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’.