|The Bill of Rights|
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. – First Amendment to the Constitution
The First Amendment is the workhorse amendment of the Constitution. It recognizes the natural right of Americans to the freedoms of religion, speech, press, assembly, and to lobby the government. Its forty-five words are arguably some of the most important and powerful words in our government and culture. Yet, in spite of our First Amendment protections against prohibitions of the “free exercise” of religion, Americans today face unprecedented attacks on religion in the public square.
Today it is taken for granted that the phrase “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion” means that there should be a “wall of separation between church and state.” However, the phrase “separation of church and state” does not appear within the Constitution and seems to actually contradict the phrase “or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” The Establishment Clause today seems to take precedence over the Free Exercise Clause.
If we look back to the early days of our republic, we see that religion and government often worked together. One of the most popular marching songs of the Continental Army, “Chester” by William Billings, is unmistakably spiritual. The Declaration of Independence, our founding document, also makes explicit, though nondenominational, references to our “Creator” and “Nature’s God.” While the Revolution still raged, Congress authorized the printing of an American Bible in 1781. The Robert Aitken Bible was printed in 1782 and was commended by George Washington.
From the earliest days of our history as well, Congress, the states, and presidents have proclaimed national days of “Humiliation, Fasting, and Prayer” according to Dr. John S. Uebersax. The authors of these early proclamations are a veritable who’s who list of American founders including John Hancock, John Jay, Sam Adams, John Adams, and James Madison. George Washington issued the first Thanksgiving proclamation, titled “General Thanksgiving,” in 1789 to acknowledge “with grateful hearts the many and signal favors of Almighty God, especially by affording them an opportunity peaceably to establish a form of government for their safety and happiness…"
When Congress passed the Northwest Ordinance in 1787, it stated, “Religion, morality, and knowledge, being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged.” Congress clearly wanted to promote religion as a means to promoting good citizenship.
After the Constitution and the Bill of Rights were ratified in 1788 and 1791 respectively, there was still no separation of church and state. The U.S. Capitol building was begun in 1793, but was not occupied by Congress until 1800. In the meantime, the building was used for public worship services beginning in 1795. According to the Library of Congress, these nondenominational services were attended by Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Abraham Lincoln, and many other presidents and members of Congress. The Marine band often provided music and congressional chaplains delivered sermons. The services continued until after the War Between the States.
|A relief on Federal Hall in New York depicts George Washington praying at Valley Forge. (OptimumPx/Public Domain)|
In 1794, the “Act to Provide Naval Armament” created the U.S. Navy and required that a chaplain be assigned to each of the six forty-four gun warships that were authorized. As the Navy grew, chaplains were authorized on smaller ships as well and by 1799 Congress required by law that naval vessels have two divine services each day and a sermon on Sunday and that captains should “cause all, or as many of the ship’s company as can be spared from duty, to attend at every performance of the worship of Almighty God” according to the Navy’s “History of the Chaplain Corps.”
Further, the “Indian Civilization Fund Act” of 1818 specifically appropriated federal money to missionaries working with the Indians. These Protestant missionaries used the money to expand schools that helped educate and assimilate Indians into the mainstream American society. This followed earlier treaties with the Indians (specifically the Kaskaskia, Wynadotte, and Cherokee tribes) by President Thomas Jefferson that used federal funds to send missionaries to these tribes specifically for promotion of Christianity.
There are numerous references to Christianity as the unofficial religion of the United States by America’s founders and leaders throughout our history. These references are too numerous to list here, but are widely available on the internet. Many are cited as well in a 2009 spiritual heritage resolution that was cosponsored by Rep. Phil Gingrey of Georgia. From our founding, America has been a Judeo-Christian nation, not in only law, but in fact.
The question remains as to where the notion of the “wall of separation” comes from. It is commonly attributed to Jefferson’s “Letter to the Danbury Baptists” from 1802. An early reference to the letter was in “Reynolds v. United States (1878)” in which the Supreme Court ruled that “Congress was deprived of all legislative power over mere opinion, but was left free to reach actions which were in violation of social duties or subversive of good order.” In other words, Congress could legislate against polygamy, same-sex marriage, or human sacrifice for the good of society, but it could not legislate against ideas.
