavourable treatment from government and elites, effective state control of schools, hospitals and other charitable efforts, etc.  The Carter Administration started down this road.  All it takes is a bureaucracy empowered to do it and a judiciary ready to go along with it.

After all, if judges, supposedly educated in the history of our country, can forget the real meaning of “separation of church and state,” what else can they forget?

That’s what happens when you let a gang of superannuated hippies, too many brain cells destroyed by substance abuse, get the upper hand.


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