Ask an Atheist with Sam Mulvey

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Separation of Church and State 2

Full Title: Separation of Church and State 2: The Jefferson

After the events of last month, it might be time for a history lesson.   Sam, Dave and Becky discuss just exactly what “separation of church and state” means from a historical basis.   We also talk about some stories in the news.

There are show notes.

Garfield on Taxation

Source: AddictingInfo

  • “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, Congressional Record, 2(6):5384

Madison’s 1785 Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments

Source: Americans United

  • Written in 1785 in opposition to a proposal by Patrick Henry that all Virginians be taxed to support “teachers of the Christian religion.”
  • “Because Religion be exempt from the authority of the Society at large, still less can it be subject to that of the Legislative Body”
  • “We hold it for a fundamental and undeniable truth, that religion or the duty which we owe to our Creator and the manner of discharging it, can be directed only by reason and conviction, not by force or violence.”

Jefferson’s Letter to the Danbury Baptists: “Wall of Separation”

Sources: Library of Congress Amer.United, with Baptist Letter and myth-busting

  • 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 prohibiting the free exercise thereof;” thus building a wall of eternal separation between Church & State.
  • Congress thus inhibited from acts respecting religion, and the Executive authorised only to execute their acts, I have refrained from prescribing even those occasional performances of devotion, practiced indeed by the Executive of another nation as the legal head of its church, but subject here, as religious exercises only to the voluntary regulations and discipline of each respective sect.
  • Jefferson first wrote: “confining myself therefore to the duties of my station, which are merely temporal, be assured that your religious rights shall never be infringed by any act of mine and that.” These lines he crossed out and then wrote: “concurring with”; having crossed out these two words, he wrote: “Adhering to this great act of national legislation in behalf of the rights of conscience”; next he crossed out these words and wrote: “Adhering to this expression of the supreme will of the nation in behalf of the rights of conscience I shall see with friendly dispositions the progress of those sentiments which tend to restore to man all his natural rights, convinced that he has no natural rights in opposition to his social duties.”

Jefferson’s Letter to Rev. Miller, 1808: Federal Gov’t shouldn’t be “intermeddling with religion institutions”

Source: Americans United for the Separation of Church & State

  • I consider the government of the United States as interdicted by the Constitution from intermeddling with religious institutions, their doctrines, discipline or exercises…I do not believe it is for the interest of religion to invite the civil magistrate to direct its exercises, its discipline, its doctrines, nor of the religious societies that the general government should be invested with the power of effecting any uniformity of time or matter among them. Fasting and praying are religious exercises. The enjoining them an act of discipline. Every religious society has the right to determine for itself the times for these exercise and the objects proper for them, according to their own particular tenets, and this right can never be safer than in their own hands, where the Constitution has deposited it.
  • [E]very one must act according to the dictates of his own reason, and mine tells me that civil powers alone have been given to the President of the U.S. and no authority to direct the religious exercises of his constituents.

Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia, 1781-85

Source:Americans United for the Separation of Church & State


  • “The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others. But it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods, or no God. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.

Jefferson on Freedom of Religion

Source:Americans United for the Separation of Church & State

  • ”The constitutional freedom of religion [is] the most inalienable and sacred of all human rights.” (Address to the Univ. of VA Board of Visitors, 1822)
  • “I am for freedom of religion, and against all maneuvers to bring about a legal ascendancy of one sect over another.” (Letter to Elbridge Gerry, January 26, 1799)

Jefferson’s Virginia Act for Establishing Religion Freedom Act, 1786: On forced tithing

Source:Americans United for the Separation of Church & State

  • “[T]o compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves, is sinful and tyrannical; that even the forcing him to support this or that teacher of his own religious persuasion, is depriving him of the comfortable liberty of giving his contributions to the particular pastor whose morals he would make his pattern…”
  • [No] man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever, nor shall be enforced, restrained, molested, or [burdened] in his body or goods, nor shall otherwise suffer on account of his religious opinions or belief; but that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinion in matters of religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish enlarge, or affect their civil capacities.

