Although the First Amendment of our constitution clearly states that Congress shall pass no laws recognizing the establishment of religion, certain individuals still insist that the United States was founded as a Christian nation. I would like to know from where they get this idea; certainly not from our history or from the Constitution itself.
The "Separation Clause" in the First Amendment clearly forbids the establishment of any religion, yours, mine or theirs. Early evidence is also found in Article 11 of our 1797 Treaty with Tripoli signed by President John Adams which begins: "As the Government of the United States is not founded in any sense on the Christian Religion . . . "
At the Constitutional Convention certain delegates, led by Virginia’s Patrick Henry, proposed to found the new republic as a Christian nation. Most all of the delegates, even Thomas Jefferson with his deistic leanings, held Christian beliefs of some description. But many of them had also witnessed first-hand what can happen when religion falls into the hands of ambitious clergy and over-zealous congregations. Our founding fathers were wary of this possibility and studiously avoided any government-religion entanglements.
Prodded by Virginia Baptists who had suffered persecution by the established Anglican/Episcopal Church, James Madison, the "Father of the Constitution" and our fourth president, introduced the Separation Clause into the First Amendment. In answer to Patrick Henry’s proposal to fund the teaching of religion, Madison argued "Who does not see that the same authority which can establish Christianity in exclusion of all other religions, may establish with the same ease any particular sect of Christians in exclusion of all other sects." In speaking to freedom from religion, an idea that drives today’s fundamentalists into apoplexy, Madison wrote "While we assert for ourselves a freedom to embrace, to profess and to observe the religion which we believe to be of divine origin, we cannot deny an equal freedom to those whose minds have not yet yielded to the evidence that has convinced us." Both Madison and Henry were believing, practicing (Episcopalian) Christians.
In another venue James Madison wrote, "Experience witnesses that ecclesiastical establishments, instead of maintaining the purity and efficacy of religion, have had a contrary operation. During almost fifteen centuries has the legal establishment of religion been on trial. What have been its fruits? More or less in all places, pride and indolence in the clergy, ignorance and servility in the laity, in both, superstition, bigotry and persecution. . . . Rulers who wished to subvert the public liberty may have found an established clergy convenient auxiliaries." Sound like anybody we might know today?
If our founding fathers had intended for Christianity to be the established religion of the new nation they would have clearly so stated in the Constitution. And they clearly did not. And to clear up another popular misapprehension: If the delegates had intended that individual states have the right to secede from the Federal Union they would have specified the procedure by which such secession could be accomplished. Secession rights and procedures are conspicuous by their absence in the Constitution.
People who continually misquote or misunderstand the Constitution and/or the Bible have probably read neither.
George B. Reed Jr., who lives in Rossville, can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.