Freedom of Religion in the U.S. -Episode 5 (full)

Freedom of Religion in the United States – Episode 5 (full)

This is the story of Freedom of Religion in the United States and its subsequent assault and attempt at subjugation by the concept of “Separation of Church and State”

The fundamental right of Religious Freedom is embroiled in a struggle against the imposition of the concept of the Separation of Church and State.  The latter concept as it was and is invoked in the conduct of our lives and in our societal affairs is a falsehood, a misrepresentation, that spread throughout the nation before the truth got its boots on, and is now regarded by most as a factual truth. Paradoxically, neither the term, nor the concept of “Separation of Church and State” appears in the U.S. Constitution.  Yet, the overreaching, misguided and zealous invoking of the concept of Separation of Church and State as if it were the law of the land in our Constitution has effectively served to diminish the actual free exercise of religion specifically provided for in our Constitution’s Bill of Rights.

We left episode 4 in 1802 as we learned that Thomas Jefferson’s letter to the Danbury Baptists reinforced the First Amendment principle that the Government was to stay out of the business of establishing a “state”, country wide religion.  Jefferson did not state, suggest or imply that our civil society, the public square, our educational system or any other aspect of our government (local, state or Federal) should be devoid of or separated from religion. To have done so would have been a denunciation and a direct contradiction of the “free exercise of religion” guaranteed by the second clause of the First Amendment.  The continuation of this guaranteed free exercise of religion in the United States for over 150 years authenticated the proper understanding of Jefferson’s letter.

Christianity (Religion) in Civil Society in America for more than 150 years subsequent to  the writing of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights  

For over 150 years the free exercise of religion was safeguarded as intended by the First Amendment and religious diversity and tolerance was advanced in the country. In fact, as described in my article “Our Nation’s Christian Heritage”, Christianity flourished and Christian congregations increased at a remarkable rate.  Christianity, Christian holidays and related community celebrations and observances were a central part of all public life in these United States including the educational system. The validity of this state of affairs as being in accordance with the provisions of the First Amendment was validated by its acknowledgement and acceptance throughout the country for a century and a half, virtually without challenge.    And of course as is obvious, no “state religion” was established in the country. Indeed there was no consideration given to such a thing.  In this episode we trace the history and record of this period of over 150+ years of the free exercise of religion and associated religious harmony. 

When the Constitution and Bill of Rights were written essentially the entire population of America was Christian.  Thus, it is no surprise that there was common acceptance of Christianity, Christian Holidays and celebration and Christian moral principles in everything that went on in civil society as a whole.  Christianity and Christian principles permeated community activities and public and private education.  Municipal, state and federal governments as well as the courts were integrally infused and linked with Christianity and the teachings in the Bible. These circumstances paralleled the sentiments of the founding fathers as necessary to maintain our unique, form of government (of the people by the people and for the people).   This close alignment of public life and Christianity was the norm and still remains so in the hearts and minds of the vast majority of Americans.  In the few instances when the legality of this close association was questioned during the first 150 years following the writing of the Constitution, the Congress and the Court affirmed that this close alignment was lawful (constitutional), followed precedent and was consistent with the intent of the framers.  Illustrations of the interrelationship of religion and civil society throughout the first 150 years after the writing of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights are given below:

Public Areas and Government Buildings

Inscriptions on the interior and exterior of the government buildings and public/civic monuments constructed in Washington DC shortly after the founding of our government, continuing through the period of the Civil War and into modern times reflect our Christian heritage and testify to the integral relationship of government and religion.

Portrayals of the Ten Commandments are found in many government buildings in Washington, D. C. including: (1) in the National Archives; (2) in the Main Reading Room of the Library of Congress along with a bronze statue of Moses and (3) in numerous locations at the U. S. Supreme Court; in the frieze above the Justices, on the oak door at the rear of the Chamber, in the gable apex, and in dozens of locations on the bronze latticework surrounding the Supreme Court Bar seating. Depiction of the Ten Commandments in the Federal buildings in Washington DC has been emulated in many state and local government / judicial buildings throughout the nation.

