Introduction:

During the 2016 race for the U.S. presidency, candidate Dr. Ben Carson voiced an opinion on how it must have been God, not nothing, that created the world.[i] Shortly thereafter, an Atheist author and scientist, Lawrence Krauss, commented in a piece for the New Yorker, claiming that “An inability to separate religious beliefs from an assessment of physical reality runs counter to the very basis of our society—the separation of church and state.”[ii]

Krauss’ view seems to be the typical perspective on the issue these days, as if the doctrine of separation of church and state was added to promote secularism because a handful of the founding fathers subscribed to Deism, the bridge between Christianity and Atheism. While George Washington may have refused Communion, and while Thomas Jefferson may have written his own version of the New Testament Gospels, whether each and every founding father was personally a devout Christian is hardly relevant to the big picture of the origins of this American law.

The Law:

The first line of the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, ratified in 1791, reads, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” Today, we often refer to the first clause of that amendment as the “Establishment Clause,” and the second clause as the “Free Exercise Clause.” Thus, the government is supposed to refrain from establishing or stifling religion.[1] Although the precise phrase “separation of church and state” appears nowhere in the Constitution, most lawyers and legal scholars infer this doctrine from the First Amendment, and the history of this doctrine helps us better understand the First Amendment.

In the Beginning:

We must understand the story of the Anabaptists. During the 16th Century, the Anabaptists, a denomination that would sometimes re-baptize adherents who had previously been baptized as infants upon a believer’s profession of faith, took a stand against governmental persecution. They recognized that when the church ruled the state, that which the government perceived as false doctrine became criminal. They developed a new idea, that of a free and open society where each man could worship exactly as he desired.[iii] To protect themselves, along with all of their fellow denominations, the idea of the separation of church and state began a new era of politics. Such accommodations would permit each denomination of Christianity to prosper.[iv]

We must also understand the story of the Pilgrims. In Democracy in America, first published in 1835, Alexis de Tocqueville speaks of the settlers of New England as pious innovators who abandoned their country, their homes, and their wealth for religious freedom.[v] Because a new civilization was being built, American laws could be molded anew around Christianity and prosperity, advancing together to “mutually support each other.”[vi]

The American Adoption of Separation of Church & State:

The religion and culture of the Pilgrims fostered the ideas of future generations, including the founding fathers. George Washington, in a letter that he wrote to Baptist congregants, in 1789, stated:

I have often expressed my sentiments, that every man, conducting himself as a good citizen, and being accountable to God alone for his religious opinions, ought to be protected in worshiping the Deity according to the dictates of his own conscience.[vii]

At the time of the official founding of the United States, the country was divided between a liberal and a conservative view on religion. In Massachusetts, John Adams led the conservative view. Shortly after the start of the Revolution of 1776, he began drafting a constitution for the Commonwealth.

Today, this constitution stands as the world’s oldest written constitution in continuous use. It would become the model for the United States Constitution, as well as the constitutions of many other nations, including Germany, Japan, India, South Africa, and also the model for the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.[viii] In 1915, the President of the American Historical Association stated, “If I were called upon to select a single fact or enterprise which more nearly than any other single thing embraced the significance of the American Revolution…I should choose the formation of the Massachusetts Constitution of 1780.”[ix]

Upon ratification, and still to this day, the Massachusetts Constitution acknowledges, “with grateful hearts, the goodness of the great Legislator of the universe.”[x] Additionally, it pays homage to the Pilgrims and Puritans who had founded Massachusetts Bay Colony.[xi]

Certain sections of the Massachusetts Constitution, although some have since been amended, held that it was the right and duty of all men to worship the “Supreme Being, the great Creator and Preserver of the universe.” And that “no subject shall be hurt, molested, or restrained, in his person, liberty, or estate, for worshipping God in the manner and season most agreeable to the dictates of his own conscience.”[xii]

At the time of ratification, equal protection was limited to “every denomination of Christians, demeaning themselves peaceably, and as good subjects of the commonwealth.”[xiii] Moreover, the governor, in order to be chosen, had to “declare himself to be of the Christian religion.”[xiv]

John Adams also wrote of “our wise and pious ancestors” who “laid the foundation of Harvard College, in which university many persons of great eminence have, by the blessing of God, been initiated in those arts and sciences, which qualified them for public employments, both in church and state.”[xv]

Thus, while the Massachusetts Constitution does hold that “No law shall be passed prohibiting the free exercise of religion,” at the time, it meant that no law would be passed prohibiting the Christian religion.[xvi]

