Until well into my life-time, the overwhelming majority of Americans believed that the United States was a Christian nation. In believing that, they did not desire the persecution of other religions, nor did they want to see people forced to become Christians, nor did they believe that one Christian denomination should be favored at the expense of others. They rejected the concept of one Christian denomination functioning as an established national Church, as the Churches of England and Scotland still do today in Great Britain.
But Americans overwhelmingly believed that Christian ideas and principles should receive favorable treatment and that its understanding of Moral Law should undergird the laws of the United States and the individual states. When other people’s religious practices came into conflict with Moral Law, Moral Law, not the practices of other religions, was always supreme. People were free to believe as they saw fit, but they could not practice their beliefs when those practices ran contrary to morality; they had to live by the Christian based laws of the United States. This can readily be seen through the decisions of the United States Supreme Court. As one example of how this has been worked out, one may note Davis v. Beason cited below, where Mormons were forbidden to practice polygamy, an early tenet of their faith, because it was contrary to Moral Law as understood by historic Christianity.
Two parts of the Constitution are often cited as evidence against this historic understanding of the role of Christianity in American public life:
“The Senators and Representatives before mentioned, and the Members of the several State Legislatures, and all executive and judicial Officers, both of the United States and of the several States, shall be bound by Oath or Affirmation, to support this Constitution; but no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.”
The Constitution of the United States of America, Article 6
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
The Constitution of the United States of America, The Bill of Rights, Amendment I
Yet this same Constitution reflects a Christian understanding of morality:
“If any Bill shall not be returned by the President within ten Days (Sundays excepted) after it shall have been presented to him, the Same shall be a Law, in like Manner as if he had signed it, unless the Congress by their Adjournment prevent its Return, in which Case it shall not be a Law.”
The Constitution of the United States of America, Article 1, Section 7
The Historical Understanding of Christianity and the Constitution
“Probably at the time of the adoption of the Constitution, and of the First Amendment to it . . . the general if not the universal sentiment in America was, that Christianity ought to receive encouragement from the state so far as was not incompatible with the private religious rights of conscience and the freedom of religious worship. An attempt to level all religions, and to make it a matter of state policy to hold all in utter indifference, would have created universal disapprobation, if not universal indignation . . . .The real object of the amendment was not to countenance, much less to advance, Mahometanism, or Judaism, or infidelity, by prostrating Christianity; but exclude all rivalry among Christian sects, and to prevent any national ecclesiastical establishment which should give to a hierarchy the exclusive patronage of the national government.”
[Justice Joseph Story (who served on the Supreme Court from 1811-1845) Commentaries on the Constitution of the United States, 2 Vol. 2:593-95, 2nd Ed. Boston: Little Brown (1905)]
Justice Story’s understanding reflects the thinking of the framers of the Constitution, who expressed unbridled faith in God in the Declaration of Independence:
“When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitles them . . .
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights . . .
“And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, We mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor.” (emphases mine.)
Such an understanding of the foundation of the American law was still reflected in the decisions of the United States Supreme Court just over one hundred years ago. Justice Josiah Brewer wrote on February 29, 1892, “Our laws and our institutions must necessarily be based upon and embody the teachings of the Redeemer of mankind. It is impossible that it should be otherwise; and in this sense and to this extent our civilization and our institutions are emphatically Christian.” [Church of the Holy Trinity v. United States, 143 U.S. 457-458, 465-471, 36 L ed 226. (1892).]
A distinctively Christian view of the law is also reflected in Davis v. Beason, 133 U.S. 333 (1890):
“Bigamy and polygamy are crimes by the laws of all civilized and Christian countries. They are crimes by the laws of the United States, and they are crimes by the laws of Idaho . . . It was never intended or supposed that the (First) amendment could be invoked as a protection against legislation for the punishment of acts inimical to the peace, good order, and morals of society. With man’s relations to his Maker and the obligations he may think they impose, and the manner in which an expression shall be made by him of his belief on those subjects, no interference can be permitted, provided always the laws of society, designed to secure its peace and prosperity, and the morals of its people, are not interfered with. However free the exercise of religion may [133 U.S. 333, 343] be, it must be subordinate to the criminal laws of the country, passed with reference to actions regarded by general consent as properly the subjects of punitive legislation. There have been sects which denied as a part of their religious tenets that there should be any marriage tie, and advocated promiscuous intercourse of the sexes, as prompted by the passions of its members. And history discloses the fact that the necessity of human sacrifices, on special occasions, has been a tenet of many sects. Should a sect of either of these kinds ever find its way into this country, swift punishment would follow the carrying into effect of its doctrines, and no heed would be given to the pretense that, as religious beliefs, their supporters could be protected in their exercise by the constitution of the United States. Probably never before in the history of this country has it been seriously contended that the whole punitive power of the government for acts, recognized by the general consent of the Christian world in modern times as proper matters for prohibitory legislation, must be suspended in order that the tenets of a religious sect encouraging crime may be carried out without hindrance.” (emphasis mine.)
