U.S. Chief Executives Have Said Some Wonderful Things About Separation Of Church And State Over The Years. Here Are Ten Great Ones.
The year was 1832, and a cholera epidemic was ravaging the United States.
Doctors of the day were powerless to stop the disease. As its depredations spread, some desperate members of Congress decided that only divine intervention could save the country. They proposed an official day of fasting, humiliation and prayer.
President Andrew Jackson was not impressed. Jackson announced that if Congress were to pass such a resolution, he would not sign it into law.
"I could not do otherwise without transcending the limits prescribed by the Constitution for the president; and without feeling that I might in some degree disturb the security which religion now enjoys in this country in its complete separation from the political concerns of the General Government," Jackson wrote in a letter to a religious group.
The proclamation floundered in Congress, and eventually the epidemic ran its course. Outside of historians, few Americans know about Jackson's comments today--but they should. The incident is a reminder of the role a president can play in safeguarding the separation of church and state.
Since the founding of the American republic, chief executives have stepped up to defend the church-state wall by reminding the American people of the importance of religious liberty for all. By promoting legislation, vetoing bills that would mix religion and government and using the bully pulpit, presidents can be powerful advocates for the Constitution and the values it embodies. (Of course, they can also lay waste to those ideas, and some have done so.)
This month, as the nation marks Presidents Day, it's a good time to remember a few of the best comments about separation of church and state uttered by chief executives. Some of these will be familiar, others less so. Some were stated by presidents regarded as great by historians, others were less successful.
Whether a titan or a caretaker, presidents have reeled off memorable lines about religious liberty. Church & State is offering 10 here. Rather than list them in chronological order, we'll give them in a sequence from good statements to truly great ones (admittedly a somewhat subjective process), along with some background.
Bear in mind that not every one of these statements was delivered while the president in question was in office. Also, in some cases, antiquated spellings, punctuation, capitalization and abbreviations have been retained.
John Tyler (1841-45)
"The United States have adventured upon a great and noble experiment, which is believed to have been hazarded in the absence of all previous precedent that of total separation of church and state. No religious establishment by law exists among us."
If John Tyler is remembered for anything today, it's that he was the first vice president to assume the office of chief executive upon the death of the president. Tyler took office after William Henry Harrison died less than a month after being inaugurated.
Tyler wrote the passage above in 1843 in response to a letter he receive from Joseph Simpson, a Jewish resident of Baltimore. Simpson was upset that a high-ranking military officer planned to appear at a Christian conference.
In his response, Tyler noted that the general was attending the event as a private citizen and not "in his character in General and Chief of the Army. He will necessarily for the time being lay aside his sword and epaulets and appear, it is true, as a distinguished citizen but in no other light than as a citizen."
In the same letter, Tyler notes that religious freedom extends to all creeds and says a "Mohammedan" would have the right to worship according to the Quran and an East Indian "might erect a shrine to Brahma if it so pleased him." (Source: William and Mary Historical Magazine, July 1904)
Jimmy Carter (1977-1981)
"I think the government ought to stay out of the prayer business...."
Unlike many U.S. presidents, Jimmy Carter was not a lawyer. But he was uniquely qualified to comment on the role of religion in public life as a devout Southern Baptist and a Sunday school teacher.
On April 6,1979, Carter was asked about prayer in public schools during a press conference. A reporter noted that U.S. Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) had added an amendment to an education bill that called for "voluntary" prayer in...