A Public Policy Polling (PPP) survey earlier this month revealed that an astonishing 32% of respondents supported making Christianity the official religion of the U.S., and that 14% were not sure. The political breakdown was as one might expect, with 42% of conservatives in favor, but 28% of moderates and 25% of liberals also in favor – of re-writing the First Amendment to the Constitution! This is not a blog about religion or politics, but I have to say something about the rising sentiment that the U.S. is, or was intended to be, a Christian country, or that it was founded on Biblical principles. Saying that the U.S. should have an official religion flies in the face of the First Amendment. It is both un-Constitutional and un-American.
Let me start by defining a few terms. A democracy is a form of government in which the supreme power is vested in the people and exercised directly by them or by their elected agents under a free electoral system.. A republic a state in which the supreme power rests in the body of citizens entitled to vote and is exercised by representatives chosen directly or indirectly by them.. A theocracy a form of government in which God or a deity is recognized as the supreme civil ruler, the God’s or deity’s laws being interpreted by the ecclesiastical authorities. So the U.S. is a democratic republic, with some issues decided by a popular vote and some issues decided by our elected representatives. Religious leaders do not decide issues because we are not a theocracy.
But, were we intended to be guided by religion? Was the government organized around biblical principals, as so many conservatives claim and desire? The surest way to answer that question would be to ask the founding fathers. Alas, they’ve all been dead for two centuries now but we don’t have to live in uncertainty. There are literally hundreds of thousands of pages of public and private documents that clearly detail their thoughts, desires, and intentions as they declared independence from Britain and created our curent form of government. We can end the bickering by simply looking at what they wrote. Now, I make no claims to being an historian, but I have long had a strong interest in U.S. history. I can say for certain that among the founding fathers Adams, Franklin, Hamilton, Jefferson, Madison, and Washington had no such plans for our country.
Did the founding fathers believe in God? In their own way, yes. Most of them were members of various Protestant sects. Benjamin Franklin was well known as a Quaker. Many were Deists, believing that while God created the world he does not interfere in it. But that doesn’t mean that they wanted a government based on religion. Let’s remember that one of the most significant reasons people emigrated to the colonies was to escape the state sanctioned religions of the European countries to be free to worship as their conscience dictated. This was still true in the late 1700’s, as the founders unquestionably knew. Establishing a state sanctioned religion under the new government was anathema to their experience.
The Declaration of Independence explains to the world why the colonies intended to separate themselves from Britain. The first two paragraphs provide a general explanation that is followed by a list of 27 items demonstrating the failure of the King to respect and protect the rights of the colonists. This is followed by two closing paragraphs. I think there are two important items here. The first is that there are mentions of, and appeals to, the “Laws of Nature and Nature’s God” “Creator” “Supreme Judge” and “Divine Providence” but no explicit mention of the Christian God. More importantly, none of the itemized complaints mentions God or the King’s failure to establish, implement, or enforce Biblical precepts. The colonies separated from Britain for secular, not religious, reasons.
The U.S. Constitution makes absolutely no mention of any god or higher power. The first ten amendments to the Constitution, the Bill Of Rights, were being circulated and advocated even before the Constitution was passed. In the First Amendment we find the only mention of religion, and that mention is part of a prohibition, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…” which is known as the Establishment Clause.
The Federalist Papers were written by Alexander Hamilton (first Secretary of the Treasury), James Madison (fourth President of the United States), and John Jay (first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court) to convince the citizens of New York to vote in favor of the Constitution. They are one of the most cited documents in decisions issued by the Supreme Court. Not one of the 85 papers published between 1787 and 1788 discusses for the role of religion in the new government. In fact, they are silent on the subject because it simply wasn’t a consideration by those who drafted the Constitution or by those voting on it. The Anti-Federalist Papers are silent on religion for the same reason.
The Virginia Statue for Religious Freedom, written by Thomas Jefferson and passed by the Virginia General Assembly in 1786, clearly states that no one shall be compelled to worship or to support a church, and that establishing a church or requiring religious observances would be “an infringement” of “the natural rights of mankind.”
Finally, there were nine states with established (state sanctioned) churches in 1775. Between 1776 and 1778 five of those states disestablished their official religions, with the final state church (in Massachusetts) disestablished in 1833. So, not only did the founding fathers not intend for there to be a state religion, where a state religion existed as a carry over from the establishment of the colony that religion was disestablished and no religion was endorsed by the state.
I could go on but the clear point is that the founding fathers never intended for there to be a state sanctioned religion, and always intended for people to be free to worship as they saw fit with no interference from the government whatsoever. Anyone who claims otherwise is either ignorant of American history or willfully misrepresenting it. No one can legitimately claim to support the Constitution and an official religion because the prohibition against official religions is part of the Constitution. Of course, the Constitution is a living document and has been amended 17 times since the Bill of Rights. However, the idea of an official state religion not only runs counter to the foundations of the country but counter to the founding of the colonies. As much as one might cherish his or her religion, in the U.S. it is simply wrong to try to establish it over others.