Monday, December 19, 2011

Did the Founders Wish to Separate Religion and Government?

In light of the U.S. Constitution's prohibition of a religious test for federal office and the First Amendment's establishment clause, many Americans allege that the Founders saw no place for religion in government. This view is unfortunately fairly widespread in law schools, in many courts, and here on American Creation. In a recent blog post criticizing David Barton (a recurring theme here at AC), Brad Hart writes that "our Founding Fathers were smart enough to recognize the FACT that religion should have no place in government" (emphasis his). Brad is not alone. Several of my fellow bloggers here at AC, whom I respect, have embraced the idea of a fully secular public square, complete with a government that's not only neutral in terms of religious denominations or faith groups, but neutral on the issue of faith itself.

What is Religion?

In order to assess whether the Founders believed "religion should have no place in government," we should first understand what is meant by "religion." If by using the term "religion," one is simply making the case that the U.S. government should not endorse Catholics over Protestants (or vice versa) or establish a state church, then such a case is definitely consistent with the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, and the eventual consensus of the American Founders. If, however, "religion" is broad enough to include belief in God in general as well as an official acknowledgment that our rights come from God and that we are accountable, in some way, to God, then we're talking about something else entirely.

Religious Belief is Inevitable

Part of the definition of religion, according to, is "a set of beliefs concerning the cause, nature, and purpose of the universe." By this broad definition, humanism would certainly qualify as a religion. In fact, by this definition, every single human being possesses some type of "religious" view, because we're talking more about worldview than about the embracing of a specific supernatural entity. 

A quote attributed to Noah Webster affirms this point. Webster is alleged to have said: "Every civil government is based upon some religion or philosophy of life." In researching this article, I was unable to find a primary source for this quote, so I can't confirm that Mr. Webster actually said it. Whether he did or not, though, I think it's an accurate statement. Every civil society that has ever existed is shaped by philosophical and religious assumptions.

The Founders Embraced Judeo-Christian Monotheism

It is a matter of historical fact that the Founding Fathers of the United States of America fully embraced monotheism, and their monotheistic framework was shaped primarily by a culture steeped in Judeo-Christian belief and tradition. And this Judeo-Christian monotheism was not incidental or peripheral to their efforts in erecting the United States. It was a worldview that was front and center, and was incorporated fully into the foundation of our Republic. One need only look to the colonial charters, the Declaration of Independence, and the state constitutions to confirm this.

It is factually incorrect to associate the view that "religion should have no place in government" with the Founding Fathers of the United States. It certainly wasn't George Washington's view, who declared in his Inaugural Address that the people of the United States were "bound to acknowledge and adore the Invisible Hand which conducts the affairs of men more than those of the United States." Washington issued the first national Thanksgiving Proclamation after the U.S. Constitution, and said it was the "duty of all nations" to acknowledge God with worship and gratitude. And it was Washington, in his Farewell Address, who said that "religion and morality" were "indispensable" to "political prosperity." Doesn't sound like a guy who wanted religion completely separate from government. And, if I may, who are we to disagree with George Washington when it comes to discussing the original meaning of the Constitution or the intentions of our Founders?

Then, of course, there's Jefferson, who secularists love to quote as someone who promoted the separation of church and state. While Jefferson most certainly opposed anything that smacked of a Church of America, he nevertheless had no problem with Judeo-Christian monotheism being at the center of our Republic. Consider his famous question: "And can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis-a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are the gift of God?" That sounds like a question of a religious nature to me. 

The Declaration of Independence makes it clear that the Founders believed in the existence of God and that our fundamental rights come from God. These are religious sentiments and they are enshrined into our founding document and, by consequence, our heritage and identity. 

It's the right of the American people today to decide to jettison the beliefs of the Founding Fathers. They would be wrong to do so, but it's their legal right. People are entitled to their opinions, but they are not entitled to their own facts. It's legitimate to disagree with the Founders, but it's not right to redefine the values and beliefs of the Founders. On the issue of religion and government, the Founders have a right to speak for themselves, and they have done so. 


bpabbott said...