Treaty of Tripoli

Sources: Americans United analysis

  • unanimously approved by the Senate under Pres. Adams on June 10, 1797
  • Treaty of Peace and Friendship with the North African state of Tripoli
  • Dealt with Maritime Trade
  • Context: US merchant vessels were prime targets for Barbary States piracy, thanks to British encouragement to quash US maritime power in the Mediterranean
  • Article 11:“As the government of the United States of America is not founded in any sense on the Christian religion – as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion or tranquility of Musselmen [Muslims] – and as the said states have never entered into any war or act of hostility against any Mahometan nation, it is declared by the parties, that no pretext arising from religious opinions shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries.”

Millard Fillmore, 1856

Source: AddictingInfo

  • “I am tolerant of all creeds. Yet if any sect suffered itself to be used for political objects I would meet it by political opposition. In my view church and state should be separate, not only in form, but fact. Religion and politics should not be mingled.”


Source: AddictingInfo

  • “The United States government must not undertake to run the Churches. When an individual, in the Church or out of it, becomes dangerous to the public interest he must be checked.”

About the Author: Sam Mulvey

Sam Mulvey is a producer and the technical brain behind Ask an Atheist. He is a collector of vinegar varieties, vintage computers, antique radios, and propaganda.

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Cheryl in Tacoma

Feel free to correct me if I’ve misunderstood, but if humanism elevates and promotes the value and dignity of the individual human person, then in many ways, wouldn’t the Catholic Church have quite a significant humanistic component to its doctrine? I was just reading their compendium of social doctrine, and was struck by the frequent reference to the dignity of the human person and of the duty of the church to uphold and defend that. Do a search on the word “dignity,” and tell me if you agree.

Cheryl in Tacoma

Oh, I just now got to the part of your broadcast (I had to shut off the FreeStream as I was going into a meeting of the Green Party) where you talk about Pope Francis’ statement. Here’s an article for reference. Keep in mind that this man has been steeped in the Catholic religion his whole life, and therefore regards being made in God’s own image humanity’s claim to dignity. I don’t expect you to agree with that, but one intriguing topic I might like to see on the show someday is “What is the basis for humanism?” I am… Read more »

Cheryl in Tacoma

Also, please note that the Pontiff didn’t say atheism causes a throw-away culture — it’s the other way around. He said that our throw-away culture “effects” (produces?) a “practical” (in-practice, de facto) atheism by denying the Divine imprint on us. I don’t see this as a knock on atheism, per se, but a knock on the modern throw-away culture — and I entirely agree that we have become a culture too ready to embrace the concept of disposability. Yes, I know that the word atheism, when used by the Pope, is a hot-button word on this program, but if I… Read more »

Cheryl in Tacoma

I would also like to know more about the opposition atheists face in certain places in the country. Living in the Pacific-Northwest area, I don’t see it at all, and don’t understand the sense of outrage atheists feel. Your program would be a great vehicle for educating the larger public about the opposition you face. I’ll bet a lot of people, even within the faith community, would support you, just like a lot of straight people support the LGBT rights movement.


At the end of this episode, the hosts were talking about terrorism, and how often people put the adjective “Islamic” in front of it. At one point, Sam mentioned that there’s more Christian terrorism than Muslim. Is there a source for this? The reason I ask is that it seems that hardly a week goes by without a bombing in Syria or Afghanistan or Iraq, often with tens of victims, while Christian terrorism seems to be comparatively rare. Usually it’s an attack on abortion providers, often with one or two victims. Yes, you have things like the Oklahoma City bombing,… Read more »

[…] Ask an Atheist out of Tacoma, Washington did almost an hour on why and how church state separation is so important.  They also covered the Parsonage Tax Exemption ruling.… […]

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