|by Al Richardson|| [Welcome]
The Godless Constitution
Al Richardson, July 19, 1998 -- Based the 1997 book THE GODLESS CONSTITUTION, by Isaac Kramnick and R. Laurence Moore (W. W. Norton &Co.)
This essay reviews the genesis of the principle of separating church and state, and it conclusively debunks the myth that the United States was founded as a Christian nation.
In researching and writing this essay , I wore my conservative "hat." I really believe in conserving a principle that our founders had the vision and courage to include in our governing law a principle that has benefitted American citizens of all religious stripes for over 200 years.
The essay starts by defining a few terms, then sets the stage for the writing of our Constitution and its Bill of Rights, and finally presents the overwhelming evidence that the founders consciously intended the federal government to be neutral in the religious sphere, with no government aid to any particular brand of religion or to religion generally.
My sources are
mainly the founders and their contemporaries. I've
reliedon their own words, as documented in their original
writings and cited in the works of respected historians.
I am particularly indebted to the two Cornell University
professors, Kramnick and Moore, who wrote THE GODLESS
CONSTITUTION. I do not rely on
unsubstantiated sources such as found in David Barton's
book, The Myth of Separation. Mr.Barton himself
has publicly admitted that many of the quotations in his
book, the ones the radical religious right love to
repeat, were either unconfirmed, inaccurate, or probably
"Nation" means the group of states that are identified as the United States of America and all of the citizens that inhabit such states.
"Constitution" is the fundamental law that determines how our nation is governed.
"Founders" (also "Framers") are the 55 people who participated in the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia in 1787 to write the U.S. Constitution. All were men. 39 signed the final draft of the Constitution.
After the Revolutionary War ended with England's surrender in 1776, the original 13 states were linked together by Articles of Confederation. The Articles were later replaced by the present Constitution which was ratified by the states in 1788. The Bill of Rights (i.e., the first 10 Amendments to the U.S. Constitution) was ratified three years later, in 1791.
Initially, the various provisions of the Bill of Rights applied only to the federal government, not to laws enacted by state governments, until the 14th Amendment was ratified in 1868.
In the era of the Revolution, Americans were a distinctly unchurched people. Not more than 15% of the population were church members. There were relatively few Catholics. The Anglican church was dominate in southern states. There were lots of Quakers in Pennsylvania. In New England you could find Presbyterians, Methodists, and Unitarians.
Before the Revolutionary War, most of the early colonies were theocracies, where only those who worshiped according to state orthodoxy were welcome. The practice of official religions and religion taxes continued in individual states even after the colonies became states.
Most of the earliest state constitutions contained an explicit acknowledgment of God and of the relationship of Christianity to civil order. The Massachusetts constitution of 1780, for example, contains in Article 2 the injunction "It is the duty of all men in society publicly and at stated seasons to worship the Supreme Being, the great Creator and Preserver of the universe."
The Articles of Confederation, America's first framework of government, gave credit to "the Great Governor of the World." However, the U.S. Constitution contains no mention whatsoever of "God," the "Great Governor," "Creator and Preserver," or "Supreme Being." God is nowhere to be found in the Constitution, which also has nothing to say about the social value of Christian belief or about the importance of religion for a moral public life. It is utterly silent with respect to God, and to the United States as a Christian nation. This was intentional and apparent to all, and it was the subject of bitter debates in the ratification conventions of most of the states.
There were two notable exceptions to the traditional Christian commonwealth: Rhode Island and Virginia. The colony and later state of Rhode Island rejected any official religion. Its founder, Roger Williams, wrote in 1644: "When they have opened a gap in the...wall of separation between the Garden of the Church and the wilderness of the world, God hath ever...made his Garden a Wildernesse." (Writings 1:392)
Thomas Jefferson was in France when on Jan. 16, 1786, James Madison succeeded in getting the Virginia General Assembly to adopt "A Statute for Religious Freedom." Jefferson had written the Statute seven years earlier. That Statute, little remembered today, was the first in Western history to outlaw religious persecution.