Re: "Several of my fellow bloggers here at AC, whom I respect, have embraced the idea of a fully secular public square, complete with a government that's not only neutral in terms of religious denominations or faith groups, but neutral on the issue of faith itself. "

I suspect there isn't as much distance between yourself and others as it may appear. I'm wondering if the problem isn't in what is inferred by wording as opposed to what was implied.

From my reading of this blog, I don't recall anyone asserting that the constitution prevents public officials making religious proclamations, including Presidents proclaiming Thanksgiving, etc (my understanding is that Madison's opposition didn't arise until after the ratification of the Bill of RIghts).

If there is a debate, I think it is with regards to whether the constitution was intended to codify favorable treatment of a specific religious perspective.

Did the founders think it necessary that the constitution favor a religious perspective ?

Did the founders expect/intend the constitution to favor a specific religious perspective ?

Did the founders expect/intend the constitution to favor monotheistic natural / providential religion and other faiths (or parts thereof) consistent with it ?

Did the founders expect/intend a constitution preference for Judeo-Christian monotheism (same as above + revelations from scripture) and prejudice toward faiths with conflicting scripture ?

My opinion is: No. Yes. Yes. No.

Brian Tubbs said...

Ben, as you've laid out the questions, I would also say: "No. Yes. Yes. No." This, I suppose, affirms your claim that we're not that far apart. :-)

Where I would hedge would be on the first question. If you're talking specifically about the U.S. Constitution, then yes. But if you're talking about the state constitutions, well, that's a bit different.

I would also hedge a bit on the last question. Did the Founders seek any government prejudice toward faiths with other Scriptures? Absolutely not. But, would they be willing to embrace atheism as a coequal worldview? I would say the answer is no. I think their fear would be that without God in the picture (even if only a Deistic, abstract Supreme Being of some kind), you have no external, objective guarantee of rights apart from popular consent or government policy. I think they would find that unacceptable.

That's my take on it, of course. I'm open to being shown the error of my reasoning.

bpabbott said...

Brian, you inferred correctly. My comment was specifically about the US Constitution. And, prior to the 14th Amendment, I view most of the states as Christian by law.

Regarding Atheism, I have not studied how the term was used and viewed in the founding era.

However, I expect most of the founders' exposure to such was by those who assert the evils of their world were the work of God hating Atheists of those who followed Satan. I suspect that Atheists of 200 yrs ago would have been persecuted while those today are not. Hence it would have been political suicide if any Founder were to suggest Atheists were to be treated equally to Theists (same for any who suggested black was equal to white or women equal to men).

At the same time, I don't see any reason to conclude the founders intended that Atheists be persecuted, or judged, for their theological opinions.

Your point on rights is a good one (one that TVD has brought up several times). While it appears to me that our society's reliance on scripture in determining their religious opinions has been declining and may continue (as seen in Europe), I don't think there is any possibility that Theism in America is in decline. Even Atheists tend toward Providential perspectives, such as "right make might" !

Angie Van De Merwe said...

"right makes might"? Is there an attempt to find the universal within man about "right"? Is this the "moral law" that is "sought"? Are "moral judgments" somehow common in man? Are these intrinsic (man's brain) or extrinsic (man's society)? OR am I off base altogether???

Jonathan Rowe said...


Good post. Though, the only thing I dislike about the term "Judeo-Christian" is I see it as a limiting culture war term. The other side certainly does this as well with its terminology. Monotheism does exclude atheists (and arguably polytheists who can't find a way to square their polytheism with monotheism). The Founders were generously ecumenical with their monotheism. The Founders didn't want to harm atheists. But they had no problem with invoking an "under God" in the public square.

bpabbott said...

Angie, that snippet was part of Abraham Lincon's "Copper Union Speech". The emphasis below is mine.

