Religion in America: A History Lesson

The shrill cry “separation of church and state!” has become so common in the public forum wherever religious beliefs intersect with the ever-advancing progressive agenda, the phrase has become sacrosanct in contemporary American politics. And, almost without fail, religious rights lose.

This worrisome trend seems rooted in an ignorance of – or willful ignoring of – the nation’s deep, indisputable religious roots, including the intention of the Founding Fathers when they penned our America’s framework to provide for freedom of religious choice.

Let’s revisit the Constitution, which delineates how our system is to function. While most of it is about how the government is set up to function, the Bill of Rights, or the first 10 amendments, get pretty specific on what aspects of life, liberty and property are protected by name. Let’s review the First Amendment, shall we?

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

I think it’s worth noting that the original wording of the First Amendment proposed by the Senate on March 9, 1789, is that “Congress shall not make any law establishing any religious denomination” (emphasis added). The second version stated “Congress shall make no law establishing any particular denomination” (emphasis added). Notice the nuanced difference. For the Founders, the terms “religion” and “denomination” are interchangeable. As a writer, I can appreciate why they would leave one and not both. It would have been redundant in their eyes to have both!

Fisher Ames, the Founding Father who offered the version we now know as the First Amendment, wrote in an 1801 magazine article that he was concerned that the Bible might eventually take a backseat in the classroom: “Why then, if these new books for children must be retained, as they will be, should not the Bible regain the place it once held as a school book?”

And he’s the one who finalized that Congress shall not make a ruling on religion!

Now, an oft-ignored fact by those who shout about a “separation of church and state” is that, first of all, that phrase is NOWHERE to be found in any of our Founding documents. The concept came from the personal writings of Thomas Jefferson, in an 1802 letter to the Danbury Baptist Association, a group that constituted a religious minority in Connecticut:

Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, & not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should “make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” thus building a wall of separation between Church & State. Adhering to this expression of the supreme will of the nation in behalf of the rights of conscience, I shall see with sincere satisfaction the progress of those sentiments which tend to restore to man all his natural rights, convinced he has no natural right in opposition to his social duties.

So, Jefferson states that beliefs are between man and his maker – not for a governing body’s meddling. This is also reflected in the last clause of Article IV of the Constitution (the place where religion is addressed explicitly in the Constitution), which stipulates that “No religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.”

As Dr. Frank Fox (my academic idol!) wrote:

While a few of the Framers were religious skeptics, most were committed churchmen – and even the skeptics appreciated religion’s power to promote civic virtue. The question was, how to bring such power to bear? Some delegates argued for a mild religious test, requiring officeholders to embrace mainstream Christianity.

Experience had shown, however, that religious tests, however mild, had the effect of cementing an official tie between church and state. Several of the Framers regarded such a tie as desirable. No republican society, they argued, could succeed without some official religion. But most of the delegates took the opposite view. Official religion worked two kinds of mischief, they said. It opened the way for the official church to corrupt the political system, and conversely opened the way for the political system to corrupt the official church. Those delegates representing states where a religious establishment still persisted could testify to the baneful effects.

By prohibiting a religious test, the Framers aimed not to destroy the influence of religion on politics but to purify it. The theory went something like this. All believers, now lacking any official capacity, were welcome to exert their influence on governmet in any way they saw fit – just as any citizens were. And since no denomination stood to gain by the way of patronage, the motives of all must be relatively pure. The only real message a church might have under the Constitution would be to urge integrity, responsibility and a sacralized civic virtue.

And thus we see that the Founding Fathers merely wanted to keep America from facing the issues of a state religion that they had seen in England. They were not men against religion. Some were more devout than others, but that isn’t to say they were all secular men, as is so often taught in schools these days. One has only to read George Washington’s farewell address to see his view of the importance of religion in America:

Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports. In vain would that man claim the tribute of patriotism, who should labor to subvert these great pillars of human happiness, these firmest props of the duties of men and citizens. The mere politician, equally with the pious man, ought to respect and to cherish them. A volume could not trace all their connections with private and public felicity. Let it simply be asked: Where is the security for property, for reputation, for life, if the sense of religious obligation desert the oaths which are the instruments of investigation in courts of justice ? And let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.

While there is much more I could – and plan to – say on the role that religion has, does and, in my opinion, should play in America’s unfolding history, I’ll leave the rest for another day.

Well, one more thought.

Do you know what the first public school law was in America?