The idea of separation of church and state, which the Statute articulated, went against the grain of many Virginia residents. Patrick Henry argued against it, and he actually introduced an alternative bill that would have established a general assessment for Christian worship to replace the tax that was supporting the Anglican Church. But Madison lobbied his peers effectively and got Jefferson's bill passed. Five years later, in drafting the First Amendment, Madison made the ideas of the Virginia Statute the law of the land.
What were those ideas? Back in 1776, Jefferson had addressed the Virginia House and asked the rhetorical question, "Has the state a right to adopt an opinion in matters of religion?" He answered with a strong negative and made these statements: Men are answerable for their religion solely to God. History shows that religious establishments are always oppressive. In Virginia at that time, laws on the books make it a crime to deny the validity of the Trinity, and heresy was punishable by death. That these laws were rarely enforced was not the point, Jefferson said. Besides, all the legislators knew of cases of persecution, particularly of Baptist preachers.
Later, writing in "Notes on Virginia," Jefferson said: "The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others. But it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods or no god. It neither picks my pocket, nor breaks my leg." In the Virginia Statute he poured forth all his feelings about the corruption and meanness associated with the history of church and state alliances. "To compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves, is sinful and tyrannical," he said. Then Jefferson got to the substance of the act: "That no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever...nor shall otherwise suffer on account of his religious opinions or beliefs...."
Jefferson and Madison did not see church-state separation as an "either or" proposition, or argue that one institution needed greater protection than the other. As historian Garry Wills points out in his 1990 book Under God, Jefferson (a Unitarian) believed that no worthy religion would seek the power of the state to coerce belief. In his Notes, Jefferson argued that disestablishment would strengthen religion, holding that it would "oblige its ministers to be industrious [and] exemplary." The state, likewise, was degraded by an established faith, he asserted, because establishment made it a partner in a system based on bribery of religion. But Jefferson's hostility to church-state entanglement did not mean he was anti-religion. He wished for himself, and for his countrymen, not freedom from religion but freedom to pursue religion wherever intelligence and conscience led.
James Madison, considered to be the Father of the Constitution, also argued that establishment was no friend to religion or the state. He insisted that civil society would be hindered by establishment, charging that attempts to enforce religious belief by law would weaken government. In his 1785 Memorial and Remonstrance, Madison stated flatly that "Religion is not helped by establishment, but is hurt by it." He warned that if government legislated Christianity in Virginia or in America, the evils from which Americans fled Europe would return: "pride and indolence in the clergy, ignorance and servility in the laity, in both, superstition, bigotry and persecution." According to Madison, legislating religion should be left to "the Supreme Lawmaker of the universe," not to magistrates in the assembly.
In his famous Federalist paper No. 10, Madison argued that zealous pursuit of religious opinions, far from leading men to "cooperate for their common good," causes them to hate each other and disposes them "to vex and oppress each other." He later said, in an 1819 letter, "[The number, the industry and the morality of the priesthood, and the devotion of the people have been manifestly increased by the total separation of the church and state." In 1832, he advised future generations to take the strictest reading of the separation of church and state, "an entire abstinence of the government from interference in any way whatever."
The U.S. Constitution has only one reference to religion, in Article 6: "...no religious Test shall ever be required as a qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States." (Art. 6, Sec. 3)
Our history books usually describe in great detail the major arguments made against the federal Constitution by its Anti-Federalist opponents: it meant death to the states and introduced an elitist Senate and a monarchical presidency. Seldom mentioned, however, was the concerted campaign to discredit the Constitution as irreligious. It is as if recognizing the dimension of this criticism would draw too much attention to what was being attacked the secularism of the Constitution. In fact, this under documented and under remembered controversy of 1787-88 over the godless Constitution was one of the most important public debates ever held in our country over the place of religion in politics. The advocates of a secular state won, and it is their Constitution we revere today.
During the ratification conventions in each of the states, a veritable firestorm broke out in the country at large. Outraged Protestants attacked what they saw, correctly, as a godless Constitution. The "no religious test" clause in Article 6 was perceived by many to be the gravest defect of the Constitution. Colonel Jones, a Massachusetts delegate, told the state's ratifying convention that American political leaders had to believe in God and Jesus Christ. In New Hampshire the fear was of "a papist, a Mohomatan [sic], a deist, yea an atheist at the helm of government."