Meanwhile, Thomas Jefferson led the liberal view. As described in his Autobiography, at nearly the same time as Adams was drafting the Massachusetts Constitution, Jefferson was busy down in Fredericksburg. He, along with a group of fellow Virginia statesmen, sought to revise his state’s laws, having “no negatives of Councils, Governors & Kings to restrain [them] from doing right.”[xvii]

With a copy of the Magna Charta, the Virginia statutes, and “so much of the Common law as it was thought necessary to alter,” perhaps the biggest alteration came when drafting the “Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom.” Jefferson writes:

Where the preamble declares that coercion is a departure from the plan of the holy author of our religion, an amendment was proposed, by inserting the word “Jesus Christ,” so that it should read “a departure from the plan of Jesus Christ, the holy author of our religion.” The insertion was rejected by a great majority, in proof that they meant to comprehend, within the mantle of [its] protection, the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mahometan, the Hindoo, and infidel of every denomination.”[xviii]

Thus, in Virginia, the meaning of free exercise was being expanded to encompass all religions.

Free Exercise Today:

Jefferson’s view on the free exercise of religion has come to be the dominant American view. Justice Kagan, on religious liberty under the Establishment Clause, wrote in her dissenting opinion in Town of Greece, N.Y. v. Galloway:

A Christian, a Jew, a Muslim (and so forth)—each stands in the same relationship with her country, with her state and local communities, and with every level and body of government. So that when each person performs the duties or seeks the benefits of citizenship, she does so not as an adherent to one or another religion, but simply as an American.[xix]

Nevertheless, as Justice Brewer held in Holy Trinity Church v. U.S. in 1892, even the Constitution, which is mostly secular, provides that the executive shall have 10 days within which to determine whether he will approve or veto a bill, with Sundays exempted.[xx] “These, and many other matters which might be noticed,” the Supreme Court holds in a unanimous decision, “add a volume of unofficial declarations to the mass of organic utterances that this is a Christian nation.”[xxi]

Even in Engel v. Vitale in 1962, the Supreme Court case that deemed prayer in a public school unconstitutional on the grounds that there is not supposed to be a governmental establishment of an “official religion” in the United States, Justice Black held that “[t]he First Amendment teaches that a government neutral in the field of religion better serves all religious interests.”[xxii]

Why It’s Important to Remember Who We Are:

“Despotism may govern without faith,” de Tocqueville wrote, “but liberty cannot.”[xxiii] It makes sense that Alexis de Tocqueville would be in favor of America’s approach to religion and liberty. As a Frenchman who traveled America, he is the link between two of the greatest countries in the world, and two of the most important revolutions. In 1789, his parents, Hervé and Louise, were avid supporters of the French Revolution. Then, the infamous Reign of Terror began, and, because Louise’s grandfather advocated for the doomed Louis XVI, Hervé and Louis were gathered and thrown in prison on death row.

With every new morning they spent in prison, they both expected that they would be brought to the guillotine to meet their death. One morning, Hervé awoke to find that his hair had gone completely white, he being only twenty years old at the time. Fortunately, with the fall of Robespierre came the release of the de Tocquevilles.

However, the trauma of that period remained with the couple for the rest of their lives. Louise had developed severe mental disorders such as depression and neurasthenia while Hervé dealt with his trauma by napping between three and four o’clock in the afternoon of every single day for the remainder of his life. He did this because he wished never to be awake during three thirty ever again, that being the time that he and his wife were called before the Tribunal of the Revolution.[xxiv]

These are the stories that Alexis would be told when he was born, and these are the stories that would shape the man that he would become. He had learned of the tyranny of the Atheists, and the form of government that such intolerant worldviews carry. He once said that, “Citizens [run] less danger of reducing themselves to the level of brutes by thinking that their soul would pass into a pig’s body than by believing it is nothing.”[xxv]

Religion is no less the companion of liberty in all its battles and its triumphs; the cradle of its infancy, and the divine source of its claims. The safeguard of morality is religion, and morality is the best security of law and the surest pledge of freedom.[xxvi]

In other words, religion gives us liberty—not the other way around. His conclusion was that:

There is no country in the whole world in which the Christian religion retains a greater influence over the souls of men than in America; and there can be no greater proof of its utility, and of its conformity to human nature, than that its influence is most powerfully felt over the most enlightened and free nation of the earth.[xxvii]

So, when he ventured to America, his parents’ testimony and personal experiences would inspire him to account for the reasoning behind France’s revolutionary failure and America’s revolutionary success.

