Even with the freedom of religion guaranteed all Americans in the first amendment to the Constitution, there was – and still are – some fundamental concerns about the institutions of government and church becoming too closely allied in an official sense. The duality of thinking concerning this complex issue demonstrated from the outset by congress’ petition of President George Washington – the day after the Bill of Rights was ratified – to, “…recommend to the people of the United States a day of public thanksgiving and prayer, to be observed by acknowledging, with grateful hearts, the many signal favors of Almighty God.”
The men who led and fought the American Revolution did indeed thank “Providence” for their protection and ultimate success. George Washington specifically declaring, “The hand of Providence has been so conspicuous in all this…” Later asserting that, “Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports.” Samuel Adams, considered by many to be the father of the revolution, declaring “These (rights) may be best understood by reading and carefully studying the insights of the great Lawgiver and Head of the Christian church which is to be found clearly written …in the New Testament.”
Critical to the course these men took was the fact that they had rebelled against a country whose head of state was also the head of its national church. They knew well, sometimes from first-hand experience, the history of religious warfare that repeatedly engulfed their homeland in England as well as the European continent for centuries; wanting no chance of that occurring in America. Thus, the first amendment to the Constitution listed in the Bill of Rights expressly forbids government infringement on religious expression and practice. (Insuring freedom of religion, not freedom from religion that many religious “separatists” espouse today.) President Washington going so far as to publicly assure the oldest Jewish synagogue in America, located in Newport, Rhode Island, that “All possess liberty of conscience… For happily the government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection demean themselves as good citizens.” Which was echoed in his announcement of the end of hostilities between England and the newly recognized United States of America on April 18,1783, in which he lauded their establishment of, “…an asylum for the poor and oppressed of all nations and religions.”
John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, the second and third presidents of the U.S., frequently clashed over political policy and the correct interpretation of the Constitution, yet they both supported the constitutional directive that prohibited anyone seeking political office from being forced to state their religious beliefs as a litmus test for involvement in politics. James Madison summarizing his – and many others – view by declaring, “…I have no doubt that every new example will succeed, as every past one has done, in showing that religion and government will both exist in greater purity, the less they are mixed together.”
Thomas Jefferson, the darling of anti-religion forces in our day and his, did indeed coin the phrase “separation of church and state”, being found in personal correspondence between him and an acquaintance. But it is nowhere found in the Constitution or Bill of Rights. Being a man of his times, with its fear, prejudices and intolerance; he none-the-less asserted “My views… are the result of a life of inquiry and reflection, and are different from the anti-Christian systems imputed to me by those who know nothing of my opinion. To the corruptions of Christianity I am indeed opposed, but not the genuine precepts of Jesus himself.”
Much has, and will be said concerning the “corruptions of Christianity,” as well as the unrealized ideals of America’s founders; questioning the love, grace and mercy of the “church” and the racial, economic and educational inequality of society at large. People being the imperfect creatures they are, have – do – and will make mistakes, sometimes big ones. It’s in our nature to be self-absorbed, self-serving and self-righteous. But it’s the nature of God’s Spirit to prod men, sometimes over long periods of time, to see beyond themselves and create something new and better.
Mat Stackhouse writes, “…the Declaration and the… Constitution were done precisely because the Americans were not experiencing what they knew to be true and just.” Further asserting that, “Much of our experience of rights is in the breach of them; much of the moral order on which we rely is known only in a broken, fragmented, and fallen way. But the experience of untruth or injustice does not refute the validity of first principles; it makes them all the more necessary. Nor does a system to protect those principles mean that one may not be imagined.”1
Which, “…entail(s) the view that humanity lives under a basic moral design, if seldom according to it. To say that this design is given by God is to say that we did not invent it and that there are limitations as to how humans ought to modify it… It also means that in the final analysis, the precise character of this order is veiled in mystery. We humans may never know it perfectly… (but)…we can glimpse the contours of this reality enough to catch something of His Spirit, and we can know enough about the first principle to tell the difference between decent and indecent arguments with regard to it.”
As much as the founding fathers believed our unique form of government could only flourish when men of faith participated in it, they believed just as firmly that the institutions of government and faith should remain strictly separate; allowing each to tend to their separate tasks freely. Many principles and laws of the land are based on Christian precepts, such as those laws used to contain, restrain and punish immorality and lawlessness; but genuine morality can’t be legislated. The church, however, uses the art of persuasion, achieving results in changed hearts and minds, not coercion.
I believe that was the essence of our founders’ understanding and intent when creating the United States of America, even if they didn’t always get it right. Mr. Stackhouse asserting, “…it could be that the principles they discerned were more veiled than their own understanding… in both theology and jurisprudence – we only get glimpses of the truth and we only walk on the boundaries of justice. But sometimes, in those glimmers and pilgrimages, we get clear enough and close enough to see that something really important is out there, even if we cannot possess it fully. Often we can only point to it with ambiguous language. In such moments, what we almost grasp is in principle more important than what we think we grasp, and how we tell others about it.”
In reality, the separation of church and state is essentially a good thing when applied appropriately, which is often not the case. At which times, there is nothing wrong with us raising our collective voices in a request for a redress of our grievances, ensuring by our vigilance that the government born of Christian principle doesn’t become the means by which those principles are now denied.
1 An Unsettled Dream, Religion and the Bill of Rights, Eerdmans Publishing
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