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The Left Cries for 'Separation of Church and State,' but It Has No Idea What That Means

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When it comes to the U.S. Constitution and the words of the Founding Fathers, leftists possess an almost impressive capacity for selective understanding.

From the Second Amendment to the purposes and standards of impeachment, the American left can read just about anything into, or out of, the broader American founding and framework to fit its political needs.

And nowhere has this been better exemplified in recent months and years than in the dialogue surrounding religious liberty — or, more specifically, the “separation of church and state.”

Be honest: How many times have you heard that phrase used in political conversation? Probably a lot.

From Nativity scenes and engravings of the Ten Commandments on public property to the mere mention of Judeo-Christian morality by a conservative figure, the left stands with ears perked in preparation to battle back the arm of religion — or, more accurately, Christianity — from the public square.

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It is the “separation of church and state” argument, and no other, that sees optional prayer banned from state-run schools and Democratic opposition efforts made with regard to use of the word “God” on federal government property and print.

Heck. Just last month, the left lost its collective mind over Trump campaign senior legal adviser Jenna Ellis’ very public assertion that the separation of church and state was a myth.

“The left is going to tell you there’s this separation of church and state, and that’s just nowhere in the Constitution, nowhere in American law,” Ellis said during a virtual event hosted by Asian Pacific Americans for Trump. “That’s nothing that our founding principles ever derived whatsoever.”

Now, I don’t necessarily find myself standing arm-in-arm in agreement with Ellis here.

Do you think the American left misunderstands the separation of church and state?

From the Article VI interdiction against religious litmus tests for elected officials to First Amendment prohibitions on the establishment of a national religion to the written opinions of the Founding Fathers, it remains abundantly clear that the framers were concerned with preventing the church from exerting pressure on the state and vice versa.

Unfortunately for the modern American left, however, the emphasis there falls heavily upon the vice versa.

In fact, the “separation of church and state” as we Americans know it was, from its conception, meant almost exclusively as a protection for the church and the believer against the state.

The term “separation of church and state” itself is derived from early American conversations regarding the rights of religious minorities under the newly established constitutional government.

In an 1802 letter to the Baptist congregation of Danbury, Connecticut, Thomas Jefferson coined the phrase in an attempt to assure church members that they would face no governmental oppression as a result of their position in the religious minority.

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“I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should ‘make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,’ thus building a wall of separation between Church & State,” Jefferson wrote.

Even the explicit constitutional separations of church and state mentioned previously are predominantly protections of the church.

The establishment and “no religious test” clauses found within the Constitution are, rather obviously, not included as a measure intended to keep practicing believers out of government.

Quite the opposite, in fact. As John Adams famously said, “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious People. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”

Instead, the two clauses are intended to ensure that religious peoples of all backgrounds and practices are able to serve in government, not just those of a particular “preferred” religion or denomination.

Of course, this is where the left’s selective understanding of the American founding comes into play.

While left-wing ideologues fashion themselves modern champions of the “separation of church and state” when it comes to restricting the church and growing the state, the phrase all but disappears from their vocabulary when it might be employed with original intent: in efforts to prevent state-sanctioned steamrolling of the church.

Case in point? The government response to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

As shutdown orders took the nation by storm in late spring and stay-at-home protocols went into effect, churches around the nation quite literally begged to retain their inalienable right to gather peacefully and worship in community.

Tyrant governors and Democratic Washington elites, however, answered with a resounding, “No.”

They were ruthless in establishing and, on several occasions, criminally enforcing church closure, leaving many religious communities with little choice but to gather in secret or open defiance and risk the consequences.

Yet, nowhere in the conversation was mention made of the supposedly exalted “separation of church and state.”

How convenient is that?

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Andrew J. Sciascia was the supervising editor of features at The Western Journal. Having joined up as a regular contributor of opinion in 2018, he went on to cover the Barrett confirmation and 2020 presidential election for the outlet, regularly co-hosting its video podcast, "WJ Live," as well.
Andrew J. Sciascia was the supervising editor of features at The Western Journal and regularly co-hosted the outlet's video podcast, "WJ Live."

Sciascia first joined up with The Western Journal as a regular contributor of opinion in 2018, before graduating with a degree in criminal justice and political science from the University of Massachusetts Lowell, where he served as editor-in-chief of the student newspaper and worked briefly as a political operative with the Massachusetts Republican Party.

He covered the Barrett confirmation and 2020 presidential election for The Western Journal. His work has also appeared in The Daily Caller.