Point of Reference
by Fred Price
Few issues arouse the kind of intense debate that surrounds the principle of church/state separation. A debate that could intensify even further with the recent confirmation of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court and the just-nominated Brett Kavanaugh’s pending confirmation hearings; especially since he too espouses “originalist” ideals concerning constitutional interpretation. Heated debate practically guaranteed when we try to balance our country’s foundational beliefs grounded in Christian principles even as we guarantee freedom to all religious denominations, sects, faith-systems etc. The underlying reality being that if any person’s “conscience” is hindered, everyone’s’ faith can be forcibly compromised. Pres. Obama affirming some time ago that, “This is America. And our commitment to religious freedom must be unshakable. The principle that people of all faiths are welcome in this country and that they will not be treated differently by their government is essential to who we are.” An ideal many have struggled with since the founding of our country as a pluralistic society with a secular government, albeit one with Christian “roots”; which is imperative for us to acknowledge.
All of us know how the Pilgrims came to America on board the Mayflower in 1620 seeking religious freedom and the overall opportunities greater personal freedom offered. Many Puritans followed for the same reasons. Governor John Winthrop linking their settlement to the proverbial “city on a hill”, borrowing Jesus’ characterization of his followers recorded in Matthew 5:14.
Millions around the world have done likewise, seeking relief from religious, ethnic and political persecution as well as the opportunity to decide for themselves what’s best for their lives. Sadly, the Pilgrims, Puritans, Anglicans and others were afflicted with the same intolerance that had impelled them to flee Europe, erecting theocracies that allowed no deviation or dissent in their communities. In fact, new settlements along the Eastern seaboard were then established by those leaving the original enclaves of newcomers to create their own versions of that “city on a hill.”
As settlement progressed and the political, economic and religious dissatisfaction of the early settlers reached a peak, the United States of America was born; which struggled to find a balance between safeguarding religion without promoting a particular one.
For instance, only Protestant Christians could hold public office in Massachusetts. (Fear of the Catholic monolith in Europe and its strangle-hold on the lives of millions in Europe fueling an intolerant – and at times violent – reaction to Catholic immigration to America.) Until 1806, New York enforced the same restriction; Maryland welcoming Catholics with full rights but denying those same rights to Jews. Delaware went so far as to require its citizens to swear to a belief in the Trinity before assuming positions of leadership, other states supporting – and thus controlling – specific churches with public funds to one degree or another.
In 1786, Virginia passed a law guaranteeing equality for all its citizens regardless of religious affiliation, including those who preferred none at all. (Partly in response to proposals – led by Patrick Henry – to support the Christian church with state funds.)
Future President and chief framer of the Constitution James Madison wrote, “We have staked the whole future of American civilization, not upon the power of government, but upon the capacity of each and all of us to govern ourselves according to the Ten Commandments…” None-the-less, he led the effort to defeat Mr. Henry’s bill, believing government support of religion was in reality a threat to its practice. Pointedly asking, “Who does not see that the same authority which can establish Christianity, to the exclusion of all other religions, may establish with the same ease any particular sect of Christians, in exclusion of other sects?” (Baptist ministers having previously been arrested in his native Virginia for not conforming to Anglican doctrine.)
The “help” bestowed on it more often leading to a prostitution of its purpose and message. Madison further writing that Christianity, “…disavows dependence on the power of this world… for it is known that this religion both existed and flourished, not only without the support of human laws, but in spite of opposition from them.” Out of this conviction comes the constitutional mandate that federally elected and/or appointed offices could, “…be bound by oath of affirmation, to support the Constitution, but no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust…”
Even Patrick Henry, who believed strongly that, “It cannot be emphasized too strongly or too often that this great nation was founded, not by religionists, but by Christians; not on religion, but on the gospel of Jesus Christ.”; likewise believed that, “For this very reason people of other faiths (“…the Jew, the Gentile, the Christian - the Mohomatan, the Hindu and Infidel…”) have been afforded asylum, prosperity and freedom of worship here.” The hope being that the more faiths, denominations – or sects – represented throughout the country, the less likely any one religion or sect would attain dominance; as had happened in Europe.
Thomas Jefferson’s now infamous “wall of separation” comment, related to a friend in a private letter, was never meant to convey the idea that he or any other founding father felt religion had no place in public or politics. What it did mean was that they were of one mind in their resolve to keep politics out of religion and religion out of politics in any official capacity. Their anti-establishment beliefs conflicting – in no way, shape or form – with their convictions about the free exercise of religion and its secondary benefit of fostering good citizens who complied with the laws of the land; which was crucial for their hopes for the newly-formed country.
Far from banning all public and political displays of faith, they encouraged and even depended on religion’s ability to moderate behavior amongst a new, broader electorate (Minus blacks and women) that embraced the “common”, less educated and often unsophisticated man. A well-ordered society that had just received an unprecedented amount of freedom being dependent on the good behavior of its citizens, which faith-filled people invariably promote.
Maybe that’s why the first freedom specifically protected by the first amendment to the Constitution, ratified by the states in the Bill of Rights, is freedom of religion. (Closely followed by freedom of speech and of the press, the right to peaceably assemble and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.
Check back next week for more on this complicated subject.
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Fred Price - married (49 years), father of two grown children, grandfather of six.
Fred retired earlier this year after 42 years as a factory worker. He has always had a heart for young people and the challenges they face today. Over the years Fred has taught Discipleship Groups for High School and college students.
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