Starting Somewhere

Starting Somewhere –  great accomplishments emerging from modest beginnings

“ …we are endowed by our Creator with certain unalienable Rights that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness …”
This was a majestic declaration that led and continues to lead to a noble and wonderful spirit in people and to many brave, astonishing, unselfish acts that give the gift of the knowledge and of the reality of these rights to millions of people and their progeny.
History provides us with many valuable and important lessons. Understanding the background and subsequent historic record behind the development of concepts like the “self-evident” truth of certain unalienable rights”, teaches the lesson that in accomplishing reforms: A start, even if modest and imperfect, is very important, you might even say essential. Such a lesson comes from the Magna Carta.
The Magna Carta could be described as a self-serving tool of the rich and titled. Namely – Barons, Lords and Nobles. The Magna Carta was only in effect for a few months before being rendered invalid by the King who had agreed to it and signed it. But, despite the above valid characterization and abrupt dissolution it was a start of something great. The legacy of the Magna Carta is acclaimed and venerated in Britain and the United States. It is still held up as a beacon of liberty and has been cited by the Supreme Court over 100 times. Let’s examine its history and the lesson taught.
The Genesis of the Magna Carta
The middle ages in Europe is well known for its social, economic, and governmental system of feudalism. In simple terms feudalism was a class system. Serfs, peasants, and villeins resided at the bottom of this class system. These people worked the land for Nobles (Earls, Lords, Barons, etc.), who were given lands by a King to whom they promised allegiance (and a lot more). In addition to providing food and materials to the King, the Lords were required to raise and equip an army for the King when called upon (like for the Crusades), obey and fulfill a plethora of royal demands, pay general and special taxes, and pay large sums of money for “royal permission” to carry out common ordinary activities, like getting married or inheriting property from their relations. In turn, the Nobles, in exchange for providing land and protection for their serfs, exploited their serfs, taxed them heavily, restricted their freedoms, forced them to labor, and required them to serve when an army was to be raised.
Also, it is well known that often the Kings in the middle ages were notoriously bad. They were self-serving, excessively greedy, ruled capriciously, and often got into wars that cost their country and its people dearly. Nobles and peasants alike lost their lives and lands. One such “bad” King was King John of England, the brother of Richard I, (the Lionhearted) whom he succeeded in 1199, when Richard was killed in battle. King John was an abysmal King by just about any measure, (economically, militarily, and morally). The one thing he was good at was administration (i.e. raising funds for his use). He made excessive demands and squeezed every cent he could out of the Church and out of the Nobility. And his foreign policy was a disaster as he gave up lands to arch enemy France for essentially nothing. So it was that in January of 1215, after 16 years of pathetic Kingship, a number of the Earls, Lord’s and Baron’s as well as the Catholic Church Bishops in England got fed up with King John’s greedy despotism and submitted oral and written demands for reforms. This collection of Nobles banded together to ensure the demands were met by force if necessary. They formed “The Army of the Lord” to go up against the King and the King’s forces. The King’s forces were paid foreign mercenaries and some powerful nobles who remained loyal to King John in order to retain his favor.
The role of the Church in this match up and especially that of the Archbishop of Canterbury was quite significant. A very powerful and influential pope, Innocent III, had laid an interdict on England in 1208. An interdict was a directive or ruling from the Pope on religious matters. This interdict took away the English people’s access to the Sacraments and their rights to a Christian burial. The punishment came about because King John wanted to and did appoint his own English Bishops. But Pope Innocent III would not approve them and King John ignored the pope. Can you imagine how devastating the Pope’s decree would be to believers? Further, the Pope subsequently, in 1209, excommunicated King John when John would not accept the Pope’s appointment of Stephen Langton as the Archbishop of Canterbury. The opportunistic King, during this falling out with the Pope, proceeded to appropriate the Church’s considerable wealth and property throughout Great Britain. However, later in 1213 when John was in dire straits financially and was being badgered for concessions by his Nobles he pulled a rabbit out of his hat, duplicitously claiming that he was; “returning to obedience to the church”, and “taking up the cross” (that is pledging to the Pope to lead an army on a crusade). This pledge to the Pope resulted in the Pope relieving King John from his debts, giving him a 3-year grace period to fulfill any obligations he may promise the Nobles and promising his favor in the King’s current dispute with the Nobles. The King’s gambit worked, the unethical, adaptable, political Pope was so focused on mounting another Crusade, that he endorsed the avaricious, duplicitous King John in his dispute with the Barons and the English Bishops. Pope Innocent III even threw Archbishop of Canterbury Stephen Langton under the bus, telling Langton and the other English Bishops, whom John had ransacked, to now accede to this malevolent King’s wishes. Oh, and by the way, King John never did “return to obedience” and lead that promised crusade.
But the English Bishops and especially Archbishop of Canterbury Stephen Langton, also pretty much ignored the Pope and worked towards negotiating concessions from the King. In fact, Arch-Bishop Stephen Langton negotiated the whole affair. So, with this peek of the Church’s role in the event, let us return to the clash between the King and his Nobles that lead to the signing of the Magna Carta.
After giving the King a written set of demands (limitation of his powers) during the winter of 1214-15 and subsequently chasing the King and his entourage around great Britain trying to pin him down and gain some concessions, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Stephen Langton and the force led by the discontented Lords (the “Army of the Lord”) cornered the King just outside London. The set of demands that had been given to the to the King in 1214 was the forerunner of the actual Magna Carta, it was known as the “Unknown Charter” because what was in it was “unknown” until it was located in France in 1863. Once pinned down and facing the pursuing Army, the King agreed to meet the discontented Barons and Lords at a large open meadow called Runnymede. There, in 1215 at a meeting convened and lead by Stephen Langton, the King and his advisors read and assented to a newly prepared set of demands from the Nobles, which became known as the Magna Carta (the Great Charter). ——– That is how the Magna Carta came to be. —–So what was in it?
Content of the Magna Carta
Just what was in the Magna Carta that has made it such a revered document with respect to promoting individual liberty? Well, surprisingly it was primarily a “Benefit Package” for the Nobility. But there were a couple of seeds of hope for the rights of common man scattered among these concessions to the privileged class.  These nascent steps toward individual rights is what historians source as credence to the Magna Carta’s weighty role in promoting individual rights.
The Magna Carta consisted of 63 articles covering such matters as limits on payments to the King, inheritance law, policing of the royal forest, controls on military service required of the Nobles, and “respect” for independence of the Church. Almost all of these 63 articles related to the pecuniary relationship between the Nobility and the king, (e.g., how much money the King was to be paid when land was passed to an heir). Many of the demands dealt with very mundane activities, which revealed how the King had been imposing his will arbitrarily and capriciously on the Nobles (e.g. the taking of timber from their lands, seizing horses and carts for transportation, imposing arbitrary fines, requiring a bridge to be built, etc.).
The point to grasp here, is that the Magna Carta, a document now recognized as a forerunner to establishing the concept of the individual’s liberties and rights under a government, was chiefly an agreement between one extremely powerful, very rich King and a bunch of other influential rich guys. Further, within a few months the King reneged on the whole thing and war broke out between the Barons and the King’s Army comprised chiefly of the King’s Foreign mercenaries. The Magna Carta agreement had little to do with the common person who tilled the land, fought and died in the ill-conceived wars, and lived from hand to mouth. Viewed in the light of what we now all believe, understand, and demand today with respect to individual rights and freedoms it could have been relegated to an after thought. And you can be assured, that the contents of this agreement, (if put out in advance of its signature for “public comment”) would have been ridiculed and “raked over the coals” by the surplus of “political” critics and the modern media if there had been such entities in those days.
But wait!! As we will see it was a start!! Buried within that plethora of Royal vs Noble fiscal finagling, there were two clauses that were indeed monumental precursors to the later granting of “freedoms and individual rights”. Articles 38 and 39 were substantive with respect to the future of individual liberties. One article required that “accusations alone were not adequate to “put a man to law” (convict). Trustworthy witnesses were required. And the second of these important articles demanded that a “legal judgment of peers” was required for conviction of a “free man”.
These two articles were preserved though later charters and they formed the foundation of the need for witnesses (rather than being found guilty just on the basis of an accusation) and of the right of trial by a jury of your peers.
With regard to respecting the independence of the Church from the King, the very first article of the Magna Carta stated that: “The English Church should be free and have its rights in full and its liberties intact”. This article illustrated the strong influence that the Archbishop of Canterbury Stephen Langton, who negotiated the proceedings, had on the outcome.
Despite the fact that this specific agreement, the actual Magna Carta, was discarded and voided by the extremely powerful king two months after it had been made, it is credited with being the foundation of the development of our country’s declaration of individual rights and a government of the people by the people and for the people. The principle of individual rights is now a nearly universally accepted norm among nations with non-totalitarian governments. Why! Because once the idea of negotiating for fair treatment and insisting on liberties was started and some of those liberties were put in writing, they were able to resurface, be referenced, added to, and strengthened in future negotiations with rulers, both authoritarian and fair-minded.
Reflecting on the history of the Magna Carta and its ultimate significance, two realities are evident.
The first reality is that societal advancements, (as well as advancements in every aspect of human endeavor), do not generally appear complete and in their fully developed state. It takes time, sometimes centuries, to build on the idea, for advancements to be made and for a reform/concept to come to full fruition. Further, there may be setbacks along the way that have to be overcome. The origination and implementation of the concept that: “……we are endowed by our Creator with certain unalienable Rights that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”, can be traced from citizenship in the Roman Empire to the Magna Carta (1215) to John Locke’s (1690) treatise, to the Declaration of Independence (1776) and then to the Civil War (1865) and it continues today. Reforms / improvements typically start somewhere and build on the underlying concept or principle.
The second reality, very much in evidence in our current litigious and partisan culture, is that when a good or potentially great idea or concept is introduced (in its incomplete or yet to be fully developed state) it becomes a target, ripe for being condemned, criticized and even mocked. Condemnation and criticism is in vogue – if there is something that can be singled out as a potential problem or something can be claimed as an ulterior motive for the idea – that is what gets the attention – not the potential value or good in the idea. I can just imagine the critique (mocking, condemning and belittling), that the Magna Carta would have gotten by the equivalent of our current media. The headline would likely have been: “King grants Millions in concessions to rich, greedy Nobles and Barons”. A comparable act in our day might read: “Government grants Billions in tax concessions to Wall Street and big money Corporations.” A parallel in our society could be the “all” powerful commissioner of the NFL meeting with the rich and influential owners of the NFL teams and announcing a new agreement that included Television Revenues being increased by 50% as “really important in the annals of history”. That effort would be mocked and ridiculed. But what if, like the Magna Carta the agreement also initiated an important reform, (e.g. – kicking off an independent player health and safety evaluation in each organization) and that nascent health and safety reform ultimately lead to a comprehensive protocol that reduced long term injury rates by 200%.)
The net result of a “hypercritical”, highly partisan environment is that any idea must  overcome a legion of obnoxious, illogical, objections that are raised. So, there may be challenges, constraints, and hurdles to leap, but without starting somewhere the likelihood is that nothing will get done. In our complex society making a change almost certainly will not be equally favorable for everyone. Demeaning nascent attempts of improvement because they are inadequate, incomplete or flawed is easy but shortsighted. So the lesson from history is START – put your idea forward and stick with it and if it doesn’t fully blossom right away – don’t worry, future generations may pick it up and run with it!
There are many examples of “reforms” or “changes” that began with modest beginnings here is perhaps the most significant modest beginning ever the birth of the Christian Religion.

Christianity – When I give the children in our church an overview of the history of Christianity – Old Testament – New Testament and on to the Present Day – I always ask how many Christians there were just after Jesus died on the Cross and rose again 3 days later. The answer, of course was only 2 or 3 – or perhaps a maximum of about 14. That is because, a Christian is, by definition, one who believes that Christ died on the cross for their sins. So those few followers who had paid attention to Jesus when He told them of God’s plan for salvation, (a person just needs to believe that Jesus died on the cross for their sins), became the first Christians. Because when Jesus arose on Easter morning, by golly they believed what He had said. Within a few weeks after Jesus appeared to a number of people the ranks of Christians had “swelled” to perhaps 20 or 30. A very modest start. Further the Gospel message “of grace” – you did not have to earn your salvation it was a free gift, was regarded as “folly” to Jew and Gentile alike. Regardless from this meager start Christianity spread throughout the World and now has 2.4 Billion adherents.

The Rise,Fall and Struggle for the Free Exercise of Religion in America

Freedom of Religion in America – From the Landing of the Pilgrims (Episode 1) to The Supreme Court’s demolition of our Free Exercise Rights (Episode 6)

Preface – The fundamental right of Religious Freedom and the imposition of the concept of the Separation of Church and State are at odds.  The latter concept as it is applied to the conduct of our daily lives and imposed upon our societal affairs as if it were a part of our founding documents is a distortion, an invention, a lie that spread throughout the nation and is now regarded by most as a factual truth. Astonishingly, neither the term, nor the concept of “Separation of Church and State” appears in the U.S. Constitution.  Yet, now, the overreaching, misguided, and malicious invoking of the concept of Separation of Church and State diminishes the actual free exercise of religion specifically provided for in our Constitution’s Bill of Rights.

The first tenet in the Bill of Rights as stated in the First Amendment to the Constitution is that Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”  (“respecting” may be read as “pertaining to” or “with respect to”) 

Episode 1 Arrival of the Pilgrims and the Formation of the Colonies

Religious intolerance before the founding of the United States was, with few exceptions, the norm throughout the early history of “civilized” people.  Religious intolerance was typically integrally related to the political and military subjugation of one people by another empire or country.  Religious observances by the conquered people were often forbidden or abolished by the conquering country because of the political threat they could present to the control of the country and not because of a desire to “convert” the conquered.  This was not always the case.  The spread of Islam was religiously motivated as well as politically motivated.  The conquered peoples were generally forced to follow the religion of their conquerors.  The Romans on the other hand allowed concurred peoples to maintain their religious observances as long as they also “respected the Roman Gods” – the Jewish people, however, were granted an exemption. Another unusual exception was Akbar (a Muslim ruler) who allowed the Hindus in India to maintain their religious worship. He found this was advantageous in keeping his empire peaceful.

However, more germane to the consideration of the “right” to freedom of religion in America were the internal events in countries in Europe following the Reformation.   There were struggles against religious persecution and the freedom to practice a religion by many Christian sects.  The Moravians struggled against counter reformation governments in Eastern Europe, the Huguenots were persecuted by the Catholic French Government, the Irish Catholics struggled against England, and of course the Puritans had to escape the dictates of Anglican State Church of England.  All of these struggles helped develop the concept of the individual’s right to freedom of religion and to a degree helped ensure that “freedom of religion” was a right that came to be included in America’s Bill of Rights.  However, a common misconception is that Colonial America was a land that promoted and supported “Freedom of Religion”.  The Puritans (called Pilgrims) came to the unsettled American shores so that they could freely practice their religion but they did not endorse the concept of “freedom of religion”.  The Puritans escaped their religious persecution but they did not allow “freedom of religion” in their new lands.

Founding of the 13 Colonies    –   One of our most prized freedoms in the United States is the Freedom of Religion.  How did we come to have that freedom?   A common misunderstanding, based on the well known flight of the Puritans (Pilgrims) to avoid religious persecution in England, is that religious freedom was present here in America from the outset and that its incorporation in the Bill of Rights was just a formal recognition of its long term existence.   Well, surprise!!  The Pilgrims (who actually were of the Puritan religious sect) did not support religious toleration at all, much less religious freedom.   Laws were passed by the Puritans in Massachusetts in 1644 which required exile of Anabaptists and laws were passed which fined ship’s captains for bringing in Quakers to Massachusetts and for whipping and assigning to prison with hard labor any Quakers who managed to gain entry to the colony.  The New England Puritan settlers had very strict laws in their communities requiring adherence to religious and moral precepts of their sect.  Fines or harsh punishments were invoked for not attending church.  The “Code of 1650” established by the colony of Connecticut had as its opening statement: “Whosoever shall worship a God other than the Lord shall be put to death”

The colonists also certainly did not foster the concept of “separation of church and state” as evidenced in the “Immediate Act” they passed to govern themselves, which stated:  “We the undersigned, who for the glory of God, the advancement of the Christian faith and the honor of our native land have undertaken to found the first colony on these remote shores, do agree in this document, by solemn and mutual consent before God, to band together in a body politic in order to govern ourselves ——-.”  Everything the early Puritan settlers did, including governing themselves, centered on their religious beliefs.

