A useful history lesson

WRAL takes issue with Republican U.S. Senate candidate Greg Brannon’s statement during last night’s debate about the “separation of church and state.” Since the television station’s response falls short of the mark, it might be worthwhile to explore the issue in more detail.

Here’s what Brannon said:

“This whole fallacy of a separation between church and state is nowhere found in our founding documents,” Brannon said. “It was a letter written by (Thomas) Jefferson back to the Danbury convention back in Connecticut saying that the federal government can never make a wall that they can go over. The individual is free to be how they want to be.”

Before assigning Brannon a “red light,” WRAL first quotes from Jefferson’s letter to the Danbury Baptist Association in Connecticut, then spells out the text of the First Amendment to the Constitution. WRAL follows up with a quote from the Cornell Law School: “Two clauses in the First Amendment guarantee freedom of religion. The establishment clause prohibits the government from passing legislation to establish an official religion or preferring one religion over another. It enforces the ‘separation of church and state.’ ”

The television station’s conclusion: “While you might not find the words ‘separation of church and state’ in the Constitution, the U.S. Supreme Court has found that government ought to stay out of religion, and vice versa, over the years. This claim gets a red light.”

The conclusion does not follow from the evidence.

Brannon does not get his facts right. He refers to a Danbury “convention,” rather than the “association.” His statement about the “wall” is inarticulate. Jefferson did discuss a wall separating church and state. He did not say anything about the federal government never making “a wall that they can go over.” (If they want to go over the wall, why build the wall?)

But before he muffed the Jefferson story, Brannon offered a sound statement about the history of the “separation of church and state.” Those words do not appear in the Constitution or in any other Founding era document voted upon by an official governmental body. A close reading of history shows that the establishment clause was designed to prevent the national government from creating an official religion and to block the national government from taking any action against any person’s exercise of his religion.

The First Amendment did nothing to block the states from maintaining their existing official religions or maintaining any of their existing restrictions on religion. Connecticut had an official religion until 1818, and Massachusetts — the hotbed of American revolutionary fervor — kept its official religion until 1833. North Carolina jettisoned its official church in 1776 but later added religious restrictions for officeholders that remained in place from the 1830s to the 1870s.

The notion of a “separation of church and state” emerges first in Jefferson’s letter, expressing his personal opinion. The Cornell Law School’s interpretation that the establishment clause enforces a “separation of church and state” is based not on the words of the Constitution itself, nor on the original understanding of the First Amendment, nor on the understanding of the First Amendment that held sway deep into the 19th century.

What the U.S. Supreme Court has done in subsequent years does not change the fact that “a separation of church and state is nowhere found in our founding documents,” which WRAL reports as the claim Brannon made. This WRAL fact-check gets a red light.

I’m not even going to bother to touch the climate change silliness.

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