The prohibition of religious tests was seen by many opponents as the operative sign of the Constitution's basic flaw its general godless quality, its seeming indifference to religion. It was feared that "no religious test" would open up the national government to control by Jews, Catholics, and Quakers. A Presbyterian minister and delegate in North Carolina worried that the Constitution offered an invitation to "Jews and pagans of every kind" to govern us.
Fear of Quakers, and of their pacifism and antislavery views, helped fuel the debate. In Charleston, South Carolina, a writer in the City Gazette warned that "as there will be no religious test, [the Quakers] will have weight, in proportion to their numbers, in the great scale of continental government."
During the New Hampshire ratification debate, a delegate argued that to ratify the Constitution would be to overturn all religion and introduce a godless America, suggesting even that if the Constitution were adopted "congress might deprive the people of the use of the holy scriptures." There are many other examples of delegates denouncing Article 6. An apocalyptic theme often heard from the vocal opposition was that if Americans, in their new fundamental law, forgot God and His Christian commonwealth, God would soon forget them, and they would perish.
A moving rejection of the godless Constitution in favor of an overtly Christian government came from one "David" in the Massachusetts Gazette on March 7, 1788. His message was clear. Public virtue and civic peace required governmental encouragement of, and involvement with Christian religion. He defended Massachusetts' "religious test, which requires all public officers to be of some Christian, protestant persuasion," and criticized the Framers' "leaving religion to shift wholly for itself."
A letter to the delegates at the Virginia ratifying convention in June 1788 urged them to insist on adding to the Constitution a clause requiring the creation of academies regulated by Congress where young people would learn "the principles of the Christian religion without regard to any sect, but pure and unadulterated as left by its divine author and his apostle." The social benefits expected to flow from these obligatory Christian academies sound very much like the projected fruits of compulsory school prayer as urged by today's radical religious right. Were compulsory Christian education established, the Virginian claims, "we would have fewer law suits, less backbiting, slander, and mean observations, more industry, justice and real happiness than at present."
Like this Virginian, those opposed to the godless Constitution did not just complain; their advocacy of a Christian commonwealth led them to propose specific changes in the Constitution at various state ratifying conventions, all of which were rejected. In Connecticut, William Williams, a delegate, formally moved that the Constitution's one-sentence preamble be enlarged to include a Christian conception of politics. One hundred and sixty years later the Pledge of Allegiance might be changed by Congress to add the brief "under God." But in 1788 the delegates in Connecticut chose not to introduce God into the U.S. Constitution.
Equally unsuccessful was a Virginia initiative to change the wording of Article 6 to read: "no other religious test shall ever be required than a belief in the one only true God, who is the rewarder of the good, and the punisher of the evil." This change was rejected.
Thomas Wilson, also of Virginia, insisted that the Constitution is "de[i]stical in principle, and in all probability the composers had no thought of God in all their consultations." There is some truth in Mr. Wilson's observation. When Benjamin Franklin, who presided over the Constitutional Convention, urged the delegates to open their sessions with prayers, a request cited often today by the radical religious right, the delegates, more worried about worldly matters like America's financial instability under the Articles of Confederation, voted to adjourn for the day rather than discuss Franklin's suggestion. The matter was never brought up again.
Deism was a powerful force among the intellectuals of the founding generation, even among many of the Framers in Philadelphia. A non doctrinaire religion, deism rejected a supernatural faith built around an anthropomorphic God who intervened in human affairs, either in answer to prayer or for other, inscrutable reasons. Instead, it posited a naturalistic religion with a God understood as a supreme intelligence who after creating the world destined it to operate forever after according to natural, rational, and scientific laws.
No surprise, then, that a frequent claim heard in 1787 and 1788 was that the Constitution represented a deistic conspiracy to overthrow the Christian commonwealth. This view was most powerfully put by the Carlisle, Pennsylvania, pamphleteer "Aristocrotis" who contended that the delegates in Philadelphia had created a government that for the first time in world history removes religion from public life. Until 1787 "there was never a nation in the world whose government was not circumscribed by religion." He argued that the "new Constitution disdains...belief of a deity, the immortality of the soul, or the resurrection of the body, a day of judgment, or a future state of rewards and punishments," because its authors are committed to a natural religion that is deistic nonreligion.