Although the details were different and less extreme, the same lack of religious freedom and religious toleration was the norm in most of the other colonies.  The concept of “state churches” or “established” churches was transplanted to many of the American colonies from Europe, where many countries (France, Russia, Greece, Germany, Spain, etc.) had state churches at one time.  The governments of these countries financially supported, legislated for and protected these “state churches”.  The people of these countries were born into church membership just as they were born into citizenship.  Nine of the thirteen original colonies carried over this concept by way of their charters form England and thus had “established state churches” during the colonial period.

Most of the original colonies were “Crown Colonies”, that is, colonies authorized under the auspices of the King of England.  England at this period in history was Anglican (Church of England also now referred to as Episcopalian) and thus the official “state church” of these colonies (including 5 southern colonies) was established by charter as Anglican.  Those people who arrived in the colonies and did not practice the “state religion” suffered prejudice, persecution, and discredit.  Basically they were regarded as second class citizens.

Even the colony of Maryland, often thought of as a haven for Roman Catholics within the Colonies, as it was founded for the Roman Catholics by the Calverts, was chartered as an Anglican colony.   Catholics although prevalent were denied the right to vote.  Even an Act that sounded good and for which Maryland has been recognized as a leader in religious toleration, the “Maryland Toleration Act” passed by the protestant majority legislature in 1649 was not very progressive with regard to religious freedom.  That Act allowed other religious groups to exist and worship in the colony but retained the Colonies right to withdraw or limit that permission, which it did.  “From 1654 to 1661 and from 1692 to the end of the Revolutionary period, Maryland, in fact nullified its Toleration Act.”

The most fertile seeds for the concept and adoption of “Christian” religious freedom in America were planted in Rhode Island and in Pennsylvania.  Roger Williams, a puritan minister, upon arrival in Boston in 1631, began zealous pursuit of “purifying” the Puritans from association with the King of England and the charters under which they operated.  Puritans were called and were by definition, “Separatists”, as they had separated themselves in England from the Anglican “state church”.    Williams, however, felt that the charter under which these colonists operated violated the Separatist ideal and he continually ran afoul of the neophyte Puritan religious and Civil establishment, including the Plymouth Colony where he initially was favorably received and assisted in ministry.  In addition to separatism he began to speak out for individual religious freedom.  He believed that civil magistrates should not have the authority to punish citizens for “Sabbath-breaking, false worship, and blasphemy, and that every individual should be free to follow his own convictions in religious matters”.  After 5 years, in 1636, he left Massachusetts and founded the Providence Plantation (Rhode Island) which guaranteed freedom of belief (in a Christian sect) to all, (except outspoken atheists and Roman Catholics).   Later Roman Catholics were permitted in his Rhode Island Colony.   In 1651 England claimed the right to “govern” Rhode Island and in 1663 granted a charter to the Rhode Island and Providence Plantations which acknowledged Rhode Island’s religious freedom practices.

Unlike Rhode Island’s religious tolerance “experiment” developing out of conflict over a civil principle (granting of charters), the Pennsylvania colony was expressly formed to allow freedom of religion.   Pennsylvania was established as a “land grant” colony to satisfy a debt owed by the King of England to William Pitt’s father, not as a “crown” colony.  Thus, Pitt’s objective to create a colony that allowed for freedom of religion (due to his desire to protect himself and fellow Quakers from persecution) was able to be achieved free of the Anglican “state church” requirement.  As a result Pennsylvania became the seat of religious toleration (of Christian sects) within the colonies, welcoming the entire spectrum of sects and mainline Christian churches, from Moravians to Roman Catholics, and of course Quakers.

Despite the “official state church” concept carried over from England and pervading most of the American colonies, the influx of settlers from throughout Europe with their varied religious backgrounds infused religious diversity into the population throughout the colonies.  Further the spirit of individualism and the rigorous pursuit of individuals and families to carve out a living, trumped the snobbish “European conventions” required for societal acceptance. Thus, families and individuals in America were more likely to be respected and accepted for what they did rather than for where they came from or what they believed.

That brings us to the end of Episode 1 of “Freedom of Religion”.  Episode 2 picks up as the 13 “independent” Colonies began to think about joining together to collectively challenge, King George and Britain – the Mother Country over economic issues and the abuse of other rights of “Englishmen”.

Episode 2 – Colonial Unification and Constitutional History Related to Freedom of Religion

As described in Episode 1 neither “freedom of religion” nor the concept of or even the idea of “Separation of Church and State” were present as principles in the founding and early expansion of the 13 Colonies.  As the colonies grew over the next 100 years or so and the revolutionary period approached, “state churches” continued to exist in most of the colonies.  The concepts of freedom of religion and religious toleration arose or existed in some regions but there was no organized, concerted effort to extend or push this ideal.  More commonly there were prejudicial actions and restrictions placed on individuals and groups who did not belong to the “state” sponsored church.  For example, typically membership in the “state church” was a requirement for holding a position in the colony’s government. Each colony functioned relatively independently, and when the colonies did work together it was usually related to common defense, foreign policy, trade or some other economic issue.  And internally, within each colony, because there were more important or more pressing issues to occupy the consciousness of the populous, religious toleration was to a certain extent “unofficially” practiced except for official colony business like elections.

However, the status quo of the Colonies, each to some degree under the thumb of the British King and Parliament, began to change after the French and Indian War.  The Colonists, viewing themselves as British subjects, considered they had the “rights” of British subjects. When issues with England’s governance of the Colonies arose (taxation, quartering of British soldiers, etc.) they considered that the Mother Country was restricting or retracting their rights as Englishmen.  Freedom of religion, however, was not one of the rights about which most Colonists were concerned.  Many were Anglican in the first place, and they had not previously had a religious freedom right under the crown.  Further Britain was not actively involved in the religious affairs of their subjects in the American Colonies.   So religious freedom was not one of the root issues leading to the revolutionary war.  But as a practical matter there were several forces that eventually drove religious freedom to the forefront of the Bill of Rights and the statement of individual freedoms.

These forces included: (1) the necessity of the religiously disparate colonies to unite, (2) the common sense that recognized the diversity in Christian sects present among the states and within the total population had to be accommodated, (3) recognition of the incongruity of individual liberty and freedom for all and the dictating of a religious belief by a governing body, (4) the absence of any religious fervor or agenda among the founding fathers toward pushing for any particular Christian sect (and certainly the heretofore dominant “Anglican” denomination would not be in favor because of its ties to England), and (5) the religious freedom resolution which was put into the Virginia Constitution in which James Madison participated.

The 13 original colonies were not all that interested in uniting and giving up their “states rights”, not at the time before the Revolutionary War nor even afterward when the time came to prepare a Constitution and form a stronger central government.  However, it must have been evident to the leaders of the colonies who did unite under the Articles of Confederation, and who did prepare a Constitution for the governing of the United States, that:

  • there was no need for the individual states, much less the central government, to establish a “state church”
  • it was not reasonable or realistic to establish a single church denomination to which each of the United States would be required to adopt
  • such a requirement would have been antithetical to the cause of individual freedom.

Further at that time in history, Deism (believe in a Supreme Being but not necessarily the Christian Gospel) had become popular among many, including some of the most influential founding fathers (writers of the constitution).  Commonly deists continued to attend church services (Anglican, Puritan, Universalist, etc. ) throughout their lives, as it was important in maintaining their social standing.  However, imposing a state church upon the populous would not have been something that all of them would have personally supported.

Thus, upon winning independence from Britain and becoming united Colonies, the freedoms that the colonists had specifically fought for and won became reality.  Freedom of religion, while not a right given much attention with respect to the Revolutionary War, was a byproduct of it.  While a large number of Anglicans and New England Congregationalists may not have even considered freedom of religion an issue (as they essentially had it all along), there were likely a great number of colonists who recognized and rejoiced in the fact that there was no longer a “state church” and that freedom of religion would become a reality and an acknowledged fact.  The numerous Christian denominations present in America who had been the receivers of religious intolerance would have been keenly interested in making religious freedom a documented fact in the new country and in its constitution.   The need to acknowledge this fact may have been one of the major driving forces behind the need for the Bill of Rights.

One major exception to the general state of ambivalence of the liberated Colonists attention toward documenting religious liberty was in the colony of Virginia. Recall that  Virginia was one of the colonies that had an established Anglican “state” Church.    Virginia, was alive with the fervor of individual liberties, and one of those liberties that was being abridged was freedom of religion via the imposition of the Anglican Church.  So, notwithstanding that the Anglican Church was the church home of most of the prominent Virginia revolutionaries and statesmen who had sought liberty, it was even more so the home church of the loyalists (British supporters).  The patriot revolutionaries including James Madison, George Mason and Thomas Jefferson, who were representatives to the Virginia constitutional convention did not like the idea of the imposition of the requirements of a “state” Anglican Church in Virginia and supported and obtained “a declaration of the free exercise of religion” in their Constitution.   Three years later, government aid to the Anglican Church was cut off and in 1786 (just before the United States Constitutional Convention in 1787) Jefferson’s famous “Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom” was passed by both houses of the state legislature.  This bill stated “all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinion in matters of religion”, and guaranteed Virginians that they would not be compelled to “support any religious worship place or ministry whatsoever”.  It took other states many years to include like language in their state constitutions.

The answer to the question of how and why “freedom of religion” became the first and one of the key rights, named in the Bill of Rights, despite it not being a key issue driving the Revolution War, is now becoming a bit clearer.  But it is still three more years before “Freedom of Religion” becomes an integral part of our founding documents.

As indicated above, at the time the Constitution was being written, maintaining States Rights was the prevailing mentality among the delegates.  Most delegates to the Constitutional Convention in 1787 represented their states with the idea that the central government should be limited.  Thus, the intent and focus of those preparing the Constitution was, that only the powers and responsibilities delegated to the central Government would be covered in the Constitution, everything else, anything that was not specifically included in the Constitution, would remain with the states or with the people.  (This intent, while not written in the body of the Constitution was later captured in the Bill of Rights and exists as the 10th amendment.)

Because of the limited delegation of powers intent and focus, James Madison, the prime mover of the Constitution, and other delegates did not consider it necessary for the Constitution to spell out those powers / rights that were not given to the Central Government.  Thus, it is not surprising, especially in light of the discussion above, that there was no consideration and no discussion of a “state church” or anything to do with religion in the Constitution.   There was to be no coercive power, no legislative influence, and no support given to one church denomination over another by the Federal Government.  The Constitution assigned no powers and responsibilities to the central Government regarding religion.  There was no discussion of the concept or idea of the separation of church and state.    By silence on the matter it was clear that the past practice of a “state church” would not be the future practice and thus the Federal Government would not be establishing a “preferred” state sponsored Christian denomination.   Churches (and their status in various states) and the Federal Government were recognized and accepted as distinct institutions.  But importantly, not as conflicting institutions.  Many of the founding fathers considered, just as the Pilgrims did, that the making of America was divinely inspired and divinely led.  James Madison, known as the father of the Constitution, when commenting on the Constitution, stated:  “We have staked the whole future of American civilization, not upon the power of government, far from it. We have staked the future of all of our political institutions upon the capacity of mankind of self-government; upon the capacity of each and all of us to govern ourselves, to control ourselves, to sustain ourselves according to the Ten Commandments of God.”   John Adams recognized the opportunity of the American Colonies to found a great democracy of the people as a gift from God and said we therefore “better get it right”.

So on September 17, 1787 the U.S. Constitution was completed and sent to the states for ratification and on June 21, 1788 it was ratified by the 9th state and became the law of the land.  The key aspect of the Constitution, with respect to religion, was that it did not specify a “State Church” and in fact the Federal Government was granted no powers with respect to “governing” religion.  However, ratification came with requests from several states that the rights of the people be spelled out.

That brings us to the end of Episode 2.  In the next episode we will learn how James Madison’s simply stated first sentence in the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”, came to be. That statement, which is the only statement concerning religion or the church within the United States Constitution (as amended), provides the basis of a clear understanding of the intent of the founding fathers and we will ultimately see how that intent was implemented, respected and followed for the next 150 years.

Episode 3 – The Bill of Rights Guarantees Citizens Free Exercise of Religion and No “State” Church

The U.S. Constitution was ratified by 9 states in September of 1788.  The business of implementing the newly formed government got underway, and by March 1789 the President had been elected and the First Congress was in session.  There was a great amount of work to be done by that First Congress.  They had to establish the Department of State, the Department of Treasury and the Department of War.  They had to set up a way to get revenue through tariffs.  But high on the priority list for one delegate, James Madison, was the passage of amendments to the Constitution that would guarantee the rights of the people. Madison worked tirelessly to get a suite of 12 amendments guaranteeing our personal rights passed through the House of Representatives and the Senate.  Indeed, they were passed on Sept. 25, 1789 just 4 days before the Congress adjourned and then they were sent to the states for ratification. The efforts by Madison represented great dedication and commitment to the people of the United States.  As you may recall, James Madison, who is known as the Father of the Constitution, did not consider the statement of these rights as a necessity in the Constitution since powers not specifically assigned to the Federal Government were to remain with the people and the States. But during ratification of the Constitution several of the Colonies insisted, as a condition of their acceptance, that the new Government take steps to ensure these personal rights.  Madison took on the responsibility to see that they were added to the Constitution. His devotion to this effort was incredible and is a fascinating story in itself.  Ten of the twelve amendments were ratified by the States and became famously known as The Bill of Rights.  (Interestingly, one of the 12 not ratified at the time, called for salaries of Congress to not be able to be changed till the next session. It was ratified 202 years later, in 1992, and became the Twenty Seventh Amendment to the Constitution.)

As an interesting aside, it is noted that the term “religion” as used in the first amendment was almost certainly not referring to the wide variety and nature of the world religions (Buddhist, Hindu, Islam, Christianity, Judaism, etc.) as we now commonly use the term, rather it was used in reference to different Christian denominations (Congregationalist, Quaker, Anglican, Methodists, Baptists, Presbyterian, etc.).  These were the “religions” which people recognized in their “world” (approximately 99.75% of the Colonists were Christian). They were the ‘religions” with which the founders were familiar and on which intolerance and discrimination had been practiced. That this was the common understanding of the founding fathers is attested to some years later (1800) in a letter from Thomas Jefferson to Benjamin Rush when he stated –“…the constitution, which, while it secured the freedom of the press, covered also the freedom of religion, had given to the clergy a very favorite hope of obtaining an establishment of a particular form of Christianity thro’ the U. S.; and as every sect believes its own form the true one, every one perhaps hoped for his own, but especially the Episcopalians & Congregationalists.”

The intent of the First Amendment religious freedom clauses

The first two clauses of the First Amendment guarantee two aspects of Freedom of Religion.  “Congress shall make no law, respecting an establishment of religion (clause 1), or prohibiting the free exercise thereof (clause 2).

Review of American history before the Bill of Rights was written clearly shows the intent of Madison in formulating and Congress in adopting these two First Amendment clauses was that:

(1) the newly formed Federal Government would not establish a “state” religion and

(2) that laws could not be made by the Federal Government that restricted people from practicing their chosen religion (Christian denomination).

It is instructive to note that in the first amendment there were just these two, short and to the point, statements made relative to religious freedom.  It is essential to understand the background and reasons for these particular statements in order to establish their specific purpose and, importantly, what they did not include.   These two statements were inter-related, as both addressed and fostered removal of the “built in religious preferences in the founding of the colonies and resulting religious discrimination which the framers recognized and had witnessed.  Both statements assured the populous that the Federal Government would not be involved in promoting religious preference or in restricting an individual’s religious observance.  That is why a Freedom of Religion” right was needed in the first amendment.

The Establishment ClauseCongress shall make no law, respecting an establishment of religion — One could imagine the outrage and total unacceptability of the new Constitution by the Congregationalists in the New England Colonies if they were told that the Anglican Church was to be the “state” church of the new nation.  Or if the Anglicans in South Carolina were told that the new nation’s official church was to be Congregationalist.  The simply stated “establishment clause” assured the states and their people that the new Federal Government would not be allowed to establish a particular “Christian denomination” as the church of nation. This was simply and clearly the intended purpose of the “establishment” clause and its only purpose.

