Recently I read a post that stated something I have heard numerous times; “religious convictions have no place in influencing legislation in a secular society.” By the word “secular,” I can’t help wondering if they mean non-ecclesiastical or demonstrably irreligious.
While our Founders certainly created a functional and jurisdictional separation between the institutions of church and state, in order that religion would flourish independent of government regulation, there is no historical evidence to suggest they desired to segregate religious precept from public policy. In fact, the opposite is the case.
Our first two presidents, who also took part in the convention to frame the First Amendment, spoke directly to that issue.
“Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people, and is wholly inadequate for the government of any other.” John Adams 1797
“Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports. In vain would that man claim the tribute of patriotism, who should labor to subvert these great pillars of human happiness, these firmest props of the duties of men and citizens. The mere politician, equally with the pious man, ought to respect and to cherish them. A volume could not trace all their connections with private and public felicity. Let it simply be asked: …And let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.” George Washington 1796
The assumption that the “wall of separation between church and state” represents an prohibition against religious influence on cultural issues, is an obvious perversion of the metaphor’s historical meaning. It should be viewed a fable of contemporary secular mythology.
Secularists frequently have a boilerplate list of quotations from the founding era which reference a distain of religious establishment. They conflate these arguments with the assertion that religion was not an important element in shaping public policy, nor was there a strong emphasis on Christianity.
In his treatise, Commentaries on the Constitution of the United States(1833), Justice Joseph Story, the foremost legal scholar of his era, stated that the First Amendment was never intended for state imposed negative neutrality toward religion expression. It was crafted to insure the prohibition of a particular ecclesiastical establishment by federal government and, to uphold the religious liberty of conscience for the individual. Story tells us…
“We are not to attribute this prohibition of a national religious establishment [in the First Amendment] to an indifference to religion in general, and especially to Christianity (which none could hold in more reverence than the framers of the Constitution)”
“At the time of the adoption of the constitution, and of the amendment to it, now under consideration [i.e., the First Amendment], the general, if not the 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. Any 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.”
Both sides in this cultural volley accuse the other of historical revisionism. Neither will budge because it isn’t merely fact, but ideology that is at stake here. But there is a methodology for settling that debate. We need to carefully examine the statements made by historians and expert observers closest to the times when the historical events occurred and put stock in their opinion. This makes far more sense than taking the word of 20th or 21st century historians who give us their perspective by peering through Lewis Caroll’s Looking Glass long after the fact. That is another reason why an analysis like Story’s is so crucial.
There are various ways of answering the question of whether America was founded as a Christian nation. One might ask whether the key Founders were Christians? Or, we might examine the constitutional charter to see if the preamble makes such a legal declaration. But far more important is whether such a belief reflects the zeitgeist of it’s people, and whether the laws of the nation evidence the principles and precepts of Christianity. Secularists press their flawed and truncated case by considering only the first two points mentioned, and usually get away with it.
People forget who they are because they have forgotten where they came from.