The "no religious test" clause did have its supporters. It was lauded by the Virginia Baptist leader John Leland who believed that the integrity of his faith required governmental noninvolvement in religion. Samuel Spencer in North Carolina insisted that religion stand on its own "without any connection with temporal authority." Making a similar argument, the Reverend Samuel Langdon told the New Hampshire ratifying convention that he viewed religion as "unconnected with and detached from the civil power that [as] it was an obligation between God and his creatures, the civil authority could not interfere without infringing upon the rights of conscience."
At the Massachusetts convention a Congregational minister argued that religious tests for office deprived citizens of their civil rights. At the same convention a distinguished Baptist minister, the Reverend Isaac Backus, supported the absence of a religious test. "Nothing is more evident," he commented, "both in reason and The Holy Scriptures, than that religion is ever a matter between God and individuals...."
When the dust settled at the spirited ratification debates, the delegates to the respective conventions of the 13 states did in fact approve the Constitution as drafted by the Founders. The first ten amendments followed a few years later. These amendments fulfilled the Founders' promise to add a bill of rights to the Constitution, a strategy that induced some anti-federalist states, such as Rhode Island and North Carolina, to ratify the Constitution. The very first clause of the first amendment of the Bill of Rights "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof...." confirms the principle of church-state separation that Jefferson and Madison championed and that was implicit in the federal Constitution as ratified by the individual states.
It is interesting to note that Jefferson, for his advocacy of church-state separation in Virginia and in the federal Constitution, was vilified by Christian clergy as an infidel and a "howling atheist" during his campaign for president in 1800. He was elected, but carried none of the New England states. American Baptists demurred from the criticism of Jefferson's religious views, and they voted for him.
In the 18th century, Baptist identity had crystallized around repeated challenges to the authority of governments to define and enforce proper religious belief. Baptists agreed with Jefferson that America had not been founded as a Christian nation, and in fact they regarded the great majority of Americans as non-Christians who had never had a saving experience of God's grace. Even today, many Baptist hold a high view of Jefferson's wall separating church and state. Earlier this century, Baptists of various conventions, including Southern, formed a Baptist Joint Committee to work for religious liberty and government neutrality toward religion.
It is also interesting to note that although a few of the Founders clung to European notions of church-state union, a general consensus emerged that the new country should steer clear of officially established religion. States with government-favored religions gradually began moving toward separation. Massachusetts, the last state to maintain an official religion, disestablished its state church in 1833, and then only because the conservative Congregationalists believed that Unitarians were getting most of the benefit.
It will be informative here to briefly review how Jefferson, Madison, and the other Founders developed their vision of a secular Constitution that departed from the traditional model of a Christian commonwealth. They were actually continuing a struggle, begun in England in the previous century, to emancipate the individual from all forms of tyranny political, economic, and the equally strong menace of religious tyranny..
The seedbed of what was then a liberal world view was English political thought in the 17th century. The existing Christian commonwealth ideal had been taught by Saint Paul, Saint Augustine, Aquinas, John Calvin, and even the Puritans who banished Roger Williams from the Massachusetts colony. That traditional view of the state, which the Founders rejected and the radical religious right is dusting off today, fuses religion and politics by making the state part of God's design to redeem humanity. God has given His creatures a revealed law through Scripture, a set of absolute and timeless principles of right and wrong. The state's mission is to proclaim God's truths and to reward the virtuous life, while punishing sin and immorality. Those who preside over the state traditionally monarchs, lords and magistrates, and today legislators and presidents are God's agents for the realization of the moral mission. The Christian commonwealth, be it the Catholic realm for Aquinas, or the Protestant realm for an 18th-century Anglican bishop, or Christian America for the radical religious right today, sees religion and politics as forever bound to each other.
The Founders were fully aware of the Christian commonwealth. They confronted and rejected it, and they chose an alternative model of the relation of church and state, one that consciously separated the two realms and spoke of the state as purely secular in its origins, functions, and purpose.