That was its’ specific and intended purpose. It is important to note that the purpose of this clause is simple, clear, and single focused.   In future years its’ intent will be misconstrued and grossly expanded to imply that any public display or expression of religion is prohibited by the establishment clause.  Further, it is important to note, that some individual states at this time (1789) still had an official “state” church (denomination) and in fact continued in that status for many more years.  This situation was consistent with the Constitution’s limits on the Federal Government and the delegate’s desire to maintain “States Rights”.  This situation further illustrates that in the implementation of the first amendment, advocacy, public display and public expression of that religion in these states was not considered to be in violation of the establishment clause and was not suppressed.  It only referred to prohibiting the Federal Government from establishing a national denomination.

“Free Exercise of Religion” Clause – Whereas the first right guaranteed by the first amendment (“establishment” clause) was primarily directed toward the country as a whole (honoring the status of religion of the majority of the people therein), the second clause dealt directly with an individual’s rights with respect to the Federal Government. Namely guaranteeing that the Federal Government would not make laws inhibiting the free exercise of an individual’s religion.

As previously noted, Madison and the members of Congress formulating the Bill of Rights, at our nation’s first congressional session, would have certainly been aware of the social, political and economic discrimination due to “state” church dominance in many of the colonies. These Congressmen certainly would have also been aware of the religious persecution in the mother country that had been the impetus for some of the initial settlement of the colonies.  America was now, in 1787, free of British rule and it was the English King and the English Parliament who had established the “Church of England”.  It was the English King who had dictated that the Charter Colonies were to have the Church of England as their “state church”.  Breaking from this practice, while not a primary driver of the American Revolution, was an obvious and inevitable outcome of gaining independence.   Thus, in the spirit of declaring, as well as promoting, the principle of freedom of religion and individual liberty garnered through gaining independence from English rule, the “free exercise of religion” clause was included in the first amendment.  This clause ensured protection of individuals and religious sects against any laws being made by the Federal Government that would prohibit the free exercise of their religion.

However, this clause pertained only to the Federal Government so discrimination could still occur within individual states.  Never the less, declaring and documenting the principle to the right to “free exercise of their religion” was important to the Baptists, the Moravians, the Quakers, the Catholics, the Presbyterians and many other Christian denominations who had immigrated to this country.  These other Christian denominations had been discriminated against by law and by common convention in those colonies where an “official” church was recognized (New England) or where one had been established by a “Crown” Charter.

The rationale for, as well as the intent and meaning of, the “Free Exercise” clause is straight-forward and clear.  The framers wanted to assure the people that the new Federal Government, under the Constitution, would not interfere in the free exercise of their chosen religious denomination, at all!!   James Madison and the Congressional Delegations (House and Senate) who formulated and agreed on the specific language of the Bill of Rights recognized that the people needed and wanted this religious freedom assurance in order to accept the Federal Government established by the Constitution and this second clause of the first amendment guaranteed that.

It is instructive and important to reiterate that the religious freedom clauses of the first amendment pertained only to a restriction on the “Federal Government” established by the Constitution.  Thus, a state (such as Massachusetts, or North Carolina) could and still did have an “official” church denomination representing their state. The Bill of Rights did not directly apply to state and local governance.  But the first amendment religious principles did serve as an example to the states (and the people) and put forth a “national” principle that ultimately held sway.  The official state religions remained for a number of years before they were disestablished in state constitutions in conformance to the first clause of the first amendment.

Further, as a practical matter, bias and discrimination could and did still take place against other religious sects within a state. Only where states adopted “free exercise” statements in their constitutions or enact laws involving religious discrimination would such discrimination become unacceptable or “illegal”.     But, the spirit and intent of establishing “the free exercise of religion” in the U.S. Constitution Bill of Rights set the example for individual states and local governments as well as for individual Americans to follow.  In general, individual states came to honor the free exercise of religion and did not enact laws that prohibited the free exercise thereof.  Likewise, with the growth and expansion of the United States, and the influx of immigrants, acceptance and tolerance of other Christian denominations and later other world religions became the American norm.  However, individual morality and decency cannot be legislated and as will be discussed later (non-governmental) religious discrimination, bias, and intolerance by individuals and groups existed at the time the Constitution was written and continues today.

The relatively simple rationale (basis, purpose and intent) for the inclusion of two clauses on religious freedom explained above is quite clear.   What is also very clear is that the First Amendment clauses related to religion did not restrict or put any limitations on religious expression on individuals or organizations (churches, schools, local communities, state and local governments, etc.) the only restrictions invoked were on the Federal Government.

There was no intent for the government to be devoid or separated from religion (Christianity), far from it.  That is the essence of the misunderstanding or “myth” of separation.

 With this background on the meaning and intent of the two religious freedom clauses in the first amendment we are ready to examine the illegitimacy and irrationality of the imposition of the “separation of church and state” concept in applying the “establishment clause”.  This “myth” was planted and has grown in the last 50 years or so.  That myth is that: “The founding fathers considered and dictated in the Constitution that there should be “Separation of Church and State”.   This belief, currently accepted, taught and applied is demonstrably false.  The term was erroneously and maliciously “made up” and ascribed as the meaning and intent of the First Amendment, and has been used to invalidate and undermine the original intent and meaning of the First Amendment.  The words of this phrase, which are ascribed to President Thomas Jefferson, were not Jefferson’s words but were, along with their erroneous interpretation, “made up” based on a100+ year old letter written by Jefferson.

With respect to the term “separation of church and state” it is noted that:

  • The writings of the founding fathers endorse the linkage, the value and the necessity of religion within our government and thus belie the much later “judicially mandated” judgment that the church should be excluded from the State. The first amendment is unidirectional – it was and is only intended to exclude the government from establishing a state church and from interference of the free exercise of religion.
  • The concept of “separation of church and state”, was not brought up during the drafting and debates on the first amendment wording.
  • The concept / phrase “separation of church and state” was not used by Jefferson or by any founding father, rather that term was derived (after 150 years had passed) from a “literary” figure of speech used in a private letter supporting the first amendment’s objective of restricting government from interference with religious practice.       Further such a source (private letter) regardless of the belated interpretation of meaning or intent does not have the force of law or of a judicial finding.
  • The term is never mentioned or used in the Constitution, the Bill of Rights or in Jefferson’s Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom.
  • The term “separation of church and state” was not used in any statements or rulings by the judiciary in the 100 plus years subsequent to the adoption of the first amendment.

Information and discussion on each of these points and on the erroneous introduction, deliberate misuse and malicious application of this phrase and on its resultant effect of eradicating the intent of the first amendment will be discussed.  This Episode will include discussion of the first two bullet points.  We will cover the latter 3 in Episode 4.

It will be abundantly clear from this examination that linking the “establishment clause” to “removal” (separation) of religion from all the normal, commonplace activities in our civil society is ludicrous.  Making that connection was an opportunistic and intentional distortion that imposed the will and ideology of a few influential people on the nation’s populous and once introduced it was exacerbated by an activist judiciary such that the intent of the first amendment “free exercise clause” has been changed to “NO free exercise”.  The establishment clause, interpreted to mean, “separation of church and state”, (i.e. removal of any semblance of religion from anything to do with civil society), resulted in seriously tearing down the intent and viability of the free exercise clause, which was clearly the desire of the founders.

The “Free Exercise of Religion” and the “Myth of Separation”

  • The linkage of religion and morality to America’s founding and to the sustainability of the government, as expressed in writing and as practiced by the founding fathers.

 

The founding fathers, including, but not limited to, Washington, Jefferson, Adams, Madison and Franklin recognized, and documented their belief that our nation’s founding was ordained by God and that the successful survival of this new “governmental concept of a democratic republic,– of the people, by the people and for the people”,  depended on the people of the nation maintaining faith in God and on sustaining the high moral standards rendered in the Judeo-Christian traditions and imbedded in the laws of our country.  A few of the statements on the linkage of God to our freedom and to the success of our government and country are given below:  There are many more that could be cited:

“It is impossible to govern rightly the World without God and the Bible” George Washington

“Only a virtuous people are capable of freedom. As nations become corrupt and vicious, they have more need of masters.”  …  “The worship of God is a duty…Freedom is not a gift bestowed upon us by other men, but a right that belongs to us by the laws of God and nature… I never doubted the existence of the Deity, that he made the world, and governed it by His Providence…The pleasures of this world are rather from God’s goodness than our own merit… Whoever shall introduce into the public affairs the principles of primitive (essential) Christianity will change the face of the world… Rebellion to tyrants is obedience to God.”  – Benjamin Franklin

Both George Washington (an Episcopal vestryman) and John Adams offered strong rhetorical support for religion. In his Farewell Address of September 1796, Washington called religion, as the source of morality, “a necessary spring of popular government,” and an indispensable support to political prosperity .   Adams claimed that statesmen “may plan and speculate for Liberty, but it is Religion and Morality alone, which can establish the Principles upon which Freedom can securely stand.”

Jefferson noted…….”A free people claim their rights as derived from the laws of nature, and not as the gift of their chief magistrate.” , “[It is] God who gave us liberty. And can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are a Gift of God?”

“We have staked the whole future of American civilization, not upon the power of government, far from it. We have staked the future of all of our political institutions upon the capacity of mankind of self-government; upon the capacity of each and all of us to govern ourselves, to control ourselves, to sustain ourselves according to the Ten Commandments of God.” James Madison (1751-1836) Father of the Constitution, 4th President of the United States

The founding fathers believed and oft stated that if the people governed did not maintain high morals and strong virtue based on faith in God that the Government they instituted would not succeed.

After 4 or 5 weeks at the Constitutional Convention, Benjamin Franklin appealed to the convention’s President, (George Washington), for prayers to God be offered at the outset of each session.  He noted that daily prayers were offered to God at the outset of the conflict with Great Britain and that if it were not for them {the prayers} we would not have prevailed.  Franklin wondered if they {the convention’s delegates} had forgotten that powerful friend (God).     The last two paragraphs of Franklin’s speech are given below:

I have lived, Sir, a long time and the longer I live, the more convincing proofs I see of this truth — that God governs in the affairs of men. And if a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without his notice, is it probable that an empire can rise without his aid? We have been assured, Sir, in the sacred writings that “except the Lord build, they labor in vain that build it.” {Psalm 127} I firmly believe this; and I also believe that without his concurring aid we shall succeed in this political building no better than the Builders of Babel: We shall be divided by our little partial local interests; our projects will be confounded, and we ourselves shall become a reproach and a bye word down to future age. And what is worse, mankind may hereafter this unfortunate instance, despair of establishing Governments by Human Wisdom, and leave it to chance, war, and conquest.

I therefore beg leave to move — that henceforth prayers imploring the assistance of Heaven, and its blessings on our deliberations, be held in this Assembly every morning before we proceed to business, and that one or more of the Clergy of this City be requested to officiate in that service.”

The Second Continental Congress (1774) started the practice of prayer before each session.  The First Congress under the Constitution (1789) continued the practice of a prayer by a chaplain before each session and that practice carries on to this day.

It is evident from the representative statements of the founders given above, that separation of God (religion) from the government was not even a thought much less an objective in the formation of our governmental system, the Constitution, or the Bill of Rights.  It was not even a consideration in their discussions.   Just the opposite was the case.  The founders credited God, not Kings or governments, with giving us our natural rights, our freedoms and our chance to form a more perfect union.  What they did not want was the government interfering with an individual’s religious observances.  It is unmistakable that the intent of the first amendment was to ensure that the Federal Government did not interfere with the observance of religion by the governed, not that religion should be removed from anything that the government was involved with or from the lives of the governed.

  • The term “separation of church and state” was not brought up during the drafting and debates on the first amendment wording.

 

The amendments to be made to the Constitution to ensure individual rights and thus fulfill the promises made relative to its successful ratification, were initially drafted by James Madison for consideration by the first Congress.  Madison’s draft was discussed and debated in committee, debated by both houses of congress, written in final form and finally passed and then sent for ratification by the states.   The note below refutes the idea that “separation” of church from state was the intent of the first amendment “establishment” clause:

“The Congressional Record from June 7 to September 25, 1789, documents the months of discussions and debates of the ninety members of congress (Founding Fathers) who deliberated on the proper wording of the First Amendment.  During those debates and discussions there was never a mention by anyone of those ninety “Framers” of the phrase “separation of church and state.” It seems logical that if this concept had been the intent or even a consideration of the intent for the First Amendment religious clauses then someone among the ninety who framed the Amendment would have raised that concept and used that phrase; none did.” 

This evidence concurs with and supports the discussion above on the rationale for and the intent of the “establishment clause”.  This statement was very simple, straightforward and clear.  It was based on the understanding of how religion was established in the colonies and the problem being addressed was the experience of and potential for Government control and interference with religion and not the reverse!  The reverse (removing religion from government) would have been antithetical because a religious belief and/or a respect for God was an integral part of the founding fathers lives, and to suggest that those beliefs and understandings should be separated from the formulation of a government of the people, for the people, and by the people would not have been conceivable.  And this evidence from the Congressional record again shows that it was not.

In Episode 4 we will see further evidence of the fallaciousness and falsehood that is inherent in the invoking of the concept of the separation of church and state as the intent of the establishment clause.  Then we will see how such an interpretation was not invoked for the first 150 years after the First Amendment was written.

Episode 4 –The Bill of Rights, States Rights, President Jefferson and the Danbury Baptists        

We learned in Episode 3 that the concept of Separation of Church and State was not incorporated in the U.S. Constitution and that it was antithetical to the philosophy of the founders.  The concept was not even recorded as a consideration in the development of the First Amendment.  To wit, the writings of the founding fathers endorse the linkage, the value and the necessity of religion within our government and our country and the term “separation of church and state”, was not mentioned in the Congressional Record of the discussions and debates held on the first amendment wording.

Now, continuing with points that expose the “myth” that there be separation of church and state, it is noted that:

  • The term is never mentioned or used in the U. S. Constitution, the Bill of Rights or in Jefferson’s Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom.

 

The fact that it is not in the U.S. Constitution and, the Bill of Rights is foundational and has already been cited. This fact is included in this inventory of evidence for completeness, but the real point of significance is its’ absence in Jefferson’s Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom.  This absence is noteworthy on two counts, (1) the Virginia Statute is regarded as a likely basis or springboard from which the First Amendment was formulated and (2) Jefferson’s later misconstrued association with invoking the concept.

  • The term “separation of church and state” was fashioned from the casual use of “literary” license (a metaphor) used by Jefferson in a private letter.

The source of the term “separation of church and state” was “contrived”  or invented based on a word used in a letter written by President Jefferson’s in 1802, in response to the Danbury Baptist Association.  The Baptist’s had written to Jefferson complaining of discrimination stemming from the “official” (or state) religion that existed in the state of Connecticut.   The Association sought support for extension (to the state level) of the First Amendment concept of keeping government from interfering with the religious practices of the people. (Recall our earlier discussion that the First Amendment restrictions only applied to the Federal Government).  Jefferson expressed moral support for the position of the Danbury Baptists.   Giving that support was the reason behind Jefferson’s letter.   His response was in conformance to the undeniable point that the intent of the first two clauses of the First Amendment was to put restrictions on the Federal Government from interference with an individual’s right to religious freedom.  Keeping the government out of an individual’s religion was the “wall” Jefferson referred to that had been constructed by the First Amendment.  That was the real meaning of his subsequently misapplied “wall of separation” statement in his 1802 response to the Danbury Baptist Association in Connecticut.  Jefferson was only reiterating a government “hands off” religion policy – That is all!

The Danbury Baptist Association was a group of 26 Baptist churches in the Connecticut Valley who considered themselves persecuted by the legislature of the state of Connecticut that had established Congregationalism as its official state religion.  Here is the full text of Jefferson’s response:

Letter to the Danbury Baptists

January 1, 1802 To messers. Nehemiah Dodge, Ephraim Robbins, & Stephen S. Nelson, a committee of the Danbury Baptist association in the state of Connecticut.

Gentlemen,

The affectionate sentiments of esteem and approbation which you are so good as to express towards me, on behalf of the Danbury Baptist association, give me the highest satisfaction. my duties dictate a faithful and zealous pursuit of the interests of my constituents, & in proportion as they are persuaded of my fidelity to those duties, the discharge of them becomes more and more pleasing.

Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, & not opinions, 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 & State. Adhering to this expression of the supreme will of the nation in behalf of the rights of conscience, I shall see with sincere satisfaction the progress of those sentiments which tend to restore to man all his natural rights, convinced he has no natural right in opposition to his social duties.