"Neither let us be slandered from our duty by false accusations against us, nor frightened from it by menaces of destruction to the Government nor of dungeons to ourselves. Let us have faith that right makes might, and in that faith, let us, to the end, dare to do our duty as we understand it."

My understanding is that Lincoln's words were intended as a call to moral duty.

Brian Tubbs said...

Ben, by quoting Lincoln while making a reference to atheists, one could infer that you're claiming Lincoln as an atheist.

While Lincoln was no atheist, I accept your point that atheists often do make sweeping claims about moral duty. Claims that, as you say, could be called "providential" in some degree. Dinesh D'Souza, in numerous debates with atheists (including the late Christopher Hitchens) often criticizes atheists for attacking Christianity while, at the same time, borrowing from it.

bpabbott said...


I make no claims as to Lincoln's theology. I do faintly recall that a contemporary of his made such a claim.

However, given the popularity of false dichotomies, I find it much more likely that Lincoln verbal opinions of Christianity and the fondness for reciting such things as "What will be will be. And no prayers of ours can arrest the decree" created the impression with some that he was an Atheist (an opinion I do not share).

In the event anyone is interested, I found an article in USA Today, published on the bicentennial of his birth, which touches on this subject.

Regarding borrowing from Christianity, people tend to favor what they think good and dispose of that they think bad. This can be said of any rational individual. I'm confident that Christians also qualify as rational individuals and have made good use of preserving the good while dispensing with the bad.

Tom Van Dyke said...

The OP rather represents my view as well. Every Founder without exception [!] acknowledged God as a reality, like the sun, moon and stars. This is not the question of "religion," which is about God's particulars, not His existence.

Phil Johnson said...

"People are entitled to their opinions, but they are not entitled to their own facts."
The ideas held in regards to government and religion circa the Founding Era were only beginning to come together. Only a few centuries earlier, the question could not have even been conceived. But, with the ending of the Enlightenment, question were being asked, "What is religion," by the thinkers of Western Civilization.
Ideas about Christianity in its various expressions were unfolding. And, now, as we look back over the past few centuries, we are able to see how the main threads have unfolded to date and continue on.
To try to equate the thinking of our Founding Fathers with our views of anything after these few fantastic centuries is a little hard to square.
Withouit a doubt, the Founders believed religion was an important lever that kept human society intact. But, what did THEY mean by the relatively new word, religion?
I think the Founders were quite up to the kind of advanced thinking that was developing in other places during that incredible period of human history. If we could only sit down with them...
But, I'm sure we're going to see pietists pushing the river on this question of separation for some time to come.
It would be nice if we had a religious belief that would allow all people to come under it without such division--very nice indeed.

Brian Tubbs said...

"It would be nice if we had a religious belief that would allow all people to come under it without such division--very nice indeed."

In terms of "civil religion," I think the Founders gave us precisely what you seek. Freedom of conscience in worship (or not), while at the same time a national acknowledgment of God as our Creator and the fact that our rights come from our Creator. And that each individual is accountable to said Creator.

If one could describe a consensus view of ALL the Founders, the above would be it. And it's the basis upon which our nation was founded. We need to stick to it, rather than people thinking they are merely accidents of nature without any objective, external value or moral standard. The Founders' idea of divine rights and divine accountability is preferable any day of the week (and twice on Sunday). :-)

bpabbott said...

Brian, nicely put!

Angie Van De Merwe said...

You sound like some "God consiousness" Eastern mystic!

Man is a rational animal, who lives, and thinks his way around obstacles he thinks inhibit or prevent or pervert his "survival".

Science has found that men rationalize their passions. And since all humans have a basic instinct to survive, humans seek political liberty as to their understanding about and for and in life. That is, unless a man believes that martyrdom has something to gain in a "hereafter"! but, these act on the basis of "reward and punishment" not on the basis of some other value or principle they hold dear, as to life.

Your suggestion that if we all come under a "God" conscious, then the leaders won't have any resistors to "take care of"....then, political liberty won't be a reality other than in one's "head"!