American Christianity Today:

The example of America’s unity concerning religion still shows to this day. Even though Atheism is trending in America, a vast majority still subscribes to Judeo-Christian denominations and sects. According to the Gallup Historical Trend, in 2013, 78% of Americans identified themselves with a Judeo-Christian religion. 56% of Americans said that religion was “Very important” in their lives, 22% said that it was “Fairly important,” and only 22% said that it was “Not very important.” When asked, “Do you believe in God?” 87% of Americans answered “Yes,” while 11% answered “No.” In contrast, in 1953, 97% of Americans identified themselves with a Judeo-Christian religion. 98% said that they believed in God, and only 1% said that they did not believe in God. Steadily, Atheism has gained adherents in America over the decades, but the vast majority still says that it believes in God.[xxviii]

A Separation for the Good of the Church & State:

Even a plain-letter reading of the First Amendment is probative of the lawmaker’s intent: Congress shall not establish a religion, nor shall it prohibit one. It’s a tolerant verse on religious liberty. And the credit belongs to the Protestants who first developed it.

Alexis de Tocqueville was a descendant of the Reign of Terror. Upon crossing the Atlantic, he observed that America was the most Christian of all countries of the day. He attributed the success of America mainly to a Protestant ethic, where laws could be molded around Christian values and prosperity. It was the Christian settlers who knew that Christianity and prosperity would lead the laws. This model included a separation of church and state, not to stifle Christianity, but to let Christianity alone, in order for liberty to follow.

While the Judeo-Christian religion may be waning in America, it’s still the prominent tradition. Should the trend continue in the direction that it’s headed, with a rise in Atheism since the end of World War II, we’ll have different issues to discuss. But history shows that this tolerant political doctrine is a Protestant idea.

In contrast to the Atheist canard that runs that there is a separation of church and state in order to prevent religion from infiltrating politics, the political doctrine of a separation of church and state is an idea that the Founding Fathers inherited from their Protestant forebears. Religious liberty is among the most deeply rooted rights that we have in America. And if Washington, Adams, and Jefferson could give their opinions on religion, we can presume that today’s political candidates may do the same, much to the chagrin of Atheists like Lawrence Krauss.

 


Endnotes:

[1] There are some exceptions, but they’re beyond the scope of this thesis.

[i] Lawrence Krauss, Ben Carson’s Scientific Ignorance, The New Yorker (Sep. 28, 2015) http://www.newyorker.com/news/news-desk/ben-carsons-scientific-ignorance.

[ii] Id.

[iii] B. K. Kuiper, The Church in History, 205-6 (WM B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.) (1964).

[iv] Id.

[v] Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, 48 (Henry Reeve trans., Bantam Books) (2000).

[vi] Id.

[vii] Forrest Church, The Separation of Church and State: Writings on a Fundamental Freedom by America’s Founders, 107 (Beacon Press) (2004).

[viii] http://www.mass.gov/courts/court-info/sjc/edu-res-center/jn-adams/mass-constitution-1-gen.html, page last visited on Dec. 19, 2015.

[ix] Id.

[x] Preamble.

[xi] Part the Second: The Frame of Government.

[xii] Part the First: Article II.

[xiii] Part the First: Article III.

[xiv] Chapter II: Executive Power, §I: The Governor.

[xv] Chapter V.

[xvi] Article XVIII, §1.

[xvii] Thomas Jefferson, Writings, 37 (Literary Classics of the United States) (1984).

[xviii] Id. at 40.

[xix] Greece, N.Y. v. Galloway, 134 S. Ct. 1811, 1841 (2014).

[xx] Holy Trinity Church v. United States, 12 S. Ct. 511, 516 (1892).

[xxi] Holy Trinity Church v. United States, 12 S. Ct. 511, 516 (1892).

[xxii] Engel v. Vitale, 370 U.S. 421, 443 (1962).

[xxiii] Democracy in America at 357.

[xxiv] Joseph Epstein, Introduction to Democracy in America, xx.

[xxv] Id. at xxxix.

[xxvi] Id. at 248.

[xxvii] Id. at 353.

[xxviii] Gallup, Religion, http://www.gallup.com/poll/1690/religion.aspx#1.

This article has 5 comments

  1. This article isn’t about America per se, but about the political doctrine of separation of church and state. It’s about permitting Judeo-Christian denominations to prosper. Although Atheism is tolerated, this doctrine wasn’t created for Atheism. This doctrine was created to let Christianity work better, as Madison said.

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