I reciprocate your kind prayers for the protection & blessing of the common father and creator of man, and tender you for yourselves & your religious association, assurances of my high respect & esteem.

Th. Jefferson

There are several important points to take from this letter relative to its future misapplication:

  • As noted in the earlier discussion, the First Amendment (religion clauses) applied only to a restriction on the Federal Government. Individual states were not restricted by the first amendment from having an official state religion (as Connecticut did). This was consistent with the Constitution limiting the power of a central government and not interfering with state governments.
  • The Association knew, and acknowledged in their letter to Jefferson that, “the president of the United States is not the national legislator,…”, but hoped that his views on religious liberty would “shine and prevail through all these states and all the world.”       In other words they hoped that support by Jefferson would help the individual states move forward in adopting the principle embodied in the “establishment clause” of: “not having a designated church within a state”.
  • Jefferson could not and did not provide any direct relief or solution to the Baptist’s concern but he did, as requested, express his support of religious liberty being granted in the individual states through his statement, “Adhering to this expression [establishment clause] of the supreme will of the nation in behalf of the rights of conscience, I shall see with sincere satisfaction the progress of those sentiments ….”.   And this support may have helped, as Connecticut did “disestablish” Congregationalism as the official church in Connecticut in 1818.
  • Most importantly, with respect to the future misapplication and disingenuous use of Jefferson’s phrase by the Court 145 years later, “building a wall of separation”, in his letter supporting, and describing the First Amendment, is that the statement immediately follows, (in the same sentence), and is clearly made in reference to the restriction on the Federal Government from passing any law establishing a religion or prohibiting free exercise of religion. He is reiterating that the First Amendment is intended as a wall to keep the government out of religion. To illustrate, or describe the meaning and purpose of the First Amendment religious clauses he had just quoted, Jefferson could have said something like that the First Amendment “puts up a no trespassing sign”, in reference to the government, but probably, being well read and knowledgeable, was cleverly, alluding to Roger Williams’ (founder of the Baptist Church) earlier writings which stated: that there is: “[A] hedge or wall of separation between the garden of the church and the wilderness of the world”.   Jefferson used the same “wall” metaphor to explain the purpose of the first amendment – simply substituting government or “state” for “wilderness of the world”.
  • Jefferson did not make any specific references to or in any way suggest or imply that religion must be excluded from schools, or government or the “public square” in his letter to the Danbury Baptists. Nor did he do so in his very famous, “Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom”, which preceded and is believed to have been the “model” for the first amendment religious clauses. Neither the concept of or the term “separation of church and state” appear in the Virginia Statute.  That document, like the first two clauses of the First Amendment, disavows the concept of a state church and exalts the protection of free exercise of religion.
  • Finally, Jefferson, as President, uses a brief prayer to conclude his letter. I reciprocate your kind prayers for the protection & blessing of the common father and creator of man, and tender you for yourselves & your religious association, assurances of my high respect & esteem.” Thus, in his official government capacity he was incorporating an association with religion in his response, which belies the later interpretations of separation.

The words, chosen by Jefferson in his letter to support the First Amendment concept of restriction on government interference, are just that, his chosen words.  Note that Jefferson’s response to the Danbury Baptists did not engender any change, any debate, or any questioning of his intent or meaning at the time of its writing in 1802.  That illustrates that his statements were viewed to be in conformance with the original intent and existing understanding of the meaning, interpretation and application of the First Amendment.  Jefferson’s comments stood without challenge or question for more than a hundred years.

Finally, even if the “wall of separation” words were to be ascribed the “made-up” connotation of separation of church and state now given to them by the courts, those words and their erroneous interpretation do not represent law.  They do not have the force of authority to override the meaning and intent of an Amendment passed by Congress and ratified by the states and duly followed for over 150 years.  Those words should not have been used to warp, manipulate and expand the objective of the establishment clause so as to play a dominate role in our society, and completely reverse the intent of the freedom of exercise clause.

The great paradox and tragedy that stems from the misuse of Jefferson’s words is that the intended goal in the Bill of Rights of giving the people of the United States freedom to exercise their religion without government interference has now been eradicated and turned 180 degrees from the original intent.  The delegates at the Constitution Convention sought to limit the powers of the Federal Government but now the Federal Government (and the dollars it doles out) permeates and to some extent controls every aspect of our lives.  And now, by judicial fiat, there must be no hint of religion in anything that the Federal Government touches or is involved with – which includes schools, state governments, local governments, health care, etc.).  Further the concept of excluding religion (such as school children singing Christmas Carols and communities putting up a nativity scene) has been invoked by periodic judicial rulings and have been publicized so as to make civic and public bodies run scared.  These rulings typically made on behalf of atheist organizations are then spread further by fear, by threat and by media hype and / or bias.   Further, as a practical matter the “separation” or religion exclusion doctrine is primarily applied to Christianity – “political correctness” and selective “tolerance” gives a free pass to all other religions. The students in my grandson’s high school social studies class were directed to get down on the floor, face east and pray to Allah to demonstrate tolerance for Islam. And they did, save for my grandson.  When he said that doing so was uncomfortable for him, the teacher called him a bigot and sent him out of the room and to the principal’s office. This state of affairs is 180 degrees from our founding fathers view of the world and makes a mockery of the First Amendment.

This concludes Episode 4 and our observation of the true intent Jefferson’s message to the Danbury Baptists.   In Episode 5(A) and 5(b) we will gain some historical perspectives on the history of the development religion in the United States in the formative years of our country.  Including the statements and rulings by the judiciary in the 150 plus years subsequent to the adoption of the First Amendment.

We will see that the United States is indeed a Christian nation and will describe the evolution of Christianity and other religions in the United States.  This background will help illustrate and explain how dramatic and how inconsistent was the turn of events that now restricts the “free exercise of religion” and pursuit of happiness for Christians in our country.  This background may also give context to the degree of animosity, vitriol and vengeance being pursued by atheists against Christianity.

Episode 5 – Operation of the Free Exercise of the Christian Religion in the United States for more than One Hundred and Fifty Years after the Bill of Rights was Adopted

Episode 5(a) – Our Nation’s Christian Heritage

This section relates a few interesting aspects related to our founding and subsequent development as a Christian Nation. This information fits within the context of the history of the Freedom of Religion in the US but was also provided as a standalone piece because there is merit to providing it as a response to the current challenges to the veracity that we were founded as a Christian nation and that we are yet today a Christian nation.

Introduction – The United States was founded as a Christian nation and remains one today.

There is little doubt that upon its founding America’s people and its founders believed in God and were a Christian nation. That we were a Christian nation remained unquestionably true for one hundred and fifty years after our founding.  And now although under attack, especially in the last few decades by individual atheists, atheist groups, gay rights organizations and rulings by liberal judges, that remains true today.  This reality is evidenced in terms of: (1) the principles upon which the United States was founded, (2) the dominant religion of its people, and (3) the basis of the civil laws under which it operates and the associated judiciary rulings handed down for more than 150 years.  So despite the “running scared of legal repercussions” actions by school administrators and elected officials and President Obama’s unsubstantiated, and erroneous statement in 2009, that, “We no longer consider ourselves a Christian nation”, America remains, to this day, a Christian nation.

Christianity was the dominant religion in America upon its founding and remains the dominant religion.

At the time America declared its independence in 1776 the colonies were overwhelmingly Protestant Christians.   The book Myth of Separation between Church and State by Dee Wampler cites that 98% of the 2.5 million population in 1776 professed to be Protestant Christians.  Most of the remainder were Catholics.  This matches with the estimate was that there were 35,000 Catholics in the U.S. in 1776 (1.75%).  Jewish historians estimate that in 1776 that there were 2,500 people of the Jewish religion ( 0.1% of the population) in the colonies.  There were a few Muslims (brought in as bondsmen or slaves), and there may have been a few Hindus, Buddhists and peoples of other religions but the number was so small as to be “politically” insignificant and for the most part went unrecorded.

The dominance of Protestant Christian denominations is also reflected in the societal practices and laws of the day.  Although not enforced, many states had laws which required such things as church attendance on Sunday and other “Sunday” laws, which were enforced, that dictated acceptable Sunday activities (e.g. shops could not be open on Sunday).  Further, Protestant domination was reflected in the voting laws of most states where Catholics, Jews and atheists were excluded from voting as well as from holding public office. These relatively “harsh”, intolerant attitudes were a carryover from the mind-sets of the initial colonizers (Puritans) and the imposed Anglican “state church” in the Crown Colonies, and do not reflect the much more tolerant (even subservient and submissive) attitudes of Christians that subsequently developed in America. We became a tolerant Christian nation, applying the first amendment, “free exercise of religion clause” to all the world’s religions, despite the narrow extent and context that existed when it was composed *.

* The belief that the term “religion” in the first amendment statement that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion…., meant a specific “Christian denomination”, is reflected in the following two examples: In the words of the Supreme Court of Maryland in the case of Runkel v. Winemiller in 1796, just a few years after the Constitution was adopted, they wrote:   “By our form of government, the Christian religion is the established religion and all sects and denominations of Christians are placed upon the same equal footing and are equally entitled to protection in their liberty.”  And Thomas Jefferson stated in a letter to Benjamin Rush —  “the establishment clause relates to selection of a particular sect.”

A walk around our nation’s capital and reading the writings on the monuments gives testimony to the faith, trust, and reliance on God that was shared and lived out by our nation’s founders and leaders.

There are two other significant, aspects related to “religion” of the 1700 and 1800’s which provide insight into our Christian heritage and its subsequent aberrant exploitation.  These are:

  • The nature of the “Protestant” Church in Colonial America and the impact of the Great Awakenings
  • The appellation of “deist” ascribed to several of the founding fathers.

The “Protestant” Church in Colonial America and the impact of the Great Awakenings 

Although a wide variety of Christian denominations or sects came to America and found acceptance in Rhode Island, Pennsylvania, and the mid-Atlantic states, the Protestant church, until the mid18th century, was primarily made up of “main line” denominations of Congregationalists and Anglicans along with Presbyterians, German Lutherans, and Baptists.   Despite the restoration by Luther in the Reformation, of the concept of “grace” (the free gift of salvation through faith) and of a loving God who sent his Son to die for our sins, these denominations still largely focused on “salvation by good works”.  These “works” included the requirements of regular church attendance, strictly following creeds and participation in the sacraments.  The Congregationalists Church services would have been characterized by emphasizing strict discipline and Anglican services by pomp and formal liturgy. What is often referred to as preaching of “fire and brimstone”, (i.e. – shape up or you will be condemned) was the order of the day.   Church attendance and church membership was performed more on the basis of obligation and societal norms than on a strong emotional belief or faith.  This situation changed markedly with the “Great Awakenings”.   In simplest terms the “Awakenings” were the teaching and subsequent acceptance of what is now recognized as the essence of Christianity – “Belief in Christ as the Son of God who died on the cross for the sins of all, providing salvation to all those who accept Christ as their Savior.” (basically this is what  “evangelicals” believe)

The first Great Awakening came about due to the “conversion” of a missionary to America from England, John Wesley. (Now that is really paradoxical!!)  He and his brother Charles, were members of the Anglican Church in England and had come to Georgia as “missionaries”.  While here, a Moravian bishop asked John Wesley if he “knew” Jesus. Wesley said, “yes, he knew that Jesus was the savior of the world”.  “But do you know he has saved you?” asked the Moravian.  John Wesley answered that he did not possess that knowledge.  One evening two months later (in 1738), after returning to England, John Wesley underwent a “conversion” experience in which he came to realize that Christ had died for his sins and that he, “personally” was saved.  He said “..my heart strangely warmed.  I felt that I did believe in Christ, in Christ alone, for salvation; and an assurance was given me that he had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.” 

He along with his brother Charles, who had had a similar experience two days previously, founded the “Methodist” movement and along with Charles Whitefield came back to America as evangelists, preaching the concept of the personal experience of salvation by the grace of God (not of salvation by doing good works).   This more emotional, more heartfelt faith swept the colonies (1740 – 1780) and resulted in a religious revival.  It is regarded as the single most transforming event in the religious history of the colonies.  Charles Whitefield, who worked with the Wesleys came to preach in the colonies 7 times before his death in 1770. He was a renowned evangelist and orator who drew huge crowds. This was Ben Franklin’s experience.

Benjamin Franklin, who later worked with Whitefield for 3 decades tells of the first time he went to hear him speak (Whitefield was in Philadelphia raising funds for an orphanage in Georgia).  Franklin went to hear him, but had decided in advance that he did not intend to contribute to the cause. (He had in his possession a handful of coppers some silver dollars and five pistoles of gold.) After listening to Whitefield, Franklin began to soften and resolved to give him the coppers.  His oratory was so good Franklin was ashamed of that decision and decided to contribute the silver as well. But when Whitefield finished so admirably as the plate came around Franklin emptied his pockets Gold and all!!

Although the “Awakening” was initiated by these Methodists, the message, of personal salvation through faith in Jesus Christ through the revival format, caught fire in the Baptist Church. Even the Congregationalist denomination through the evangelist Jonathan Edwards was affected.

The Second Great Awakening took place during the period 1800 – 1830 and focused on spreading the message of personal salvation to the unchurched, through revivals and camp meetings, especially in the expanding frontier areas of Kentucky, Tennessee and southern Ohio.

Certainly the “great awakenings” invigorated religious worship in America (see the figure below on the growth of the number of congregations of each of a number of denominations), however, the most important effect was the change in the nature of the understanding being taught and lived by the people. There was in essence incorporation of the principles of the reformation.   The Christian church in America moved away from a salvation through “good behavior and good works” emphasis and thrived as an evangelical church teaching and preaching the Gospel – salvation through faith in Christ.   This personal involvement and personal commitment of the American people to their Christian faith, which evolved in the colonies beginning with the first Great Awakening, is the defining element of religion in America and allowed Christianity to be sustained at high levels of active participation over the centuries (unlike Europe where now perhaps only 2% of the populous attend church).  

Deism in Colonial America

A number of the founding fathers, (Franklin, Washington, Adams, and Jefferson being the most notable) have been described as Deists, often with the accompanying inference that America was not founded as a Christian nation.   Deism, can be described as: “belief in the existence of God on the evidence of reason and nature only, and rejection of God’s subsequent involvement in the affairs of men”.  It is an idea, belief or thought that arose during the “Age of Enlightenment” in Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries.  Deism is not an organized religion, in fact, one of the tenants of “true” Deism is that organized religion is not necessary.  Painting these founders with a broad and dismissive “deist” brush does not provide an accurate picture of these founder’s thoughts on God and religion and on their thoughts on the role of God and religion in the formation and the future success of our form of government.  And it certainly does not reflect the nature of their religious practices or the diversity of their opinions.

John Adams, a new Englander, regularly attended church throughout his life. His wife Abigail’s father was a Congregationalist minister and although that was the church he attended, his belief was Unitarian.  Which in that day meant he thought of God as one (not three) with Jesus being raised up as divine by God.  Hence the deist label for Adams, since many deists were Unitarian.   Notwithstanding this one different theological point of view, Adams considered himself a Christian and believed it imperative that the ethical and moral teachings of Jesus be followed.  As President, Adams twice called for national fast days to renew the nation’s sense of divine mission.  Adams was a deep thinker and a good writer and clearly one of the most influential founding fathers in terms of formulating and drafting the documents which established our form of government and he considered that God had provided the opportunity for the formation of this government of freedom by the people and that leaders of this effort, of which he was one, should ensure it was carried out well. This, thought of God providing him, our people, and our country with this opportunity was not at all Deist.

George Washington was raised in and attended the Anglican Church throughout his life, he served as a vestryman in the church, and as an officer he “read” services to his men in the army prior to the Revolutionary War.  He did not write about his personal religious views, thus the degree of his orthodoxy with respect to Christianity are hypothesized from his religious practices. The inference that George Washington was a Deist came to a great degree from his use of terms for God like, “the Grand Author”, “The Deity” and “The Supreme Being” in speeches and official statements.  However, he did not avoid the word God or the mention of Jesus in what he wrote and said. (see Washington’s Papers).  The Anglican church had “Sacrament Sundays” services (during which communion was given) four times per year.  Services on these Sundays were held in two parts (the Desk and Pulpit service) and the “Lords Supper”. It was a common practice among parishioners of the day to attend only the first service.   Nelly Custis, his adopted granddaughter, related that she and George Washington would leave after the first service and send the carriage back for Martha.  In response to a biographer asking about Washington’s religious views Nelly Custis summed up the religion of George Washington quite well, “I should have thought it the greatest heresy to doubt his firm belief in Christianity,”.  He communed with his God in secret…. He was a silent thoughtful man.”  In his last will and testament Washington validated this opinion when he wrote, “You do well to learn …. above all the religion of Jesus Christ.” 

