Jefferson: Separation of Church and State

September 7, 2011 — 8 Comments

Oprah Winfrey, former talk show host/ Michele Bachmann, Presidential Candidate/Martin Luther King, Minister

The Issue of Holiness in the Public Square

Thomas Jefferson was the founding father who penned “separation of Church and State.” While Jefferson, the third President of the United States and founder of the University of Virginia, penned the Declaration of Independence and was the driver behind the American Bill of Rights, the wording of “Separation of Church and State,” can not be found in either of those documents, nor can it be found in the American Constitution.

I know all of this now, because the other day I had a heated argument with a friend over lunch whether the express words of “church and state” appeared in the founding documents. I said they did; we made a bet. They did not. Now, I have to send my friend to Paris for a week.

All of this stemmed from the latest, er….embarrassing remark made by Presidential candidate,  Michele Bachmann, regarding God and the weather. “I don’t know how much God has to do to get the attention of the politicians.” Ms. Bachmann stated. “We’ve had an earthquake; we’ve had a hurricane. He (God)  said, ‘Are you going to start listening to me here?'”

Whatever your belief system, I am not sure that any President should be stepping in and pitch hitting quotes for God.

The Pilgrims and King James

Things have gotten rather heated in America recently: should prayer be included in the 10th Anniversary of the 9/11 tragedy?  What about that Mosque, isn’t it obscene to think about it so close  to Ground Zero?  Is God a Republican or a Democrat? Haha. In my own life, upon telling my betting friend that I was going to investigate Thomas Jefferson’s journey on the church and state issue, he replied, “Why? Jefferson’s an idiot!”

King James: A Bible in his name

The concept of Religious Freedom started in England around the time the King James Bible was published. The people that started America fled in silent, active protest against a state, England, that had usurped their freedoms to worship God in the way they chose. It was 1611 and  the ruling monarchy, King James, had hired a bunch of writers and translators to hone his bible, yes, The King James Bible and it was now complete. This was for his church, yes, the Church of England. England was now going to oversee spiritual activities. After all, didn’t they have the “Queen Mother”? “By the way”, said the King, (I’m paraphrasing here)  “For the privilege of coming to my church, I’m going to  now charge you some dole   for a seat to see God.”

A Question of Holiness

Our peeps, the Pilgrims, were appalled.  The state should not be hiring translators to interpret the Bible, nor should they be charging admission to enter a church. To the pilgrims, it was “not of God” and an issue of holiness. Neither the King nor the Queen were Holy; that was reserved for God, according to our Pilgims.  Of course, this did not stop the King or Queen over the  last several hundred years from believing God had commandeered them. By the way, they had the trains of Holiness to prove it. If you don’t believe that, check out the size of the train to the wedding dress worn this summer by Princess, Kate Middleton. The traditional of the Church of England, is that the longer the train, the holier you are. I guess that was really determined by the seamstresses in the back room. The tradition is all a throwback to what the prophet Isaiah said some 2800 years ago regarding God’s own train: it was so long that it filled the entire temple.

A Question of Holiness

Miss Middleton: the length of a train on a wedding dress is, by tradition, an indication of how holy you are.

Those beautiful dreamers, the Pilgrims didn’t pack right. They brought a drum and some trumpets and candlesticks on their journey. They did not bring a goat, a fishing pole, or a plow. They traveled across the Atlantic and ended up on the shores of New England in the dead of winter.

Thomas Jefferson – A matter of design

The Baptists Seek An Advocate in Thomas Jefferson

We all talk about how America was founded on “Judeo Christian” values and that is true and we will get to the “Jefferson Bible” in a moment. But to keep this story contextual, we now need to step forward 150 years after the Pilgrims when Jefferson was an Assemblyman in his state of Virginia.

The Anglican Church had become the official state church in  Virginia (yes, the state had already decided on a church – it didn’t take long). The Anglicans were the ruling class of  Virginia, a constituency of proper aristocratic farmers. The Baptists started invading Virginia in the 1750s. They were a bit messy with their worship. They conducted immersive baptisms on the  Virginia shores, shrieked and carried on when “slain in the spirit”, but worse, they started whittling away at the constituency of the Anglicans. It became an issue of style of worship, and an issue of civil power for the ruling class.  The ire came to a head when the  Virginia Anglicans  threw the Baptist Preacher, Jeremiah Moore, in  jail in 1773 for “preaching without a license”.

