The Separation of Church and State Myth: The Founding Fathers: Their True View On Religion's Role In Government
by Daniel T. Zanoza + Julia Mary Zanoza
"If I could have entertained the slightest apprehension that the Constitution framed by the convention, where I had the honor to preside, might possibly endanger the religious rights of any ecclesiastical society, I would never have placed my signature to it."
-- George Washington --
There is an ever-growing debate in America over the relationship between government and religion. In recent times, Constitutional law, or at least the modern-day interpretation thereof, has moved from one of accommodation concerning religion to a position many call hostile to the expression of personal faith in the public square. From their writings, it's clear the Founding Fathers had strong views on the subject. And though not politically correct, they were prolific in writing about God and nation. After all, 27 out of the 57 men who signed the Declaration of Independence and U. S. Constitution had the modern day equivalent of seminary degrees (extensive studies of Greek, Hebrew and Biblical text). They did not intend for America to be a theocracy, but they certainly believed the nation's laws should be tied to natural laws God created. John Adams, America's second President said, "It is religion and morality, alone, which can establish the principles upon which freedom can securely stand."
The Constitution's framers used the Judeo-Christian ethic as a foundation for this new government. In creating America, they were beginning a unique experiment whereby everyone would be able to practice their religion freely, privately and publicly. Just as important, they also meant for Judeo-Christian principles to under-gird our laws. In another speech, Adams said, "Religion and virtue are the only foundations, not only of Republicanism and of all free government, but all social felicity under all governments and in all combinations of human society." Many Americans don't realize how adamant the Framers were on these points. Current history books in public schools also neglect to describe how these men thoroughly and diligently studied hundreds of years of civilizations that had come and gone in order to lay down these solid principles.
Much of the debate over this issue stems from the misuse of the phrase "separation of church and state." If asked, most Americans would attribute these words to the U. S. Constitution. In reality, the term does not appear in the Bill of Rights, the Declaration of Independence or any formal United States document. The phrase was extracted from a letter written by then-President Thomas Jefferson in 1802. He was responding to correspondence from the Danbury, Connecticut Baptist Association.
A quote from the Danbury letter reads, "It is not to be wondered at therefore, that those who seek after power and gain, under the pretense of government and Religion, should reproach their fellow man, (or) should reproach their Chief Magistrate, as an enemy of religion, law, and good order because he will not, dares not, assume the prerogative of Jehovah and make laws to govern the Kingdom of Christ."
Jefferson meant to calm their fears by quoting the First Amendment of the Constitution. He wrote them back, saying, "Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between man and his God ... that the legislative powers of government ... should make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; thus building a wall of separation between church and state."
Jefferson himself took this opportunity to borrow from the well-noted Baptist minister, Roger Williams, who said, "...the hedge or wall of separation between the garden of the church and the wilderness of the world, God hath ever broken down the wall." It's evident the primary intent of the phrase "wall of separation" was to protect the garden of the church from invasion by the state. (However, it must be pointed out that Thomas Jefferson did not sign the Constitution, was not present at the Constitutional Convention of 1787 and was out of the country during the discussion over religious freedom within the First Amendment.)
David Barton, founder and Executive Director of Wallbuilders, Inc. and a Constitutional scholar, says the wall was meant to be one-directional. For proof, he cited early court rulings such as Reynolds v. U. S., 1878. The case used Jefferson's letter to prove the one-way nature of the wall. The court ruled government was responsible to enforce civil laws according to Judeo-Christian principles.
Barton goes on to say separation of church and state pertains to denominational differences, not basic Christian mores. For example, a group could not practice human sacrifice claiming Constitutional protection. The court also ruled Mormons could not engage in bigamy or polygamy. Barton concluded by saying the wall kept the government from running the church, but it never separated religious principles from government.
Much can be learned about the intent of the Constitutional framers by a review of the Northwest Ordinance. The draft was prepared by Thomas Jefferson. It was originally approved by Congress July 13, 1787, and re-passed by the Founding Fathers following the U. S. Constitution's ratification. On August 7, 1789, President George Washington signed it into law during the same time Congress was laying down the First Amendment. Article III of this Ordinance states, "Religion, morality, and knowledge, being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall be forever encouraged."
On April 30, 1802, President Jefferson signed the enabling act for Ohio to join the union which said this newest state must agree with the Northwest Ordinance. If Jefferson believed there was a distinct wall of separation between church and state, he would not have ratified this act just months after his letter to the Danbury Baptist group.
Again, it is clear that the Supreme Court, which included men who had created and signed the Constitution, looked upon religious principles as the moral foundation of this early government. When they spoke of religion, it appears they were referring to sects or denominations. This notion is bolstered by the words of Samuel Chase, a signer of the Declaration of Independence and a Supreme Court Justice, who said "Religion is of general and public concern and on its proper support depend, in great measure, the peace and good order of government, the safety and happiness of the people. By our form of government, the Christian religion is the established religion; and all sects and denominations of Christians are placed upon the same equal footing, and are equally entitled to protection in their religious liberty."
