The First Amendment to the United States Constitution, the first of the “Bill of Rights,” states that, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” These restrictions on federal action also apply to the states and their subdivisions. The “establishment of religion” clause lays down the doctrine of “separation of church and state.” Strictly speaking, it means that the United States was to have no state church, as was the case at the time in England (and still is the case). The more accurate way of putting it would be to call it the “nothing to do with religion” doctrine. Government under this concept governs with the consent of the people. The people have full religious freedom.
Both the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution are entirely secular documents whose primary stress is, in the words of the Declaration, that “governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed,” a direct contradiction of the notion of a higher power, religious or secular. Article Four of the Constitution states that “no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust,” an exclusionary provision, and outside the First Amendment the only reference to religion in the entire Constitution.
The Presidential oath of office, as specified in the Constitution, reads, “I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.” No deity is mentioned, even in a general sense, nor is swearing on a bible required.
By the time of the founding of the republic, American had already endured centuries of struggle for religious freedom. Looking back through the funnel of history, the founding fathers all had connections to some variety of what we now call Protestantism. It is important to keep in mind, however, that at the time, the various Protestant persuasions were newer, and more radically different from each other, than they may seem today. The founders wisely decided that the debates between and among these sects, as well as all questions of religion, should be kept entirely out of the realm of government. The United States Supreme Court has interpreted the intent of the founders to bar any governmental action that tends to support one religion over another, one group of religions over any other (as for example Christianity or the Judeo-Christian tradition), or even religion as opposed to atheism and humanism. In the words of founder Thomas Jefferson, a “wall of separation” must exist between church and state in order to protect both political liberty and religious freedom.
Despite the legal primacy of separation of church and state, Christianity and the Judeo-Christian tradition represented in the bible are extremely important constituents of American culture.
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