A Secular Government
The Founders of our country significantly formed the first government in the history of the world that did not establish religion. They threw off the tyranny of rule by kings and churches—which had existed for centuries–and successfully founded a form of government by and for the People instead. This new government was based on the authority of the People alone, and this became history’s first secular government.
John Adams commented that, “The United States of America have exhibited, perhaps, the first example of governments erected on the simple principles of nature; and if men are now sufficiently enlightened to disabuse themselves of artifice, imposture, hypocrisy, and superstition, they will consider this event as an era in their history. Although the detail of the formation of the American governments is at present little known or regarded either in Europe or in America, it may hereafter become an object of curiosity. It will never be pretended that any persons employed in that service had interviews with the gods, or were in any degree under the influence of Heaven, more than those at work upon ships or houses, or laboring in merchandise or agriculture; it will forever be acknowledged that these governments were contrived merely by the use of reason and the senses.”
The only reference to religion in the body of the U.S. Constitution is in the negative…
“…no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.” – U.S. Constitution: Article VI
As the “Father of our Country” George Washington observed, “In this enlightened Age and in this Land of equal liberty it is our boast, that a man’s religious tenets will not forfeit the protection of the Laws, nor deprive him of the right of attaining and holding the highest Offices that are known in the United States,” and “Government being, among other purposes, instituted to protect the consciences of men from oppression, it certainly is the duty of Rulers, not only to abstain from it themselves, but according to their stations, to prevent it in others.”
And the First Amendment is mainly focused on the rights of the individual to have freedom of conscience and expression. This includes the right of the individual to express their conscience through speech, through the press, in assemblies with other individuals, and by petition to the government for redress of grievances. It also attempts to prevent government from imposing on the freedom of conscience of the individual by establishing religion, or by prohibiting its exercise. Thus, the first part of the First Amendment reads…
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…” – U.S. Constitution, First Amendment
Thomas Jefferson, author of the Declaration of Independence and the Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom in Virginia (which the First Amendment is partially based and inspired), wrote that the First Amendment erected a “wall of separation between church and state.” He felt that “Erecting the ‘wall of separation between church and state,’ therefore, is absolutely essential in a free society.”
James Madison, who is considered the “Father of the Constitution” and the “Architect of the Bill of Rights,” hoped that by doing so, the United States might free itself from the ceaseless strife that had soaked the soil of Europe in blood for centuries.
Madison, who was also primarily responsible for pushing the Bill of Rights through Congress, expressed his interpretation of the First Amendment as a “perfect” separation – between Church and State, commenting that, “The civil government … functions with complete success … by the total separation of the Church from the State.”
Jefferson thought that mixing religion and government would lead to the “corruption” of both. Madison thought that both would “exist in greater purity, the less they are mixed together.”
There are no higher authorities than Jefferson and Madison regarding how the First Amendment should be interpreted because they had the most influence on the fact of its creation and existence. This was widely recognized at the time and by anyone who would bother to make a serious study of the subject.
Additional evidence of that can be found in the Treaty of Tripoli, which was ratified in 1797, very early in our government’s history. Article 11 of the Treaty reads in part, “…the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion…” Article VI, Sect.2 of the Constitution states that “all treaties made, or which shall be made, under the authority of the United States, shall be the supreme law of the land.” The Treaty was ratified unanimously and the full text was published in The Philadelphia Gazette on June 17th, 1797 without any record of any public objection.
Later, when Alexis de Tocqueville wrote about his travels in America in 1830 he commented, “I questioned the faithful of all communions; I particularly sought the society of clergymen, who are the depositories of the various creeds and have a personal interest in their survival … all thought the main reason for the quiet sway of religion over their country was the complete separation of church and state. I have no hesitation in stating that throughout my stay in America I met nobody, lay or cleric, who did not agree about that.”
Here is the testimony of an outsider in 1830, questioning clergymen and the “faithful of all communions,” and they all seemed to be unanimously supportive of the complete separation of church and state that they understood their government was based on.
In 1868, the Fourteenth Amendment was adopted by Congress. It made the Bill of Rights applicable to the states.
Ten years later, in one of the earliest church-state cases to come before the Supreme Court in 1878 (Reynolds vs. U.S.), Chief Justice Morrison Waite cited Madison’s Memorial and Remonstrance, the Virginia Statute for Establishing Religious Freedom, and Jefferson’s letter to the Danbury Baptists describing the First Amendment as “building a wall of separation between church and state.” He used these documents to help form his opinion about how the First Amendment should be interpreted. He felt Jefferson was the most key because he was the “acknowledged leader of the advocates of the measure” and it therefore “may be accepted almost as an authoritative declaration of the scope and effect of the amendment thus secured.”