Benjamin Franklin studied theology as a young man, he chose the Presbyterian church as his first church home in Philadelphia, but later attended Christ Church (Episcopal) the most because he liked the pomp and circumstance.  However, he was ambivalent toward choosing any one Christian denomination. He contributed toward the construction of every church (and one synagogue) in Philadelphia.  Franklin wrote; “Here is my Creed.  I believe in one God, Creator of the Universe. That he governs the world by his Providence.  That he ought to be worshiped. That the most acceptable Service we can render to him, is doing good to his other Children.  That the Soul of Man is immortal, and will be treated with Justice in another life, respecting its conduct in this.  These I take these to be the fundamental Principles of all sound Religion.”  He encouraged organized religion because it enhanced the morality of the people.  His motion for prayer at the Constitutional Convention and his experience illustrate that he did not eschew religion.  And, although his intellectual outlook may have had deist components his actions and his belief in the value and need for organized religion and of the potential for God’s interaction in the affairs of men were decidedly non-deist.

Thomas Jefferson – It is well known that Jefferson developed his own “edited” version of the Bible by cutting out those portions which he had a hard time believing or accepting, like the ‘Incarnation” (God becoming human through the virgin birth).   What is not so well known is that Jefferson did believe in the teachings of Jesus and felt it critical that these be taught and followed. In a letter to Benjamin Rush he said, “I am a Christian in the only sense in which I believe Jesus wished any one to be; sincerely attached to his doctrines, in preference to all others; ascribing to himself every human excellence, and believing he never claimed any other. (#) In his last will and testament Jefferson wrote, “I am a real Christian, that is to say, a disciple of the doctrines of Jesus Christ.” This then is what Jefferson thought of himself, not so much different than many professing Christians.  Jefferson is often put forward as the best “Founding Father” example of how we were not a Christian nation at the time of the formation of our government.  Clearly, his statements belie that assertion, however, even if that were true it is instructive to recall that Jefferson was not a member of the Constitutional Convention or of the Congress that two years later developed the amendments that became the Bill of Rights. Thus, ascribing the meaning behind the religious statements in these documents to Jefferson would be unsound logic.

A number of other Founding Fathers declared their Christian faith and its role in government quite boldly.  It should be clear, even from this brief examination, that the personal religious beliefs of these founders add to, rather than dissuade, the assertion that America was a Christian nation at the time of its founding.

Is the United States still a Christian Nation?

As noted earlier when the nation was founded (1780-90) essentially everyone (99.75%) belonged to a Christian congregation.  We will in the next episode subsequently see how that dominance was reflected in the social / educational / judicial / political life of the country.   Based on 1948 Gallup poll data, 91% of the population identified themselves as Christian. This illustrates that Christianity was still the dominant religion of the country.  That percentage has gradually declined with more immigrants following other religions coming to America and more people identifying as unaffiliated. About 2% identify as atheists.  So about 50 years later in 2007, pew research indicated that 79% identified as Christian.  Still a dominant majority.  Further, beyond our people’s attestation to Christianity, our nation’s generous behavior in terms of accepting, and helping the poor and needy both internally and externally, and helping the oppressed reflect Christian principles.

President Obama’s comment during his visit to Turkey in 2009 about the U.S. not being a Christian nation was of course, not reflective of reality, we are, primarily, a Christian nation. In three years he had become more strident with respect to his declaration.   In 2006, Obama made a similar statement but qualified it. He said, “Whatever we once were, we are no longer a Christian nation – at least, not just. We are also a Jewish nation, a Muslim nation, a Buddhist nation, and a Hindu nation, and a nation of nonbelievers.”  In one sense, the sense of our country being tolerant and accepting, and allowing free exercise of religion, those words are true.  However, in the sense of describing our character as a nation, which is the sense in which the statement was made, those words are ludicrous. Our nation does not have the character of a Muslim, Hindu or Buddhist nation.  But what is most paradoxical and distressing, is that whereas we, as a tolerant Christian nation, have welcomed and allowed free exercise of the world’s religions in our country, the free exercise of Christianity is no longer a reality. The free exercise of the Christian religion faces a constant battle with the judicial and administrative parts of our government.  The last episode of this Freedom of Religion series will be exploring how this came to pass and how it must be resisted in order to restore our First Amendment right of the free exercise of religion.

Episode 5(b) –Christianity: A vital and accepted part of America’s Civil Society 1789 – 1944

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 single religious denomination for the whole country.  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 principle 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.

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 episode 5(a), 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.  Now we will 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”.

 Education

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.

( *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.)

Each of the 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.

Summary

America’s history from the time of our founding up to 1944 shows the close interrelationship of religion and U.S. civil society, in education, in government, in the judiciary and in the public square and illustrates that the free exercise of religion was indeed the accepted norm in the United States and was in accordance with the First Amendment principles.  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 the next episode we will examine how in 1947 the Supreme Court placed the First Amendment’s guarantee of Freedom of Religion in peril and it is that peril from which we are still trying to escape.

Episode 6 – The dismantling of the true meaning and intent of the First Amendment

The fundamental right of Religious Freedom and the imposition of the concept of the Separation of Church and State are at odds.  The latter concept as it is applied to the conduct of our daily lives and imposed upon our societal affairs as if it were a part of our countries founding documents is a distortion, an invention, a lie that spread throughout the nation and is now regarded by most as a factual truth. Astonishingly, neither the term, nor the concept of “Separation of Church and State” appears in the U.S. Constitution or the Bill of Rights First Amendment.  Yet, now, the overreaching, misguided, and malicious application of the concept of Separation of Church and State diminishes the actual free exercise of religion specifically provided for in our Constitution’s Bill of Rights.

We begin now in the mid 1940’s. Having helped liberate Europe and defeated Japan, Americans were ready to again enjoy life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.  We were still under the protection of the First Amendment and able to enjoy the free exercise of the Christian religion as we had for over 150 years. The Bible and prayer were still commonly used in our schools. The Courts had declared that we were a Christian nation.  Christmas was celebrated in the public square, there was prayer to open public meetings and the Ten Commandments were engraved in the Supreme Court Building and in court houses around the nation.  And then came:

A radical turn by the Supreme Court. 

Recall the initial words of first amendment as they pertain to freedom of religion: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”  Also recall the Colonial history of there being “state” churches and how it was clearly described in Episode 3 that the first phrase in the First Amendment, “the establishment clause”, pertained specifically to restricting the Federal Government from establishing a “state” church.  That intent was clear. That understanding and the free exercise of religion flourished from the time the Bill of Rights was written (1789) until 1947.

In 1947, the U.S. Supreme Court made a 180-degree turn from past history and precedent. Without citing a single precedent, and ignoring 150 years of historically consistent rulings, the Court decided that the First Amendment “establishment clause” had a much broader meaning than not establishing a state church and announced that; “The wall of separation between church and state must be kept high and impregnable”. Invoking this concept was a radical departure from the past. With that statement by Justice Hugo Black, the myth of separation between church and state was born.  Before that time the phrase “separation of church and state” was hardly know, it did not even appear in the World Book Encyclopedia until 1967.

So exactly what happened.  How did this change come about?

The genesis of the change resulted, rather innocuously, from a Supreme Court case that actually came down on the side of religious freedom. In Everson vs. Board of Education, Arch Everson, challenged a 1941 New Jersey Law that allowed local school districts to provide students transportation to school.  In Everson’s township both public and private (parochial) students were provided transportation.  A total of $357 for the year was allocated by the township toward the transportation of parochial students.  Everson alleged that this indirect aid to religion violated the New Jersey Constitution and the First Amendment. Everson lost the case in the highest New Jersey State court and then it was taken on to the U. S. Supreme Court. The Supreme Court ruled against Everson, on the basis of the majority opinion, written by Justice Hugo Black, that: “ … the state bill was constitutionally permissible because the reimbursements were offered to all students regardless of religion and because the payments were made to parents and not any religious institution.”  Sounds reasonable and in accord with the First Amendment, right? –  What was being authorized certainly could not be considered as the Federal Government establishing a state religion.

But Wait!!    In the write up of the majority opinion, Justice Black stated that:

“ —-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.”

So far so good. These statements follow the true intent of the two Freedom of Religion clauses of the First Amendment, the “establishment clause” and the “free exercise clause”.  But Justice Black then added this statement, perhaps without contemplation of the future expanding reach of the government or the devious interpretation that would be made linking “tax” and “funding”.

No tax in any amount, large or small, can be levied to support any religious activities or institutions, whatever they may be called, or whatever form they may adopt to teach or practice religion.

This statement, followed by Black’s closing statement in the majority opinion that “the wall of separation between church and state must be kept high and impregnable”, opened a pathway for future courts to rule against allowing any religious expression to be associated with activities that had any government funding.  But the separation concept was just plain made up. There is nothing in the First Amendment clauses that suggest separation or a wall or taxes and nothing in the conduct of our country for 150 years that suggested separation.  The separation of church and  state was not conceived of or established by the founders, nor was it part of our national heritage.

In 1962, the innocuous seeds of the Everson case burst into full bloom and began their invasive attack on America’s Christian population.  Black’s words became controlling precedent for Engle v. Vitale–the case that removed prayer in public education by ruling voluntary and denominationally neutral prayer unconstitutional. The actual prayer that was ruled on was rather benign: “Almighty God, we acknowledge our dependence upon thee and we beg thy blessings upon us and our parents, our teachers, and our country.” Tragically, Engle v. Vitale started a domino effect of court rulings that threatened to remove our religious heritage from the public arena, especially from education.

In the 1963 decision of Abington v. Schempp, the Court removed Bible reading from public education. The Court’s justification? “If portions of the New Testament were read without explanation, they could be and have been psychologically harmful to a child.” Simply amazing!! Suddenly, the best- selling book of all time and the most quoted source by the founding fathers was unconstitutional and psychologically harmful. The honorable court certainly didn’t share the religious values of the founders nor the sustainers of the Republic. Abraham Lincoln said, “But for the Bible we would not know right from wrong.” Exactly. One of the reasons moral bearings have been lost in the country is that the objective values of right and wrong have been removed from children’s education.

In 1969, it became unconstitutional to erect a war memorial in the shape of a cross (Lowe v. City of Eugene, 1969). The Court carried that same religious intolerance into a 1994 case in which a cross in a San Diego park had to be removed.

In 1976, it became unconstitutional for a board of education to use or refer to the word God in any official writings (State of Ohio v. Whisner). In 1979, it became unconstitutional for a kindergarten class to ask whose birthday was being celebrated in a Christmas assembly (Florey v. Sioux Falls School District).

By 1980 this incredibly twisted approach made it unconstitutional to post the Ten Commandments on school walls. According to Stone v. Graham, “If posted copies of the Ten Commandments are to have any effect at all it will be to induce the schoolchildren to read, meditate upon, perhaps venerate and obey the commandments; this is not a permissible objective.” James Madison, the man most responsible for the U.S. Constitution said “[We] have staked the future of all of our political Constitutions upon the capacity of each and all of us to govern ourselves according to the Ten Commandments of God.” Once again, the honorable Court is completely out of step with the founding fathers. Madison was absolutely right–the pathetic condition of our culture reflects the inability of individuals to control themselves. While the Ten Commandments hang above the chief justice of the Supreme Court, they are hypocritically censored from the halls of our schools. George Washington said that apart from religion, there can be no morality.

In 1985, in Wallace v. Jaffree, the Supreme Court in the ultimate absurdity outlawed allowing a “moment of silence” in Alabama schools.  Ruling a state law, providing for a moment of silence, as unconstitutional. Several states had gone this route in response to the outlawing of school prayer. The reach of the Federal Government was now being taken to extremes.  The rationale for the ruling was that any bill (even those which are constitutionally acceptable) is unconstitutional if the author of the bill had a religious activity in mind when the bill was written. In this case the Court carried the separation of church and state concept beyond belief. In addition to applying to religious activities, words, and symbols, along with anything else that might cause someone to think about God, now the mythological wall may be brought to bear on an author’s thoughts while penning a bill.

Why did the Courts make such a drastic departure from our roots? The answer is two-fold, on the one hand there are mean spirited, anti-Christian, intolerant individuals who use the freedom’s granted in the Bill of Rights for their purpose of hurting others and secondly there are the social activist judges who have a complete disregard for the Constitution’s intent. Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes illustrated his personal contempt for the original intent of the Constitution when he said, “We are under a Constitution, but the Constitution is what judges say it is.” The words of Supreme Court Justice Brennan are more inflammatory:  “It is arrogant to use the Constitution as the founding fathers intended, it must be interpreted in light of current problems and current needs.”

The arrogance really lies in these liberal judges not interpreting the Constitution as the founding fathers intended but, rather, in reinterpreting the Constitution to meet their personal ideas. It takes brazen audacity to ignore the intentions of the founding fathers and to turn one’s back on the Constitution / Bill of Rights and 150 years of American history that faithfully followed it.

In a 2014 speech Justice Antonin Scalia criticized members of the Court who champion a more evolving, “living” view of the Constitution — a judicial philosophy he has previously said only an “idiot” could believe. “Our {the Supreme Court’s} latest take on the subject, which is quite different from previous takes, is that the state must be neutral, not only between religions, but between religion and non-religion,”. “That’s just a lie. Where do you get the notion that this is all unconstitutional? You can only believe that if you believe in a morphing Constitution.”

If Americans want a more secular political system that guarantees those distinctions, they can “enact that by statute,” Scalia said, “but to say that’s what the Constitution requires is utterly absurd.”

Progression of the Myth of Separation from the Courts to Daily Life 

The court case rulings cited above and the associated thought metastasized rapidly. With the aid of a liberal media eager to publicize the demise of traditional values and an increasingly liberal educational system, the vast majority of the U.S. population became convinced that the concept of separation of church and state was a fixture of the Constitution. Further, many school administrators, teachers and municipal leaders considered that mentioning or observing anything to do with Christianity was off limits. Thus, celebration of Christian holidays or even mentioning God in public schools could result in law suits or discipline. The country was literally traumatized. But paradoxically, while the free exercise of religion relative to Christianity was being drastically curtailed, tolerance as an ethic was being pushed. Open mindedness toward others religions was being advanced by social justice activists. No problem with discussing Islam in the schools.

Likewise, evidence of Christianity in the public square was being shut down. Boycotts, dismissals, and protests would occur against companies and individuals who dared to publically express / display their Christian beliefs. Businesses and employers removed any references related to Christianity and adopted non-descript substitute greetings to avoid offending no-believers. This change was: (1) being driven by protests from atheist individual or groups bringing lawsuits, (2) being supported by those who were now being taught the validity of the concept of “separation of church and state” and (3) being accepted by people of faith who now believed (incorrectly) that “separation of church and state” was part of our heritage.

But all is not lost – truth is on the side of the real meaning of the First Amendment!

Fighting Back to regain the Free Exercise of (Christian) Religion

Although he was in the minority in the “silent prayer” decision in 1985, Justice William H. Rehnquist, penned a bitter dissent to the case in which he attacked the reasoning in the 1962 Ever­son case. “There is simply no historical foundation,” Rehnquist wrote, “for the proposition that the Framers intended to build the ‘wall of separation’ that was constitutionalized in Everson.” Rehnquist called Everson’s lofty rhetoric “useless as a guide to sound constitutional adjudication” and labeled Jeffer­son’s wall metaphor “useless as a guide to judging.”  Other high court justices, notably Clarence Thomas and Antonin Scalia, have since joined the attack.

In general, the Supreme Court began to become more conservative with the appoints by Presidents Reagan and President Bush (the elder) so the extremely liberal decisions under Justice Earl Warren’s Court (1953-1969) did not continue.  A list of decisions that are more favorable to religious freedom are listed below covering the period 1984 -2014.  However, there were many others that were not favorable as the Court has continued to follow the precedents and tests that had been established during the Warren years.