Three of the most prominent and oft visited public areas / monuments in our country are the Washington Monument, the Jefferson Memorial and the Lincoln Memorial.   The Washington Monument has numerous Bible verses and religious statements carved on its walls, including: “Holiness to the Lord”, “Search the Scriptures”, “The memory of the just is blessed” (Proverbs 10:7), “May Heaven to this Union continue its beneficence,” and “In God We Trust”, and the Latin inscription Laus Deo – “Praise be to God” – is engraved on the monument’s capstone.

Of the five areas inside the Jefferson Memorial into which Jefferson’s words have been carved, four are God-centered, including Jefferson’s declarations that (1) “God who gave us life gave us liberty.”,  (2) “Can the liberties of a nation be secure when we have removed a conviction that these liberties are the gift of God?, and (3) Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just, that His justice cannot sleep forever.”

The Lincoln Memorial contains numerous acknowledgments of God and citations of Bible verses, including the declarations that (1) “we here highly resolve that . . . this nation under God . . . shall not perish from the earth”; (2) “The Almighty has His own purposes. (3) ‘Woe unto the world because of offenses; for it must needs be that offenses come, but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh’ (Matthew 18:7)”; (4) “as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said ‘the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether’ (Psalms 19:9)”; and (5) from Dr. Martin Luther King’s speech, based on Isaiah 40:4-5 — “one day every valley shall be exalted and every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh see it together”.


Colleges – Essentially all of the established Colleges in America at the time of the writing of the Constitution had been founded or co-founded by a Christian denomination.  Thus, higher education had a strong Christian component and influence.   Private tutoring to prepare students for college was often carried out by ministers.  The first colleges were:  Harvard – Congregationalist, College of William and Mary – Anglican, Yale – Presbyterian, Princeton – Presbyterian, College of Philadelphia – Christian non-denominational founded by civic leaders –  King’s College – Anglican, College of Rhode Island – Baptist – Queen’s College (Rutgers) – Dutch Reform, Dartmouth – Congregationalist and Georgetown University was founded by Catholic Jesuits in 1789 (the same year that the Bill of Rights was written).  The University of Georgia was founded in 1785 and the University of North Carolina was founded in 1789.

Initially Colonial children learned to read in their schools from “The New England Primer”.  Many of the letters of the alphabet were taught / represented through the use of a Bible “story/rhyme” accompanied by a picture —   for A – In Adam’s fall, We sinned all, for B –  Thy life to mend, this Book attend (with a picture showing The Holy Bible), for P – Peter denies his Lord and cries.  For S – Samuel anoints whom God appoints.     The “The New England Primer” was 90 pages long and included religious maxims, catechism answers, and moral lessons.  It remained in print well into the 19th century and was used until the 20th century.

Noah Webster’s “Blue Back Speller” began replacing The New England Primer for teaching children to read beginning around 1800.  After providing the students with training on individual words the book presented, “Lessons of easy Words, to teach Children to read, and to know their Duty.”  A few of the initial lessons or readings that the children practiced are reproduced below.  It is amazing to see that the mention of God and the Lord was not just “allowed” but that Christian theology and moral principles were the core of what the children learned as they began to read.  Clearly teaching the moral principles of Christianity as well as the theology was an integral part of the public education of the young children.

LESSON I. No man may put off the law of God.  My joy is in his law all the day.  O may I not go in the way of sin. Let me not go in the way of ill men.

II.   A bad man is a foe to the law. It is his joy to do ill. All men go out of the way. Who can say he has no sin?

III.   The way of man is ill. My son, do as you are bid. But if you are bid, do no ill. See not my sin, and let me not go to the pit.

IV.  Rest in the Lord, and mind his word. My son, hold fast the law that is good. You must not tell a lie, nor do hurt. We must let no man hurt us.

VII.  This life is not long, but the life to come has no end. We must pray for them that hate us. We must love them that love not us. We must do as we like to be done to.

XI.   He that came to save us will wash us from all sin; I will be glad in his name. A good boy will do all that is just; he will flee From vice; he will do good, and walk in the way of life. Love not the world, nor the things that are in the world; for they are sin. I will not fear what flesh can do to me; for my trust is in him who made the world. He is nigh to them that pray to him, and praise his name. and save your soul from pain and woe.

