Protecting religion from Government: Why we need church-state separation

I just got one of those emails from a family member.

You know the kind, the ones with knee-jerk arguments for hyper-conservative policies. The kind that can ruin your evening.

This one was calling for “prayer in schools” and told people who didn’t believe in God to “sit down and be quiet.”

Here’s my response…


“As long as there are tests, there will always be prayer in schools.”

Our nation was founded by religious minorities. Puritans, baptists, and others fled religious persecution in Europe to the United States so that they could be free of state-sponsored religions that persecuted them for their religious beliefs.

The establishment clause of the first amendment of the constitution is part of the genius of the American system. It protects religion from the state.

For example, Episcopalians use pre-written prayers in the Book of Common Prayer. Pentecostals rely on spontaneous, spirit-led prayer. If we teach prayer in schools, which type do we teach?

The job of government and schools is not to teach religion. Public schools should not force protestant children to say the “Hail Mary.” Nor is it to force Jews to end their prayer with “in Jesus’ name we pray.” Nor is it to tell atheists, Buddhists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, Hindus, and others to “be quite and sit down.”

I try (and admittedly often fail) to maintain a daily prayer practice, one that is rooted in my Quaker spirituality and tradition. It is different from the Muslim practice of praying toward Mecca. It is different than the charismatic Pentecostal tradition of spontaneous prayer and speaking in tongues. It is different than the Episcopal reliance on the Book of Common prayer. I would hate to insist that the schools teach Pentecostal, Muslim, Episcopalian, or other kids that the right way to pray is how the Quakers pray. The only way to safeguard our religious liberty is to keep the responsibility for religious education in the hands of our religious institutions.

That’s why the establishment clause is right there in the first amendment. That’s why Thomas Jefferson talked about a “wall of separation between Church and State.” This method of protecting religion from governmental encroachment is a brilliant American innovation, one that we should honor, cherish, and preserve.


p.s. Yes, for the record I recognize that some colonial settlers fled religious persecution from one state-sponsored Church to attempt to set up a new state religion that then went on to persecute other religions. I am painfully aware of how the Puritan settlers had Quakers whipped for proclaiming Quaker theology. I don’t want us to make that mistake again.

The power of a faithful witness for peace

I’ve just finished reading the Pastoral Letter from Friends Church in Kenya (FCK), a response from the Quaker Church in Kenya to the recent violence.

It’s brilliant. And I say that as someone who is deeply ambivalent about the value of “words on paper” to create social chance.

The letter reaches to Quaker tradition and Biblical texts to call for actions based on truth, peace, economic justice, and reverence for life. It lays out a proposal for addressing the impasse in Kenya that respects civil society, all ethnic groups, and fair process.

Spiritually-rooted activists here in the US can learn much from their example. And in the meantime, we can pray for peace and reconciliation in Kenya.