There are a number of groups that have formed to defend Freedom of Religion (Christianity) such as the Alliance Defending Freedom, the American Center for Law and Justice, and the Heritage Foundation.  It is my understanding that these groups have overwhelmingly won the frivolous cases brought against schools where school principals have banned or atheist’s groups have challenged the singing of Christmas carols and against towns putting up nativity displays.

There has been a fairly strong backlash against the efforts to remove Christ from Christmas and the nativity from Christmas displays.   Progress has been made in recent years and religious freedom has even been a topic in the current Republican presidential primaries. But the struggle for the free exercise of the Christian religion goes on.  The dissent to this point of view is embedded in the myth that the founders intend there to be separation of church and state.  That is wrong!

All the founders wanted to achieve by the first two clauses of the First Amendment was to ensure (1) that there would be no Federal Government specified religion for the nation (no specific Christian denomination) and (2) to allow everyone the freedom and privilege to choose and participate in their own denomination (or none at all) without interference or control by the Federal Government.   That the first simple provision specifying that the Federal Government could not designate a state church could be twisted by the Courts in such a way that it generated blatant Federal Government interference and in so doing decimated the free exercise provision is unconscionable.  The original and continued “reinterpretation” of the establishment clause of the First Amendment by the Supreme Court was and is an effrontery to the founders and is a great injustice to the American people.

Our job – Spread the Truth that the concept of “Separation of Church and State” is not part of the U. S. Constitution, is not a correct interpretation of the establishment clause of the First Amendment and its imposition on our lives and on the Right of the free exercise of religion is a travesty.                         Thanks for Reading – Larry Von Thun

Court Cases since 1984 which upheld Freedom of Religion for Christians

Lynch v. Donnelly (l984) The Court upheld a nativity display among other symbols in a public park “to celebrate the Christmas holiday and to depict the origins of that holiday.”

Board of Education of Westside Community Schools v. Mergens (1990) The 1990 Equal Access Act, which required that public schools give religious groups the same access to facilities that other extracurricular groups have, was upheld. Allowing religious clubs to meet did not violate the Establishment Clause.

Capitol Square Review and Advisory Board v. Pinette (1995) A cross placed by a private group in a traditional public forum adjoining the state house did not violate the Establishment Clause, as the space was open to all on equal terms.

Mitchell v. Helms (2000) The federal government could provide computer equipment to all schools—public, private and parochial—under the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. The aid was religiously neutral and did not violate the Establishment Clause.

Good News Club v. Milford Central School (2001) Religious clubs were allowed to meet in public schools after class hours as other clubs were permitted to do. Allowing religious clubs to meet did not violate the Establishment Clause.

Zelman v. Simmons-Harris (2002) A government program providing tuition vouchers for Cleveland schoolchildren to attend a private school of their parents’ choosing was upheld. The vouchers were neutral towards religion and did not violate the Establishment Clause.

Elk Grove Unified School District v. Newdow (2004) A father challenged the constitutionality of requiring public school teachers to lead the Pledge of Allegiance, which has included the phrase “under God” since 1954. The Court determined that Mr. Newdow, as a non-custodial parent, did not have standing to bring the case to court and therefore did not answer the constitutional question

Good News Club v. Milford Central School (2001) Religious clubs were allowed to meet in public schools after class hours as other clubs were permitted to do. Allowing religious clubs to meet did not violate the Establishment Clause.

Zelman v. Simmons-Harris (2002) A government program providing tuition vouchers for Cleveland schoolchildren to attend a private school of their parents’ choosing was upheld. The vouchers were neutral towards religion and did not violate the Establishment Clause.

Van Orden v. Perry (2005) A six-foot monument displaying the Ten Commandments donated by a private group and placed with other monuments next to the Texas State Capitol had a secular purpose and would not lead an observer to conclude that the state endorsed the religious message, and therefore did not violate the Establishment Clause.

Hein v. Freedom from Religion Foundation (2007) After the Bush Administration created the Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives for the purpose of allowing religious charity organizations to gain federal funding, the Court ruled that taxpayers cannot bring Establishment Clause challenges against programs funded by the executive office

Town of Greece v. Galloway (2014)

Held that the New York town could continue opening legislative sessions with sectarian prayers.

America – Let us be One People

America – Let us be One People ——

and Eliminate the Scourge of Statistical Divisiveness                                  

Introduction

When I was a small boy living in Colorado in the late 1940’s and early 1950’s I recall hearing statements of condemnation, expressions of prejudice and derogatory comments directed toward peoples of different races, different nationalities and different religious denominations on a regular basis. I heard such prejudice spoken mostly by my father, but I also I saw it in written material and I heard it from people outside the home.   As I witnessed it, such behavior was common, accepted, — smirked at sometimes — but was not widely condemned.  Despite the propensity of a child to absorb the prejudices of their parents, I fortunately escaped that tendency and did not grow up with any perceptible prejudice toward Catholics, Jews, Negros, Japanese or Mexicans.  Interestingly, I did absorb a bias against Ford automobiles, which my father also condemned. It took me some time to overcome this imbedded, irrational, knee-jerk impulse to reject Fords.

Since that time, the people of this country individually and collectively, through law, experience, education, and serious strife in the 60’s,  have become enlightened and our nation has made great strides toward overcoming prejudice with respect to race, nationality and religious affiliation.  As Dennis Prager noted in his book Still the Best Hope, “Indeed, America has so exorcised racism that — for nearly all Americans—electing the country’s first black president was a triumph, but having a black president was no big deal.”  That is not to say that prejudice does not still exist in the hearts and minds of many individuals and in the lamentable actions of some, it certainly does.  But overall our national character and our basic principles in this area have improved greatly since I was a boy.

in my judgment, this improvement in our national character made great strides forward in the two or three decades after 1965, however, progress seems to have retrogressed over the last 25 years and especially so in the last few years.  Now spurious and bogus charges of racism or prejudice and discussion countering those charges abound and serve only to divide us as a people and entrench animosity.  Why has this occurred?  What are the forces that perpetuate racism and prejudice?  I believe that the lack of progress toward erasing racism and prejudice is in large part due to three major practices which tend to foster racism and prejudice.  These practices, ostensibly designed or intended to combat prejudice actually serve to inflame emotions and perpetuate racial and religious divisions.  These practices are:

  1. The collection and publication of a numerical breakdown in terms of racial, religious or ethnic terms, of almost every action our general population engages in, e.g., employment, education, political affiliation, voting preference, church attendance, etc. This information, widely publicized and promoted in the media and sometimes sensationalized is used as rationale for some condition or behavior. The proliferation divides and stereotypes our population, and certainly does not unite us.
  2. Widely and readily publicized commentary by political opportunists and by racial activists on almost any adverse event or condition arising in our country that can in some way be construed as race related (or even if no rational basis for that assertion exists), keeping these self serving people in the news and continuing to divide the people.
  3. Ludicrous “enforcement” of “politically correct” wording.

Most everyone is familiar with practices 2 and 3.  However, the first is one you may not have considered as being harmful.  I regard the collection and publication of race, religious, gender, economic status based statistics as a destructive and malevolent activity that perpetuates prejudice and division.

Statistical Racism in the form of Ethnic, Nationality, Gender and Religious Breakdown

The United States is a melting pot of peoples from all over the world.  We began as and continue to be a nation of immigrants seeking opportunity and individual freedom.  Although the process of the amalgamation of the peoples that comprise our nation today was not without strife, injustice and prejudice, the fact is that we did come together quite well.  We have a very diverse populace that for the most part are accepting of one another.  One dramatic, visual portrayal of America’s global representation is in the makeup of our Olympic teams. The Olympic participants from most countries have a common heritage and understandably they look alike.  Our representatives represent heritages that span the globe and include every race – but they are all Americans. My grandson, who attended a somewhat ethnically diverse school, conceived a tee shirt design for our country.  On the back of this t-shirt you put your heritage – such as 10% Korean, 20% Irish, 30% German, 20% Vietnamese, 10% Mexican, 10% Greek and on the front goes- 100% AMERICAN.  We are comprised of millions and millions of people of mixed nationality and it does not matter one bit.  Certainly there are lots of people who have only a Chinese heritage, or Ethiopian Heritage, or Mexican Heritage or Anglo-Saxon heritage but in every case the front of the shirt would say 100% AMERICAN.

Chuck and I worked on some of the same projects.  We were fierce competitors on the tennis court as we both tried to achieve the number two ranking in Class A singles in our company.  We were a good double play combination in softball.  On Sunday I went to a Lutheran Church and he went to a Baptist church, we both attended a prayer group together at noon on Tuesday’s at work.  He was a fellow civil engineer and I missed him when he moved back East.   To me, he was Chuck and to him, I was Larry.  But to the news media of today, to the purveyors of statistics,  to the pollsters and to the election reporters and to those trying to stir up animosity, I am a White, He is an African American — I am a right wing evangelical Christian, He is an African American —–  I am a conservative and Chuck  — He is an African American.  He is lumped with the 95% of the African Americans who voted for Obama and the Democrats and with a great number of other statistical identifiers.  I am lumped with rich whites who do not care about the poor.

A long time ago, about 30 years ago, this thought came to me: — “The way we will be able to tell that we no longer have racism is when we stop discussing and identifying  and measuring everything in terms of race.”   About the same time, my wife passed on some advice that she had heard, and I have practiced it ever since – When you are telling about or describing someone who is of a race, nationality or religion that is different than yours (and may typically be characterized by that attribute), then, when identifying them to someone else do so in terms of characteristics and attributes other than their race, nationality or religion – do not use color, ethnicity or religion.  If that was done all the time, and it is now done to a much greater extent than in my youth, it would illustrate our enlightenment.

In examining this subject there is one other aspect of great importance and that is valuing diversity.  Valuing differences, the unique characteristics and aptitudes of different races and nationalities is not prejudice or racism.  I believe it is fine to recognize, celebrate, and use special skills, talents and attributes and to recognize the heritage from which that attribute is associated.  There is a distinct difference between valuing and recognizing diversity and being a racist.

The ideal is clear.  We should interact, work and live with each other without regard to skin color, national origin, economic status or religion.  That ideal is diminished through the collection, dissemination, and inflammatory use of such information on the basis of race, religion, gender or nationality.  Having the populace barraged with statistics on crime rates, marriage rates, income levels, voting preference and many other things in terms of race, nationality, gender, etc., serves to make people think of other people in those terms rather than as individuals. Further it is not uncommon, when as an individual, a person from a given race, religion, gender or nationality voices an opinion that is different than that of the “statistical norm” or stereotype, their position is not valued as that of an individual but as a deviation from the norm of their “people” and they are cast as a “token” representative of the “group” with point of view they are expressing and a “traitor” to their group.  This obsession with the collection, classification and dissection of political, economic or other trends according to race, religion, gender or nationality is a government / societal intrusion that is destructive to the common good. The entire process tends to stereotype people and leads to bias, prejudice and racism.

Clearly, In America we want to foster and perpetuate individuality and freedom of thought and expression.  To do this we must discontinue lumping people together by race, religion, gender, economic status and stereotyping the “expected” response – in essence advertising and promoting how different groupings of people are “expected” to respond.  News organizations and pollsters (and all other social welfare, health organizations, and other government entities that collect information and categorize it by race, religion, gender, economic status) should cease and desist in the collection and publication of these data.  The initial reason and justification for such data collection may have been intended for helpful,  “social engineering”, purposes.  However, now it is clearly evident that this incessant stereotyping is divisive and is aiding and abetting societal unrest.

Thanks for Reading –  Larry Von Thun

 

Freedom of Religion – Episode 6 (last)

Freedom of Religion – Episode 6

The dismantling of the true meaning and intent of the first amendment – the last episode but not the final say 

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

The fundamental right of Religious Freedom struggles against the imposition of the concept of “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, has effectively served to diminish the actual free exercise of religion specifically provided for in our Constitution’s Bill of Rights.

We left Episode 5 of the Freedom of Religion series in the mid 1940’s. Having helped liberate Europe, Americans were ready to again enjoy life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.  We were still under the protection of the First Amendment and able to enjoy the free exercise of the Christian religion as they had for over 150 years. The bible and prayer were still commonly used in our schools. The Courts had declared that we were a Christian nation.  Christmas was celebrated in the public square, there was prayer to open public meetings and the Ten Commandments were engraved in the Supreme Court Building and in court houses around the nation.  And then came:

A radical turn by the Supreme Court 

Recall the initial words of first amendment as they pertain to freedom of religion: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”  Also recall the Colonial history of there being “state” churches and how it was clearly described in Episode 3 that the first phrase in the First Amendment, “the establishment clause”, pertained specifically to restricting the Federal Government from establishing a “state” church.  That intent was clear. That understanding and the free exercise of religion flourished from the time the Bill of Rights was written (1789) until 1947.

In 1947, the U.S. Supreme Court made a 180-degree turn from past history and precedent. Without citing a single precedent, and ignoring 150 years of historically consistent rulings, the Court decided that the First Amendment “establishment clause” had a much broader meaning than not establishing a state church and announced that; “The wall of separation between church and state must be kept high and impregnable”. Invoking this concept was a radical departure from the past. With that statement by Justice Hugo Black, the myth of separation between church and state was born.  Before that time the phrase “separation of church and state” was hardly know, it did not even appear in the World Book Encyclopedia until 1967.

So exactly what happened.  How did this change come about?

The genesis of the change resulted, rather innocuously, from a Supreme Court case that actually came down on the side of religious freedom. In Everson vs. Board of Education, Arch Everson, challenged a 1941 New Jersey Law that allowed local school districts to provide students transportation to school.  In Everson’s township both public and private (parochial) students were provided transportation.  A total of $357 for the year was allocated by the township toward the transportation of parochial students.  Everson alleged that this indirect aid to religion violated the New Jersey Constitution and the First Amendment. Everson’s lost the case in the highest New Jersey State court and then was taken on to the U. S. Supreme Court. The Supreme Court ruled against Everson, on the basis of the majority opinion, written by Justice Hugo Black, that: “ … the state bill was constitutionally permissible because the reimbursements were offered to all students regardless of religion and because the payments were made to parents and not any religious institution.”  Sounds reasonable and in accord with the First Amendment, right? –  What was being authorized certainly could not be considered as the Federal Government establishing a state religion.

But Wait!!    In the write up of the majority opinion, Justice Black stated that:

“ —-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.”

So far so good. These statements follow the true intent of the two Freedom of Religion clauses of the First Amendment, the “establishment clause” and the “free exercise clause”.  But Justice Black then added this statement, perhaps without contemplation of the future expanding reach of the government or the devious interpretation that would be made linking “tax” and “funding”.

No tax in any amount, large or small, can be levied to support any religious activities or institutions, whatever they may be called, or whatever form they may adopt to teach or practice religion.

This statement, followed by Black’s closing statement in the majority opinion that “the wall of separation between church and state must be kept high and impregnable”, opened a pathway for future courts to rule against allowing any religious expression to be associated with activities that had any government funding.  But the separation concept was just plain made up. There is nothing in the First Amendment clauses that suggest separation or a wall or taxes and nothing in the conduct of our country for 150 years that suggested separation.  The separation of church and  state was not conceived of or established by the founders, nor was it part of our national heritage.

In 1962, the innocuous seeds of the Everson case burst into full bloom and began their invasive attack on America’s Christian population.  Black’s words became controlling precedent for Engle v. Vitale–the case that removed prayer in public education by ruling voluntary and denominationally neutral prayer unconstitutional. The actual prayer that was ruled on was rather benign: “Almighty God, we acknowledge our dependence upon thee and we beg thy blessings upon us and our parents, our teachers, and our country.” Tragically, Engle v. Vitale started a domino effect of court rulings that threatened to remove our religious heritage from the public arena, especially from education.

In the 1963 decision of Abington v. Schempp, the Court removed Bible reading from public education. The Court’s justification? “If portions of the New Testament were read without explanation, they could be and have been psychologically harmful to a child.” Simply amazing!! Suddenly, the best- selling book of all time and the most quoted source by the founding fathers was unconstitutional and psychologically harmful. The honorable court certainly didn’t share the religious values of the founders nor the sustainers of the Republic. Abraham Lincoln said, “But for the Bible we would not know right from wrong.” Exactly. One of the reasons moral bearings have been lost in the country is that the objective values of right and wrong have been removed from children’s education.

