The institutional separation of church and state—a revolutionary accomplishment of the American Founders—does not entail the separation of religion and politics. On the contrary, as the Northwest Ordinance states, “religion, morality and knowledge” are “necessary to good government.”
For America’s Founders, reason and revelation properly understood are complementary. “Almighty God hath created the mind free,” wrote Thomas Jefferson in the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom. Human beings are fallible, yet despite this fact, they are capable of self-government.
With careful cultivation of one’s soul, attention to “the laws of nature and of nature’s God,” and the uplifting assistance of family, church, and the local community, an individual is able to tame base passions and live worthy of the blessings of liberty. Virtue is vital to good government.
Among the greatest of blessings—and the most important of rights—is religious liberty. Rejecting the low standard of mere “toleration” that existed elsewhere, the Founders enshrined liberty of conscience as a matter of right. It is immoral, they held, for any government to coerce religious belief. Yet they also argued that it is advisable for governments to recognize their reliance upon “Divine Providence,” and to provide for the support and encouragement of religion.
The government of the United States (or any of the fifty states) is not a church, and the church is not a governmental entity. This institutional separation, a clear statement of which is in the First Amendment, is a boon to both religion and politics, for instead of tying man’s religious fate to the future of the state, the establishment of religious liberty frees up religion so that it might flourish. This important point is missed by the Supreme Court’s misinterpretation, repeated numerous times since 1947, of Thomas Jefferson’s “wall of separation between church and state” metaphor.
David J. Bobb is director of the Hillsdale College Allan P. Kirby, Jr. Center for Constitutional Studies and Citizenship, in Washington, D.C., and lecturer in politics. Dr. Bobb teaches courses in American politics and political theory to students participating in the Washington-Hillsdale Internship Program. Through teaching the enduring principles of the American Declaration of Independence and Constitution, the Kirby Center seeks to inspire citizens to live worthy of the blessings of liberty.
From 2001 to 2010 Dr. Bobb served as director of the Hillsdale College Charles R. and Kathleen K. Hoogland Center for Teacher Excellence, a civic education program for high school teachers. Formerly a research associate at the Boston-based Pioneer Institute for Public Policy Research, he has published reviews and articles in Perspectives on Political Science, the Claremont Review of Books, the American Spectator, and the Washington Times. He blogs regularly for BigGovernment.com, and his book on humility as a political virtue is under review for publication. He received his B.A. from Hillsdale College, summa cum laude, and his Ph.D. in political science from Boston College.