The Baptists looked for an advocate for their rights. They found it in a Virginia Assemblyman, Thomas Jefferson. In his heart, Jefferson believed that any people group in America should be able to worship as it chose.  Jefferson went to bat for the Baptists; and his Virginia Act for Establishing of Religious Freedom was written and approved by the state of Virginia in 1786, just 10 years after his writing of the Declaration of Independence. If anyone ever wanted to read about the corrupt nature of man without God, he or she need only read this exceptional document. The irony, in it, is that Jefferson was protecting the church against the state. In so many ways, Jefferson, a very precise and thoughtful man, had turned his head  to look back on those Pilgrims seeking hope across the cold Atlantic.

Thoughtful Precision:  Separation of Church and State

Thomas Jefferson was a man who had great affinity for detail, and a great sense for order. One need only look at the conciseness by which he designed his residency, Monticello,  or the campus (“field”) of the University of Virginia to understand his thoughtful precision.

Thomas Jefferson’s Thoughtful Precision

While Jefferson was a minister to France in 1788, he wrote to his friend, James Madison that he was concerned about rights of the individual. The Constitution would be too powerful unless tempered by a set of rights that protected the individual.  Jefferson proposed to his friend a “bill of rights…for freedom of religion, freedom of the press, protection against standing armies, and restriction against monopolies.” In his sense of design, Jefferson desired the balance of power, which was held not only by the government but also by the individual. These “sacred rights” allowed anyone to speak freely in the square, and to worship as he or she chose without the fear of government recrimination.

In 1802, the Baptists again, this time the Connecticut Baptists, looked for Jefferson to intervene as he had for the Virginia Baptists, Jefferson in a letter first referred to this notion of “separation of church and state”. An excerpt from his letter to the Danbury Baptists is as follows:

“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.”

As you recall (and I apologize for the length of this) I lost the bet to my friend because neither the constitution nor the Bill of Rights specifically makes reference to the Separation of church and state. But the handful of founding documents as a totality demonstrate the liberties of all men and women, and a balance between government law and individual freedoms.

No prayer at 9/11

The heated argument at the table of my friend sprang from the position that Mayor Michael Bloomberg had  no right to not allow clergy to pray at the Memorial gatherings held in New York this coming week. As a Christian, I had gotten a number of emails from other brothers and sisters in the faith encouraging me to write a letter to Mayor Michael Bloomberg asking for his rescission on his position on prayer. Before I did send a letter, I started to do the research that brought about this blog.

Mr. Bloomberg recently stated, “Everybody would like to participate (in the 9/11 Memorial), and the bottom line is everybody cannot participate. There isn’t room. There isn’t time. And in some cases, it’s just not appropriate.” I am not looking through the lens of relativism here, but Mr. Bloomberg in large part is looking back at the founding documents and taking a position on prayer and separation of church and state.

Michael Bloomberg, Our Firefighters, Rick Warren

One of the most profound developments in the past few days is that Baptist pastor, Rick Warren; another Baptist (although his mega-church is known as Saddleback) did not challenge  Mr. Bloomberg.  There was no Thomas Jefferson for the Baptist pastor to intervene, but there were laws in place that would protect Mr. Warren if he what he planned to assemble peacefully and pray. As a pastor, Mr. Warren proclaimed this September 11th as a “National Day of Prayer”.

“This week the mayor of New York City announced that at the 10th anniversary memorial service at ground zero that there are going to be no prayers,”  Mr. Warren said from his Orange County-based church . This announcement was accompanied by a smattering of boos. “Now, you know what I think about that.,” Mr. Warren continued.  “So, we are going to have our own nationwide, national prayer day,” he said to applause.

Warren added that the weekend services will also be “an enormous opportunity for us to honor the people who have kept our nation free.” “This will be a nationwide coast-to-coast linkup to have prayer. Of all the times, America needs prayer.” Warren then said rhetorically,  “Do you think it needs prayer right now?”

A spokesperson for Saddleback also said, “We want to give people an opportunity to process the anniversary from a spiritual perspective. It wasn’t just a national or civic tragedy, it was a spiritual tragedy, and we want to support people as they work through it. 9/11 left a spiritual vacuum behind for many people. We want to fill that vacuum with God’s love.”

Mr. Warren’s activist, but quantified, approach to the  seemingly incendiary position by Mayor Bloomberg demonstrates a thoughtful, spiritual  precision to the matter. It reminds me of the active, but peaceful way by which the civil rights movement was conducted.

