The concept of the separation of church and state is as old as America. Roger Williams talked about it in the early 1600s, Thomas Jefferson in the early 1800s, and we still talk about it today. And for good reason. In order for a free society to flourish, the national government cannot, and should not, discriminately endorse, support, and fund one particular religious group. It should, in this sense, remain separate from religion.
But can religious organizations and the government still cooperate, even if they are to remain institutionally separate? The answer to that question throughout American history has been a resounding “YES.” From George Washington to Barack Obama, presidents have supported the idea that the government should cooperate with religious organizations, with two key provisos: First, the religious organizations must be doing work which results in broad social good. Second, the government must not discriminate among religious organizations, but must offer their support to any
qualified religious organization which is doing the work.
In 1789, George Washington’s government worked through the War Department to fund missionaries to Indians, believing that the missionaries improved diplomatic relations with the Indians. In 2001, George Bush established the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, an office aimed at connecting small organizations to federal funding for the community work they were doing. In both instances, the religious organizations were doing work which benefitted the broader society, and the government aided religious organizations indiscriminately. In both instances, church and state were able to separate, and cooperate. Here’s hoping such separation-cooperation continues into the future.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Dr. Brian Franklin
Dr. Brian Franklin is the Associate Director of the Center for Presidential History at Southern Methodist University. He holds a Ph.D. in American History from Texas A&M University, and has a special interest in the intersection between religion, politics, and society in 18th- and 19th-century America.
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