By Michael Medved
Senator John McCain’s recent comments about America’s heritage as a “Christian nation” ignited an ill-tempered blast of self-righteous condemnation – a reaction that highlighted the widespread misunderstandings, distortions and downright ignorance surrounding the nation’s founders and their view of religion’s role in society.
Asked a question about a recent poll that showed 55% of the public believing that “the Constitution establishes a Christian nation,” McCain responded: “I would probably have to say yes, that the Constitution established the United States of America as a Christian nation. But I say that in the broadest sense. The lady that holds her lamp beside the golden door doesn’t say, ‘I only welcome Christians.’ We welcome the poor, the tired, the huddled masses. But when they come here they know that they are in a nation founded on Christian principles.”
The National Jewish Democratic Council, a partisan group affiliated with the Democratic Party, denounced McCain’s remarks as “repugnant.” The Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR) said that the Arizona Senator’s comments went “against the traditions of American pluralism and religious pluralism and inclusion.” The general counsel of the mainstream American Jewish Committee declared that “to argue that America is a Christian nation… puts the very character of our country at stake.”
Meanwhile, Charles Haynes, senior scholar at the Freedom Forum’s First Amendment Center, made the most sweeping and profoundly misleading comments. Regarding the poll that provoked the McCain controversy in the first place, he noted that its results “suggest that a great many people have deeply misunderstood the Constitution. The framers clearly wanted to establish a secular nation…”
Like so many other commonly held convictions about the role of faith in the nation’s founding this politically correct contention isn’t just confused and unfocused; it is, rather, appallingly, demonstrably and inarguably wrong.
In order to put today’s church-state controversies into proper perspective, we must first clear-away some of the ubiquitous misinformation that pollutes are present public discourse. Honest historians and fair-minded observers will acknowledge eight undeniable and sometimes uncomfortable truths:
1. THE FOUNDERS NEVER “WANTED TO ESTABLISH A SECULAR NATION.” In fact, they repeatedly and insistently averred that the survival of liberty and the prosperity of the United States required a deeply religious society and a populace passionately committed to organized faith. In his Farewell Address of 1797, President Washington (who had also served as presiding officer of the Constitutional Convention) unequivocally declared that “reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle…Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports.” His successor as president, John Adams (also known as “The Atlas of Independence”) wrote to his wife Abigail in 1775: “Statesmen may plan and speculate for liberty, but it is Religion and Morality alone which can establish the principles upon which freedom can securely stand. A patriot must be a religious man.” Thomas Jefferson, who disagreed with Adams on so many points of policy, clearly concurred with him on this essential principle. “God who gave us life gave us liberty,” he wrote in 1781. “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 of the Gift of God?” Jefferson’s friend and colleague, James Madison (acclaimed as “The Father of the Constitution”) declared that “religion is the basis and Foundation of Government,” and later (1825, after retiring from the Presidency) wrote that “the belief in a God All Powerful, wise and good…. is essential to the moral order of the World and the happiness of men.”
Far from insisting on a “secular nation,” the founders clearly believed that any reduction in the public’s fervent and near universal Christian commitment would bring disastrous results to the experiment in self-government they had sacrificed so much to launch. Elias Boudinot of New Jersey, who served as President of the Continental Congress in the last stages of the Revolution (1782-83 wrote: “Our country should be preserved from the dreadful evil of becoming enemies of the religion of the Gospel, which I have no doubt, but would be the introduction of the dissolution of government and the bonds of civil society.”
2. THE FOUNDERS DIDN’T EVEN WANT A SECULAR GOVERNMENT, AS WE UNDERSTAND THAT PHRASE TODAY. John Marshall, the father of American Jurisprudence and for 34 epochal years (1801-35) the Chief Justice of the United States, wrote: “The American population is entirely Christian, and with us Christianity and Religion are identified. It would be strange indeed, if with such a people, our institutions did not presuppose Christianity, and did not often refer to it, and exhibit relations with it.” His colleague on the court (1796-1811), Justice Samuel Chase, delivered an opinion (Runkel v. Winemill) in 1799 declaring: “Religion is of general and public concern, and on its support depend, in great measure, the peace and good order of government, the safety and happiness of the people. By our form of government, the Christian religion is the established religion, and all sects and denominations of Christians are placed upon the same equal footing, and are equally entitled to protection in their religious liberty.” These judicial opinions make clear that the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment never constrained early judges from classifying the United States as an enthusiastically Christian society.
In fact, the same Congress that approved the First Amendment gave a clear indication of the way they understood its language when, less than 24 hours after adopting the fateful wording, they passed the following Resolution: “Resolved, that a joint committee of both Houses be directed to wait upon the President of the United States, to request that he would recommend to the people of the United States a day of public thanksgiving and prayer, to be observed by acknowledging, with grateful hearts, the many signal favors of Almighty God, especially by affording them an opportunity peaceable to establish a Constitution of government for their safety and happiness.” It never occurred to this first Congress in 1789 that their call for a government sponsored day of “thanksgiving and prayer” would conflict with the prohibition they had just adopted prohibiting “an establishment of religion.” Not until the infamous Everson decision of 1947 did the Supreme Court create the doctrine of a “wall of separation between church and state,” quoting (out of context) from an 1802 letter from Thomas Jefferson to the Danbury Baptist Association. President Jefferson created the image of the wall in order to reassure the Baptists that government would never interfere with their religious life, but he never suggested that religion would have no role in government. In 1803, in fact, Jefferson recommended to Congress the approval of a treaty that provided government funds to support a Catholic priest in ministering to the Kaskaskia Indians.
Three times he signed extensions of another measure described as “An Act regulating the grants of land appropriated for Military services and for the Society of the United Brethren for propagating the Gospel among the Heathen.” Jefferson also participated every week in Christian church services in the Capitol Building in Washington DC; until 1866, in fact, the Capitol hosted worship every Sunday and, intermittently, conducted a Sunday school. No one challenged these 71 years of Christian prayer at the very seat of federal power: given the founders’ endorsement of the positive role of organized faith, it hardly inspired controversy to convene worship at the Capitol. In fact, at the time of the first Continental Congress, nine of the thirteen original colonies had “established churches” – meaning that they each supported an official denomination, even to the point of using public money for church construction and maintenance. These religious establishments – clearly in contradiction to the idea of a “secular government” – continued in three states long after the adoption of the First Amendment. Connecticut disestablished its favored Congregational Church only in 1818, New Hampshire in 1819, and Massachusetts in 1833.
Amazingly enough, these established churches flourished for nearly fifty years under the constitution despite the First Amendment’s famous insistence that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.” Their existence reflected the fact that the founders never wanted to secularize all of government, but intended rather to allow the states to handle religious issues in their own way while avoiding the imposition of any single federal denomination on the diverse, often quarreling regions of the young nation. Joseph Story, a Supreme Court Justice from 1811 to 1845 (appointed by President Madison) and, as a long-time Harvard professor the leading early commentator on the Constitution, explained the First Amendment with the observation that “the general if not universal sentiment in America was that Christianity ought to receive encouragement from the State so far as was not incompatible with the private 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 First Amendment….was to 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.” As Stephen Mansfield comments in his invaluable book on the Establishment Clause, “Ten Tortured Words,” Justice Story’s “understanding of the meaning of the First Amendment should be taken as definitive.”
Read more of Medved’s silly essay here