The Historical Antecedents of Church-State Separation
The idea of separating the functions and powers of the sacred and the profane reaches far back into Western history. In his writings in the fifth century, Augustine of Hippo distinguished the authority and duties of the sacred and temporal worlds. The ideas of church-state separation that were most influential during the founding period, however, can be traced chiefly to the Protestant Reformation, the Enlightenment, and Whig politics. Arguments for disengaging secular authority from the church arose during the Reformation, largely in response to the arrangements that had arisen between the Catholic Church and various kingdoms.
Much of this emphasis on separation was theologically based. John Calvin, in his Institutes of the Christian Religion, wrote that the “spiritual kingdom” and the “political kingdom […] must always be considered separately,” due to the “difference and unlikeliness between ecclesiastical and civil power.” Yet, even though Protestant leaders such as Calvin and Martin Luther emphasized that the church and the state were distinct institutions with separate spheres, they viewed them as based in the same divine authority and engaging in complementary roles. The institutional distinction between church and state did not lead to disestablishment or any practical sense of separation. Only radical reformers such as the Anabaptists rejected the idea of religious establishments, with Anabaptist leader Menno Simons calling for a “separating wall” between the regenerate church and the corrupting world.
British and American Puritans also insisted on distinct civil and religious institutions, denying political authority to church leaders. But the Puritans did not foreswear formal establishments or the state support of religion, tying many of their civil laws to biblical mandates and maintaining a system of taxes to support religion. Public officials were to be “nursing fathers” of the regenerate church, reinforcing its mission.
It fell to radical Separatist and some-time Baptist Roger Williams to make the most complete argument for church-state separation in early colonial America. In a famous passage, Williams argued for a “wall of Separation between the Garden of the Church and the Wilderness of the world.” Rhode Island, the colony established by Williams, rejected a religious establishment and enforced a high degree of separation between governmental and ecclesiastical institutions. (Quaker Pennsylvania also forswore a religious establishment, though it did not go as far as Rhode Island in rejecting any government role in reinforcing religious morality.) Although Williams is now viewed as a visionary, his influence at the time was limited; during the Revolutionary era, separationist Baptist Isaac Backus preferred to point to Pennsylvania as the model of religious liberty, instead of “irreligious” Rhode Island.
Many of the founders knew of this history, though it is less likely they were familiar with the writings of reformers like Roger Williams.
Rather, the Founders’ ideas about church-state relations came principally from the works of Enlightenment and Whig writers. John Locke, author of the highly influential Second Treatise on Government (1690) and A Letter Concerning Toleration (1689), refuted the doctrine of the divine right of kings and replaced it with a theory of a “social contract” by which people—the ultimate sources of authority—delegated to government the responsibility to create an ordered society. Locke’s theories stood in sharp contrast to the notion that secular law was subject to religious mandates. In his Letter Concerning Toleration, Locke wrote that “the care of souls is not committed to the civil magistrate […] [Thus] the civil power ought not to prescribe articles of faith or doctrines, or forms of worshipping God, by civil law.”
Rather, “the whole power of civil government is concerned only with men’s civil goods, is confined to the care of the things of this world, and has nothing whatever to do with the world to come.” It is true that Locke did not dispute all forms of government support for religion or advocate disestablishing the Church of England. But Locke’s writings must be viewed within the context of their time when notions of religious toleration and a division of ecclesiastical and civil functions were in their nascent stages. Locke envisioned a situation which would restrict the influence of each on the other. The “bounds of the church” cannot “in any manner be extended to civil affairs,” Locke insisted, “because the church itself is a thing absolutely separate and distinct from the commonwealth and civil affairs. The boundaries of both sides are fixed and immovable.”