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Historical memory behind separation of church, state

Peter Tregillus

Congressman Lauren Boebert’s statements concerning separation of church and state might be stale news. But she did win the election, so let’s examine her assertions. The statements, made at the Cornerstone Christian Center in Basalt included, “I’m tired of this separation of church and state junk that’s not in the Constitution.” And: “The church is supposed to direct the government. The government is not supposed to direct the church,” with additional references to “that stinking letter” by Thomas Jefferson.

It’s certainly easy for someone like me to cherry-pick a handful of statements from John Adams, who said, “The government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian religion,” James Madison and others. It’s better to look at the 1962 Supreme Court decision (Engle v. Vitale), which ended my daily forced recitation of the 22-word New York State Regents Prayer: “Almighty God, we acknowledge our dependence upon Thee, and we beg Thy blessings upon us, our parents, our teachers and our country. Amen.”

Engle v. Vitale shows how historical memory explains why Americans back then held that church and state were separate and distinct domains. Before the Constitution, some states did indeed have state-sanctioned religions. In an opinion, Justice Hugo Black wrote that in 1776, “eight of the thirteen former colonies had established churches and established religions in at least four of the other five.”

But the experience turned ugly. Black wrote, “They knew the anguish, hardship and bitter strife that could come when zealous religious groups struggled with one another to obtain the Government’s stamp of approval from each King, Queen, or Protector that came to temporary power.”

1776 was not that far removed in time from two centuries of bloody strife in England and Europe. The 30 Years War (1618 to 1648) was a brutal nasty affair that left over 8 million dead in Central Europe from war, famine and disease, as Catholic and Protestant states fought it out. It was preceded in England by the land grab of Catholic Church properties carried out by King Henry VIII, and the requirement that Catholics abandon their practices and use instead the Anglican Book of Common Prayer. In Cornwall and Devon, my ancestral lands, thousands rebelled and 4,000 were killed in the Prayer Book Rebellion, with priests in other towns hung from church steeples. During the reign of Queen Elizabeth, young Francis Drake, on slave trading voyages of John Hawkyns, his cousin and my direct ancestor, made jolly sport of bullying Catholic crew members into saying the Anglican prayers.

Another ancestor, Nicholas Roscarrock, a Catholic activist from the rural gentry, was imprisoned in the Tower of London and tortured on the rack. His lands were confiscated and transferred to the queen’s political allies. Catholics across England hid priests to receive sacraments and save their mortal souls. Our Founding Fathers knew this history well and decided this would be a bad road for a new nation.

It’s well-known that Boebert’s education stopped at the GED level. I looked up the Colorado GED requirements and spoke with GED instructors. That curriculum does not include the religious strife and wars of the 1500s to1600s. It may appear to be self-evident to some that America is a Christian nation because Christianity has been a dominant religion, at least by the numbers. But enhancing this position through the use of state police power has brought out the worst in human behavior over the centuries. It might be time for the religious chest-beaters like Boebert and her ardent followers to take another look. The founders preferred the “live and let live” approach. Let’s stay on that track.

Peter Tregillus is a retired third generation, 34-year Durango resident, father and grandfather to 4th and 5th generation Durango residents.