Provoking Cultural Change Through Ministry

Martin Luther Kingwas a Baptist Minister. He comes from that messy traditional of Baptists who performed immersive baptisms on the Virginia shoreline like those that brought the arrests of ministers some 300 years ago.  Mr. King never ran for

Mr. Martin Luther King – A minister before his people

presidential office yet he met with  his share of Presidents.  He affected the biggest social reform in America in the 20th century. He recognized the power of faith, and how it could transform the law in America. He considered intentional racial segregation a spiritual matter and he used the book of Exodus as the paradigm for his leadership. He sought reform through a community that became so vocal that government heard him and his cause. Mr. King  was no saint  but he was a remarkable   Minister and a remarkable man.  He found his own internal balance and while controversial (in that he used Gandhi’s teachings on pacifism) to inform his strategies, he was successful in changing the laws through Ministry.

The Faith Card

It was a result of  Mr. King’s success, that brought rise to the “Moral Majority” and the likes of Jerry Falwell. Other preachers decided they would step into the arena and effectuate change.  Martin Luther King had succeeded!  But they needed a cause and so they chose abortion.  In the political arena, that has been a tragic and sad battle for the

Jerry Falwell sought political clout

last 40 years.  Since that issue  has lingered without closure; the issue of banning gay marriage became the second issue. For the last decade, these two concerns have dominated the media landscape.  There are so many ways to effect change; but somehow, according to Nancy Pearcy’s book, Total Truth, the Christian has chosen politics over everything else. The Christian seems to have forgotten the  arts,  science, and education.  And somehow, in the midst of it all, we have forgotten the sacred nature of God.

With the failure of much of the church, we now see politicians such as Michele Bachman  and Sarah Palin stepping forward  into government as if it were a church and telling us what God  has said to them.   If the founding fathers were alive today, they would be aghast. George Washington was a Deist, John Adams a Christian, Thomas Jefferson was a Deist; they all believed in God, but they did not all agree as to the way of God, or they way to Worship God.

The Mosque

 The contemplated building of an Islamic mosque, a mere two blocks from Ground Zero strikes me as insensitive and inappropriate given the events surrounding the tragedy  of 9/11.  That said,  as an American I support the freedom of all people to worship as they choose. I  personally do not believe in certain worship leading to a healthy relationship with God; but I must support others ability to do so. In this civil country, no one should be thrown in jail for their worship of God.

The Majesty of God

There is no question that the founding fathers took a position that they believed in God in the early documents that became the seminal documents of the United States.  What might be consider inappropriate spelling or Capitalization has been left intact.

The opening of the Constitution:

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

 The opening of the Declaration of Independence:

When in the Course of human events it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation

 We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness

The preamble to the ten amendments that make up the Bill of Rights:

The Conventions of a number of the States, having at the time of their adopting the Constitution, expressed a desire, in order to prevent misconstruction or abuse of its powers, that further declaratory and restrictive clauses should be added: And as extending the ground of public confidence in the Government, will best ensure the beneficent ends of its institution.

 Church of Oprah And The Jefferson Bible

It is interesting to watch any of the many clips on the Internet regarding Oprah Winfrey’s view of God.  To me, she is the embodiment of Postmodernism: the only true reality is one’s own reality. .One intuits Oprah’s own Baptist roots, speaking again of Baptists,

Oprah Winfrey – She has the inalienable right to speak what she believes

but she has  taken a position, which is her right, to sort of “cut and paste” her view of God. There are things in the Old Testament that she does not “like” and so she has written them out in her mind.  She did not, for instance like the fact that God got angry, or the idea that God might allow suffering. That was not a very enlightened view from God, according to Ms. Winfrey. Many Evangelicals are pissed at Ms. Winfrey and her “church”; and they can rant on, but Oprah  Winfrey has a right to speak freely and to worship as she chooses even on syndicated television.

Thomas Jefferson also finished  two  cut and pastes of the Bible. The last book of the New Testament takes a very hard position about messing around with the Gospel, and changing it around but Jefferson was straining to understand the teachings of Jesus from his own precise and thoughtful lens.  He removed all the miracles and any supernatural events from the New Testament  text and assembled simply the teachings  of Jesus, he called the book, for his use only, “The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth” . Not happy with the first version, later in his life, after his Presidency, Jefferson  assembled a second book. He insisted that these books never be published in his lifetime. Congress purchased Jefferson’s library at his death and distributed in 1904 Jefferson’s collation, naming it “The Jefferson Bible”. One of the two original books that Jefferson entitled “The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth” has been through a diligent  restoration and will be available for viewing later at the Smithsonian. The details of the exhibit have not yet been released.

