America’s wall of separation

Written by Jonathan Ammons

November 16, 2022

The author’s views are his own.


“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

—U.S. Constitution—

When Thomas Jefferson penned the immortal words contained in the Declaration of Independence, he could not have fathomed that he had produced not only a document declaring the colonists’ intent to separate from the rule of the English crown, but an American creed that would form the ideological basis for a democratic nation that has endured nearly a quarter of a millennium. Nor could he have known that his words would be painstakingly and endlessly parsed by those seeking to understand their meaning.

In the latter half of the following decade, following the conclusion of the Revolutionary War, the U.S. Constitution and subsequent Bill of Rights would codify and give form to the ideas contained in the Declaration, together forming the ideological, philosophical and legal foundation of the American state. Among the most contested language of these founding charters are the two clauses in the First Amendment addressing the relationship between government and religion: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”[1] These clauses have come to be known as the establishment clause and the free exercise clause, respectively.

In the more than two centuries since the Constitution was ratified, historians, linguists, academicians, philosophers, legal scholars, and many others have undertaken extensive efforts to ascertain the meaning and application of its words. In doing so, the writings and statements of founding figures have often been turned to as important sources of commentary on the language and ideas of America’s founding charters. On the First Amendment, there is perhaps no commentary more frequently resorted to than Jefferson’s 1802 statement in a letter to the Danbury Baptist Association, in which he interprets the establishment and free exercise clauses as “building a wall of separation between Church & State.”[2]

Most take Jefferson’s statement at face value, believing that there should be a hard line drawn in the relationship between government and religious organizations and faith communities. At times, however, this idea can be taken too far, marginalizing people of faith and religious institutions in the process. An area where this notion of separation plays out in interesting ways is in the press, referred to by Lord Macaulay in 1828 as the “Fourth Estate.”[3]

A recent study by HarrisX and The Radiant Foundation interviewed thousands of citizens and journalists across 18 countries to ascertain current perspectives on media coverage of faith and religion. The results, and their implications, are significant. Among the most eye-opening findings:

  • 82% of respondents self-identified as religious, spiritual, or a person of faith, establishing a significant and global religious majority.
  • 61% say the media perpetuate faith-based stereotypes.
  • 63% feel there is a need for high-quality content on faith and religion.
  • 53% believe the media actively ignore religion rather than appropriately addressing it.
  • 56% want more coverage of complex religious issues.

These findings suggest that Jefferson’s separation principle has wormed its way into the Fourth Estate, with serious consequences for religious people and institutions.

The marginalization of religious institutions and people of faith becomes particularly problematic – and self-defeating – when considering the immense societal good that such institutions and communities provide. A recent report by Faith Counts highlights such social goods provided by religious communities in the United States.

The report found that religion contributes $1.2 trillion annually to the U.S. economy, which amounts to more than the annual contribution of the top 10 American tech companies combined – including Amazon, Apple and Google. If looked at in terms of GDP, that would make U.S. religion the 15th largest economy in the world.[4] In the area of substance abuse, American religious organizations and individuals save the U.S. government $316.6 billion annually, with their efforts resulting in more than 20,000 lives saved each year as well.[5] And these are just two of the areas in which religious organizations and communities are having a profound impact on the overall good and well-being of society.

If the impact of religion in America is so significant, then why are news media organizations either outright ignoring religion reporting or doing so in a way that is harmful to religious communities? Journalists responding to The Global Faith and Media Study indicated that “reduced budgets have led to a lack of specialist journalists, leaving generalists to cover topics – including faith and religion.”[6] The report also posits that “faith and religion are not seen as a driver for reader engagement. Editors almost never encourage stories in this area unless they correspond to a narrative of controversy, dissent or scandal.”[7]

What, then, is the solution? As Bill Moyers articulated, “[T]he quality of democracy and the quality of journalism are deeply entwined.”[8] If we are to continue to enjoy a strong democracy, we must improve the quality of the nation’s journalism at every level, from local to global coverage. And people of faith can help. How? By exercising their other First Amendment right of free speech to let journalists and news media organizations know that religion in America and beyond has a massive effect on society and that people of faith are deserving of consistent, balanced and informed reporting.

[1] U.S. Constitution, First Amendment.

[2] Thomas Jefferson, “Thomas Jefferson’s Letter to the Danbury Baptist Association,” Bill of Rights Institute, https://billofrightsinstitute.org/founding-documents/primary-source-documents/danburybaptists/.

[3] William Safire, “Fourth Estate,” Safire’s Political Dictionary, 261.

[4] “Facts On Faith,” https://factsonfaith.com/socio-economic-impact/.

[5] “Facts On Faith,” https://factsonfaith.com/substance-use-addiction/.

[6] “The Global Faith and Media Study,” https://index.faithandmedia.com/projects#Findings.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Bill Moyers, Speech to the National Conference for Media Reform, 15 May 2005, http://www.astraltraveler.com/moyerstranscript2.pdf.

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