Recent church and state debate inaccurate

Published 1:09 am Sunday, June 3, 2007

Inaccuracies have marred the recent discussions in The Democrat about the church and state issue and the question of whether the founding fathers were evangelical Christians.

Although the Constitution does not include the phrase “separation of church and state” (the “wall of separation” appeared first in a letter of Thomas Jefferson to the Danbury Baptist Association), the First Amendment does include the establishment clause. That clause states: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.” Many people today are probably unfamiliar with religious establishments or state-supported churches. The best example of the relationship between church and state that the establishment clause wanted to prevent probably comes from the example of a “figure triangular” in the works of the English theologian and political theorist Richard Hooker. Hooker described the relationship in the following words: “We hold that seeing there is not any man of the Church of England, but the same man is also a member of the commonwealth, nor any man a member of the commonwealth which is not also of the Church of England, therefore as in a figure triangular the base doth differ from the sides thereof, and yet one and the selfsame line, is both a base and a side; a side simply, a base if it chance to be bottom and underlie the rest. So albeit properties and actions of one kind do cause the name of a commonwealth, qualities and functions of another sort the name of a Church to be given unto a multitude, yet one and the selfsame multitude may in such sort be both and is so with us, that no person appertaining to the one can be denied to be also of the other.” This is the type of union of church and state that the Founders wished to prohibit, the tyranny of one particular church established and favored over all other denominations, one that everyone supported with their taxes. Originally, however, they sought to prevent this only at the national level. The Bill of Rights did not originally apply to the states, and at least one New England state maintained an established church into the 1820s. Nor did the Founding Fathers, as The Democrat claimed, craft the “Constitution to speak of a larger being, the creator if you will.” There is not a word to that effect in the Constitution.

The establishment clause, however, did not mean that religion was not important to the Founders as something necessary in a republic. Washington made this clear in his “Farewell Address. There he noted: “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 connexions with private and public felicity. Let it simply be asked, Where is the security for property, for reputation, for life, if the sense of religious obligation desert the oaths, which are the instruments of investigation in courts of justice? 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.” John Adams made a similar point when he argued that republican government must be supported “by pure religion.”

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Think of the Constitution as a structure, which it is, that attempts to create a fit habitation in which human beings can live. That structure may be secular, but the Founders expected it to be filled with people for whom religion was important, people whose religious leaders would have every right to speak out about the morality of for-profit prisons or any number of similar issues.

As for whether or not the Founding Fathers were evangelical Christians, that is doubtful. And the evidence offered in a recent letter to the editor fails to offer any proof that they were evangelicals. The Madison example indicates that he thought belief in God was essential to morality, nothing more. The words cited are not even explicitly Christian. In fact, the sense of the text suggests that any sort of religion that teaches morality is a good thing. As for Jefferson, it is possible that he was contributing to a Calvinist reformed church in Virginia, but the “wee-little book” cited in the letter is the so-called “Jefferson Bible,” a cut-and-past version of the New Testament that Jefferson compiled. It is comprised of Jesus’s moral teachings with all the miraculous material, including the resurrection, excised. That is hardly evangelical. Nor does an example taken from Washington as a young man provide essential insight into his thought 25 years later.

Edward L. Bond

Natchez, MS