When  asked what Thomas Jefferson learned from all his editings, he said, “Fear God, Love others.”

A Question of Sacredness

 In the public square, we seem to have lost that fear, the notion of the majesty and sovereignty of God Almighty. We have Republicans and Democrats running around like God is a running mate.  God’s name is thrown around like a token. We  are very busy conforming God to our own needs and desires, that we forget to ask God who He is.  What does he say about himself?  In the Bible he called  himself  “Sovereign  immutable, loving, forgiving, holy.” This notion of Holy, this idea of sacred, the captivation of Divinity seems to have been lost  from the conversation, from  our meeting places.

Harvard University – Now and then. The book that once was turned down, signifying the spirit and the unknowable secrets of God is now turned upward. An sign of the times.

Where are the great preachers of today and tomorrow that bring sacred front and center that can agitate the policies and laws, and make us a more vibrant culture?  I am a Christian so I believe there is only one way to God and that is through Christ Jesus, but where are the preachers whether Gandhi’s or  Martin Luther King of the new era who bring forward the sacred and holy  in  our busy and often empty lives? Why must we allow the politicians to fill the void and start talking as if God Almighty  is an attorney.

Harvard University started out in 1636  as a college for  Congregational preachers. In it’s early incarnation, its emblem had three books: two of them were face up, the third was turned downward. The first two books represented enlightenment through education, the third downward-faced book represented enlightenment through the Holy Spirit. The Third book represented “the unknowable things of God.

Today  that third book has been turned upright.  At the  new Harvard, there is only enlightenment through education.  It is an emblem of our times.

I look at the early foundations of America, most all of them are still in tact, 300 years later. Amazingly, it is the oldest surviving government in the world. And I see God Almighty in all of it. Because in the beginning, God gave us freedom, to love Him or to not love Him.

I leave this blog today with the words of Reverend Martin Luther King. Obviously, I am a big fan.

As for me, I need to find some bargain tickets for Paris.

Bibliography:

American Declaration of Independence, American Constitution, American Bill Of  Rights, Made In America by Bill Bryson, John Adams by David McCullough,
Faith of our Fathers: Religion and the New Nation by E.S. Gaustad,
The Story of the Baptists by Richard Cook, The Writings of Thomas Jefferson: compiled by AA Lipscomb and AE Bergh, The Culpepper Jail Transcripts, The Mayflower by Nathaniel Philibrick

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8 responses to Jefferson: Separation of Church and State

  1. This is great, Dave. Ever heard of the Truth Project? You might want to check it out…

  2. Thanks, David, for sharing your deeply held views, ideas and ideals.

    A comment:

    The so-called Ground Zero Mosque is/was (not sure of the current status) an Islamic cultural center, not a stand-alone mosque. It was modeled after a typical YMCA/YMHA – a real community center with facilities and services for the local community. You may be aware that for many years, I don’t recall the number, but it definitely pre-dates 9/11, there was already a mosque within blocks of the Trade Center. Due to a change in ownership of the building it was renting, the mosque was evicted from its space (not, I believe, because of backlash, but for mundane reasons). So when the developers of the cultural center heard about this, they decided to include a mosque as part of their plan to serve the numerous Muslims living in lower Manhattan, who were living without a local mosque. As you know, this is a problem for devout Muslims who need to pray I believe at least twice a day. The media, and evangelical extremists, seized on this and turned it into an issue as a means to (in my view) channel their own anti-Muslim hatred and negativity. Not a very Christian thing to do.

    Parenthetically (and you mention old testament/new testament), I always find it fascinating that evangelicals and fundamentalists spend so much time quoting the old testament – the Hebrew bible. This is the bible of plagues and pestilence and wars and God’s wrath. Lots of smiting going on and bad shit happening. Lots of punishment and righteousness. What happened to the new testament? What happened to loving your neighbor, to turning the other cheek, to God being within you as he is within me…? What happened to God as Love, to forgiveness?