But even before 1878, or even before 1868 (when the 14th Amendment was adopted), you can find quotes from presidents and representatives who understood that this country was founded on a separation between church and state. President James K. Polk said, “Thank God, under our constitution, there was no connection between church and state.” Even earlier in 1843, President John Tyler wrote, “The United States has adventured on a great and noble experiment.. that of total separation of church and state.”
There seems to be a common thread of understanding here that was generally comprehended and agreed upon for decades after the founding of America, from the clergy to Supreme Court Justices to presidents and representatives, that this country was based on a separation between church and state. This understanding continued afterwards, almost to the present day.
To give a few examples, President Grant said, “Keep church and state forever separated.” President Hayes objected to any “interference” of one upon the other. And President Garfield said, “The divorce between church and state ought to be absolute.”
In 1947 , the U.S. Supreme Court finally and explicitly clarified that the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment applied to the states in Everson v. Board of Education, affirming what should have already been implicitly established in 1868 when the Fourteenth Amendment was adopted, but evidently had to be further clarified for those who had stubbornly resisted.
The Court ruled that: “The ‘establishment of religion’ clause of the First Amendment means at least this: Neither a state nor the Federal Government can set up a church. Neither can pass laws which aid one religion, aid all religions or prefer one religion over another. Neither can force nor influence a person to go to or to remain away from church against his will or force him to profess a belief or disbelief in any religion. No person can be punished for entertaining or professing religious beliefs or disbeliefs, for church attendance or non-attendance. No tax in any amount, large or small, can be levied to support any religious activities or institutions, whatever they may be called, or whatever form they may adopt to teach or practice religion. Neither a state nor the Federal Government can, openly or secretly, participate in the affairs of any religious organizations or groups and vice versa. In the words of Jefferson, the clause against establishment of religion by law was intended to erect ‘a wall of separation between Church and State.'”
To those who would argue that the First Amendment ONLY forbids government from meddling with religion, but that it doesn’t forbid religion meddling in government, note the sentence in the ruling above that reads, “Neither a state nor the Federal Government can, openly or secretly, participate in the affairs of any religious organizations or groups AND VICE VERSA” [emphasis mine].
The Court reaffirmed its position in its 1963 ruling in School District of Abington Township v. Schempp when it said: “First, this Court has decisively settled that the First Amendment’s mandate that ‘Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof’ has been made wholly applicable to the States by the Fourteenth Amendment…. Second, this Court has rejected unequivocally the contention that the Establishment Clause forbids only governmental preference of one religion over another.”
Note the last sentence above which says the Court “unequivocally” rejected “the contention that the Establishment Clause forbids ONLY governmental preference of one religion over another” [emphasis mine]. The First Amendment DOESN’T read, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of a religion,” which is the kind of language one might expect if it was intended to ONLY forbid “governmental preference of one religion over another.” The First Amendment doesn’t say “a religion,” it says “religion” period. The implication is that the government shouldn’t even preference religion in general.
–There are other Supreme Court cases which could be cited on this subject, but these will suffice for this essay.–
In the ‘modern era,’ President Kennedy, concurring with President Garfield, said, “I believe in an America where the separation between church and state is absolute.” President Johnson said, “I believe in the American tradition of separation between church and state.” President Carter said, “I believe in the separation of church and state.” Even President Reagan was of the opinion that, “Church and state are, and should remain, separate.” And more recently, President Obama said, “I believe deeply in the separation of church and state.”
James Madison warned…
“Strongly guarded as is the separation between Religion and Government in the Constitution of the United States, the danger of encroachment by Ecclesiastical Bodies, may be illustrated by precedents already furnished in their short history.”
In 1863, eleven Protestant denominations concerned about the omission of God from the Constitution proposed to amend the Preamble to acknowledge “Almighty God, the Divine Authority.” In 1864, the National Reform Association–formerly the Christian Amendment Movement–proposed an amendment to the Constitution, “in order to constitute a Christian government,” by “humbly acknowledging Almighty God as the source of all authority and power in civil government….” Neither of these attempts succeeded. Further such attempts were made in 1874, 1896, and 1910, but none were successful.
