Whenever one speaks of religion and government in the same breath, five words inevitably follow: “separation of church and state.” This concept has infiltrated every corner of our society despite being an enormous deception. The term “separation of church and state” does not appear in the Constitution or the Declaration of Independence and the current meaning is not what the Founders intended. It is critical to understand the relationship between religion, freedom, and government, so let’s examine the issue.
The First Amendment states: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…” In other words, Congress cannot establish an official state religion (such as was found in England at the time) or make any law that infringes upon the citizens’ right to freely practice their faith. It is a simple statement that is highly disregarded today, and it says absolutely nothing about prohibiting government from recognizing God.
In 1801, the Danbury Baptists exchanged letters with Thomas Jefferson seeking clarification on the wording of the First Amendment and whether churches would now be subject to government interference. Jefferson wrote back assuring them that the First Amendment actually built “a wall of separation between Church and State” which would in no way interfere with man’s natural right to religious liberty. His point was that the amendment’s wording prevented government from infringing upon religion, not the other way around. Yet, over the centuries, his words have been twisted to mean the exact opposite and the false interpretation promoted with religious zeal.
Thomas Jefferson also wrote the Declaration of Independence, which is the document that outlines the beliefs upon which our government was formed. It includes this passage which proves how Jefferson felt: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” (emphasis added). He goes on to say that it is the job of government to secure the rights given by God.
President Benson taught this about the origin of our rights: “Rights are either God-given as part of the divine plan, or they are granted by government as part of the political plan. If we accept the premise that human rights are granted by government, then we must be willing to accept the corollary that they can be denied by government. I, for one, shall never accept that premise” (BYU, 9/16/86).
The Founding Fathers and Church leaders agree that our rights come from God. Knowing that, how can we think it wise to separate the government (which was established to protect our rights) from any recognition of God (who grants us the rights in the first place)? It is neither wise nor logical; it is simply denying the facts of our history. The very men that founded our government were quite clear about the role religion should play. Consider just a few of their statements:
“Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports.” -George Washington
“Whenever the pillars of Christianity shall be overthrown, our present republican forms of government, and all blessings which flow from them, must fall with them.” -Jedediah Morse
“The only foundation for a useful education in a republic is to be laid in religion. Without this there can be no virtue, and without virtue there can be no liberty, and liberty is the object and life of all republican governments.” -Benjamin Rush
“[O]nly a virtuous people are capable of freedom. As nations become corrupt and vicious, they have more need of masters.” -Benjamin Franklin
“I have long been convinced that our enemies have made it an object to eradicate from the minds of the people in general a sense of true religion and virtue, in hopes thereby the more easily to carry their point of enslaving them… The public liberty will not long survive the total extinction of morals.” -Samuel Adams
“Religion, morality, and knowledge being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged.” -Northwest Ordinance, 1787, Article 3
“Our constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” -John Adams
The Founders knew that freedom can prosper only when the people are capable of regulating their own actions and don’t need a heavy-handed government to do it for them. This is often referred to as “obedience to the unenforceable.” Needed virtues such as honesty, charity, integrity, patience, service, and respect for life are most often found through religious belief where men and women are accountable to God for their actions and seek to develop a character that is pleasing to Him. When religion is undermined, we lose our moral foundation for self-government.
Elder M. Russell Ballard said, “Obviously, it would not be politically expedient to say that the values that the Founding Fathers drew upon are eternal, unchanging values. But that is a fact. The values that made America great are, in reality, the commandments of God. They provide the foundation upon which the American republic was built. And if American democracy seems shaky today, it’s only because that foundation has been eroded and weakened under the guise of separation of church and state” (Ensign, October 1992, emphasis added).
We know that God established this government to have the freedom necessary for the gospel to be restored. Our national motto is “In God We Trust,” yet today we don’t let Him anywhere near our schools or virtually any other government institution. Irreligion has become the state-sponsored religion. We’ll examine why that is dangerous in a future article. For now, I would simply leave you with the words of Abraham Lincoln. His time as Commander in Chief during the Civil War was transformational and cemented in him a reliance on God. This is one of my favorite quotes because it rings so true given the position in which we find our nation today. The Book of Mormon proclaims the same truth: only as we return to God and “worship the God of the land, who is Jesus Christ” (Ether 2:12) will we continue to be blessed as a nation. Said Lincoln:
“We have been the recipients of the choicest bounties of Heaven. We have been preserved, these many years, in peace and prosperity. We have grown in numbers, wealth and power, as no other nation has ever grown. But we have forgotten God. We have forgotten the gracious hand which preserved us in peace, and multiplied and enriched and strengthened us; and we have vainly imagined, in the deceitfulness of our hearts, that all these blessings were produced by some superior wisdom and virtue of our own. Intoxicated with unbroken success, we have become too self-sufficient to feel the necessity of redeeming and preserving grace, too proud to pray to the God that made us! It behooves us then, to humble ourselves before the offended Power, to confess our national sins, and to pray for clemency and forgiveness.”