One of the most influential and persuasive proponents of the secular state was John Locke. Locke was the great 17th century English philosopher whose writings most shaped the intellectual and political world view of Americans in the 1700s. Indeed his negative attitude to the state and his preoccupation with the sanctity of private property have continued to influence the fundamental beliefs of Americans to this day. All the important figures of the founding generation, including John Otis, John and Samuel Adams, James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, and Benjamin Franklin, were disciples of Locke. The Declaration of Independence reads like a paraphrase of Locke's influential Second Treatise of Civil Government. According to distinguished 20th-century American scholars, Locke's convictions form the foundation of the American political creed.
For Locke, writing 100 years before the Constitutional Convention, the state's origin was not shrouded in the impenetrable mystery of divine gift or dispensation. The source of "the powers that be," the magistrates and monarchs that governed, was the people, who voluntarily contracted to set up governments in order to protect their natural rights to life, liberty, and property. In Locke's writings we witness the birth of liberal social theory, which posits the autonomous independent individual as the center of the social universe.
In liberal Lockean social theory, the function of government is purely negative. It is willed into being by individual men to serve merely as an umpire in the competitive scramble for wealth and property. Government only protects life, liberty, and property. It keeps peace and order in society. In Locke's writings, government no longer seeks to promote the good or moral life. No longer does government nurture and educate its subjects in the ways of virtue. No longer does it propagate moral and religious truths. Instead, it is assigned the very mundane and practical role of protecting private rights, especially property rights.
In short, according to Locke, men have contracted to obey civil authority not in order for that authority to tell them what to believe or how to pray, but simply for it to keep the peace.
The classical and Christian vision of politics was repudiated in the age of Enlightenment. This was a critical turning point in Western culture. Liberal ideology, very much influenced by Protestant conviction, pushed morality and religion outside the public political realm to a private realm of individual preference. The public realm was being severely curtailed, after nearly two millennia of being all-inclusive, supervising in the name of the Christian commonwealth political, economic, and religious matters. The new liberal theory expanded the role of the private realm, giving it morality, religious belief, and soon economic activity.
In 18th century England there was resistance to this liberal view and support for the status quo, led by Edmund Burke. For Burke the state was much more than a Lockean voluntary artifact set up by contracting individuals bent on protecting their lives and their goods, as secular liberals argued. It had nobler and grander origins and purposes. Religion, for Burke, was central in "the consecration of the state." The state, willed by God, is sacred because it is endowed with morality. Burke believed that religion is the "great bond of society," and the magistrate's role is "to protect it, promote it, and forward it." According to Burke, the great sin of the Enlightenment, of liberals in general, and of the French Revolution in particular, is that they would sever this holy connection between the church and the state.
Opposing Burke was the chemist Joseph Priestly. Priestly was called by Burke the "patriarch" of those who "threaten the basic principles of the Christian Commonwealth wherein the church and state are one and the same." This great scientist, who discovered oxygen in 1774, was in his day more widely known as a theologian and political radical. A Unitarian, Priestly emerged as the major spokesman for the British Protestant dissenting sects in the 1780s and 1790s and led their campaign for the disestablishment of the Anglican Church of England. Priestly was so popularly identified with these causes that a conservative mob burned his house and laboratory in 1791, forcing him to flee England and settle for the last ten years of his life in Northumberland, Pennsylvania.
Even before he emigrated to America, Priestly was a close friend and correspondent of Franklin and Jefferson. He was an important influence, along with Locke, on their secular reading of the state.
Priestly developed even more self-consciously than Locke the theory of the negative state so familiar to Americans. The state no longer has any positive role to educate, nurture, or provide moral standards, or to legislate tests of religious correctness. It has only the specific, limited, and negative functions implicit in its contractual origins. It deals only with "things that relate to this life," while the church deals only with "those that relate to the life to come."
The magistrate, then, has no concern with opinions or beliefs. His sole duty, according to Priestly, "is to preserve the peace of the society." The state punishes only "...if I injure my neighbor, in his person, property or good name," not if I believe in different creeds. "How," Priestly asks, "is any person injured by my holding religious opinions which he disapproves of?" If the answer is that such opinions endanger the salvation of others, it is still inappropriate for the state to interfere, for its "business is with the things of this life only."