“The Old Deluder Satan Act,” passed in 1642. It began “It being one chief project of that old deluder, Satan, to keep men from the knowledge of the scriptures, as in former times…”

I’m just sayin’.

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About ChristaJeanne

Writer (recovering journalist), singer, Latter-day Saint, California girl, political wonk, travel addict, Broadway aficionado, American culture analyst, social media maven, Facebook junkie & wannabe domestic goddess at heart.
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12 Responses to Religion in America: A History Lesson

  1. stanmarsh says:

    From Jefferson’s autobiography, talking of his seminal Virginia Statute For Religious Freedom:
    “Where the preamble declares that coercion is a departure from the plan of the holy author of our religion, an amendment was proposed, by inserting the word ‘Jesus Christ,’ so that it should read ‘a departure
    from the plan of Jesus Christ, the holy author of our religion.’ The insertion was rejected by a great majority, in proof that they meant to comprehend, within the mantle of its protection, the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mahometan, the Hindoo, and infidel of every denomination.”

    • ChristaJeanne says:

      Funny you would post that, Stan – an atheist friend posted this exact same quote to my Facebook just this morning regarding an earlier conversation we’d had. What I’ll say to you is what I said to him. Yes, the Founders wanted freedom of religion for ALL creeds. That, however, doesn’t invalidate America’s Judeo-Christian roots. You imply the two are mutually exclusive, but they’re not. It would be improper for any Founding documents to expressly invoke Christ or force people into any specific religion. Those beliefs are sacred and are between the individual and God. However, that isn’t to say the Founders felt America should be irreligious, nor did it mean they disregarded religion’s importance within the moral fiber of America. Nay, as Adams said, this country was made for a religious and moral people. Without that, it wouldn’t work – and that’s something we’ve seen come into fruition, as corruption and amorality challenge the system which was set up for people who had internal governance.

  2. Interesting that founders who supposedly intended this to be a “Judeo-Christian” nation, would ratify without contest Article XI of the Treaty of Tripoli, which reads:

    “As the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion; as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion, or tranquillity, of Mussulmen; and, as the said States never entered into any war, or act of hostility against any Mahometan nation, it is declared by the parties, that no pretext arising from religious opinions, shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries.”

    Adams was president at the time, and issued the following public proclamation on June 10, 1797, after Congress voted on it (unanimously, and without dissent):

    “Now be it known, That I John Adams, President of the United States of America, having seen and considered the said Treaty do, by and with the advice and consent of the Senate, accept, ratify, and confirm the same, and every clause and article thereof. And to the End that the said Treaty may be observed and performed with good Faith on the part of the United States, I have ordered the premises to be made public; And I do hereby enjoin and require all persons bearing office civil or military within the United States, and all other citizens or inhabitants thereof, faithfully to observe and fulfill the said Treaty and every clause and article thereof.”

    This includes the premise of secularism noted in the first line of Article XI.

    I don’t think there is any doubt that the great majority of citizens at the time were Christian. And a number of the founders did see a social benefit to allowing people to believe what they preferred. But many of the founders were equally careful to keep religion and politics as separate as possible.

    There is also another clause in the Constitution that forbids religious tests for public office, which often gets ignored in this debate. And long before Jefferson, Roger Williams founded Rhode Island with a church-state separation as an express alternative to the theocratic Plymouth colony.

    Frankly, I’m perplexed as to why people focus on the Jefferson quote when there are so many other examples of this out there that carry so much more weight.

    Of course, we can always revert to a theocracy if people demand it. The Constitution is designed so that it can be revised or re-drafted.

    P.S. I do believe the Bible should be taught in public schools – as a literary, cultural, and historical text. So should other religious texts. Most of the atheists/agnostics/secularists I’ve talked with or read on this subject have expressed similar views.

    • ChristaJeanne says:

      Brandon, I think the Founders were right to keep religion from being codified into our nation’s Founding documents. You bring up some good points. Codifying religion into the public forum would oppose the liberty for which the Founders fought so strongly. There should be no thought police or enforcement of any sort of a belief, hence why the treaty speaks clearly of no enmity toward another religion. Of course America shouldn’t be a theocracy. However, that doesn’t negate that the Founding Fathers planned this country for a people with moral integrity based in the Judeo-Christian tradition, following the 10 commandments and all that jazz. The only way you can run a nation with a limited government is to have people who will govern themselves with self-control, discipline and honesty. When that internal restraint declines, as it so obviously has in contemporary society, then it requires increased external governing to keep people in check. (Unfortunately, that is being taken to the extreme these days!)