    But hey, I’m a Jew, so what do I know? Maybe you can explain this to me…

    But back to the mosque. Personally, I believe that a mosque within blocks of the Trade Center site is a great and very appropriate idea. It speaks to the American ideals that you so eloquently enumerate in your post, and would stand as as symbol and a metaphor to the world, and particularly to the Muslim world, that the U.S. is truly a nation that embraces freedom of belief, and spiritual diversity. What more perfect message to send to the Islamists (who want to distort the Koran with their medieval views) and celebrate the best of Islam near the site that they tried to poison with their perversion?

    Mike Bloomberg was absolutely right to avoid the evangelical circus that would have been the result of allowing prayers at Ground Zero. I haven’t followed his remarks closely, but I certainly think that if he didn’t do so, he should have invited everyone to pray locally, to “hold the victims and families in your prayers” – that sort of thing. That would have showed that he was not anti-prayer, just anti-circus.

    And before I forget, I also just wanted to call you out a bit on your comment about Republicans and Democrats “running around like God is their running mate.” Can you please name a Democrat who is conducting (or has conducted) such a campaign? I am not aware of any.

    All the best, my friend,

    JT

    • Thanks, JT! A very eloquent response indeed! I appreciate you for taking the time to write it.

      Regarding the Mosque and the Islam cultural center, I am not sure where the pending construction of it stands. I agree with you that it it the right of any Muslim who is a US citizen to worship where they choose under the laws of this country, and they can build their place of worship wherever zoning is appropriate. I agree with you that it is unfortunate that my Christian brethren have led with so much hatred over it. The political arena has become so ripe with the issues on abortion and gay rights, that the idea of leading in love seems to get lost from the Christian right.

      Regarding the “Old Testament God” and the “New Testament God”; from a Christian theological POV, they are one and the same God. That is indeed why you see so many Christians speaking about the Old Testament. The position of scripture is that Jesus was there from the top with God, the Father and the Holy Spirit. John said at the top of his gospel,”In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God.” Jesus represents to Christians, a new beginning, where his sacrifice brought a “New Covenant” with God and His people.

      As it relates to Democrats, you only need to Google what both Ms Clinton and Mr Obama were both saying during the last primary regarding their very positive Christian faith views. I’m just sayin’….

      Thanks so much for your thoughtful, intelligent and measured response.

      Take care, my friend!

      DK:-)

  3. Hi David: Very interesting reading! So, in your research did you discover any nuances as it relates to “original intent?” I guess what I mean by that is: while it appears that your discovery that there is in fact to verbiage stating: “separation between church and state” is it not more than abundantly clear that the “Founding Fathers” were trying to be as diligent as possible as to prevent the interference in the “Name of God” as a mandate from the Federal Government? So while the words may not be found as you thought they were, surely the intent is beyond obvious. Still, a bet is a bet.

    Another kind of related pet peeve of mine is the insistence of many that if it does not exist in the constitution as the Founding Fathers and writers of the Federalist Papers wrote it, and them, respectively, then it is not constitutional. It seems to me that there are several Amendments to the Constitution which seem extremely important and pertinent, things which the Founding Fathers were unable–due to purely fiscal reasons, I contend–omitted in the first place: Abolition of Slavery and Suffrage for Women. And on a purely personal selfish note, repeal of Prohibition and the right of 18 year old military draftees to vote seem like really good ideas, both at the time and now.

    So, the first amendment’s reference to freedom of religion was in direct response to the Church of England’s control via royal mandate. Ben Franklin’s influence on the process no doubt is revealed in the freedom of the press reference. And yet, we often forget we only are guaranteed the right to assemble peaceably.

    Our right to bear arms was a direct and clarion call to warn any future government officials who might want to make themselves king that he would have an armed citizenry to contend with. The provision for a well regulated Militia is now thought to include a nuclear arsenal and the “right” of the citizenry to behold weapons of destruction not yet conceived by the Fathers. And yet by constitutional mandate congress is required to renew the military budget every two years. On the surface of things not a bad idea, but it takes a long time to build an aircraft carrier. Perhaps we should relegate our right to bear arms to those weapons available at the time of the creation of the passage. Flintlocks for everyone!

    The third amendment, is again in direct reference to the Billeting of Soldiers by King George in colonists homes, another way to keep another Napoleon from using military power to subjugate the nation. And so it goes. Some of the original provisions and Amendments seem quaint now that we’ve abolished slavery, understand there is to be no state sanctioned religion and all of the other changes that have occurred to the nation since 1783.

    And since you brought it up, it occurs to me that under paragraph 3 of the 14th amendment that Rick Perry may not be qualified to be president.

