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Friday, May 25, 2012

2.2 Beginning of a Nation

Continuing from last week:

The people’s belief in God was evident in their principles of education. A law in Connecticut ordered parents to teach their children to read English so that the children would be able to read the Bible.  Additionally, a requirement for studying at Harvard included that students were to study their Bibles and seek God through prayer. In 1790, it was added that students were to attend worship services also.  Yale, too, required students to read their Bibles and pray.  And Princeton, Dartmouth, and Columbia each had similar requirements.  You can see here for evidence.  Those rules indicate the importance of religion in early American education.  Check this site for more interesting facts regarding religion in early America.  Religion was not something the people were indifferent to.

As previously mentioned, the people wanted assurance that their religious rights could not be infringed.  Therefore, of the first thirteen states, all had state Constitutions that declared the people had a right to the free exercise of religion.  Delaware and Pennsylvania even required a religious oath be taken by government officials.  Also, Delaware, New Jersey, and North Carolina’s constitutions stated no religious sect could be established in preference to any other.  South Carolina went even further by declaring that there is one God and that the Christian religion is the true religion.  And Rhode Island's preamble states, “We, the people of the State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations, grateful to Almighty God for the civil and religious liberty which He hath so long permitted us to enjoy, and looking to Him for a blessing upon our endeavors to secure and to transmit the same, unimpaired, to succeeding generations, do ordain and establish this Constitution of government.”  This state also recognized the people's right to freely worship God according to the dictates of their conscience.  Links to each individual state constitution can be found at the end of this post.
When people debate the idea of separation of church and state, an argument is typically made that America was never a Christian nation.   That argument has been enough to convince others that religious practices should be prohibited in public settings.  However, that argument is misleading.  Perhaps the government was not designed to be a “Christian government,” but the people were initially a Christian people who wanted protection to practice their religion without interference.  Founding Father John Jay wrote a letter to John Murray reflecting on the morality of war.  In the letter (see page 376), John Jay referred to our nation as a “Christian nation.” 

Additionally, some people have used the Treaty of Tripoli to indicate our nation was not intended to be Christian.  So let's review.  President George Washington sent delegates to negotiate a treaty of peace with the Muslim Barbary Powers.  At the time, American merchant ships were being destroyed and American seamen were being captured because the Barbary Powers were warring against what they believed to be a Christian government.  The Powers were all too familiar with the Christian government of England, which had a hatred of Muslims.  The Powers viewed America as being the same of England.  However, America was nothing like England.  The people were a Christian people, but the government was not a “Christian government.”  Going back to the First Amendment, we have to remember the whole purpose of the Establishment Clause was to prevent a government mandated religion.  There should be no surprise, then, that the Treaty of Tripoli stated, “…the government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian religion…” (Italics mine).  Religious rights were intentionally left to the individual states.  Therefore, the Treaty could not allege that the federal government was a Christian government. 

Advocates of the separation of church and state further argue that John Adams believed the world to be a better place without religion.  Where does this thought come from? A letter from John Adams to Thomas Jefferson contains the following: “This would be the best of all possible worlds, if there were no religion in it!” However, this phrase has been taken out of context.  By reading the entire letter, one would find the following paragraph: “Twenty times in the course of my late reading have I been on the point of breaking out, This would be the best of all possible worlds, if there were no religion in it! But in this exclamation I would have been as fanatical as Bryant or Cleverly.  Without religion this world would be something not fit to be mentioned in polite company, I mean hell.”  In the letter, Adams was venting his frustration about the religious bickering that went on between Lemuel Bryant (a parish Priest) and Joseph Cleverly (a Latin schoolmaster).  The last line clearly states John Adams’s belief that religion is important to society.  See here for the full correspondence between Jefferson and Adams. 

I have seen nothing to indicate the Founding Fathers intended to keep religion out of the public, so how has the Supreme Court so often come to the conclusion that religion should be removed from public settings? It comes down to the idea of the separation of church and state.  Before I turn to the Supreme Court and the decisions they have made against religious practices, I will offer evidence to the Founding Fathers’s religious views next week.

And don’t forget, you can click on the following links to review the first thirteen state constitutions.

Coming up next week:
3. Our Founding Fathers

1 comment:

  1. 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 and held views such as you note regarding religion. In assessing the nature of our government, care should be taken to distinguish between society and government, as you do in your post, 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 founded on the power of the people, not a deity, and separates it from religion. 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 the Constitution's separation of church and state 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. It is worth noting, as well, that this disestablishment movement partly 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).

    It is important to distinguish between the "public square" and "government" and between "individual" and "government" speech about religion. The constitutional principle of separation of church and state does not, as some are heard to complain, purge religion from the public square--far from it. Indeed, the First Amendment's "free exercise" clause assures that each individual is free to exercise and express his or her religious views--publicly as well as privately. The Amendment constrains only the government not to promote or otherwise take steps toward establishment of religion. As government can only act through the individuals comprising its ranks, when those individuals are performing their official duties (e.g., public school teachers instructing students in class), they effectively are the government and thus should conduct themselves in accordance with the First Amendment's constraints on government. When acting in their individual capacities, they are free to exercise their religions as they please. If their right to free exercise of religion extended even to their discharge of their official responsibilities, however, the First Amendment constraints on government establishment of religion would be eviscerated. While figuring out whether someone is speaking for the government in any particular circumstance may sometimes be difficult, making the distinction is critical.


Thanks for sharing your thoughts!