Recently I watched a National Geographic documentary with Katie Couric called Gender Revolution. Couric was working on this special program exploring America’s changing view of gender. Couric sat on the front porch of sixteen-year-old Gavin Grimm, a transgender high school student who has been in the national spotlight in recent months. Gavin (a woman trying to transition into a man) is at the center of the school bathroom controversy. The Fourth Circuit Federal Court of Appeals is currently reviewing whether Gavin—and other transgender students like her—should be able to use the restroom which correlates to what they believe to be their gender identity, rather than their biological sex. As I listened to the interview, Couric asked the obvious question: What would you say to those who claim that it is a sin to embrace a transgender lifestyle? Gavin took a deep breath before telling Couric, “Quite frankly, I don’t care about religious arguments because, at its core, it has no place in lawmaking and legislation and policymaking” (Couric 2017). Gavin was confident because she believed the law was clear: separation of church and state means that religion has no place in lawmaking.
In my K-12 years, I ran the gamut of educational situations, from public school to homeschool to Catholic school, and then to public school again. In this time I took many courses on government and American history. I realize now that none of the curricula ever went into depth on the meaning of the separation of church and state. Indeed, many of my teachers taught the common interpretation of it, saying that separation of church and state was meant to keep religious people from imposing their religion on others. That seemed reasonable to me since I believed that America was founded to be a secular nation, governed according to humanism rather than Christianity. We read books like The Scarlet Letter, and the conclusion always supported the modern secular interpretation of the separation of church and state. Class discussions would conclude, for example, that if the local rulers had not forced Hester Prynne to embrace their religious rules, the story would have turned out better. Public education’s overly-harsh treatment of Christianity aside, the topic at hand is whether or not the original intent was to keep religious thought out of government.
The short answer is, “No.” The phrase “separation of church and state” first appeared in a letter sent from Thomas Jefferson to the Baptists of Danbury, Connecticut, who were concerned that the state government was interfering in their right to believe and worship as they saw fit (allabouthistory.org). As far as Jefferson was concerned, the government simply had the responsibility of letting Americans worship in accordance with what they believed. In the case of the Baptists, he was assuring them that the Connecticut government would not be able to tell them how to worship.
Aside from the history of the phrase itself, we know that America was founded openly on Christian thought. For years the US Capitol and Treasury buildings opened their doors on Sundays for worship. John Quincy Adams praised the American project, saying “[t]he highest glory of the American Revolution was, it connected in one indissoluble bond, the principles of civil government with the principles of Christianity.” In 1892, the Supreme Court furthered the judicial interpretation of our country’s identity in saying “this is a Christian nation” (allabouthistory.org). In the 1990 Westside Community Board of Education v. Mergens case, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor said that it would be ridiculous to think that those who founded this nation (many of whom were religious refugees) would want to keep religion out of the public sphere.
A faithful interpretation of the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and countless court cases show that a separation was made between church and state to protect the religious from government coercion, not to protect the government from religious opinions. However, if Gavin Grimm’s interpretation is correct, that means that I, by virtue of being religious, have less of a right to lobby for my own ideas than she does. If Gavin is right, a religious person’s vote is worth less than that of a secular person.
Since so many people have an incorrect understanding of the separation of church and state, it is becoming increasingly important for American Christians to understand their rights. I am under no obligation to keep my mouth shut simply because I am religious. Even if my only reason for believing something is wrong is what the Bible says about it, I have every right to speak out about it and to try to influence policy. Of course, the Bible itself sets up barriers between the temple and the crown to help prevent abuses (see Seth Bloomsburg’s Separation of Church and State in the Old Testament on this blog if you’re curious about this), and I am not advocating for theocratic rule. Still we are still to live as faithful believers when we step out of the church and into the streets.
As a Christian, remember that we are not guests living in an areligious society—it was our Christian philosophy of inalienable rights and individual liberty that built this society. Remind yourselves of John Quincy Adams’ take on the American War for Independence when you are told that Christians have to leave their beliefs in church. The glory of the American Revolution was that it was a fight to create a land where Christian liberty created freedom for everyone. We have just as much right to fight for what we believe as anyone else.
Couric, Katie. 2017. “Gender Revolution: A Journey with Katie Couric” (video). February 6. Accessed March 31, 2017. http://channel.nationalgeographic.com/gender-revolution-a-journey-with-katie-couric/videos/what-is-gender/.
Allabouthistory.org. Separation Of Church And State. Month Day. Accessed April 11, 2017. http://www.allabouthistory.org/separation-of-church-and-state.htm.