So keeping with the Sunday tradition, I wanted to take on something involving religion. I decided I would take on the church and state debate. Are there times when the line should be crossed or should they be blurred? Maybe we should just stick to totally enforcing the separation. To fully understand we need to start in the beginning. We need to go back to the foundations of the country and move forward. I’ll try to do this quickly so it won’t be too long.
The first question that we need to look at is the foundation of this country. You hear people all the time saying that we need to go back to the Biblical foundations that this country was founded on. Well, the problem with that statement is that this country wasn’t founded on Christianity. As a matter of fact, it was almost quite the opposite. Now, some people will point to quotes from the founding fathers and such and say that they were Christians, and while I don’t completely agree with that because the debate is still out on so many of them, I’ll accept it. So we’ll agree that this country was established BY Christians, but NOT ON Christianity. See the difference? So how do I know that the country wasn’t founded on Christianity? It’s quite simple. Prove to me how it was.
The Constitution doesn’t mention Jesus, God, or Christianity in it. Not once. And of course, as many of you know, the first amendment in the Bill of Rights guarantees that Congress shall make NO laws respecting the establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof. What this means is that government is to be completely free of religion. When Thomas Jefferson appeared before the Danbury Baptist Association in 1802, he called the first amendment a “wall of separation between church and state.” James Madison stated that strongly guarded was “the separation between religion and government in the Constitution of the United States.” Again, they wanted to ensure that the foundation was free of all religions.
The Treaty of Tripoli was signed in 1796 by President John Adams and was unanimously approved by Congress after it was read aloud and copies made for each Congressman. The treaty states specifically that the “United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion.” The fact that the President signed this treaty, and Congress unanimously passed it (which is rare), shows that the founders wanted to avoid a religious state.
So why didn’t they want the country founded on Christianity? It was too controversial at the time. There were some states that opposed separation from England until after the war had started. They had to create a foundation that all thirteen states would totally support and trying to establish an official religion wouldn’t be possible (this is the same reason slavery wasn’t discussed in the original constitution, despite it being an issue during this time as well). The first time the First Amendment was challenged, in Permoli v. First Municipality of New Orleans, the courts declared that Congress (makes no provision for protecting the citizens of the respective states in their religious liberties; that is left to the state constitutions and laws.” So, they were placing the religious burdens on the states.
So, about church and state. If the founders wanted to keep it separate, why should we even question whether to cross it, blur it, or eliminate it altogether? Well it’s simple. The United States is the most powerful country in the world and we’re not going to have a grand divide over religion, so it doesn’t hurt to discuss it.
Now, going back to the Permoli case, this was ultimately the view that the courts used for viewing the First Amendment until World Wars I and II. Whenever these started, you started seeing issues concerning draft exemptions for religious purposes, swearing of religious oaths, religiosity in flag solutes, etc. Then with the industrialization and country in a state of war, you saw employers’ and workers’ rights in matters of closing on Sunday for religious reasons being questioned. Then of course, the diversity of immigrants coming to the country gave rise to challenges in religious displays in public places and religious expression in public places, such as schools. With all the religious conflicts, the Supreme Court had to step in and intervene. What resulted was the incorporation of the Fourteenth Amendment against the religious clauses of the First Amendment. The courts wanted to remove the power of states and localities for religious establishment, and place it on a federal level.
After this action by the Supreme Court, you saw a slow and steady slide towards an accomodationist view point in the country. The world wars were over, the Cold War was beginning, and the Soviet Union was viewed as a Communist and atheistic “evil empire.” Chief Justice William O. Douglas stated that Americans are “a religious people” for whom the accommodations of religion “follows the best of our traditions.” This is the point in history where we saw a religion being spread throughout the country to portray a “good vs. evil” scenario with the Soviets. This is where “under God” was established in the pledge, “In God We Trust” was added to our currency, etc.
I think this is a good stopping point because this is getting a lot longer than I had hoped. Next week I’ll talk about the how the recent events, such as the Roy Moore case in Montgomery has brought the religious debates out yet again; how the election of George W. Bush also set an unheard of precedent on the religiosity of the presidency; and how Europe has dealt with similar issues. I’ll also deal with what should be permissible and what shouldn’t when dealing with religious symbols and such in the public square. Be sure to check it out!