The popular notion today, which is often distorted, is “the separation of church and state.” This phrase is not found in the Constitution, but rather it comes from a letter from Thomas Jefferson to a religious group (the Baptists of Danbury, Connecticut). All of this is documented and expanded upon in “Doubting Thomas.”
Today when people talk about the separation of church and state, they often really mean the “separation of God and state.” They have turned the establishment clause of the first amendment of the Constitution to a type of search-and-destroy weapon against any Christian expression in public. Jefferson himself did not believe in such a view. Some modern lawyers and elitists today have perverted the separation of church and state (not a bad doctrine, if understood as the separation of the institution or sphere of the church from the institution or sphere of the state) into state-sanctioned atheism. Jefferson would never agree with such a perspective.
In one sense, the import of Jefferson’s religious views really gets down to what extent is Christian expression, if anything, allowed in the public arena?
We can trace the use of the phrase “the separation of church and state” back to Thomas Jefferson. Today, this doctrine or a distortion of it is being used to drive out any Christian expression in the public arena. Is this what Jefferson had in mind? In the letter where the phrase actually comes from, Jefferson asks the Danbury Baptists to pray for him, as he promises to pray for them. Here is the president of the United States asking for prayer—he’s violating the separation of church and state—in the very document used to give us the doctrine of the separation of church and state.
Today the idea of the separation of church and state is repeated so often that one would think that it’s in the Constitution. It is not.
Instead what the Constitution actually says is (in the first amendment) is, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…” The first section there is known as the establishment clause. Historically, it was understood to mean that at the national level, we would have no established religion. For instance, the Anglican Church would not be the national religion “by law established”—thus, allowing the possibility for one church to lord it over the others.
Even when the first amendment was written and adopted in 1791, a handful of the thirteen states had state denominations. These were never declared unconstitutional. The last one to go was the Congregational Church of Massachusetts. This state-church lasted all the way until 1833. It wasn’t ideal, and it withered away of its own accord.