XIII.   A good child will not lie, swear nor steal. He will be good at home, and ask to read his book, when he gets up, he will wash his hands and face clean; he will comb his hair, and make haste to school; he will not play by the way, as bad boys do.

XIV.  When good boys and girls are at school, they will mind their books, and try to learn to spell and read well, and not play in time of school. When they are at church, they will sit, kneel or stand still; and when they are at home, will read some good book, that God may bless them.

XV.    As for those boys and girls that mind not their books, and love not church and school, but play with such as tell tales, tell lies, curse, swear and steal they will come to some bad end, and must be whip till they mend their ways.

The Public Square

To get an “independent view” of the pulse of America in the early 1800’s, a great work to turn to is that by Alexis de Tocqueville from France.   Tocqueville toured America for nine months in 1831 and wrote the classic works, Democracy in America and Two Essays on America.  Alexis de Tocqueville’s comment on early America’s political institutions was, “The Americans combine the notions of Christianity and liberty so intimately in their minds, that it is impossible to make them conceive of one without the other.”

The meeting house in Colonial days was typically the first public building built as new villages sprang up. A meeting-house had a dual purpose as a place of worship and as a place for public meetings.  Similarly, as the country spread westward a church or school house would be the first building constructed and that building, (which ever it was constructed as), would also serve the other need as well.  Further that building typically served as the location for public meetings.  Such common usage made sense and no one thought twice about it.  

Judicial and Congressional Findings

Although minimal there were a few statements by Congress and rulings by the judiciary in the first 150+ years of our country that confirmed that the true intent of the first amendment was to allow the free exercise of religion in all aspects of our civil society including government.

In 1781, a publisher petitioned Congress for permission to print Bibles.   Congress not only approved his request but issued this statement in 1782:   “The Congress of the United States approves and recommends to the people, the Holy Bible…for use in schools.”

The Aitken Bible of 1782 was reviewed, approved and authorized by the US Congress. The bible was reviewed first for accuracy by the Congressional Chaplains White and Duffield and they reported on its accuracy. Then the Journals of Congress for September 1782 records on page 469, “Resolved. That the United States in Congress assembled, highly approve the pious and laudable undertaking of Mr. Aitkin, as subservient to the interest of religion as well as an influence of the progress of arts in this country and being satisfied from the above report (by the congressional chaplains), they recommend this edition of the bible to the inhabitants of the United States and hereby authorize him to publish this recommendation.”

The first recorded incidence after 1802 (date of Jefferson’s letter to the Danbury Baptists)  of their being a question raised on the interrelationship of religion and government was in 1853.  A group* petitioned Congress to “separate Christian principles from government”.  The group desired such things as: chaplains being turned out of the Congress and the Military.  Their petition was referred to the House and the Senate Judiciary Committees to investigate.  Each of those committees studied the issue with respect to the First Amendment and reported as follows:

1853 U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee Report on Religion

The clause speaks of “an establishment of religion.” What is meant by that expression? It referred, without doubt, to that establishment which existed in the mother-country…[which was an] endowment, at the public expense, in exclusion of or in preference to any other, by giving its members exclusive political rights, and by compelling the attendance of those who rejected its communion upon its worship or religious observances. These three particulars constituted that union of church and state of which our ancestors were so justly jealous, and against which they so wisely and carefully provided…They [the Founders] intended, by this Amendment, to prohibit “an establishment of religion” such as the English Church presented, or any thing like it. But they had no fear or jealousy of religion itself, nor did they wish to see us an irreligious people…they did not intend to spread over all the public authorities and the whole public action of the nation the dead and revolting spectacle of atheistical apathy.

