Politicians and individual voters change their views over time. Seeking consistency in any party is certain to be a confusing search even from year to year, much less over a few decades. For example, in the 1930s there was great resistance to social legislation like social security by Republicans and conservative Democrats. It was widely seen as socialism and the “Sovietizing” of America, strongly opposed by the American Bar Association and the U. S. Chamber of Commerce. Yet by late 1954 Republican President Eisenhower said, “Should any political party attempt to abolish social security, unemployment insurance, and eliminate labor laws and farm programs, you would not hear of that party again in our political history.”
Citing Eisenhower is only to illustrate that sweeping changes in views about governmental matters occur in the natural order of things. I’m not making a point that they are either good or bad. Rather than political issues like those Eisenhower mentioned, the changes over time can be viewed with respect to any topic in the Constitution (for example, attitudes and practices toward bearing arms). With respect to the interaction of religion and government, we can trace changes or stability as the years progress. Because we are currently in a Republican administration, I have chosen to sample Republican attitudes for the period the GOP has been in existence. Interestingly, I found attitudes expressed by a sampling of party leaders since Lincoln to be remarkably stable on the church-state matter.
As would be expected with any subject, however, the actual, fine-tuned interpretation of what church-state means is not as stable. Despite the similar wording through decades, questions still exist about whether religious liberty is only for Christians, whether “voluntary” prayer for minors in public schools can really be voluntary, whether there are exceptions to religious freedom (e.g., Mormon polygamy, Jewish circumcision, child care licensing), and whether the religion of a state employee is grounds for refusing to honor a proper citizen request. It is no surprise that slight variations since the 18th century call for further refinement, particularly since the whole idea of church-state separation was unique to begin with, so that interpretation problems had not had long to rise to attention. Separation had not been established in law until the 1st Amendment to the U. S. Constitution in 1791. In most other countries, of course, there was hardly any attempt to disentangle religion and politics at all.
One of the specifics Americans had to learn was that the singular word religion, while useful, can overlook the fact that critical differences separate one religion from another. In fact, in some cases, the only similarity between two religions might simply be belief in a supernatural god or gods and nothing else. Further, religious freedom must be construed as freedom from other religions even of the same denominational name. As I have pointed out in previous posts, religions very rarely have little to fear from atheists, but a great deal to fear from other religions.
An early example of that occurred with the Danbury Baptist Association (church) in Connecticut. Religious freedom of the Danbury Baptists had been under the thumb of majority Christian churches in league with the Connecticut Legislature. In answer to their fears, Thomas Jefferson provided comforting assurance in 1801 that the new federal Constitution would protect Danbury Baptists from such religious oppression. In so doing so, he used the analogy of a wall separating church and state, giving rise to the term still used. That wall guarantees religious freedom from any government that threatens it, even if the government is acting in concert with members of the same or similar faith.
In the present context, the Trump administration identifies far more with fundamentalist Christian religion than other branches of Christian belief. Those “others” differ not only from fundamentalist Christians, but from each other. They are not necessarily pleased with President Trump’s camaraderie with one religion above all others, for he thereby immerses government in various religions’ passionate theological arguments with themselves. That is not only a blatant violation of the church-state barrier, but illustrates the Founders’ good sense to keep religion and government separate. Previous administrations had not completely avoided such an error, but none in a long time has done it in so wholesale a manner.
The advent of Christian Nationalism (I’ll have more on that in a future post) along with the Trump administration’s courting of fundamentalist leaders, has raised the stakes concerning the mixing of government and religion. While many (though not all) fundamentalist Christians seek greater involvement, others are more worried that having a favored religion can’t help but pit one version of religious faith against others, a phenomenon already underway. The demands on government are sufficiently complex that its choosing to engage with so fraught a subject as religion would be unnecessarily taking on the riding of yet another tiger.
There is much more to be said about these matters, but in this post I want only to underscore how leaders in the Republican party have considered the matter of church-state separation since the party began 165 years ago. In the quotes listed below, Republican leaders from the beginning have been remarkably (though not totally) consistent in their support of strong church-state separation.
The party, growing out of anti-slavery Whigs, was founded in March 1854. By 1860 the party had fielded and won the presidency with Midwest lawyer Abraham Lincoln. As one would expect—especially with the Civil War and Reconstruction—the Republican party dealt with changes due to time and various shifts in the political environment. To illustrate the level of consistency, you’ll find quotations in the relatively random list below of Republican leaders—mostly presidents—from 1862 to 2016.
I will treat the 2016 candidacy and administration of Donald Trump separately, likely in a future post on Christian Nationalism. I have not sought to focus on either strong or weak attitudes toward church-state separation. I do not propose that the historically random Republican quotes prove anything in any concrete way. For me they are best seen as educational and perhaps entertaining.