The Constitution and Blue Laws
What does the reference to Sunday in Article I, Section 7 above [“If any Bill shall not be returned by the President within ten Days (Sundays excepted) . . .”] constitute? It reflects the thinking that underlies what are commonly called “Blue Laws” and demonstrates that the framers of the Constitution did not have a non-theistic, abstract concept of law. The federal courts, in striking down state laws about Sunday, have done so recognizing that these laws reflect a commitment to a Christian understanding of the Ten Commandments:
“The parentage of these laws is the Fourth Commandment; and they serve and satisfy the religious predispositions of our Christian communities.” (The Supreme Court’s 1961 ruling on four separate cases, challenging Sunday closing laws: McGowan v. Maryland; Two Guys from Harrison-Allentown v. McGinley; Braunfeld v. Brown; and Gallagher v. Crown Kosher Supermarket) Article I, Section 7 demonstrates that the Moral Law of God, as understood by the followers of the Christian faith, is the foundation of our Civil Laws.
While the framers of the Constitution were absolutely opposed to a national, established Church, they understood that in order for people’s words to be believed in court, they had to believe in God and future rewards and punishments in the world to come. At the time of the ratification of the federal constitution, most states had constitutionally defined, basic sets of beliefs that were necessary to be held by those who took oaths or held office. These were not seen to be in violation of the national constitution. As but one example, a person may note Article I of the Constitution of Pennsylvania, written in its original form by Benjamin Franklin and others:
“Section 3. All men have a natural and indefeasible right to worship Almighty God according to the dictates of their own consciences; no man can of right be compelled to attend, erect or support any place of worship or to maintain any ministry against his consent; no human authority can, in any case whatever, control or interfere with the rights of conscience, and no preference shall ever be given by law to any religious establishments or modes of worship.
“Section 4. No person who acknowledges the being of a God and a future state of rewards and punishments shall, on account of his religious sentiments, be disqualified to hold any office or place of trust or profit under this Commonwealth.” (emphasis mine.)
In early America the very understanding of the word “oath” meant that the person taking it believed in God.
Oath: “A solemn affirmation or declaration, made with an appeal to God for the truth of what is affirmed. The appeal to God in an oath, implies that the person imprecates his vengeance and renounces his favor if the declaration is false, or if the declaration is a promise, the person invokes the vengeance of God if he should fail to fulfill it. A false oath is called perjury.”
Webster’s Dictionary (1828)
This understanding is reflected in how “Article 6” was explained in the ratifying conventions. For example, one may consider the words of James Iredell at North Carolina’s ratifying convention:
e North Carolina State Ratifying Convention Wednesday, July 30, 1788
‘According to the modern definition of an oath, it is considered a “solemn appeal to the Supreme Being, for the truth of what is said, by a person who believes in the existence of a Supreme Being and in a future state of rewards and punishments, according to that form which will bind his conscience most.” It was long held that no oath could be administered but upon the New Testament, except to a Jew, who was allowed to swear upon the Old. According to this notion, none but Jews and Christians could take an oath; and heathens were altogether excluded. At length, by the operation of principles of toleration, these narrow notions were done away. Men at length considered that there were many virtuous men in the world who had not had an opportunity of being instructed either in the Old or New Testament, who yet very sincerely believed in a Supreme Being, and in a future state of rewards and punishments . . . (Mr. Iredell describes a British court case involving a man from India who was neither a Christian nor a Jew and then concluded.) It appeared that, according to the tenets of this religion, its members believed in a Supreme Being, and in a future state of rewards and punishments. It was accordingly held by the judges, upon great consideration, that the oath ought to be received; they considering that it was probable those of that religion were equally bound in conscience by an oath according to their form of swearing, as they themselves were by one of theirs; and that it would be a reproach to the justice of the country, if a man, merely because he was of a different religion from their own, should be denied redress of an injury he had sustained. Ever since this great case, it has been universally considered that, in administering an oath, it is only necessary to inquire if the person who is to take it, believes in a Supreme Being, and in a future state of rewards and punishments. If he does, the oath is to be administered according to that form which it is supposed will bind his conscience most. It is, however, necessary that such a belief should be entertained, because otherwise there would be nothing to bind his conscience that could be relied on; since there are many cases where the terror of punishment in this world for perjury could not be dreaded.’ (emphases mine.)
[Elliot, Jonathan, ed. The Debates in the Several State Conventions on the Adoption of the Federal Constitution as Recommended by the General Convention at Philadelphia in 1787. . . . 5 vols. 2d ed. 1888. Reprint. New York: Burt Franklin, n.d., Volume 5, Amendment I (Religion), Document 52.]
