What does Sarah Palin mean when she says, as she adamantly did last week at a Women of Joy conference in Kentucky, that the U.S. is a Christian nation?  Much was written during the presidential campaign about Palin’s religious beliefs, but in this particular instance she was responding to a recent court ruling in Wyoming that determined the National Day of Prayer unconstitutional.  Palin was contesting the court’s interpretation of the Establishment Clause that, when balanced with the Free Exercise clause, guarantees individuals the right to practice their own faith freely.

It is every day that someone trots out the old “‘separation of church and state’ isn’t in the Constitution” line.  And true, the phrase comes from an 1802 letter from Jefferson to the Danbury Baptists, not the Constitution.  But it is Jefferson’s direct interpretation of the Establishment Clause; since he was one of the writers, his paraphrase carries a bit of weight.

What media fail to address when these Establishment challenges come up is why the wall of separation is so important and how delicate the balance is.  There’s a reason Jefferson was writing a letter to the Danbury Baptists back in 1802.  The Baptists, particularly in the early days of the nation, were very particular about this wall. They had come to the U.S. to escape persecution in Europe where their form of faith was often considered heresy, only to find themselves in Connecticut, where a state religion had been adopted and they again experienced persecution.  The First Amendment, of which the Establishment and Free Exercise clauses are part, guarantees that each of us may exercise our free conscience regarding faith.  Too much freedom and faith institutions impose on the rights of others, too little and the government sanctions what we believe.

At The Revealer this past week, we highlighted two articles, one from Senegal and one from Indonesia, that demonstrate what can happen when a nation gets the separation of church and state balance wrong.  Democracy is messy, by design.  But Democracy is impeded when we approach issues without historical understanding.  Or, as Palin works to enforce the idea of the U.S. as a Christian nation, without a full discussion of the inherent infringements on religious liberty that such declarations propose.

For more, read here, here and here.