What has led to the modern-day, secular view of the U. S. Constitution? Many people assert the document is subject to change according to cultural whim. However, the amendment process was to be the means by which the Constitution was to undergo this change. Judicial activists have circumvented this procedure, creating laws instead of interpreting them.
The reinterpretation of the religious clauses of the First Amendment can be traced to a court decision in the 1920's, but the roots of this new legal perspective date back to the turn of the century. The humanistic teachings of Charles Darwin, Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud cannot be overlooked in the new role of religion in American culture. Subsequently, the beliefs which a society holds dear are reflected in its laws. But some say the shift to a non-theistic translation of the Constitution was begun by a cultural elite that shared little of the values held by the general populace.
Systematically, with the aid of judicial activism, religion has been deleted from the public square. Faith-based education was the first victim of this rush to government-sponsored secularism. One of the earliest court rulings pertaining to religion within the establishment clause, in this new Constitutional vision, occurred in the Supreme Court case, Everson v. Board of Education, 1947. For the first time, Jefferson's words were used in a totally unique context. By a 5-4 vote, the nations highest court ruled, "From the period of the early settlers, the American people believed that individual religious liberty could be best achieved by a government that was stripped of all power to tax, to support or otherwise to assist any or all religions." Legal scholars have noted this case used zero precedents, therefore abandoning the time-tested practice of common law. In contrast, the aforementioned case of Reynolds v. U. S. used Jefferson's writings concerning church and state to prove quite the opposite. Hence, the foundation was now laid for the assault on the principles held so deeply by the Founding Fathers.
In 1958, a Supreme Court Justice demonstrated prophetic insight in giving his dissenting opinion concerning the case Baer v. Kolmorgen. He warned that the Court must be careful in its usage of the term "separation of church and state" because the public would believe those words appeared within the body of the Constitution. In the future, there might be some who would falsely attribute the phrase to the document itself. This judge truly had a vision of what was to come.
Perhaps the most significant landmark Supreme Court decision on religion and education was Engel v. Vitale, 1962. The court said that a verbal prayer in school is unconstitutional even if it is both voluntary and denominationally neutral. The ruling opened the legal floodgates in the rush to remove religion from public schools. This case had a far-reaching effect on the culture of an entire nation as well.
In 1980, the Supreme Court ruled that the Ten Commandments could not be displayed in a classroom. The court used this rationale: If the Commandments are present in the classroom, someone might read them. If someone reads them, they might then act accordingly. And if they act accordingly, this violates the constitutional wall between state and religion.
These and other monumental court decisions were a result of an ever-growing barrier between church and state which, in turn, changed the way a nation lived. Rulings on issues such as abortion and pornography became possible in this atmosphere of moral relativism. Constitutional revisionists exclude morality from the legal equation. The state itself becomes the final arbiter between right and wrong.
However, it is evident the Founding Fathers felt a need to prescribe to a higher level of virtue. It can be argued that the reason the United States has thrived stems from the Framers reverence for something beyond humanity.
The false perception of the Constitutional framers as non-religious continues. This social and legal parallax is reinforced among the nation’s youth. A videotape entitled "Myths America," shown in some public schools, described the Founding Fathers as atheists who saw religion playing little or no role in their vision of a democratic republic. It also must be noted that prior to World War II, speeches such as George Washington's farewell address, which was heavy in references to God and government, appeared in most American textbooks. However, from the 1940's onward, his commentary has been deleted from history texts, helping to create a radically altered secular perception of the Founders.
It is safe to say modern America is no longer looked upon as a Christian nation by many people. The age-old question of what came first, the chicken or the egg, is entirely applicable in the discussion of religion and American government and, to a greater extent, American culture. It can be reasonably asserted that the purely secular perception of the law has revamped American society. It can be argued that this non-theistic culture is a direct result of post-modernisms influence on the United States judiciary, a perfect example of cause and effect.
Today, the very nature of law prohibits cases from being argued solely by looking at the intent of the nation's Founders. Some, who hold a constructionist view of law, admit that in the 1960's, '70s and early '80s, cases were tried poorly by conservative jurists, leading to many of the rulings handed down by state and federal courts.
The American social landscape bears little resemblance to the late 18th century. The country is no longer a melting pot, instead succumbing to the philosophy of multiculturalism which divided Americans along racial, ethnic and other cultural lines. Judicial activism has helped delete the homogenous nature of society by using the courts to advance this way of thinking.
The Founding Fathers intent was clear. They saw natural law as a fundamental component of a democratic republic. For over 150 years, the courts not only supported this vision, but also made religious liberty an integral factor in the interpretation of law. But the ever-narrowing approach to religious rights, guaranteed by the First Amendment, has had profound results. Legal revisionism has distorted a sacred legacy.
In his farewell speech, George Washington stated, "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." Our first President also said, "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."
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