In the 1940s, the Supreme Court used Jefferson’s phrase when deciding a pair of cases involving religion and schools. In the first case, “Everson v. Board of Education (1947),” the Court ruled that a New Jersey law reimbursing parents for the cost of transportation to and from schools, even private schools, was constitutional even though the vast majority of people to benefit under the law were the parents of children in Catholic schools. Justice Hugo Black’s ruling reads in part: “The 'establishment of religion' clause of the First Amendment means at least this: Neither a state nor the Federal Government can set up a church. Neither can pass laws which aid one religion, aid all religions or prefer one religion over another. Neither can force nor influence a person to go to or to remain away from church against his will or force him to profess a belief or disbelief in any religion. No person can be punished for entertaining or professing religious beliefs or disbeliefs, for church attendance or non-attendance.” The landmark case applied the First Amendment to state as well as federal law.
More troublesome was the ruling in “McCollum v. Board of Education (1948)” which struck down the practice of allowing voluntary religious classes in public schools. The practice of using public buildings for religious purposes had, until then, been common throughout American history as we have seen.
The use of Jefferson’s Danbury letter in legal matters was an error. First, it was not legislative or legal in any sense. The letter was the personal correspondence of a man who was not even in the country as the Constitution and Bill of Rights were being drafted and therefore could not have been a delegate to the Constitutional Convention. From 1784 to 1790, he was ambassador to France. Instead, James Madison, the author of the “Federalist Papers,” is remembered as the “Father of the Constitution” as well as its lead framer. In any case, Jefferson’s letter does not preclude the government promoting religion in general, only establishing a specific religion. This is consistent with Jefferson’s own actions as president.
Much has also been made of the Treaty of Tripoli which states that “the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion….” The senators present at ratification unanimously confirmed the treaty. The treaty, which was signed for the United States by Joel Barlow in 1797, is technically correct. The government of the United States is itself secular, but it presides over a Christian nation.
Frank Lambert, author of “the Founding Fathers and the Place of Religion in America,” explains the apparent contradiction this way:
“By their actions, the Founding Fathers made clear that their primary concern was religious freedom, not the advancement of a state religion. Individuals, not the government, would define religious faith and practice in the United States. Thus the Founders ensured that in no official sense would America be a Christian Republic. Ten years after the Constitutional Convention ended its work, the country assured the world that the United States was a secular state, and that its negotiations would adhere to the rule of law, not the dictates of the Christian faith. The assurances were contained in the Treaty of Tripoli of 1797 and were intended to allay the fears of the Muslim state by insisting that religion would not govern how the treaty was interpreted and enforced. John Adams and the Senate made clear that the pact was between two sovereign states, not between two religious powers.”
Joseph Story, an early justice on the Supreme Court who published commentaries on the Constitution, was likely correct when he wrote “The real object of the [first] amendment was, not to countenance, much less to advance Mahometanism, or Judaism, or infidelity, by prostrating Christianity; but to exclude all rivalry among Christian sects, and to prevent any national ecclesiastical establishment, which should give to an hierarchy the exclusive patronage of the national government.”
|The Mt. Soledad Cross (Will Fresch/Wikimedia)|
In Story’s view, the true purpose of the Establishment Clause was not to erect a “wall of separation between church and state,” but to prevent national recognition of any one Christian denomination or sect. When viewed within the context of the time this makes sense. Europe had just emerged from a period of religious wars between Catholics and Protestants. Religious persecution to the point of executions had been commonplace in Europe and even in some American colonies. For example, the Puritans of the Massachusetts Bay Colony fined, whipped, tarred, banished and even killed religious dissenters, notably Quakers. The framers of the Constitution did not want this to become a divisive national struggle between denominations.
It is also noteworthy that the Constitution did not mandate an end to the government supported religions of the states. Georgia never had an official state religion but many other colonies did. Maryland’s official Anglican religion may be recalled from high school U.S. history classes and was shared by five of the original thirteen colonies. The status of the Congregational Church as New Hampshire’s official state religion lasted until 1877. The concept of federalism meant that states made choices about most issues for themselves rather than being dictated to by the federal government.
The fact that the original intent of the First Amendment was not to separate church and state does not mean that practitioners of other religions would be forced to adopt Christianity. It does mean that Christianity is the original and preferred religion of the United States. While the government of the United States is nondenominational, the people of the United States have always been predominantly Christian and the government has always realized that it was in the best interest of the country as a whole to promote religious beliefs.
For more examples of Christianity in early American life go to: