Separation of Church and State

In America today, it is an article of faith among conservatives that the original political ideas of the United States are rooted in the Bible. Conservatives sometimes suggest that the American Founders were divinely inspired while composing the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Glenn Beck, for example, has said, “It was God’s finger that wrote the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. This is God’s country!”1 Some hold that the values implicit in the Gospels were carried directly into America’s founding ideology. They treat America’s founding documents as a kind of “Third Testament”—a follow-through on the agenda and message of God Himself. In advocating that Bible-based ethics be taught in public schools, conservative pundit Bill O’Reilly asserts, “Kids need to know what [the] Judeo-Christian tradition is because that’s what all of our laws are based on. That’s what the country’s philosophy is based on. . . . That’s what forged the Constitution.”2

But conservatives do no justice to the Christian Bible or to the Founders when they claim that the first provided the philosophical basis for the second. The Enlightenment ideas of America’s Founders were revolutionary, and the New Testament ideas of the previous two thousand years were a major part of what they were revolting against.

America’s Founders not only opposed political oppression, but they also called for a “wall of separation” between church and state;3 swore “eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man”;4 officially proclaimed that “the government of the United States is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion”;5 defended the pursuit of earthly wealth and of personal happiness as moral virtues and inalienable rights—and fought a violent revolution to secure these worldly values.

The Founders were unabashedly men of reason. Although some were deists and some were Christians, they nevertheless shared a profound reverence for reason and, for the most part, regarded it as man’s fundamental guide in life. . . .


1. Beck made these remarks during his May 15, 2010, commencement address at Liberty University; see “Beck at Liberty: ‘God’s finger . . . wrote the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. This is God’s Country,” Media Matters, May 15, 2010,

2. O’Reilly made these remarks during an April 10, 2014, interview with Matt Lauer; see Kyle Drennen, “Matt Lauer Aghast at Bill O’Reilly Wanting Schools to Teach Historical Life of Jesus,” Newsbusters, April 10, 2014,

3. Thomas Jefferson, “To the Danbury Baptist Association” (dated January 1, 1802), Papers of Thomas Jefferson, (accessed April 24, 2015).

4. “From Thomas Jefferson to Benjamin Rush, 23 September 1800,” National Archives, (accessed April 24, 2015).

5. The text is from the Treaty of Tripoli, ratified by the U.S. Senate and signed by John Adams in June 1797; see “The Barbary Treaties 1786–1816,” Yale Law School, (accessed April 24, 2015).

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6. “Jefferson’s Religious Beliefs,”, (accessed April 27, 2015).

7. John 8:7. All passages from the Bible are from the New International Version, as published by Bible Hub at (accessed April 24, 2015).

8. Luke 6:37.

9. Romans 13:1–7.

10. Naomi E. Pasachoff and Robert J. Littman, A Concise History of the Jewish People (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2005), pp. 82–98.

11. 1 Peter 2:13–20.

12. Hebrews 13:17.

13. Titus 3:1.

14. See, for example, Mark 12:17.

15. Matthew 5:38–45.

16. Luke 6:32–35.

17. Matthew 26:50­–54.

18. Matthew 8:10; see also Luke 7:9.

19. Matthew 10:34.

20. John 15:12–13.

21. Augustine, On Free Choice of the Will, translated by Thomas Williams (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1993), pp. 9–10. Augustine relies on a formulation of Evodius, but Augustine approves of it. For a survey of the topic of killing in self-defense within Christian thought, see Jonathan Spelman, The Morality of Killing in Self-Defense: A Christian Perspective (Ashland University, 2008),

22. Thomas Aquinas, The Summa Theologica, translated by the Fathers of the English Dominican Province, Dominican House of Studies, part 2-2, question 64, article 7, (accessed April 27, 2015).

23. Thomas Aquinas, The Summa Theologica, part 2-2, question 64, article 4.

24. Dante Alighieri, The Divine Comedy, translated by Courtney Langdon, Online Library of Liberty, vol. 1, canto 34, (accessed April 27, 2015).

25. “Patrick Henry’s Speeches” (remarks to the Virginia Convention, March 23, 1775), Patrick Henry Center for Individual Liberty, (accessed April 27, 2015).

26. See, for example, “To Dr. Benjamin Rush,” in The Letters of Thomas Jefferson 1743–1826 (letter dated April 21, 1803), University of Groningen, (accessed April 27, 2015).

27. 1 Timothy 6:10.

28. Acts 2:44–45.

29. Luke 6:20.

30. Matthew 19:23–24.

31. Matthew 6:28.


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