1854 U. S House of Representatives Judiciary Committee Report on Religion

What is an establishment of religion? It must have a creed defining what a man must believe; it must have rites and ordinances which believers must observe; it must have ministers of defined qualifications to teach the doctrines and administer the rites; it must have tests for the submissive and penalties for the nonconformist. There never was an established religion without all these…Had the people, during the Revolution, had a suspicion of any attempt to war against Christianity, that Revolution would have been strangled in its cradle. At the time of the adoption of the Constitution and the amendments, the universal sentiment was that Christianity should be encouraged, not any one sect [denomination]. Any attempt to level and discard all religion would have been viewed with universal indignation…It [religion] must be considered as the foundation on which the whole structure rests…In this age there can be no substitute for Christianity; that, in its general principles, is the great conservative element on which we must rely for the purity and permanence of free institutions. That was the religion of the founders of the republic, and they expected it to remain the religion of their descendants.

The Committees explained that they would not separate these principles, for it was these principles and activities which had made us so successful—they had been our foundation, our basis.

Apparently following up and concluding the investigations United States Congress (May 1854), in the Thirty-Fourth Congress assembled passed a resolution which Nathaniel P. Banks of Massachusetts being Speaker of the House stated as follows:

Whereas, The people of these United States, from their earliest history to the present time, have been led by the hand of a kind Providence, and are indebted for the countless blessings of the past and present, and dependent for continued prosperity in the future upon Almighty God; and whereas the great vital and conservative element in our system is the belief of our people in the pure doctrines and divine truths of the gospel of Jesus Christ, it eminently becomes the representatives of a people so highly favored to acknowledge in the most public manner their reverence for God.

*this group was not identified in any of the references to it, however the fact that it happened is evident from the subsequent congressional reports.

During the 1870s, 1880s, and 1890s, yet another group challenging specific Christian principles in government arrived before the Supreme Court.  Jefferson’s letter had remained unused for years, for as time had progressed after its use in 1802—and after no national denomination had been established—his letter had fallen into obscurity.  But now—75 years later—in the case Reynolds v. United States, the plaintiffs resurrected Jefferson’s letter, hoping to use it to their advantage. In that case, the Court printed a lengthy segment of Jefferson’s letter and then used his letter to again prove that it was permissible to maintain Christian values, principles, and practices in official policy.  For the next 15 years during that legal controversy, the Supreme Court utilized Jefferson’s letter to ensure that Christian principles remained a part of government. Two months later, the Judiciary Committee made this strong declaration: “The great, vital, and conservative element in our system [the thing that holds our system together] is the believe of our people in the pure doctrines and divine truths of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.”

Then in 1892 Supreme Court ruled that “Christian principles must remain the basis for American laws and institutions” and cited 80 precedents for its decision.

In 1931, the Court affirmed America as a Christian nation. In the U.S v. Macintosh, the Court ruled, “We are a Christian people, according to one another the equal right of religious freedom, and acknowledging with reverence the duty of obedience to the will of God.” In addition to being a “Christian people,” the Court asserted that obedience to the will of God was duty of American citizens.

In 1944 the National Education Association published a series of sixteen “Personal Growth Leaflets” to help public-school students become “familiar with our great literary heritage.” The back of the booklet read, “It is important that people who are to live together and work together happily shall have a common mind–a common body of appreciations and ideals to animate and inspire them.” The NEA’s selections for inspiring American students is extraordinary: the Lord’s Prayer; the poem “Father in Heaven, We Thank Thee”; another poem that introduced the concept of daily prayers; a thanksgiving poem that admonished kids to “thank the One who gave all the good things that we have.”  There was no legal challenge to this publication.


This excursion in Episode 5 from the time of our founding up to 1944 into the interrelationship of religion and U.S. civil society, in education, in government, in the judiciary and in the public square illustrates that the free exercise of religion was indeed the norm.  No wonder de Tocqueville wrote what he did about Americans combining the notions of Christianity and liberty so intimately that it was impossible to make them conceive of the one without the other. De Tocqueville’s testimony is so valuable because he was an unbiased, independent eyewitness to what was actually occurring in early America. But on the horizon is a black cloud. In Episode 6 we will examine how in 1947 the Supreme Court put the First Amendment’s guarantee of Freedom of Religion in jeopardy from which we are still trying to escape.  Thanks for reading – Larry Von Thun

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s