Another little-known Founding fact about Church and State
by Tom Van Dyke
The very first meeting of the US congress took place in New York on March 4, 1789, but because of various delays in getting George Washington to schlep up from Virginia, his inauguration as president didn't happen until April 30. Washington gave a great speech, and took the oath.
The congress and our new president were finally in place. So what's the first thing the new American state did? Why, it went to church.
The whole bunch, president and congress, packed over to St. Paul's Chapel immediately for a prayer service.
We know from Washington's diary that he continued to attend services most every Sunday at St. Paul's throughout his first year as president, then switched over to the newly rebuilt Trinity Church where they'd constructed a special pew for the President of the United States.
Now it's quite true there's a formal "wall" between "church" and "state" in the federal constitution. No religious tests for federal office, no government church, thank God.
A formal separation between church and state? Certainly. A few want some sort of theocracy today, but they are few, very few. As in the Founding and as it is today, hardly anybody would want to be ruled even by the elders of their own church, let alone anybody else's church. So that's a dead letter.
However, if a nation is more than just the sum of its laws---and a president sitting in a presidential pew loudly suggests the Founders thought there is more to it than just law---then that "wall" didn't mean you couldn't see through it to the other side. In our litigious age, we tend to reduce everything to formalities, the letter of the law. It seems clear that the Founders were far more attuned to the spirit of such things.
There are tons of quotes by the Founders about virtue and morality being necessary for the health of the new American republic, and that religion was a good if not necessary way to foster those virtues. These quotes come even from the least religiously orthodox of the Founders, and here's the point I think gets missed by those who try so hard to prove "key" Founders like Washington were orthodox Christians:
It works even better if they weren't.
The new president and congress, by gathering at St. Paul's for prayer after the inauguration, and by Washington showing his impressive six foot-three self at services every Sunday, by action and deed acknowledged the importance of religion in the public square, not tucked away behind closed doors as a mere matter of private conscience, as many urge we should do today.
Now, it seems recent polls indicate slightly more than half of people today want to "keep religion out of politics." That's fine, but almost half don't. And neither can it be claimed the Founders did, or they would have stayed out of St. Paul's that day, April 30, 1789. Believe it or not, and whether they believed in it or not.
Washington prayed here. Or mebbe he just slept.