In 1969, it became unconstitutional to erect a war memorial in the shape of a cross (Lowe v. City of Eugene, 1969). The Court carried that same religious intolerance into a 1994 case in which a cross in a San Diego park had to be removed.

In 1976, it became unconstitutional for a board of education to use or refer to the word God in any official writings (State of Ohio v. Whisner). In 1979, it became unconstitutional for a kindergarten class to ask whose birthday was being celebrated in a Christmas assembly (Florey v. Sioux Falls School District).

By 1980 this incredibly twisted approach made it unconstitutional to post the Ten Commandments on school walls. According to Stone v. Graham, “If posted copies of the Ten Commandments are to have any effect at all it will be to induce the schoolchildren to read, meditate upon, perhaps venerate and obey the commandments; this is not a permissible objective.” James Madison, the man most responsible for the U.S. Constitution said “[We] have staked the future of all of our political Constitutions upon the capacity of each and all of us to govern ourselves according to the Ten Commandments of God.”20 Once again, the honorable Court is completely out of step with the founding fathers. Madison was absolutely right–the pathetic condition of our culture reflects the inability of individuals to control themselves. While the Ten Commandments hang above the chief justice of the Supreme Court, they are hypocritically censored from the halls of our schools. George Washington said that apart from religion, there can be no morality.

In 1985, Wallace v. Jaffree, the Supreme Court in the ultimate absurdity outlawed allowing a “moment of silence” in Alabama schools.  Ruling a state law, providing for a moment of silence, as unconstitutional. Several states had gone this route in response to the outlawing of school prayer. The reach of the Federal Government now being taken to extremes.  The rationale for the ruling was that any bill (even those which are constitutionally acceptable) is unconstitutional if the author of the bill had a religious activity in mind when the bill was written. In this case the Court carried the separation of church and state concept beyond belief. In addition to applying to religious activities, words, and symbols, along with anything else that might cause someone to think about God, now the mythological wall may be brought to bear on an author’s thoughts while penning a bill.

Why did the Courts make such a drastic departure from our roots? The answer is two-fold, on the one hand there are mean spirited, anti-Christian, intolerant individuals who use the freedom’s granted in the Bill of Rights for their purpose of hurting others and secondly there are the social activist judges who have a complete disregard for the Constitution’s intent. Chief Justice Charles Evans Hughes illustrated his personal contempt for the original intent of the Constitution when he said, “We are under a Constitution, but the Constitution is what judges say it is.” The words of Supreme Court Justice Brennan are more inflammatory:  “It is arrogant to use the Constitution as the founding fathers intended, it must be interpreted in light of current problems and current needs.”

The arrogance really lies in these liberal judges not interpreting the Constitution as the founding fathers intended but, rather, in reinterpreting the Constitution to meet their personal ideas. It takes brazen audacity to ignore the intentions of the founding fathers and to turn one’s back on the Constitution / Bill of Rights and 150 years of American history that faithfully followed it.

In a 2014 speech Justice Antonin Scalia criticized members of the Court who champion a more evolving, “living” view of the Constitution — a judicial philosophy he has previously said only an “idiot” could believe. “Our {the Supreme Court’s} latest take on the subject, which is quite different from previous takes, is that the state must be neutral, not only between religions, but between religion and non-religion,”. “That’s just a lie. Where do you get the notion that this is all unconstitutional? You can only believe that if you believe in a morphing Constitution.”

If Americans want a more secular political system that guarantees those distinctions, they can “enact that by statute,” Scalia said, “but to say that’s what the Constitution requires is utterly absurd.”

Progression of the Myth of Separation from the Courts to Daily Life

The court case rulings cited above and the associated thought metastasized rapidly. With the aid of a liberal media eager to publicize the demise of traditional values and an increasingly liberal educational system, the vast majority of the US population became convinced that the concept of separation of church and state was a fixture of the Constitution. Further, many school administrators, teachers and municipal leaders considered that mentioning or observing anything to do with Christianity was off limits. Thus, celebration of Christian holidays or even mentioning God in public schools could result in law suits or discipline. The country was literally traumatized. But paradoxically, while the free exercise of religion relative to Christianity was being drastically curtailed, tolerance as an ethic was being pushed. Open mindedness toward others religions was being advanced by social justice activists. No problem with discussing Islam in the schools.

Likewise, evidence of Christianity in the public square was being shut down. Boycotts, dismissals, and protests would occur against companies and individuals who dared to publically express / display their Christian beliefs. Businesses and employers removed any references related to Christianity and adopted non-descript substitute greetings to avoid offending no-believers. This change was: (1) being driven by protests from atheist individual or groups bringing, (2) being supported by those who were now being taught the validity of the concept of “separation of church and state” and (3) being accepted by people of faith who now believed (incorrectly) that “separation of church and state” was part of our heritage.

But all is not lost – truth is on the side of the real meaning of the First Amendment!

Fighting Back to regain the Free Exercise of (Christian) Religion

Although he was in the minority in the “silent prayer” decision in 1985, Justice William H. Rehnquist, penned a bitter dissent to the case in which he attacked the reasoning in the 1962 Ever­son case. “There is simply no historical foundation,” Rehnquist wrote, “for the proposition that the Framers intended to build the ‘wall of separation’ that was constitutionalized in Everson.” Rehnquist called Everson’s lofty rhetoric “useless as a guide to sound constitutional adjudication” and labeled Jeffer­son’s wall metaphor “useless as a guide to judging.”  Other high court justices, notably Clarence Thomas and Antonin Scalia, have since joined the attack.

In general, the Supreme Court began to become more conservative with the appoints by Presidents Reagan and President Bush (the elder) so the extremely liberal decisions under Justice Earl Warren’s Court (1953-1969) did not continue.  A list of decisions that are more favorable to religious freedom are listed below covering the period 1984 -2014.  However, there were many others that were not favorable as the Court has continued to follow the precedents and tests that had been established during the Warren years.

There are a number of groups that have formed to defend Freedom of Religion (Christianity) such as the Alliance Defending Freedom, the American Center for Law and Justice, and the Heritage Foundation.  It is my understanding that these groups have overwhelmingly won the frivolous cases brought against schools where school principals have banned or atheist’s groups have challenged the singing of Christmas carols and against towns putting up displays.

There has been a fairly strong backlash against the efforts to remove Christ from Christmas and the nativity from Christmas displays.   Progress has been made in recent years and religious freedom has even been a hot topic in the Republican presidential primaries. But the struggle for the free exercise of the Christian religion goes on.  The dissent to this point of view is embedded in the myth that the founders intend there to be separation of church and state.  That is wrong!

All the founders wanted to achieve by the first two clauses of the First Amendment was to ensure (1) that there would be no Federal Government specified religion for the nation (no specific Christian denomination) and (2) to allow everyone the freedom and privilege to choose and participate in their own denomination (or none art all) without interference or control by the Federal Government.   That the first simple provision specifying that the Federal Government could not designate a state church could be twisted by the Courts in such a way that it generated blatant Federal Government interference and in so doing decimated the free exercise provision is unconscionable.  The original and continued “reinterpretation” of the establishment clause of the First Amendment by the Supreme Court was and is an effrontery to the founders and is a great injustice to the American people.

Our job – Spread the Truth that the concept of “Separation of Church and State” is not part of the U. S. Constitution, is not a correct interpretation of the establishment clause of the First Amendment and its imposition on our lives and on the Right of the free exercise of religion is a travesty.                         Thanks for Reading – Larry Von Thun

 

Court Cases since 1984 which upheld Freedom of Religion for Christians

Lynch v. Donnelly (l984) The Court upheld a nativity display among other symbols in a public park “to celebrate the Christmas holiday and to depict the origins of that holiday.”

Board of Education of Westside Community Schools v. Mergens (1990) The 1990 Equal Access Act, which required that public schools give religious groups the same access to facilities that other extracurricular groups have, was upheld. Allowing religious clubs to meet did not violate the Establishment Clause.

Capitol Square Review and Advisory Board v. Pinette (1995) A cross placed by a private group in a traditional public forum adjoining the state house did not violate the Establishment Clause, as the space was open to all on equal terms.

Mitchell v. Helms (2000) The federal government could provide computer equipment to all schools—public, private and parochial—under the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. The aid was religiously neutral and did not violate the Establishment Clause.

Good News Club v. Milford Central School (2001) Religious clubs were allowed to meet in public schools after class hours as other clubs were permitted to do. Allowing religious clubs to meet did not violate the Establishment Clause.

Zelman v. Simmons-Harris (2002) A government program providing tuition vouchers for Cleveland schoolchildren to attend a private school of their parents’ choosing was upheld. The vouchers were neutral towards religion and did not violate the Establishment Clause.

Elk Grove Unified School District v. Newdow (2004) A father challenged the constitutionality of requiring public school teachers to lead the Pledge of Allegiance, which has included the phrase “under God” since 1954. The Court determined that Mr. Newdow, as a non-custodial parent, did not have standing to bring the case to court and therefore did not answer the constitutional question

Good News Club v. Milford Central School (2001) Religious clubs were allowed to meet in public schools after class hours as other clubs were permitted to do. Allowing religious clubs to meet did not violate the Establishment Clause.

Zelman v. Simmons-Harris (2002) A government program providing tuition vouchers for Cleveland schoolchildren to attend a private school of their parents’ choosing was upheld. The vouchers were neutral towards religion and did not violate the Establishment Clause.

Van Orden v. Perry (2005) A six-foot monument displaying the Ten Commandments donated by a private group and placed with other monuments next to the Texas State Capitol had a secular purpose and would not lead an observer to conclude that the state endorsed the religious message, and therefore did not violate the Establishment Clause.

Hein v. Freedom from Religion Foundation (2007) After the Bush Administration created the Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives for the purpose of allowing religious charity organizations to gain federal funding, the Court ruled that taxpayers cannot bring Establishment Clause challenges against programs funded by the executive office

Town of Greece vs Galloway (2014) Held that the New York town could continue opening legislative sessions with sectarian prayers.

 

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”.

 Education

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.

Conclusion

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

Pushing a Narrative – and Losing Perspective

Pushing a Narrative – and- Losing Perspective

Going into the 2nd Republican National Convention William H. Seward, former Governor of New York and two term United States Senator was the overwhelming favorite to win the presidential nomination.  He had New York’s 70 delegates and a 100 or more from other states.  In 1860, 233 delegates were needed for nomination. There were several other “favorite son” contenders including Ohio Governor Salmon P. Chase, Pennsylvanian Simon Cameron, Edward Bates from Missouri, and Abraham Lincoln from Illinois. None were considered strong challengers to Seward.  On the first ballot it was Seward 173, Lincoln 102, Cameron 50, Chase 49 and Bates 48.  Lincoln worked to become the “second choice” of many and detractors such as Horace Greeley had raised doubts about Seward’s electability – so on the second ballot it was Seward 184, Lincoln 181.  And then on the third ballot many delegates shifted to Lincoln and he led Seward 231 ½ to 180.  Ohio announced a shift of 4 delegates from Chase to Lincoln and Abraham Lincoln became the nominee and the rest is history.  History also records the nomination of Democrat James K Polk that took until the 9th ballot to best the prohibitive favorite Martin Van Buren. History also records the 3rd ballot nomination of Thomas Dewey in 1948 over Taft and Stassen neither of whom would throw their support to the other and the leader coming in to the convention secured the nomination.  There have been several other Conventions that took more than one ballot to nominate the party’s candidate.  The term “contested” convention used when more than one ballot is required is misleading.  It is the logical outcome under certain situations, such as this year when there are multiple candidates.   The parallel to the current year’s situation with the Republican presidential candidates and the nomination process is evident and instructive.

However, as if clueless to history, math and reality – the twin charlatans, “sensationalism” and “story line”, have plagued the multitude of journalists, TV and radio commentators and political analysts this year.  The media failed to keep things in perspective.  The obsession of the news reporters focusing on the alluring narrative or “story line” of Donald Trump’s atypical campaign and its result ran the risk of becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy.  As it becomes the focus of attention an incessant narrative can lead, or more accurately mislead, the audience by omitting other information.  Below is the history and current story of this year’s Republican candidate race put into true perspective.  But this factual analysis is not intended to be about an evaluation of the candidate per se; it is about the nature and effect of the reporting.

Donald Trump in mid-June, 2015 announced his candidacy, slamming our lack of immigration control, promising to build a wall and brashly condemning the capabilities of the current leaders in the U.S. with respect to making economic and foreign policy agreements. He immediately garnered great support for “telling it like it is” on several high profile issues (immigration, trade, Iran).  Fine.  In a very crowded field of 17 candidates he surged to the front with about 21% of potential Republican voters supporting him*.  Trump leading the field was a story.  A real story!! A valid story.  Not mentioned, and legitimately so at this point, was that 79% of the potential voters supported other candidates.

But after his initial issue based pyrotechnics and generic condemnation of leaders, Donald Trump began personally insulting and demeaning fellow candidates.  Including their physical appearance. As his personal attacks continued Trump’s base stayed firm, even grew, but most people (including a majority of potential Republican voters) appeared dismayed at these personal attacks. (Just as they did later with Rubio).   Trump’s belittling of Carly Fiorina’s appearance was reflected in the September polls. And after Trump’s persistent, (patently non-presidential), behavior in Sept. the reality was clear that the voting now represented not only a choice among the many candidates, but also a “Trump” and a “not Trump” vote.   See representative month by month percentages below:

Trump –        July: 21% Aug: 26% Sep: 23% Oct: 27% Nov: 29% Dec: 36% 2016 Jan: 36% Feb: 35%               Not Trump –      N/A         N/A         Sep: 77% Oct: 73% Nov: 71% Dec: 74% 2016 Jan: 64% Feb: 65%          The disdain was also evident in national polls where Trump had a 60% unfavorable rating among voters, the largest un-favorability rating among any presidential candidate ever.

But in the media Trump’s poll leading position and insult ridden sensationalism dominated the Republican presidential race news.  With three consequences; (1) Trump dominated the airways (with the other 12 or so candidates relegated to sharing any leftover time), (2) the “story line” that Trump was the poll leader, that he was the presumptive nominee, and that there was no way to stop him, continued ad infinitum, and (3) that Republicans and conservatives in general were being painted with a Trump’s position brush.  The reality, and ultimate importance with respect to the nomination process,  that about 2/3 of Republicans supported other candidates than Trump never seemed to register among the media and was rarely mentioned until the last debate.

As primary voting and caucusing began to take place “wins” – and not delegate distribution became the focus, and “sensationalist” narratives continued.  The purveyors of news and commentary were focused on: (1) continuing their (non-mathematically supportable) narrative of predicting / declaring the early leader (Trump) as the eventual nominee, (2) postulating when and how some hypothetical “establishment” force would step in and forestall Trump’s “rightful” victory, (the non-descript term “establishment” was being used in nearly every sentence by the political analysts.), and (3) predicting chaos at the convention.  From personal “grass root” experience, I can report that at my Colorado precinct caucus (made up of neighbors, the majority of whom had never been to a caucus) everyone voted in our straw poll for either Ben Carson or Macro Rubio.  This is a micro-anecdotal experience but it supports my contention that the sentiment discussed above is a “common conservative” sentiment not an “establishment” imposed sentiment.  In fact, it has been stated by the Republican Party leadership that no untoward attempt to influence the nomination outcome would take place and further it is recognized by nearly everyone that any such attempt would be counterproductive.

The news reporters and analysts should be explaining and educating the populous on how an actual, legitimate and necessary nomination process is intended to work when there are several candidates with delegates and none with a majority. This year’s nomination contest is unique and will require patience and understanding to be resolved.  Eventually the news reporters will catch on that like Seward’s 41% of the delegates in the year of Lincoln’s nomination, that 43% of delegates (Trump’s current (March 8, 2016) percentage) is not a majority and is not a dominate lead over the 34% that Cruz now holds.   Further the Convention has a rules committee made up of one man and one woman from each state delegation (plus 12 other members).  Any proposed nomination procedure rule changes must be made before the convention starts and must be approved at the start by the convention delegates. Changes may need to be made due to the unique character of this race. Currently Rule 40 (made in 2012) requires that only candidates with the majority of delegates in 8 states can be placed in nomination.  Because of the number of candidates and the split in support, right now no candidate has the majority of delegates in any state.  So to recognize reality and also to give the delegates the chance to select who they think would ultimately be the best for the party, that rule is likely to be changed.  Each state has its own rules about when their delegates, can vote for any candidate after the first ballot.