For early liberals like Locke, Priestly, and the Founders, the separation of church and state became, in fact, the crucial defining feature of politics.
An important ally of Priestly was the Scottish dissenting minister and political writer James Burgh. Burgh played an important role in shaping the Founders' attitudes about the place of religion in public life. What states do, Burgh contended, is merely serve the interests of those who consent to their creation. They protect well-being and property. They do not sponsor virtue and morality or further any faith. Jefferson would later use a Burgh metaphor that captures in a phrase this entire liberal secular view of the relationship between politics and religion the wall of separation. In his book Crito, published in London in 1767 and widely read in America, Burgh suggested that it was essential to "build an impenetrable wall of separation between things sacred and civil." Decades before Jefferson, Burgh had offered the metaphoric alternative to the Christian commonwealth.
The historical evidence is overwhelming that our nation's founding is correctly seen as the triumph of the privatization of religion, its removal from the public realm, and its transfer to the private world of individual freedom of conscience, belief, and practice.
It is important to remember that this removal of government from issues of religion and morality, this victory of intellectual and religious laissez-faire, was paralleled by the victory of laissez-faire in the economy as well, the general removal of economic issues from the public realm of government and the state to a private realm of free and individual capitalist competition. These two developments were part of the same historical transformation the laissez-faire liberal revolution, which has as its ideal the individual privately praying and privately acting in moral matters, free of public interference, as well as privately deciding what he should charge or what he should pay his workers, equally free from public interference. There is a logical consistency to this revolution. As matters of religion and conscience were beyond the sphere of tyrannical magistrates, so were economic matters.
The United States was born at a moment in Western history when enlightened individuals sought to free themselves from the restraints of both the medieval Christian commonwealth and the medieval mercantilist economy. The radical religious right today wants only half of the laissez-faire ideal to which the founders of this country adhered. It accuse those we call liberals today of abandoning the Founders' faith in economic laissez-faire, and there is some truth to this accusation. But it has abandoned the other half of our Founders' ideals, religious laissez-faire, in the name of a restored religious tyranny the religious correctness of a revived Christian commonwealth. In pursuing this crusade, the radical religious right does great disservice to the Founders.
Some of the Founders of this nation were Christian; others were not. Some were members of churches; many were not. What they shared was a view that religion should not divide people, an opinion that provided them with sufficient reason to exclude God-based claims from most sorts of political debate. On the other hand, their desire for a non-divisive religious climate stemmed directly from their belief that religion was an indispensable civic resource. If the American people could not maintain moral standards in their public and private dealings, they could not make democracy work. A people without compassion or mercy, a people without a sense that social injustices suffered by their neighbors were social wounds to the entire community, a people without honesty or integrity, a people who refused to care about the effect of their self-interested actions upon others, above all, a people who could not safeguard the hopefulness and idealism of its youth such a people would surely perish from the earth, having prepared no future generation to mourn them.
The Founders did not want America to be godless, only its national government. They made no constitutional provisions for instructing citizens in matters of moral and religious conscience. How, then, did they imagine that a democratic state could ensure that its citizens would incorporate moral codes into private conscience? The simple answer is that they did not. A democratic government was not created to produce moral citizens. It was the other way around: moral citizens constructed and preserved democracy. The Founders left the business of teaching morality to private concerns, a principle that should carry some weight with present-day conservatives. It follows that if the United States at the end of the 20th century has lost its moral way, many of our voluntary institutions, including our megachurches and our television ministries, have badly let us down.
We may take some comfort in recognizing that there never was a golden age of moral behavior in the American past. Pick any point in the history of the Republic. Read the journals, newspaper editorials, and public addresses of the time. The depressing news about moral decay was as sensational then as it is now. Anyone who insists that things, morally speaking, were better in the 19th century ought to note, with respect to the question of why our ancestors were our moral superiors, that churches were not as well attended then as they are now. Neither were the public schools in those halcyon days when McGuffey's Readers purportedly took care of the moral and religious instruction of the nation's children.