    The genius of the constitution is that despite its age, it is so relevant in so many ways, and yet there are those who simply cannot abide that Their God is not My God and as usual our national discourse has again become a matter of who can yell the loudest and repeat phrases with no historic or factual basis enough times to be taken as the truth.

    Sorry you lost your bet, I would have too.

  4. Your interesting post reflects considerable thought and research.

    Separation of church and state is a general principle of our Constitution much like the principles of separation of powers and checks and balances. In the Constitution, the founders did not simply say in so many words that there should be separation of powers and checks and balances; rather, they actually separated the powers of government among three branches and established checks and balances. Similarly, they did not merely say there should be separation of church and state; rather, they actually separated them by (1) establishing a secular government on the power of the people (not a deity), (2) saying nothing to connect that government to god(s) or religion, (3) saying nothing to give that government power over matters of god(s) or religion, and (4), indeed, saying nothing substantive about god(s) or religion at all except in a provision precluding any religious test for public office. They later buttressed this separation with the First Amendment, which constrains the government from undertaking to establish religion or prohibit individuals from freely exercising their religions. The basic principle, thus, rests on much more than just the First Amendment.

    That the phrase “separation of church and state” does not appear in the text of the Constitution assumes much importance, it seems, to some who may have once labored under the misimpression it was there and, upon learning they were mistaken, reckon they’ve discovered a smoking gun solving a Constitutional mystery. To those familiar with the Constitution, the absence of the metaphor commonly used to name one of its principles is no more consequential than the absence of other phrases (e.g., Bill of Rights, separation of powers, checks and balances, fair trial, religious liberty) used to describe other undoubted Constitutional principles.

    Some try to pass off the Supreme Court’s decision in Everson v. Board of Education as simply a misreading of Jefferson’s letter to the Danbury Baptists–as if that is the only basis of the Court’s decision. Instructive as that letter is, it played but a small part in the Court’s decision. Perhaps even more than Jefferson, James Madison influenced the Court’s view. Madison, who had a central role in drafting the Constitution and the First Amendment, confirmed that he understood them to “[s]trongly guard[] . . . the separation between Religion and Government.” Madison, Detached Memoranda (~1820). He made plain, too, that they guarded against more than just laws creating state sponsored churches or imposing a state religion. Mindful that even as new principles are proclaimed, old habits die hard and citizens and politicians could tend to entangle government and religion (e.g., “the appointment of chaplains to the two houses of Congress” and “for the army and navy” and “[r]eligious proclamations by the Executive recommending thanksgivings and fasts”), he considered the question whether these actions were “consistent with the Constitution, and with the pure principle of religious freedom” and responded: “In strictness the answer on both points must be in the negative. The Constitution of the United States forbids everything like an establishment of a national religion.”

    While the religious views of various founders are subjects of some uncertainty and controversy, it is safe to say that many founders were Christian of one sort or another. In assessing the nature of our government, though, care should be taken to distinguish between society and government and not to make too much of various founders’ individual religious beliefs. Their individual beliefs, while informative, are largely beside the point. Whatever their religions, they drafted a Constitution that establishes a secular government and separates it from religion as noted earlier. This is entirely consistent with the fact that some founders professed their religiosity and even their desire that Christianity remain the dominant religious influence in American society. Why? Because religious people who would like to see their religion flourish in society may well believe that separating religion and government will serve that end and, thus, in founding a government they may well intend to keep it separate from religion. It is entirely possible for thoroughly religious folk to found a secular government and keep it separate from religion. That, indeed, is just what the founders did.

    It is instructive to recall that adoption of the First Amendment reflected, at the federal level, a “disestablishment” political movement then sweeping the country. That political movement succeeded in disestablishing all state religions by the 1830s. (Side note: A political reaction to that movement gave us the term “antidisestablishmentarianism,” which amused some of us as kids.) It is worth noting, as well, that this disestablishment movement largely coincided with another movement, the Great Awakening. The people of the time saw separation of church and state as a boon, not a burden, to religion.

    This sentiment was recorded by a famous observer of the American experiment: “On my arrival in the United States the religious aspect of the country was the first thing that struck my attention. . . . I questioned the members of all the different sects. . . . I found that they differed upon matters of detail alone, and that they all attributed the peaceful dominion of religion in their country mainly to the separation of church and state. I do not hesitate to affirm that during my stay in America, I did not meet a single individual, of the clergy or the laity, who was not of the same opinion on this point.” Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America (1835).

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