      • I’ve always felt that the most admirable characteristics of the Founders’ legacy was that they seemed to sincerely have relatively high opinions of their fellow men, and yet remained realistic and practical in the limits of human nature (that is, they recognized phenomena like the “tyranny of the majority” in ancient Athens and sought to balance it with representative democracy).

        There were definitely elements of the Judeo-Christian tradition behind the Founders’ vision of an enlightened democratic republic. That was inevitable, since the culture they came from was heavily influenced by those traditions.

        I worry about identifying our history by that particular label, though, since it automatically sounds exclusionary to other traditions that have also had a major and direct impact on our history (especially African and Native American traditions).

        Besides, one could just as easily say that our country was founded on Greco-Roman principles, which were largely not Judeo-Christian but nevertheless included strong emphases on things like self-control and honesty (Stoicism incarnate, one might say). That might even be more accurate, since our governmental structure was designed with those ancient societies and philosophies as conscious models (even terms like “Senate” were borrowed from the pre-empire and pre-Christian Roman system, as opposed to the British “Parliament”).

        Of course, teasing all of this apart becomes troublesome when we look at it more closely. Thomas Aquinas set the stage for the Enlightenment (and formal apologetics) by integrating Aristotle’s teachings into the Catholic Church. Christianity was also partly informed by various animistic and Pagan traditions (no academic seriously believes that Jesus was born on December 25, but it was a convenient way to shepherd solstice-celebrating converts to Christianity without disrupting their beloved festival schedules).

        Beyond the cultural influence of the churches in early America, however, I think it would be folly to assume that all of the Founders thought Christianity the only path to a morally upright life. They were well versed in the moral texts of non-Christian societies, and would have known better. A strong indication of their support for the “many paths” model of morality is the fact that a number of them were themselves Deists.

        Even if that hadn’t been their understanding or intention, delving into both contemporary and historical culture doesn’t yield much evidence to support any particular religious or ideological system for controlling human morality. People who subscribe to every sect of every religion have committed atrocities and found moral justifications for them, as have people who deny religion altogether. On the flip side, the large majority of Christians, Humanists, Muslims, Buddhists, Confucianists, Jews, Zoroastrians, etc. are all relatively moral, compassionate people. This, to me, speaks more to fundamental aspects of human nature than any given belief system’s ability to act as a moral map.

        • ChristaJeanne says:

          Brandon, by saying the Founders pulled heavily from a Judeo-Christian background, I wasn’t meaning to imply that it was the ONLY influence they had. They also pulled from other sources as you mentioned – that is a post for another day. The point of this post was to say they wanted freedom OF religion (of denomination) – not freedom FROM religion.

    • As a devout Christian I would rather prefer that the Bible not be taught in school. In early America the Bible was a preferred text for teaching other things, i.e. how to read, but in contemporary context, I don’t think I would want people who are so thoroughly ignorant of the literature, culture and history of the Bible to be teaching it.

      As for the US society and government, I think it is safe to say that while the founders did not intend a Christian nation in the sense of an established church, they certainly did not envision a purely secular one either. Such a concept was entirely foreign at the time. The French revolution which was far more radical in its way than the American revolt recognized the need for a certain public “religion” and so in its radical phase endeavored to supplant the religiosity of the Ancien Regime with the new religion of “Reason” complete with a new calendar and temples. This was an overt recognition of the fact that the authority for governance in any nation resided in something “sacred” whether that be the Divine Right of kings or the sacredness of “the people.” Every revolutionary regime since has recognized the same thing and made great effort to clothe their governance in legitimacy derived from some “sacred” source.

      In other words, there is no such thing as a purely secular regime that has any legitimacy. The only question is to what transcendent authority will any regime appeal to justify itself. The American founders appealed to a nonsectarian but thoroughly Christianized notion of God from whom rights were derived and to whom responsibilities were due. In the absence of such a claim, other legitimizing claims will arise and have arisen.

      So to talk about the separation of politics and religion is a bit naive or perhaps hypocritical given that secularists appeal to the same transcendent “religious” notions to legitimate their claims to power as do Christians and others. The chief difference is that secularists are less honest about it.

      • ChristaJeanne says:

        GREAT points! Thank you for chiming in. It is interesting, isn’t it, how secular regimes still seek some sort of higher legitimacy when they seek so strongly to break from a religious past. I don’t understand how their higher source is any more legitimate than God.

  3. Mckinley Ligons says:

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