The United States of America is a Christian nation.
By which I mean, most Americans are nominally Christian, and without a largely Judeo-Christian ethos it would be dysfunctional.
By which I vehemently do not mean that our government ought to take even the slightest notice of the religious views among the people. The government should be as blind to the particulars of our faith as it is to the color of our skin or the number of tattoos with which we adorn ourselves.
Many people look to Thomas Jefferson's 1802 letter to the Danbury, Connecticut Baptists as marking a start to the notion of separation of church and state, but the sentiment started much earlier than that.
Roger Williams was a minister ordained by the Church of England, his views on individual conscience leading him to leave that country and head to America.
The Pilgrims in Plymouth, where Williams had landed in 1631, were of a more tolerant and independent mind than the Puritans of Salem, Boston, and the Massachusetts Bay Colony. They had endured a decade of hardship during which they learned that them who would not work should not eat. Many of them (though not all) had left England or Holland with the purpose of worshiping, or not worshiping, in the manner and to the degree their individual consciences demanded. But as is often the case, a journey consists of small steps, and the Puritan church became indistinguishable from the government of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. To Williams, the idea that the government should punish purely religious transgressions was anathema. To the Puritans, he was a radical nutjob.
So Williams left Massachusetts in 1635 and bought (or bartered) land from the Indians. A few years later, he is credited with writing in the Rhode Island charter, [emphasis added, spelling original]:
[...] Now know bee, that wee beinge willinge to encourage the hopefull undertakeinge of oure sayd lovall and loveinge subjects, and to secure them in the free exercise and enjovment of all theire civill and religious rights, appertaining to them, as our loveing subjects; and to preserve unto them that libertye, in the true Christian ffaith and worshipp of God, which they have sought with soe much travaill, and with peaceable myndes, and lovall subjectione to our royall progenitors and ourselves, to enjoye; and because some of the people and inhabitants of the same colonie cannot, in theire private opinions, conforms to the publique exercise of religion, according to the litturgy, formes and ceremonyes of the Church of England, or take or subscribe the oaths and articles made and established in that behalfe; and for that the same, by reason of the remote distances of those places, will (as wee hope) bee noe breach of the unitie and unifformitie established in this nation: Have therefore thought ffit, and doe hereby publish, graunt, ordeyne and declare, That our royall will and pleasure is, that noe person within the sayd colonye, at any tyme hereafter, shall bee any wise molested, punished, disquieted, or called in question, for any differences in opinione in matters of religion, and doe not actually disturb the civill peace of our sayd colony; but that all and everye person and persons may, from tyme to tyme, and at all tymes hereafter, freelye and fullye have and enjoye his and theire owne judgments and consciences, in matters of religious concernments, throughout the tract of lance hereafter mentioned; they behaving themselves peaceablie and quietlie, and not useing this libertie to lycentiousnesse and profanenesse, nor to the civill injurye or outward disturbeance of others; any lawe, statute, or clause, therein contayned, or to bee contayned, usage or custome of this realme, to the contrary hereof, in any wise, notwithstanding.
Williams knew that neither Church nor State is served when either has too much influence over the other. He also knew that each has a definite role in the affairs of people. When the Church fails to tend to their needs, the people turn to government, and that spells ruin of all.
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