by Bill Lehto
5. James A. Garfield (1881)
"The divorce between Church and State ought to be absolute. It ought to be so absolute that no Church property anywhere, in any state or in the nation, should be exempt from equal taxation; for if you exempt the property of any church organization, to that extent you impose a tax upon the whole community." –James A. Garfield, Congressional Record, 1874
Garfield was assassinated only 100 days after taking the oath, but in his short time in office he proved to be one of the fiercest advocates of the separation of church and state. A deeply religious man who converted to Christianity in 1850, joining the Disciples of Christ Church, he actively preached until he became a member of Congress in 1863. Upon becoming president, he left his position as an elder in the church. In his inaugural address in 1881, he spoke of the danger the Mormons posed, having established what he felt was a theocracy in the Utah territory: "The Constitution guarantees absolute religious freedom. Congress is prohibited from making any law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof. The Territories of the United States are subject to the direct legislative authority of Congress, and hence the General Government is responsible for any violation of the Constitution in any of them.”
4. John F. Kennedy (1961-1963)
"It is my firm belief that there should be separation of church and state in the United States–that is, that both church and state should be free to operate, without interference from each other in their respective areas of jurisdiction. We live in a liberal, democratic society which embraces wide varieties of belief and disbelief." –John F. Kennedy, Letter, 1959
In 1961, Kennedy became the first Roman Catholic to win the presidency. Due to the controversy around his religion during the presidential campaign, in 1960 he gave a speech in Houston directly addressing the issue: “I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute, where no Catholic prelate would tell the president (should he be Catholic) how to act, and no Protestant minister would tell his parishioners for whom to vote; where no church or church school is granted any public funds or political preference; and where no man is denied public office merely because his religion differs from the president who might appoint him or the people who might elect him.” In 2012, GOP presidential candidate Rick Santorum, also Catholic, said Kennedy’s 1960 speech makes him want to throw up. Santorum said on ABC “the idea that the church can have no influence or no involvement in the operation of the state is absolutely antithetical to the objectives and vision of our country.” When your views on church and state make Rick Santorum want to throw up, you earn a spot on this list.
3. Ulysses S. Grant (1869-1877)
"Let us labor for the security of free thought, free speech, pure morals, unfettered religious sentiments, and equal rights and privileges for all men, irrespective of nationality, color, or religion;…. leave the matter of religious teaching to the family altar, the church, and the private school, supported entirely by private contribution. Keep church and state forever separate." –Ulysses S. Grant, Address, 1875
Known primarily as the Union general who won the civil war, during his presidency Grant was a clear and staunch advocate for the separation of church and state. He was also one of the least outwardly religious presidents we’ve had. He was not a member of a church, nor was he baptized. In his youth he had a negative experience with organized religion, and at West Point he got into trouble for missing religious services. During his presidency, Grant argued for a strict separation of church and state. In a speech in 1875 he called, unsuccessfully, for a Constitutional amendment that would mandate free public schools and prohibit the use of public money for religious schools. The failed amendment read: “No State shall make any law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; and no money raised by taxation in any State for the support of public schools, or derived from any public fund therefor, nor any public lands devoted thereto, shall ever be under the control of any religious sect; nor shall any money so raised or lands so devoted be divided between religious sects or denominations.” In the 1870s Grant fought, successfully, against an Evangelical Protestant effort to seek a constitutional amendment that affirmed the existence of God, confessed Christ as savior, and acknowledged true religion as the bases for civil government.
2. James Madison (1809-1817)
"The experience of the United States is a happy disproof of the error so long rooted in the unenlightened minds of well-meaning Christians, as well as in the corrupt hearts of persecuting usurpers, that without a legal incorporation of religious and civil polity, neither could be supported. A mutual independence is found most friendly to practical Religion, to social harmony, and to political prosperity." –James Madison, Letter to F.L. Schaeffer, 1821
No other person did more work to assure religious liberty in the United States than James Madison. A religious man who was baptized in the Anglican Church, Madison was deeply concerned with religious persecution by the state. In Virginia, Madison led the fight for guaranteed religious liberty, making his case in Memorial and Remonstrance against Religious Assessments: “We maintain therefore that in matters of Religion, no man's right is abridged by the institution of Civil Society and that Religion is wholly exempt from its cognizance.” In 1786, due to Madison’s effort, Jefferson's Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom finally passed in Virginia. In 1787 Madison served as the primary architect of the US Constitution, and, following Virginia's model, the Constitution gave the federal government no authority over religion. And after prodding from Jefferson, Madison successfully supported an amendment to the Constitution to guarantee religious freedom.
1. Thomas Jefferson (1801-1809)
"I 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 prohibit the free exercise thereof, thus building a wall of separation between church and state." –Thomas Jefferson, to Danbury Baptists, 1802
While Madison was the workhorse in terms of the separation of church and state, Jefferson was trailblazer, making the defense of religious liberty one of the hallmarks of his career. The term “separation of church and state” can be traced back directly to him. Like many of the “Founding Fathers”, Jefferson was considered a Deist who valued reason over revelation and rejected traditional Christian doctrines, including the virgin birth and resurrection of Jesus. He saw Jesus not as divine, but as a teacher of morals. In 1776 Jefferson he introduced to the Virginia Legislature the Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom, and in 1787 he convinced his friend James Madison to amend the US Constitution to include a guarantee of religious freedom. He won the presidency in 1801 after a vicious campaign in which he was vilified as an atheist. Even after his presidency, he continued to be an advocate of religious liberty. From 1814: “In every country and in every age, the priest has been hostile to liberty. He is always in alliance with the despot, abetting his abuses in return for protection to his own. It is error alone that needs the support of government. Truth can stand by itself.” A man of contradictions, even today the slaveholding Jefferson is seen as an icon of individual liberty.
Bill Lehto is the publisher at Freethought House and editor of Atheist Voices of Minnesota.