Most notably, the separation of church and state was fueled by two motives: first, the desire to separate church from religion, and second, the desire for religion to inform the political process.
To the eyes of a twenty-first century reader, the phrases ‘church and state’ and ‘religion and state’ might seem similar, even synonymous. But in the late eighteenth century, these phrases captured a tension between church and religion.
For the Revolutionaries in North America, ‘church’ was a human institution, which, although perhaps founded with admirable intentions, had been corrupted and was in fact often the tool of the King. Britain’s Anglican Church was fueled, not with freely-given donations, but with taxes.
The Anglican Church, and its American offspring, the Episcopal Church, was, until 1776, the only authorized church in the thirteen colonies. Often, the Church had little to do with genuinely spiritual matters, and emphasized instead legalistic morality and ceremonial propriety.
Casting off the Anglican Church in the Revolution, the Americans saw themselves as become more religious, not less, in the act of dethroning the church. They didn’t want a government to impose institutions, traditions, and rules by acknowledging, funding, and authorizing a church to be the ‘established’ church.
In the terminology of the day, a church was ‘established’ if it was recognized by the government as the only official and authorized church, and if the government subsidized the church with taxpayer money. The American Revolution intended to energize and liberate religion by disestablishing the church. Freed from institutionalism and legalistic tradition, religious thought would energize the political process. This is why the First Amendment says that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”
So it was, that when George Washington was organizing chaplains for the spiritual care of his troops, that he was little interested in their denominations - Episcopal, Presbyterian, Baptist, Quaker, Lutheran etc.
They would not be working for the church. They’d be working for Continental Army. Historian Tim Townsend writes:
When George Washington was desperate for a chaplain to minister to his drunken Virginia backcountry troops, he asked the governor to provide him one, writing that the absence of a chaplain reflected “dishonor on the regiment.” Some of Washington’s soldiers told him they’d pay a chaplain’s salary from their own pockets, but Washington said he’d rather have a chaplain appointed as an officer because that would have “a more graceful appearance.” A chaplain, Washington wrote, “ought to be provided, that we may at least have the show if we are said to want the substance of Godliness.” When Washington became commander of the Continental Army on July 2, 1775, he found fifteen chaplains among the army’s twenty-three regiments. He encouraged the chaplains to lead weekly worship services, and he eventually admitted ministers of eight denominations into the chaplaincy and urged his commanders to facilitate the free exercise of religion among their troops.
By discarding ‘establishment,’ the Americans would encourage ‘the free exercise’ of religion. This took forms which, to the twenty-first century eye, seem odd: Thomas Jefferson discouraged Congressmen from attending worship in churches in or near the capital; instead, he organized services in government buildings, reading aloud from the Bible, singing hymns, and praying. Jefferson himself participated regularly.
Jefferson understood himself to be freeing the government from the influence of church, while infusing what he understood to be a purer form of spirituality into the political process.
When offices were created for Chaplain of the United States Senate and Chaplain of the House of Representatives, it was understood that those who filled them were no longer to be in the employ of any church.
As the old saying goes, “he who pays the piper calls the tune.”
On the logic that whoever pays a worker determines what he does, the principle of ‘disestablishment’ required that the government hire and pay the chaplain. The ‘separation of church and state’ meant that no church could have an employee within the government.
Rather, by hiring its own chaplains, the government was getting religion without the church: it was not a staffer of any church, but rather the government’s own employee who explained the Bible, preached, and organized prayers and hymns.