Comments of Republican Leaders 1864 – 2016
“My earlier views of the unsoundness of the Christian scheme of salvation and the human origin of the scriptures, have become clearer and stronger with advancing years and I see no reason for thinking I shall ever change them.” And “The United States government must not undertake to run the Churches. When an individual, in the Church or out of it, becomes dangerous to the public interest he must be checked.” President Abraham Lincoln, 1862.
“The divorce between Church and State ought to be absolute. It ought to be so absolute that no Church property anywhere, in any state or in the nation, should be exempt from equal taxation; for if you exempt the property of any church organization, to that extent you impose a tax upon the whole community.” Congressman (later President) James A. Garfield, 1874.
“I would suggest the taxation of all property equally, whether church or corporation.” And “Leave the matter of religion [religious teaching] to the family altar, the church, and the private school, supported entirely by private contribution. Keep the church and state forever separated.” President Ulysses S. Grant, 1875.
“We all agree that neither the Government nor political parties ought to interfere with religious sects. It is equally true that religious sects ought not to interfere with the Government or with political parties. We believe that the cause of good government and the cause of religion suffer by all such interference.” President Rutherford B. Hayes (while Governor of Ohio), 1875.
“There is nothing so despicable as a secret society that is based upon religious prejudice and that will attempt to defeat a man because of his religious beliefs. Such a society is like a cockroach—it thrives in the dark. So do those who combine for such an end.” President William Howard Taft, 1914.
“I hold that in this country there must be complete severance of Church and State; that public moneys shall not be used for the purpose of advancing any particular creed; and therefore that the public schools shall be non-sectarian and no public moneys appropriated for sectarian schools.” President Theodore Roosevelt, 1915.
“In the experiences of a year of the Presidency, there has come to me no other such unwelcome impression as the manifest religious intolerance which exists among many of our citizens. I hold it to be a menace to the very liberties we boast and cherish.” President Warren Harding, 1922.
“The fundamental precept of liberty is toleration. We cannot permit any inquisition either from within or without the law or apply any religious test to the holding of office. The mind of America must be forever free.” President Calvin Coolidge, 1925.
“I come of Quaker stock. My ancestors were persecuted for their beliefs. Here they sought and found religious freedom. By blood and conviction, I stand for religious tolerance both in act and in spirit.” President Herbert Hoover, 1928.
“And I should like to assure you, my Islamic friends, that under the American Constitution, under American tradition, and in American hearts, this Center, this place of worship, is just as welcome as could be a similar edifice of any other religion. Indeed, America would fight with her whole strength for your right to have here your own church and worship according to your own conscience. This concept is indeed a part of America, and without that concept we would be something else than what we are.” President Dwight Eisenhower, 1957.
“As you know, the separation of church and state is not subject to discussion or alteration. Under our Constitution no church or religion can be supported by the U.S. Government. We maintain freedom of religion so that an American can either worship in the church of his choice or choose to go to no church at all.” President Richard Nixon, 1960.
“I believe that prayer in public schools should be voluntary. It is difficult for me to see how religious exercises can be a requirement in public schools, given our Constitutional requirement of separation of church and state. I feel that the highly desirable goal of religious education must be principally the responsibility of church and home.” President Gerald R. Ford, 1976.
“We establish no religion in this country. We command no worship. We mandate no belief, nor will we ever. Church and state are and must remain separate.” President Ronald Reagan, 1984.
“Mark my word, if and when these preachers get control of the [Republican] party, and they’re sure trying to do so, it’s going to be a terrible damn problem. Frankly, these people frighten me. Politics and governing demand compromise. But these Christians believe they are acting in the name of God, so they can’t and won’t compromise. I know, I’ve tried to deal with them.” Presidential Candidate Barry Goldwater, 1994.
“I’m mindful in a free society that people can worship if they want to or not. You’re equally an American if you choose to worship an almighty and if you choose not to.” President George W. Bush, 2004.
“What we end up with is the first example of the criminalization of a Christian for believing the traditional definition of marriage.” Presidential Candidate Mike Huckabee, 2015.
My Thanks to Ed Buckner
Many thanks for the assistance of my valued friend, Ed Buckner, past president of American Atheists, Inc. It was his idea to match historical quotations with a roster of Republican speakers and writers, with an emphasis on presidents. Ed assembled these data into a clever game for persons who have an interest in what Thomas Jefferson in 1802 called a “wall of separation between church and state. ”From his list I selected almost all the quotes cited in this post. Ed graciously made his game and the information he’d collected for it available for my use.