The Establishment Clause
Thomas Jefferson’s 1802 letter to a group of Baptists of Danbury, Connecticut states that the purpose of the First Amendment was to build “a wall of separation between church and state.” Yet what President Jefferson meant by this wall is patently obvious from the weight of historical evidence cited above: namely, that this did not mean that there could be no point of contact between church and state. Civil governments have all kinds of laws that churches must obey: building codes, fire safety codes and zoning ordinances. None of these violate the liberty of churches to worship God according to their own liberty of conscience. Furthermore, there are times when the members of ecclesiastical bodies are simply unable to decide issues without submitting to the judgment of civil courts. A prime example of this would be contentions over the ownership of the church’s property.
Jefferson’s Wall of Separation Letter
Thomas Jefferson was a man of deep religious conviction — his conviction was that religion was a very personal matter, one which the government had no business getting involved in. He was vilified by his political opponents for his role in the passage of the 1786 Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom and for his criticism of such biblical events as the Great Flood and the theological age of the Earth. As president, he discontinued the practice started by his predecessors George Washington and John Adams of proclaiming days of fasting and thanksgiving. He was a staunch believer in the separation of church and state.
Jefferson wrote a letter to the Danbury Baptist Association in 1802 to answer a letter from them written in October 1801. A copy of the Danbury letter is available here. The Danbury Baptists were a religious minority in Connecticut, and they complained that in their state, the religious liberties they enjoyed were not seen as immutable rights, but as privileges granted by the legislature — as “favors granted.” Jefferson’s reply did not address their concerns about problems with state establishment of religion — only of establishment on the national level. The letter contains the phrase “wall of separation between church and state,” which led to the short-hand for the Establishment Clause that we use today: “Separation of church and state.”
The letter was the subject of intense scrutiny by Jefferson, and he consulted a couple of New England politicians to assure that his words would not offend while still conveying his message: it was not the place of the Congress or the Executive to do anything that might be misconstrued as the establishment of religion.
Note: The bracketed section in the second paragraph had been blocked off for deletion in the final draft of the letter sent to the Danbury Baptists, though it was not actually deleted in Jefferson’s draft of the letter. It is included here for completeness. Reflecting upon his knowledge that the letter was far from a mere personal correspondence, Jefferson deleted the block, he noted in the margin, to avoid offending members of his party in the eastern states.
This is a transcript of the final letter as stored online at the Library of Congress:
To messers Nehemiah Dodge, Ephraim Robbins, & Stephen S. Nelson, a committee of the Danbury Baptist association in the state of Connecticut.
The affectionate sentiments of esteem and approbation which you are so good as to express towards me, on behalf of the Danbury Baptist association, give me the highest satisfaction. my duties dictate a faithful and zealous pursuit of the interests of my constituents, & in proportion as they are persuaded of my fidelity to those duties, the discharge of them becomes more and more pleasing.
Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, & not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should “make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” thus building a wall of separation between Church & State. [Congress thus inhibited from acts respecting religion, and the Executive authorised only to execute their acts, I have refrained from prescribing even those occasional performances of devotion, practiced indeed by the Executive of another nation as the legal head of its church, but subject here, as religious exercises only to the voluntary regulations and discipline of each respective sect.] Adhering to this expression of the supreme will of the nation on behalf of the rights of conscience, I shall see with sincere satisfaction the progress of those sentiments which tend to restore to man all his natural rights, convinced he has no natural right in opposition to his social duties.
I reciprocate your kind prayers for the protection & blessing of the common father and creator of man, and tender you for yourselves & your religious association assurances of my high respect & esteem.
Thomas Jefferson’s phrase in 1802 must be understood in light of what he said in his “Second Inaugural Address,” in 1805:
“In matters of religion I have considered that its free exercise is placed by the Constitution independent of the powers of the General Government. I have therefore undertaken on no occasion to prescribe the religious exercises suited to it, but have left them, as the Constitution found them, under the direction and discipline of the church or state authorities acknowledged by the several religious societies.”
Snippets of Thomas Jefferson’s “First Inaugural Address,” in 1801
“ . . . the diffusion of information and arraignment of all abuses at the bar of the public reason; freedom of religion; freedom of the press, and freedom of person under the protection of the habeas corpus, and trial by juries impartially selected.”
“And may that Infinite Power which rules the destinies of the universe lead our councils to what is best, and give them a favorable issue for your peace and prosperity.”
Christian people are free to influence legislation that is in keeping with the moral principles of Christianity, and Christian parents are duty bound to see to it that their children are educated in light of Christian principles and morality. A godless educational system is a dreadful curse to American society, the very idea of which would have been abjured by the founders of our nation.
Deuteronomy 6:4-7 New King James Version (NKJV)
4 “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one! 5 You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength.
6 “And these words which I command you today shall be in your heart. 7 You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, when you walk by the way, when you lie down, and when you rise up.