I’m proud to be an American. This is not some blind, jingoistic, nationalist pride—it’s not my country right or wrong (I only adopt that attitude during the World Cup and the Olympics). I’m proud because this nation, despite its faults and missteps, was the first to separate state and church. That “wall of separation” as Jefferson put it, is an American original.
This is not to say the idea is necessarily an American invention, but it was first implemented in the “American Experiment,” as Madison put it. Until then, no other nation had sought to so full protect the ability of its citizens to think freely. No people had sought to divorce the terrible power religion holds over the supposed afterlife, from the power government has in everyday life. Until then, the freedom of thought and even the freedom of religion, could never have truly existed.
There can never be true freedom of religion, without a government that is free from religion. Daniel Carroll, a Catholic representative to the Constitutional Convention from Maryland, put it best when he said that, “the rights of conscience will little bear the lightest touch of the governmental hand.” Whenever the government puts the weight of every citizen—”We the people”—behind one particular religion, it violates the rights of conscience of us all. The First Amendment is designed to protect those rights—to “unshackle the conscience from persecuting laws.”
So this Fourth I will do what Jefferson did when he wrote his famous letter to the Danbury Baptists on New Year’s Day, 1802. I will “contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should ‘make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,’ thus building a wall of separation between Church & State.”
No matter what this country has gotten wrong over the years, this Fourth, we can all be proud of the country that invented the separation of state and church.