Objective, reality based reporting with respect to the nomination process has been lacking. News reporters, commentators and analysts have been caught up in a very unusual phenomenon and “pushed” a story line” that early on lost perspective.   Not only can a lack of proper perspective have the potential to unduly influence the outcome by excessive media attention to a single narrative, it also can build false expectations.   At the last debate, all the candidates (who all must indeed recognize the likelihood of a multi-ballot convention) selflessly and wisely pledged to support whoever the nominee will be.  It is my hope that the media can put out enough clear and unbiased education to allow people to understand and accept the process that will take place.  There is still time to do that.  The hand writing of the need for that is on the wall.  Maybe even tonight they will start to figure it out.

Thanks for reading this — Larry Von Thun

*The percentages given are taken from polls, and while poll numbers are recognized as variable and inaccurate, for the purposes of this analysis that is not important because it was polls on which the reporting being discussed was based.

Our Nation’s Christian Heritage

                                      Our Nation’s Christian Heritage

As an adjunct to my series on Freedom of Religion in the United States this piece covers a few interesting aspects related to our founding and subsequent development as a Christian Nation.  Although this information could have been provided directly in context with the Freedom of Religion episodes, there is merit to providing it as a standalone piece in response to the current challenges to the veracity that we were founded as a Christian nation and that we are yet today a Christian nation.  For those of you following the Freedom of Religion in the United States series you may consider this as Episode 5(a).  And for those of you who have not yet started reading the Freedom of Religion Episodes, episodes 1 to 4 will take you from the landing of the pilgrims up to about 1802 in the saga of the establishment and attacks on Religious Freedom in our country.

Introduction – The United States was founded as a Christian nation and remains one today.

There is little doubt that upon its founding America’s people and its founders believed in God and were a Christian nation. That we were a Christian nation remained unquestionably true for one hundred and fifty years after our founding.  And now although under attack, especially in the last few decades by individual atheists, atheist groups, gay rights organizations and rulings by liberal judges, that remains true today.  This reality is evidenced in terms of: (1) the principles upon which the United States was founded, (2) the dominant religion of its people, and (3) the basis of the civil laws under which it operates and the associated judiciary rulings handed down for more than 150 years.  So despite the “running scared of legal repercussions” actions by school administrators and elected officials and President Obama’s unsubstantiated, and erroneous statement in 2009,that, “We no longer consider ourselves a Christian nation”, America remains, to this day, a Christian nation.

Christianity was the dominant religion in America upon its founding and remains the dominant religion.

At the time America declared its independence in 1776 the colonies were overwhelmingly Protestant Christians.   The book Myth of Separation between Church and State by Dee Wampler cites that 98% of the 2.5 million population in 1776 professed to be Protestant Christians.  Most of the remainder were Catholics.  This matches with the estimate was that there were 35,000 Catholics in the U.S. in 1776 (1.75%).  Jewish historians estimate that in 1776 that there were 2,500 people of the Jewish religion ( 0.1% of the population) in the colonies.  There were a few Muslims (brought in as bondsmen or slaves), and there may have been a few Hindus, Buddhists and peoples of other religions but the number was so small as to be “politically” insignificant and for the most part went unrecorded.

The dominance of Protestant Christian denominations is also reflected in the societal practices and laws of the day.  Although not enforced, many states had laws which required such things as church attendance on Sunday and other “Sunday” laws, which were enforced, that dictated acceptable Sunday activities (e.g. shops could not be open on Sunday).  Further, Protestant domination was reflected in the voting laws of most states where Catholics, Jews and atheists were excluded from voting as well as from holding public office. These relatively “harsh”, intolerant attitudes were a carryover from the mind-sets of the initial colonizers (Puritans) and the imposed Anglican “state church” in the Crown Colonies, and do not reflect the much more tolerant (even subservient and submissive) attitudes of Christians that subsequently developed in America. We became a tolerant Christian nation, applying the first amendment, “free exercise of religion clause” to all the world’s religions, despite the narrow extent and context that existed when it was composed. *

A walk around our nation’s capital and reading the writings on the monuments gives testimony to the faith, trust, and reliance on God that was shared and lived out by our nation’s founders and leaders.

There are two other significant, aspects related to “religion” of the 1700 and 1800’s which provide insight into our Christian heritage and its subsequent aberrant exploitation.  These are:

  • The nature of the “Protestant” Church in Colonial America and the impact of the Great Awakenings
  • The appellation of “deist” ascribed to several of the founding fathers.

The “Protestant” Church in Colonial America and the impact of the Great Awakenings 

Although a wide variety of Christian denominations or sects came to America and found acceptance in Rhode Island, Pennsylvania, and the mid-Atlantic states, the Protestant church, until the mid18th century, was primarily made up of “main line” denominations of Congregationalists and Anglicans along with Presbyterians, German Lutherans, and Baptists.   Despite the restoration by Luther in the Reformation, of the concept of “grace” (the free gift of salvation through faith) and of a loving God who sent his Son to die for our sins, these denominations still largely focused on “salvation by good works”.  These “works”, included the requirements of regular church attendance, strictly following creeds and participation in the sacraments.  The Congregationalists Church services would have been characterized by emphasizing strict discipline and Anglican services by pomp and formal liturgy. What is often referred to as preaching of “fire and brimstone”, (i.e. – shape up or you will be condemned) was the order of the day.   Church attendance and church membership was performed more on the basis of obligation and societal norms than on a strong emotional belief or faith.  This situation changed markedly with the “Great Awakenings”.   In simplest terms the “Awakenings” were the teaching and subsequent acceptance of what is now recognized as the essence of Christianity – “Belief in Christ as the Son of God who died on the cross for the sins of all, providing salvation to all those who accept Christ as their Savior.” (basically what the “evangelical” voters believe)

The first Great Awakening came about due to the “conversion” of a missionary, John Wesley. (Now that is really paradoxical!!)  He and his brother Charles, were members of the Anglican Church in England and had come to Georgia as “missionaries”.  While here, a Moravian bishop asked John Wesley if he “knew” Jesus. Wesley said, “yes, he knew that Jesus was the savior of the world”.  “But do you know he has saved you?” asked the Moravian.  John Wesley answered that he did not possess that knowledge.  One evening two months later (in 1738), after returning to England, John Wesley underwent a “conversion” experience in which he came to realize that Christ had died for his sins and that he, “personally” was saved.  He said “..my heart strangely warmed.  I felt that I did believe in Christ, in Christ alone, for salvation; and an assurance was given me that he had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.” 

He along with his brother Charles, who had had a similar experience two days previously, founded the “Methodist” movement and along with Charles Whitefield came to America as evangelists, preaching the concept of the personal experience of salvation by the grace of God (not of salvation by doing good works).   This more emotional, more heartfelt faith swept the colonies (1740 – 1780) and resulted in a religious revival.  It is regarded as the single most transforming event in the religious history of the colonies.  Charles Whitefield, who worked with the Wesleys came to preach in the colonies 7 times before his death in 1770. He was a renowned evangelist and orator who drew huge crowds. Here is a story about Ben Franklin’s experience.

“Benjamin Franklin, who later worked with Whitefield for 3 decades tells of the first time he went to hear him speak (Whitefield was in Philadelphia raising funds for an orphanage in Georgia).  Franklin went to hear him, but had decided in advance that he did not intend to contribute to the cause. (He had in his possession a handful of coppers some silver dollars and five pistoles of gold.) After listening to Whitefield, Franklin began to soften and resolved to give him the coppers.  His oratory was so good Franklin was ashamed of that decision and decided to contribute the silver as well. But when Whitefield finished so admirably as the plate came around Franklin emptied his pockets Gold and all!! “

Although the “Awakening” was initiated by these Methodists, the message, of personal salvation through faith in Jesus Christ through the revival format, caught fire in the Baptist Church as well. Even the Congregationalist denomination through the evangelist Jonathan Edwards was affected.

The Second Great Awakening took place during the period 1800 – 1830 and focused on spreading the message of personal salvation to the unchurched, through revivals and camp meetings, especially in the expanding frontier areas of Kentucky, Tennessee and southern Ohio.

Certainly the “great awakenings” invigorated religious worship in America (see the figure below on the growth of the number of congregations of each of a number of denominations), however, the most important effect was the change in the nature of the understanding being taught and lived by the people. There was in essence incorporation of the principles of the reformation.   The Christian church in America moved away from a salvation through “good behavior and good works” emphasis and thrived as an evangelical church teaching and preaching the Gospel – salvation through faith in Christ.   This personal involvement and personal commitment of the American people to their Christian faith, which evolved in the colonies beginning with the first Great Awakening, is the defining element of religion in America and allowed Christianity to be sustained over the centuries (unlike Europe where perhaps only 2% of the populous attend church).

congregational growth

 Deism in Colonial America

A number of the founding fathers, (Franklin, Washington, Adams, and Jefferson being the most notable) have been described as Deist, often with the accompanying inference that America was not founded as a Christian nation.   Deism, can be described as: “belief in the existence of God on the evidence of reason and nature only, and rejection of God’s subsequent involvement in the affairs of men”.  It is an idea, belief or thought that arose during the “Age of Enlightenment” in Europe in the 17th and 18th centuries.  Deism is not an organized religion, in fact, one of the tenants of “true” Deism is that organized religion is not necessary.  Painting these founders with a broad and dismissive “deist” brush does not provide an accurate picture of their founder’s thoughts on God and religion and on their thoughts on the role of God and religion in the formation and the future success of our form of government.  And it certainly does not reflect the nature of their religious practices or the diversity of their opinions.

John Adams, a new Englander, regularly attended church throughout his life. His wife Abigail’s father was a Congregationalist minister and although that was the church he attended, his belief was Unitarian.  Which in that day meant he thought of God as one (not three) with Jesus being raised up as divine by God.  Hence the deist label for Adams, since many deists were Unitarian.   Notwithstanding this one different theological point of view, Adams considered himself a Christian and believed it imperative that the ethical and moral teachings of Jesus be followed.  As President, Adams twice called for national fast days to renew the nation’s sense of divine mission.  Adams was a deep thinker and a good writer and clearly one of the most influential founding fathers in terms of formulating and drafting the documents which established our form of government and he considered that God had provided the opportunity for the formation of this government of freedom by the people and that leaders of this effort, of which he was one, should ensure it was carried out well. This, thought of God providing him, our people, and our country with this opportunity was not at all Deist.

George Washington was raised in and attended the Anglican Church throughout his life, he served as a vestryman in the church, and as an officer he “read” services to his men in the army prior to the Revolutionary War.  He did not write about his personal religious views, thus the degree of his orthodoxy with respect to Christianity are hypothesized from his religious practices. The inference that George Washington was a Diest came to a great degree from his use of terms for God like, “the Grand Author”, “The Deity” and “The Supreme Being” in speeches and official statements.  However, he did not avoid the word God or the mention of Jesus in what he wrote and said. (see Washington’s Papers).  The Anglican church had “Sacrament Sundays” services (during which communion was given) four times per year.  Services on these Sundays were held in two parts (the Desk and Pulpit service) and the “Lords Supper”. It was a common practice among parishioners of the day to attend only the first service.   Nelly Custis, his adopted granddaughter, related that she and George Washington would leave after the first service and send the carriage back for Martha.  In response to a biographer asking about Washington’s religious views Nelly Custis summed up the religion of George Washington quite well, “I should have thought it the greatest heresy to doubt his firm belief in Christianity,”.  He communed with his God in secret…. He was a silent thoughtful man.”  In his last will and testament Washington validated this opinion when he wrote, “You do well to learn …. above all the religion of Jesus Christ.”

Benjamin Franklin studied theology as a young man, he chose the Presbyterian church as his first church home in Philadelphia, but later attended Christ Church (Episcopal) the most because he liked the pomp and circumstance.  However, he was ambivalent toward choosing any one Christian denomination. He contributed toward the construction of every church (and one synagogue) in Philadelphia.  Franklin wrote; “Here is my Creed.  I believe in one God, Creator of the Universe. That he governs the world by his Providence.  That he ought to be worshiped. That the most acceptable Service we can render to him, is doing good to his other Children.  That the Soul of Man is immortal, and will be treated with Justice in another life, respecting its conduct in this.  These I take these to be the fundamental Principles of all sound Religion.”  He encouraged organized religion because it enhanced the morality of the people.  His motion for prayer at the Constitutional Convention and his experience illustrate that he did not eschew religion.  And, although his intellectual outlook may have had deist components his actions and his belief in the value and need for organized religion and of the potential for God’s interaction in the affairs of men were decidedly non-deist.

Thomas Jefferson – It is well known that Jefferson developed his own “edited” version of the Bible by cutting out those portions which he had a hard time believing or accepting, like the ‘Incarnation” (God becoming human through the virgin birth).   What is not so well known is that Jefferson did believe in the teachings of Jesus and felt it critical that these be taught and followed. In a letter to Benjamin Rush he said, “I am a Christian in the only sense in which I believe Jesus wished any one to be; sincerely attached to his doctrines, in preference to all others; ascribing to himself every human excellence, and believing he never claimed any other. (#) In his last will and testament Jefferson wrote, “I am a real Christian, that is to say, a disciple of the doctrines of Jesus Christ.” This then is what Jefferson thought of himself, not so much different than many professing Christians.  Jefferson is often put forward as the best “Founding Father” example of how we were not a Christian nation at the time of the formation of our government.  Clearly, his statements belie that assertion, however, even if that were true it is instructive to recall that Jefferson was not a member of the Constitutional Convention or of the Congress that two years later developed the amendments that became the Bill of Rights. Thus, ascribing the meaning behind the religious statements in these documents to Jefferson would be unsound logic.

A number of other Founding Fathers declared their Christian faith and its role in government quite boldly.  It should be clear, even from this brief examination, that the personal religious beliefs of these founders add to rather than dissuade the assertion that America was a Christian nation at the time of its founding.

The United States is still a Christian Nation

As noted earlier when the nation was founded (1780-90) essentially everyone (99.5%) belonged to a Christian congregation.  We will in the next episode subsequently see how that dominance was reflected in the social / educational / judicial / political life of the country.   Based on 1948 Gallup poll data, 91% of the population identified themselves Christian. This illustrates that Christianity was still the dominant religion of the country.  That percentage has gradually declined with more immigrants following other religions coming to America and more people identifying as unaffiliated. About 2% identify as atheists.  So about 50 years later in 2007, pew research indicated that 79% identified as Christian.  Still a dominant majority.  Further, beyond our people’s attestation to Christianity, our nation’s generous behavior in terms of accepting, and helping the poor and needy both internally and externally, and helping the oppressed reflect Christian principles.

President Obama’s comment during his visit to Turkey in 2009 about the U.S. not being a Christian nation was of course, not reflective of reality, we are, primarily, a Christian nation. In three years he had become more strident with respect to his declaration.   In 2006, Obama made a similar statement but qualified it. He said, “Whatever we once were, we are no longer a Christian nation – at least, not just. We are also a Jewish nation, a Muslim nation, a Buddhist nation, and a Hindu nation, and a nation of nonbelievers.”  In a sense, the sense of our country being tolerant and accepting, and allowing free exercise of religion, those words are true.  However, in the sense of describing our character as a nation, which is the sense in which the statement is made, those words are ludicrous. Our nation does not have the character of a Muslim, Hindu or Buddhist nation.  But what is most paradoxical and distressing, is that whereas we, as a tolerant Christian nation, have welcomed and allowed free exercise of the world’s religions in our country, the free exercise of Christianity is no longer a reality. The free exercise of the Christian religion faces a constant battle with the judicial and administrative parts of our government.  Future episodes of the Freedom of Religion series will be exploring how this came to pass and how it must be resisted in order to restore our first amendment rights.

Thanks for reading this  – Larry Von Thun

* The understanding that the term “religion” in the first amendment statement that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion…., meant a specific “Christian denomination”, is supported by the following two examples:

In the words of the Supreme Court of Maryland in the case of Runkel v. Winemiller in 1796, just a few years after the Constitution was adopted, they wrote:   “By our form of government, the Christian religion is the established religion and all sects and denominations of Christians are placed upon the same equal footing and are equally entitled to protection in their liberty.”  And Thomas Jefferson stated in a letter to Benjamin Rush —  “the establishment clause relates to selection of a particular sect.”