I find it fascinating that in our modern technological age, we as Americans can become so divisive and hostile regarding the separation of church and state issue.
The view that the state should be thoroughly secular and not influenced by religious values, especially Christianity — was completely foreign to the first 150 years of American political thought. Clearly, the Founding Fathers did not try to expunge every vestige of the Christian religion, thought, and values from all facets of public life.
When you study the documents of the Revolutionary period, a very distinctive picture of what the Founding Fathers believed comes into view. The Founders clearly believed that moral leadership, and a virtuous electorate, were essential for the experiment of freedom to succeed. Because of this, they created a political climate that encouraged religious faith and accommodated religion rather than hostility to it.
Consequently, Protestant Christianity was the prevailing religious view for the first 150 years of our nation’s history. However, to be accurate and balanced, it must be stated that the Founding Fathers sought to set up a just society, not a Christian theocracy. For that reason, they specifically prohibited the establishment of Christianity — or any other faith — as the religion of our nation. At the same time, the First Amendment was drafted to ensure the liberty needed for religious freedom to have an ongoing and profound influence in American society separate from Government.
Most but not all of our Founding Fathers were influenced by the popularity of Newtonian physics and deism. The deist of their day did not believe in a personal god, which directly influenced our national destiny. Many of our Founding Fathers viewed Christianity as practicing and living within superstitious beliefs.
However, it is a historical fact that the Founding Fathers were supportive of religion and its public practice and expression. It wasn’t until 1947 that the United States Supreme Court first used the concept of “separation” to isolate government from religion.
In Everson v. Board of Education, the court lifted a phrase from Thomas Jefferson's letter to a Baptist church in Danbury, Connecticut. In the words of Jefferson, the clause against the establishment of religion by law was intended to erect “a wall of separation between church and state.” In this ruling, the Supreme Court quoted Jefferson’s separation language as a normative guideline for understanding the First Amendment. This is especially remarkable when one realizes that Jefferson wasn’t even a member of the Constitutional Convention, and the phrase “separation of church and state” does not appear anywhere in the Constitution or the Bill of Rights.
A careful reading of Jefferson’s letter, his other writings, and the First Amendment makes it clear that the government is restricted from intruding into any religious organization, and not people who are being restricted from having religious views within government. However, they cannot use their office to impose their religious views or in implementing Government policy.
Freedom of religion is the goal, and the non-establishment clause is the means. The only way to have true freedom of religion is to keep government out of religion’s affairs. This view defines religious freedom in terms of government neutrality toward religion in which no religion is favored over any other, and neither religion nor secularism is favored over each other.
The First Amendment was rewritten 12 times to make clear its intent. The concept set forth in the Bill of Rights is “non-establishment” of religion, not the total isolation in the belief in God in government.
For nearly two centuries, state and federal governments have had a benevolent attitude toward religion in general, and Christianity in particular.
The Northwest Ordinance of 1787, passed by the very same Congress which enacted the First Amendment, stated the following in Article III:
“Religion, morality, and knowledge being necessary to good government and happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged.”
Notice that religion and morality were equal with knowledge as proper subjects of public education. I am a firm believer that Thomas Jefferson would have approved of comparative religion courses in the public school system. Comparative Religion courses can give us a deeper understanding of how humanity has searched for meaning and found purpose in life through the power of myth. Jefferson’s concept of Christianity was more philosophical than what Christian fundamentalists believe today.
Thomas Jefferson would not, however, approve of public schools teaching Christianity as the inspired word and Religion that we as Americans must follow to be truly American. That is what today’s Christian Fundamentalist would have us believe. Jefferson, like most of the Founding Fathers, believed Christianity and the gospels can be used as a moral guide, but he did not believe in divine revelations. That was one of the reasons Jefferson wrote the Jeffersonian bible; he hoped it would be utilized as a moral compass. He also believed that nature and reason hold the key to unraveling the mysteries of our universe.
A holistic Education for Jefferson was not filling the mind with mundane facts but rather opening the mind to new ideas. Education is also the means to developing a virtuous and moral electorate to guide our nation forward.
I personally do not believe entirely in the Deist view of reality, nor do I believe in Christian Fundamentalism. But it is a fact that cannot be denied that many of our Founding Fathers supported religious expression in society separate from Government interference. Most of our Founding Fathers would have also considered themselves deists, and they believed it best to live moral lives by example, free from religious influence, bigotry, and bias.
Always with love,
Thomas F O'Neill