“Let tyrants shake their iron rod,
And Slav’ry clank her galling chains
We fear them not, we trust in God
New England’s God forever reigns…”
William Billings, American - 1770
Popular hymn sung by General Washington’s men during the course of the fighting in the Revolutionary War.
There has been much controversy made in recent years about the Establishment clause of the First Amendment of the Constitution. Court cases have been argued over the “wall of separation” between church and state by organizations like the ACLU. The Ten Commandments and crosses and other religious symbols have been removed from the public square. Recently, a cross dedicated to fallen soldiers in the Mojave Desert was the source of a law suit by the ACLU alleging that it violated the separation clause of the Constitution. The Supreme Court ruled that the cross could stay but vandals tore it down shortly after the decision.
So, what was the intent of the Founders? To have a secular state that is completely devoid of any religious content or meaning? We often hear that the Founders were Deists, meaning they believed that God exists but set the world in motion and no longer has anything to do with his creation. Or were the Founders something else, more Christian than we have been led to believe? Was America a Christian nation and founded as such? What was the Founders’ intent with respect to the free exercise of religion? Was it, as the ACLU and the Freedom from Religion Foundation would have us believe, to have no sign of faith in the public square and no association with religious belief in the government? Before the Founders gave birth to this country, many people fled England which had the established religion of Anglicanism or the Church of England. The pilgrims fled to this land seeking religious freedom. Many of the states served as denominational havens prior to the creation of the Constitution and one’s faith was an important prerequisite for political office. No one is advocating a return to this state of affairs. But these things need to be pointed out to bring light to the modern myth that our nation had no Christian origins or connections and that our country was founded with the idea that government should be completely free of any religious expression, imagery, or belief.
The debate will rage on but there is plenty of evidence to suggest that our forefathers held deeply religious beliefs and did not see things as being completely free from belief as is often suggested in the popular culture and media today. Recently, I read a biography of George Washington by Joseph Ellis (His Excellency: George Washington). I came away from the book with some distinct impressions about Washington’s beliefs. According to Ellis he was agnostic at best, and had no concern or time for religion. I cannot pass judgment on Ellis or his research but there seems to be plenty of evidence that this was not the case. Other sources seem to contradict this. The day after Washington took command of the Continental Army in 1775 he issued orders to his men to engage in “punctual attendance of divine services, to implore the blessings of Heaven for the means used for our safety and defense.” And in 1778 he issued this directive: “The commander in chief directs that Divine service be performed every Sunday at 11 o’clock in each brigade which has a Chaplain…to the distinguished character of a patriot, it should be our highest glory to add the more distinguished character of a Christian”. This doesn’t exactly sound like the beliefs of someone who is either a Deist or secular humanist.
Thomas Jefferson is often held up as the perfect example of our non-Christian Founders’ views, but he attended weekly worship services which were held in the Capitol until 1866. Contrary to what the modern advocates of complete Church and State separation try to say, Jefferson publicly exclaimed in 1805: “In matters of religion, I have considered that its free exercise is placed by the constitution independent of the powers of the general (federal) government. I have therefore undertaken, on no occasion, to prescribe the religious exercises suited to it, but left them, as the constitution found them, under the direction and discipline of State or Church authorities acknowledged by the several religious societies.” In other words, the Constitution left the free exercise to powers other than the federal government. The government was not to prescribe any one religion.
So, what did the courts have to say back in those days when our country was closer to its founding and the living had a better understanding of what had recently transpired in our nation? Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshal, who for 34 years headed the highest court in the land said: “The American population is entirely Christian, and with us Christianity and religion are indentified. It would be strange indeed, if with such people, our institutions did not presuppose Christianity, and did not often refer to it, and exhibit relations with it.” Supreme Court Justice Samuel Chase, in a court opinion in 1799 held that: “religion is of general and public concern, and on its support depend, in great measure, the pace and good order of government, the safety and happiness of the people. 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 religious liberty” (Runkel v. Winemill 1799).
These statements do not sound much like some of our first Supreme Court Justices were advocating a strict separation of Church and State. Rather, they held that the State should not advocate or prefer one sect or denomination over another.
“The real object of the First Amendment…was to exclude all rivalry among Christian sects, and to prevent any national ecclesiastical establishment which should give to a hierarchy the exclusive patronage of the national government (Joseph Story – Supreme Court Justice 1811-1845)”.
In his first inaugural address, President Washington made : “fervent supplications to that Almighty Being who rules over the universe” and said that “no people can be bound to acknowledge and adore the invisible hand which conducts the affairs of men more than those of the United States.” Not exactly the words of a Deist who felt that God was uninvolved in the affairs of men.
Many more examples abound which are beyond the scope of this brief commentary. But it is quite clear from these brief statements that our forefathers were not hostile to religious expression in the public square, as some modern secular organizations and those hostile to religious expression would have us believe. Rather, they encouraged it but without specifically supporting one denomination over another.
“Blest with vict’ry and peace, may the heaven-rescued land
Praise the Power that hath made and preserved us a nation
Then conquer we must when our cause it is just
And this be our motto: “In God is our trust.”
The Star Spangled Banner – final verse - Francis Scott Keyes