There were many good reasons why the Founders did not look to politicians and the state to inculcate morality. Our first presidents and legislators looked upon politics, as we understand that activity today, as a corrupting activity. Although Jefferson, called an atheist by the religious right of his time, believed fervently in the social importance of religion as the foundation of morality, he did not confuse the work of government with the work of churches and private citizens.
We live in a world where we cannot assume that moral behavior has universal appeal, regardless of what we teach. It is discouraging when the people who should be our solid citizens, who know the moral rules and who by dint of all manner of privileges are in the best position to live by them, fall into corrupt practices involving money, power, and sex. There is plenty to worry about and only limited help to be gotten from the Founders, who were nagged by their own problems of public morality and who could not have foreseen the special problems facing society 200 years later. Nonetheless, the attitudes of the Enlightenment that shaped the course of the American Revolution have not lost their relevance. The Founders of this nation would regard the mixing of religion and politics in the ways now being engineered by the radical religious right as part of the problem of failing public morality, rather than as a solution.
Pat Robertson is an excellent example of how the radical religious right has misread the intentions that lay behind the Constitution and of the dangers contained in that misreading. A religious leader turned politician, Robertson ran for president in 1988. Through the Christian Coalition, which he created, Robertson has effectively raised money for conservative candidates, provided an army of volunteer workers for politicians who share his views, and emerged as a powerful figure in the Republican party.
In Robertson's short view, America's moral decline started with a cabal of New Deal liberals, a category of secular cosmopolitans whose numbers just happened to include a lot of Jews who ran banks but liked Karl Marx. According to Robertson, those secularists hated the Christian religion and have since the New Deal wormed their way into positions of power with the explicit intention of wiping out religious faith. Two seconds of reflection ought to convince anyone that this bizarre scenario has no credible basis in fact. But Robertson knows, and herein lies one of the dangers, that once liberals are turned into agents of Satan he doesn't have to supply plausible motives or explain how they can so cleverly fool well-meaning people.
The Americans who voted for the New Deal were not dupes. They formed, in fact, a political constituency that was heavily churched. Robertson's unfounded charges against liberals who hate God and moral decency is an inexcusably careless reading of the American past. As a misuse of religion to advance a political agenda, it constitutes exactly the sort of corruption that the founders feared when ambitious men rose up and announced that God had chosen them to found a political movement. It is the sort of thing that gives populism a bad name.
The people with the best reason to be wary of Pat Robertson and his allies are devout Christians who care about the credibility of their faith. They have cause to object to the partisan uses he tries to make of the passion of Christ. There are many versions of Christianity. But not one of them worthy of respect, and especially not the Pentecostal faith where Robertson began, would trivialize the agony and suffering of its redemptive God into campaign slogans for politicians. Faith, to be blunt, is irrelevant to many of the political causes that Robertson has championed. What needs emphasis now is the fact that Robertson's self-declared war to save the soul of America is not with secular humanists, as he says. It is with other Christians.
In truth, it is sometimes hard to make out just who counts as a Christian in Robertson's view of the world. On the one hand, he is quite certain that America is a Christian nation and that its Christianity explains its greatness. For example, he contends that the United States has succeeded because "those men and women who founded the land made a solemn covenant that they would be the people of God and that this would be a Christian nation." Shoring up this argument, Robertson estimates that 90 percent of the American people are Christian and almost 50 percent of them regularly attend church. Compared with most European nations, the United States does in fact boast a high proportion of citizens who state that they believe in God, that religion is important in their lives, and that they identify in general terms with a Christian faith as opposed to any of its rivals, including atheism.
Yet Robertson fails to follow up the implications of what he has written about moral decline. If Americans are Christian if they are by dint of church membership more Christian than they were a hundred years ago, and vastly more Christian than they were in the 18th century then how do we explain the decline of religiously based morality? Can it really be that a cabal of God-hating liberals has succeeded, despite the overwhelming numbers confronting them, in driving religion from the public square? An alternative theory might suggest that too many religious leaders have stopped doing what they do well and started doing what they do badly, in alliance with men who don't care much about religion at all except when it returns votes.
