The separation of church and state is not explicitly written in the Constitution. It’s one of the things that drives me insane when I see or hear this as an argument. And inevitably, it comes up in class.
My favorite response? “Please back that claim using the Constitution as your source.” I say it as plainly as possible, because this is a teachable moment.
*Looks at fingernails, waiting for something that will never come. Because you need more than the First Amendment for this argument.
That day (if I’m on my game) or the next, I hand the students this. It’s a letter that Thomas Jefferson wrote to the Danbury Baptists in 1802. It easy to read, accessible for most students, and contains “thus building a wall of separation between Church & State” in reference to the First Amendment.
For reference, the First Amendment (a popular argument) was ratified in 1791. I love this argument because the Free Exercise clause contradicts the Establishment clause. Well played, James, well played. I LOVE Constitutional arguments. I love them because I ALWAYS learn something from my students and the Constitution is up for interpretation!
Then come the inevitable questions.
“Our country was built on Christianity.” What? No. Oy. I have yet to find a clear answer on this, but I like this essay. It’s a hard answer. AND THAT’S OK. History often doesn’t have definitive answers. That’s why it’s fun to study! When they say this, I ask them to find me proof. Or find me a source that refutes it. And then WE TALK ABOUT IT. I don’t know everything and I never pretend I do. Teach ME, students. (You’d be surprised)
Side note: Jefferson was never really outward about his religious beliefs, and Washington often referred to the Providence as opposed to an outright God.
“Why do we have to say Under God in the pledge?” (You don’t actually have to. I cite West Virginia vs. Barnette– see you should know your rights!)
And a plethora of other questions. I like to challenge the students to find answers to their own questions. (Legit, y’all are on your phones all the time anyway. Why don’t you use it for something useful instead of watching your best friends’ SnapChat story about a class she should be paying attention in) This leads them to look at sources, find out new tidbits, and use their prior knowledge. In helping students to answer their own questions or find sources to further their curiosity, you capture a way to teach history that stays with students beyond your classroom. This is hard because students just want an answer.
You know what they want more? To best the teacher. Or to show their teacher that they have the answer that the teacher doesn’t (I love that one). Nothing makes me happier that being bested by a student. I leave my ego at the door because at the end of the day, I am not the all-knowing. Some days, I can’t remember if I drank all of my coffee or if it’s still sitting on my kitchen counter. I’m a human.
You may have students who hold deep religious beliefs. Good for them, it’s part of their political socialization! You may have atheists. Awesome! This is a hard topic because it can be polarizing and that is the last thing we want in our classrooms. We can facilitate conversations, model behaviors that are appropriate, and make sure the learning environment is safe for all. So, here are some resources:
Constitution Center Essays (don’t act surprised)
Podcast on the Jehovah’s Witnesses and their fight in the Supreme Court (I LOVE THIS PODCAST) and paired with this article, it can lend to a great Socratic seminars.