The "Wall of Separation" Has Preserved Religion -- Including Mormonism





Mr. Conn is a professor of history at Ohio State University, and a writer for the History News Service.

You'd think that of all people, Mitt Romney, a Mormon, would know better.

In his recent, quasi-confessional speech about his religion and the role of religion in the town square, Romney said: "Religion is seen as merely a private affair with no place in public life. It is as if they are intent on establishing a new religion in America - the religion of secularism. They are wrong."

In fact, it is Romney who has it wrong, and in that remark he perpetuates one of the central myths of the religious right in our country. The religious right, a club that Romney desperately wants to join, tells a story of moral decline: America was once great and righteous and true, and now we have slid into depravity and turpitude.

The details of this declension are always vague -- notice the unnamed "they" of Romney's speech -- but the cause is always some hazy conspiracy of people who have stripped religion out of public life. And the antidote is the same: more religion, preferably more of that "old time" religion. In our private lives and in our politics.

This gets the history of the separation between church and state exactly backwards. We can date the beginnings of this separation to William Penn's Philadelphia. When he founded the City of Brotherly Love in the 1680s he did so without an official, "state" religion (in contrast with the Massachusetts and Virginia colonies) and announced to the world that people of any religious faith would be welcome. To Penn we owe our freedom of religion.

Penn was a deeply religious Quaker. He called Pennsylvania a "holy experiment." As a Quaker he had been persecuted for his religious beliefs in England. His Quakerism, and his refusal to renounce it, led to his expulsion from Oxford University and ultimately to jail. For Penn, religion was a matter of private conscience, not public policy. When he founded Philadelphia without an official religion he did so precisely to keep the state out of the church. Penn knew personally what could happen when the state and church mixed.

A century later, the Founders were inspired by the Enlightenment's promotion of reason and liberty. They shaped the United States on Penn's model: without a state religion and with the promise that the government would not meddle in the affairs of any church. That's why Thomas Jefferson responded to the Connecticut Baptists' appeal with his famous reference to a "wall of separation" between the state and the church.

In the 19th century, Mormons experienced more harassment and hostility from state and federal governments than any other religious group. When Mormons established a settlement in Nauvoo, Illinois, the hostility broke out into something approaching war. The state legislature intervened and revoked the town's charter.

Having moved to the Utah territory, Mormons clashed with the federal government. President Buchanan declared the Utah territory to be in rebellion for its attempt to establish a Mormon Zion on federal land. He sent in federal troops to remove Brigham Young as the territorial governor, precipitating the so-called Utah war.

Buchanan, like most Americans, found the Mormon practice of polygamy to be abhorrent. Buchanan's successor, Lincoln, signed the first federal law banning polygamy in 1862, a law that was challenged all the way to the Supreme Court, where its constitutionality was upheld.

Since then, Mormons have managed an uneasy compromise with the rest of the nation. In return for disavowing the practice of polygamy, Mormons have largely been left alone by the state. The sect has grown and expanded as a result.

The lesson of Mormon history would seem to be clear: keep the church out of the state and the state will stay out of the church. Mitt Romney's presidential candidacy should be an opportunity to remind Americans about that critical lesson. Unfortunately, Romney chose instead to tell the religious right what it wants to hear: more prayer in public places.

Romney's understanding of theology may or may not be palatable to the Republican base he courts. What should trouble us more than his Mormonism is his misunderstanding of our tradition of religious freedom. Religion has flourished in the United States precisely because we have separated state and church.


This piece was distributed for non-exclusive use by the History News Service, an informal syndicate of professional historians who seek to improve the public's understanding of current events by setting these events in their historical contexts. The article may be republished as long as both the author and the History News Service are clearly credited.



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R. R. Hamilton - 12/30/2007

"God and religious dogmas have been and still are the most foolish, darkest, and malicious phenomena in the history of mankind."

Atheism had its chance in the 20th century and it killed 100,000,000 people, more than all the religious wars combined.

Intelligent people are not surprised that when a dominant segment of society comes to believe that there will be no retribution in this world or any other, mass murder will inevitably follow.

Religion saves lives.


Arnold Shcherban - 12/30/2007

How can intelligent people believe
in something/someone they don't what, where and how it is?
God and religious dogmas have been and still are the most foolish, darkest, and malicious phenomena in the history of mankind.


Barbara Jean Cornett - 12/25/2007

If we have slipped into depravity it would be nice if someone could tell us who runs our country today. Most Christians are against current policies of the vile evil neocons who do whatever they please and do not represent the interests of real Americans.

Name the evil that controls our government and media. I dare you to say they are Christian.


R.R. Hamilton - 12/23/2007

How do you figure the Bush administration is "the most Christian administration in memory"?


N. Friedman - 12/23/2007

Ms. Cornett,

Last I looked, the Bush administration is the most Christian administration in memory. So, I dare say it.


R. R. Hamilton - 12/20/2007

Is "separation of church and state" a one-way street? Does it mean that any sphere of human activity in which the State chooses to enter is suddenly closed to religion?

At the time Jefferson wrote about "a wall of separation", on the "church side of the wall" was a near-monopoly on education, welfare, hospitals, and family law. So it was the State which breached this wall of separation when it entered these spheres. Seen thus in context -- which historians are constantly telling us is all-important -- any honest adherant of Jefferson's vision of a "wall of separation of church and state" should call for, as a starting point, the immediate withdrawl of the federal government from the sphere of education.


John R. Maass - 12/18/2007

Mr. Conn shows us how it is not just politics and religion that shouldn't mix, but perhaps politics and historians as well, at least with regard to current politics. Notice how we get the standard leftist boilerplate: "The details of this declension are always vague -- notice the unnamed "they" of Romney's speech -- but the cause is always some hazy conspiracy of people who have stripped religion out of public life. And the antidote is the same: more religion, preferably more of that "old time" religion. In our private lives and in our politics." But we get the same from Conn, who can only make mention of some vague, scary "religious right" which he (and others of his ilk) all too often never bother to define or identify. If it suits him, Conn is quick to deploy demons, but rolls out his own as well.


Paul Thomas Mouritsen - 12/17/2007

"The lesson of Mormon history would seem to be clear: keep the church out of the state and the state will stay out of the church."

This is a fine article, but I would like to clarify one point.

Despite Mr. Romney's comments, I think that most Mormons are well-aware of the blessings of the separation of church and state.

In 1835, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints adopted "A Declaration of Belief Regarding Governments and Laws in General." This statement is accepted by members of the Church as authoritative.

In part it states, "We believe that religion is instituted of God; and that men are amenable to him, and to him only, for the exercise of it, unless their religious opinions prompt them to infringe upon the rights and liberties of others; but we do not believe that human law has a right to interfere in prescribing rules of worship to bind the consciences of men, nor dictate forms for public or private devotion; that the civil magistrate should restrain crime, but never control conscience; should punish guilt, but never suppress the freedom of the soul . . . . We do not believe it just to mingle religious influence with civil government, whereby one religious society is fostered and another proscribed in its spiritual privileges, and the individual rights of its members, as citizens, denied."

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