Essay: The role of religion in the American republic

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  • Subject area(s): Religious studies and Theology essays
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  • Published on: July 6, 2019
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  • The role of religion in the American republic
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The role of religion in the American republic has been a source of controversy since the nation’s inception. Debates are particularly fierce when they concern religious liberty and the proper relationship between church and state. Arguments on these questions are often framed in the light of the Founders’ intentions, but unfortunately, their views are often distorted. Did America have a Christian Founding? Two popular answers to this query—“Of course not!” and “Absolutely!”—both distort the Founders’ views. There is in fact a great deal of evidence that America’s Founders were influenced by Christian ideas, and there are many ways in which the Founders’ views might inform contemporary political and legal controversies.

At its most foundational level, this war over ideas is over the place of religion in public life. In recent years, some people have used the concept of “separation of church and state” as a principle to eliminate religious perspectives from public places and public education. These people emphasize that ours is a “pluralistic” society. (Walch, 45) However, others contend that religion, and specifically the Bible and Christianity, has an important role to play in our political system and public issues. As a result of these two opposing views, there continues to be a debate about the proper place of religion in the public square. To settle the dispute, something must be known about the foundation upon which our government is built. Knowing how something is designed is crucial to its operation. For example, it would be unwise to pour molasses into the gas tank of a car. Internal combustion engines are not designed to run on molasses. In a similar way, it is imperative to have a proper understanding of how our republican form of government is designed to work. Only then can the freedoms guaranteed by the Constitution of the United States be maintained. (Walch, 45)

According to those who answer “Of course not!” America’s Founders were guided by secular ideas and self, class, or state interests. These scholars do not deny that the Founders were religious, but they contend that they were mostly deists—i.e., persons who reject many Christian doctrines and who think God does not interfere in the affairs of men and nations. For instance, historian Frank Lambert writes that “[the] significance of the Enlightenment and Deism for the birth of the American republic, and especially the relationship between church and state within it, can hardly be overstated.” Similarly, University of Chicago law professor Geoffrey Stone avers that “deistic beliefs played a central role in the framing of the American republic” and that the “Founding generation viewed religion, and particularly religion’s relation to government, through an Enlightenment lens that was deeply skeptical of orthodox Christianity.” Virtually identical claims are made by Edwin Gaustad, Steven Waldman, Richard Hughes, Steven Keillor, David Holmes, Brooke Allen, and many others. (Walch, 55)

In addition to asserting that the Founders were deists, these authors regularly contend that they abandoned their ancestors’ intolerant approach to church–state relations and embraced religious liberty. They often concede that some Founders thought civic authorities should support religion but argue that this is irrelevant as Jefferson’s and Madison’s conviction that there should be a high wall of separation between church and state was written into the Constitution and reinforced by the First Amendment. As we shall see, there are significant problems with this story. The second answer to this question is offered by popular Christian writers such as Peter Marshall, David Manuel, John Eidsmoe, Tim LaHaye, William J. Federer, David Barton, and Gary DeMar. They contend that not only did America have a Christian Founding, but virtually all of the Founders were devout, orthodox Christians who consciously drew from their religious convictions to answer most political questions. (Macleod, 76)

To support their case, these writers are fond of finding religious quotations from the Founders. The rule seems to be that if a Founder utters anything religious, at any time in his life, he counts as an orthodox or even evangelical Christian Founder. Using this methodology, Tim LaHaye concludes, for instance, that John Adams was “deeply committed to Jesus Christ and the use of Biblical principles in governing the nation,” and George Washington, if he was alive today, “would freely associate with the Bible-believing branch of evangelical Christianity that is having such a positive influence upon our nation.” . (Marty,75) This approach leads to similarly bad history.

In 1802, Thomas Jefferson penned a letter to the Danbury Baptist Association in which he famously suggested that the First Amendment created a “wall of separation between Church & State.” This metaphor lay dormant with respect to the Supreme Court’s Establishment Clause jurisprudence until 1947, when Justice Hugo Black seized upon it as the definitive statement of the Founders’ views on church–state relations. (Marty,65) As appealing as the wall metaphor is to contemporary advocates of the strict separation of church and state, it obscures far more than it illuminates. Leaving aside the fact that Jefferson was in Europe when the Constitution and Bill of Rights were written, that the letter was a profoundly political document, and that Jefferson used the metaphor only once in his life, it is not even clear that it sheds useful light upon Jefferson’s views, much less those of his far more traditional colleagues.

Jefferson issued calls for prayer and fasting as governor of Virginia, and in his revision of Virginia’s statutes, he drafted bills stipulating when the governor could appoint “days of public fasting and humiliation, or thanksgiving” and to punish “Disturbers of Religious Worship and Sabbath Breakers.” As a member of the Continental Congress, he proposed that the nation adopt a seal containing the image of Moses “extending his hand over the sea, caus[ing] it to overwhelm Pharaoh,” and the motto “Rebellion to tyrants is obedience to God.” He closed his second inaugural address by encouraging all Americans to join him in seeking “the favor of that Being in whose hands we are, who led our forefathers, as Israel of old….” (Botting, 43) And two days after completing his letter to the Danbury Baptists, he attended church services in the U.S. Capitol, where he heard John Leland, the great Baptist minister and opponent of religious establishments, preach. (Richey, 87)

The point is not that Jefferson was a pious man who wanted a union between church and state. His private letters make it clear that he was not an orthodox Christian, and his public arguments and actions demonstrate that he favored a stricter separation between church and state than virtually any other Founder. (Botting, 37) Yet even Jefferson, at least in his actions, did not attempt to completely remove religion from the public square, and what Jefferson did not completely exclude, most Founders embraced. This point may be illustrated in a variety of ways, but a particularly useful exercise is to look at the first Congress, the body that crafted the First Amendment. One of Congress’s first acts was to agree to appoint and pay congressional chaplains. Shortly after doing so, it reauthorized the Northwest Ordinance, which held that “Religion, morality, and knowledge being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged.” (Richey, 43)

So did America have a Christian Founding? History is complicated, and we should always be suspicious of simple answers to difficult questions. As we have seen, there is precious little evidence that the Founders were deists, wanted religion excluded from the public square, or desired the strict separation of church and state. (Richey, 43) On the other hand, they identified themselves as Christians, were influenced in important ways by Christian ideas, and generally thought it appropriate for civic authorities to encourage Christianity. What do these facts mean for Americans who embrace non-Christian faiths or no faith at all? Although the Founders were profoundly influenced by Christianity, they did not design a constitutional order only for fellow believers. They explicitly prohibited religious tests for federal offices, and they were committed to the proposition that all men and women should be free to worship God (or not) as their consciences dictate. (Macleod, 76)

The Founders believed it permissible for the national and state governments to encourage Christianity, but this may no longer be prudential in our increasingly pluralistic country. Yet the Constitution does not mandate a secular polity, and we should be wary of jurists, politicians, and academics who would strip religion from the public square. We should certainly reject arguments that America’s Founders intended the First Amendment to prohibit neutral programs that support faith-based social service agencies, religious schools, and the like. Finally, we ignore at our peril the Founders’ insight that democracy requires a moral people and that faith is an important, if not indispensable, support for morality. Such faith may well flourish best without government support, but it should not have to flourish in the face of government hostility.

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