The United States government is designed in such a way that religious beliefs are not to interfere with federal policy. This does not mean that the United States is a country without religion or has a government that is intolerant of religion, but in fact, quite the opposite. The country has always been filled with citizens of many different faiths and belief systems, and the government is set up to protect the beliefs of each one of these citizens. The way it does this is by not allowing any one religion to become dominant.
The idea of “separation of church and state” can be a difficult concept to define, and its many intricate nuances have created close examination and continuous debate. Today, this concept is coming under heated attack from supporters and opponents of separation between church and state, from those that think the government interferes too much in the affairs of religion, to those that think the religious population holds too much influence on government policy.
The clearest way to define the benefits or drawbacks of separation of church and state is to look at its history and the many current conflicts surrounding it, including the inclusion of the phrase “under God” in the national Pledge of Allegiance, taken by tens of millions of schoolchildren a year; close inspection will reveal that inclusion of the phrase goes against the secular ideals upon which the country was founded. Separation of church and state is a relatively recent phenomenon in society.
Most of the earliest governments took their power from the religious beliefs of their citizens, as ancient cultures usually shared the religious beliefs of their leaders. Religions often varied from state to state, and in many states, like Egypt and Rome, the supreme ruler was also considered to be a God. During the period of the Roman Empire, after centuries of having its practitioners persecuted by followers of the state sanctioned paganism, Christianity became the official religion, marking the beginning of Christianity’s dominance over European governments.
Throughout the medieval period, the Christian Church remained the sole unifying institution in the darkness of the Dark Ages, and the church and state were intimately tied. After medieval times, even as sects of Christianity began to diverge into separate faiths, countries simply adjusted their state religions. Most famously, Henry VIII broke from the Catholic Church and created the Church of England because he disagreed with their views, and America’s Pilgrim and Puritan settlers made their journey to escape governmental religious persecution.
The idea of keeping church and state separate in the United States finds its origins in the philosophy of its founding fathers. Thomas Jefferson was instrumental in not only the founding of the country and many of its greatest ideals, but in also encouraging the separation. As the war of independence approached, nine of the thirteen colonies had official religions and in his home state of Virginia, Jefferson proposed the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, which became law in 1786, as well as the basis for the First Amendment to the United States Constitution (United States Department of State).