We thus have an anomaly. If moral decline is evidenced by the rate of divorce, the amount of extramarital sex, and the increase of abortions, all part of the record cited by Robertson, then clearly the 90 percent of Americans whom he cites to prove that the United States is a Christian nation are deeply implicated in the decline. Why, then, does Robertson, as a religious leader, not turn his gaze on the Christian churches of America, and the kind of gospel message they preach, and look for problems that might exist there? For the most part, Robertson is uninterested in the strengths or the failures of organized religion, or the possibility that religion may be its own worst enemy. His villain for spiritual decline is the state, which never in this country carried the burden for maintaining the spiritual health of the people or for teaching them how to pray. Roger Williams would have smelled a rat. If religion isn't making people who profess to believe in it good, neither can the Republican or the Democratic party.
Our Founders had it right. They recognized that social peace and personal happiness are best served by separating religious correctness from public policy.
President Washington explained the reason for only one reference to religion in the Constitution: "I am persuaded, you will permit me to observe that the path of true piety is so plain as to require but little political direction. To this consideration we ought to ascribe [credit] the absence of any regulation [law], respecting religion, from the Magna-Charta [Constitution] of our country" (George Washington, 1789, PAPERS, Presidential Series, 4:274).
>The First Amendment was added to further guarantee the principle of separation, and many historical references define its meaning: "The general government is proscribed [prohibited] from the interfering, in any manner whatsoever, in matters respecting religion" (James Madison, 1790, PAPERS, 13:16).
"The government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian Religion" (John Adams, 1797, Hunter Miller, Treaties, 2:365).
"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 and State" (Thomas Jefferson, 1802, Andrew A. Lipscomb, Writings, 16:281).
"Governments are limited by the essential distinction between civil and religious functions" (Madison, 1811, Gaillard Hunt, Writings, 8:132).
"The appropriation of funds of the United States for the use and support of religious societies, [is] contrary to the article of the Constitution which declares that 'Congress shall make no law respecting a religious establishment'" (Madison, 1811, Writings, 8:133).
"The civil government...functions with complete success...by the total separation of the Church from the State" (Madison, 1819, Writings, 8:432).
"Every new & successful example therefore of a perfect separation between ecclesiastical and civil matters, is of importance" (Madison, 1822, Writings, 9:101).
"Strongly guarded as is the separation between Religion and Government in the Constitution of the United States, the danger of encroachment by Ecclesiastical Bodies, may be illustrated by precedents already furnished in their short history" (Madison, undated, William and Mary Quarterly, 1946, 3:555).
"Religion...enjoys in this country...complete separation from the political concerns of the General Government" (Andrew Jackson, 1832, Correspondence 4:447).
"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, 1835, Democracy in America, 1:308).
"Perfect religious freedom [was] established in the United States, without any control exercised by the civil authority over spiritual concerns. In consequence of this, every denomination was...without...disadvantages arising from the connection of religion with secular policy" (Bird Wilson, 1839, Memoir of the Life of the Right Reverend William White, 88).
"The divorce between Church and State ought to be absolute. It ought to be so absolute that no Church property anywhere, in any state, or in the nation, should be exempt from equal taxation; for if you exempt the property of any church organization, to that extent you impose a tax upon the whole community" (James A. Garfield, 1874, Congressional Record, 2: 5384).
"Leave the matter of religion to the family, the altar, the church, and the private school, supported entirely by private contributions. Keep the church and state forever separate" (U. S. Grant, 1875, Leo Pfeffer, Church, State, and Freedom, 1967, p. 337).
"[The Pharisees sent their disciples to Jesus] to say: 'Master, we know that you are an honest man and teach the way of God....Tell us your opinion, then. Is it permissible to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?' But Jesus was aware of their malice and replied, 'You hypocrites! Why do you set this trap for me? Let me see the money you pay the tax with.' They handed him a denarius, and he said, 'Whose head is this, whose name?' 'Caesar's,' they replied. He then said to them, 'Very well, give back to Caesar what belongs to Caesar and to God what belongs to God.'" (Mat. 22:16-21)
by Al Richardson, President, Northwest PA Chapter of Americans United for Separation of Church and State