Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Was America Founded As a Christian Nation? (Part III)

2. THE FOUNDERS DIDN’T EVEN WANT A SECULAR GOVERNMENT, AS WE UNDERSTAND THAT PHRASE TODAY. John Marshall, the father of American Jurisprudence and for 34 epochal years (1801-35) the Chief Justice of the United States, wrote: “The American population is entirely Christian, and with us Christianity and Religion are identified. It would be strange indeed, if with such a people, our institutions did not presuppose Christianity, and did not often refer to it, and exhibit relations with it.” His colleague on the court (1796-1811), Justice Samuel Chase, delivered an opinion (Runkel v. Winemill) in 1799 declaring: “Religion is of general and public concern, and on its support depend, in great measure, the peace 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.” These judicial opinions make clear that the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment never constrained early judges from classifying the United States as an enthusiastically Christian society.

In fact, the same Congress that approved the First Amendment gave a clear indication of the way they understood its language when, less than 24 hours after adopting the fateful wording, they passed the following Resolution: “Resolved, that a joint committee of both Houses be directed to wait upon the President of the United States, to request that he would 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, especially by affording them an opportunity peaceable to establish a Constitution of government for their safety and happiness.” It never occurred to this first Congress in 1789 that their call for a government sponsored day of “thanksgiving and prayer” would conflict with the prohibition they had just adopted prohibiting “an establishment of religion.” 

Not until the infamous Everson decision of 1947 did the Supreme Court create the doctrine of a “wall of separation between church and state,” quoting (out of context) from an 1802 letter from Thomas Jefferson to the Danbury Baptist Association. President Jefferson created the image of the wall in order to reassure the Baptists that government would never interfere with their religious life, but he never suggested that religion would have no role in government. In 1803, in fact, Jefferson recommended to Congress the approval of a treaty that provided government funds to support a Catholic priest in ministering to the Kaskaskia Indians.

Three times he signed extensions of another measure described as “An Act regulating the grants of land appropriated for Military services and for the Society of the United Brethren for propagating the Gospel among the Heathen.” Jefferson also participated every week in Christian church services in the Capitol Building in Washington DC; until 1866, in fact, the Capitol hosted worship every Sunday and, intermittently, conducted a Sunday school. No one challenged these 71 years of Christian prayer at the very seat of federal power: given the founders' endorsement of the positive role of organized faith, it hardly inspired controversy to convene worship at the Capitol. In fact, at the time of the first Continental Congress, nine of the thirteen original colonies had “established churches” – meaning that they each supported an official denomination, even to the point of using public money for church construction and maintenance. These religious establishments – clearly in contradiction to the idea of a “secular government” – continued in three states long after the adoption of the First Amendment. Connecticut disestablished its favored Congregational Church only in 1818, New Hampshire in 1819, and Massachusetts in 1833.

Amazingly enough, these established churches flourished for nearly fifty years under the constitution despite the First Amendment’s famous insistence that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.” Their existence reflected the fact that the founders never wanted to secularize all of government, but intended rather to allow the states to handle religious issues in their own way while avoiding the imposition of any single federal denomination on the diverse, often quarreling regions of the young nation. Joseph Story, a Supreme Court Justice from 1811 to 1845 (appointed by President Madison) and, as a long-time Harvard professor the leading early commentator on the Constitution, explained the First Amendment with the observation that “the general if not universal sentiment in America was that Christianity ought to receive encouragement from the State so far as was not incompatible with the private rights of conscience and the freedom of religious worship.

An attempt to level all religions, and to make it a matter of state policy to hold all in utter indifference, would have created universal disapprobation, if not universal indignation. 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.” As Stephen Mansfield comments in his invaluable book on the Establishment Clause, “Ten Tortured Words,” Justice Story’s “understanding of the meaning of the First Amendment should be taken as definitive.”


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This blog is about my opinions and world view.  I am a conservative, evangelical Christian.  Generally speaking, if you post a comment, I'll allow you to express your view.  However, if you say something hateful, untruthful, or just generally something I don't like, I may remove it.

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