Additional attempts to bring Christianity into the Constitution were made in the 1940s and 1950s. In 1954, for example, an amendment was proposed to recognize “the authority and law of Jesus Christ, Savior and Ruler of nations, through whom are bestowed the blessings of Almighty God.” There were advocates for similar amendments after the 1962 Supreme Court ruled that government-sponsored and dictated prayer in schools unconstitutional in Engel v. Vitale. None of these proposals even came to a vote.
If our Constitution already established a ‘Christian’ nation as many suggest—even though it fails to mention anything about it—why all these efforts over all these years to make these kinds of amendments, and why did they fail?
However, the efforts by religious theocrats haven’t been entirely unsuccessful….
While the first attempts at amending the Constitution in 1863 and 1864 were unsuccessful, James Pollock, one of the members of the National Reform Association mentioned above, played an important role in getting “In God We Trust” on coins in 1864. And while the same kinds of efforts to amend the Constitution in the 1950s failed, they were able to get that motto recognized as our National Motto in 1956. And, two years earlier in 1954, they had succeeded in getting “under God” injected into the Pledge of Allegiance.
The motto our founders gave us was “E Pluribus Unum” (Out of Many, One). It had been our de facto National Motto until 1956. That motto was secular and inclusive. The new National Motto “In God We Trust” was religious and exclusive. The original Pledge had also been secular and inclusive. Inserting “under God” into it also made it religious and exclusive. Thus, anyone who didn’t believe in a monotheistic God was made to feel like a second-class citizen in their own country, and there wasn’t “justice for all.”
These efforts to make this country into a Christian theocracy continue to this day. Revisionist history mythologists and Christian nationalists like evangelical Christian David Barton have for decades been promoting the idea that the United States was founded as an explicitly “Christian nation,” and that “separation between church and state” is a “myth.” He publishes and propagates quotations from Founders and Supreme Court decisions that are either out-of-context, altered, phony, or unconfirmed to promote his viewpoint. He has been accused of “pseudoscholarship” and spreading “outright falsehoods.” One of his more recent books was voted “the least credible history book in print” in 2012, and his publisher ended up disavowing it and withdrawing it from publication.
Nevertheless, his works in historical revisionism–including the out-of-context, altered, phony, or unconfirmed quotes he has propagated over the years–have spread all over the internet. It is the basis of what has been–and currently is–being taught to the children of many Christian parents who are homeschooling their children, and many have grown up to believe it. Those of like-mind help promote it, and many of our current government representatives believe it and endorse it.
They are engaged at every level of government, national, state, and local. They are the ones responsible for wanting to erect 10 Commandment monuments in front of courthouses; having “In God We Trust” plastered on government buildings and vehicles; setting up crosses at veteran memorials; sanctioning clearly sectarian prayers before city council meetings; trying to get as much religion into public schools as possible; influencing what is taught in public school science, history, and sex education classes to accommodate their religious views; denying equal civil liberties to those who are LGBTQ; denying a woman’s right of choice to decide what happens to her own body; denying the science of climate change; and so on and on and on. They are actively engaged in passing laws that affect everyone, and they are actively engaged in establishing their religion–however, whenever, and wherever possible–despite whatever the Founders intended.
So, Madison was right to warn of us of the danger.
Of course, this isn’t a recent development. As covered above, there have always been people who have wanted to make this into an officially “Christian Nation,” Madison was aware of them in his time, which is what motivated his warning. And there has always been a segment of American society who assumed this was a “Christian Nation,” simply because of the Christian privilege resulting from the fact there is a Christian majority population here. So, in the past (and still today in many places), there was prayer in school, there were crosses erected at veteran memorials, and so on. But America has always been in the process of becoming, of living up to the ideals it was founded on, ideals that even its Founders weren’t always able to live up to in their own day. So, there have been great strides made, but vigilance has to be eternal because the theocrats are highly motivated and determined to have their way even if it means violating the constitution, or misrepresenting and lying about history or our Founders intentions. Some may be innocent, because they have been brought up to believe things that aren’t true and it fits so well with what they would rather believe. But some are willfully ignorant, and some are outright liars who know better.
Tyranny of the Majority
Many will argue that the “majority rules” in a democracy, so Christians should have their way and everyone else should just accept it and learn to live with it.
Madison was worried that the biggest threat to this Democratic-Republican form of government would be from a “tyranny of the majority.” He wrote to Jefferson in October 1787 asking when “a majority… united by a common interest or passion cannot be constrained from oppressing the minority, what remedy can be found…?” He predicted that “If [one] sect form a majority and have the power, other sects will sure to be depressed.”
He went on to say that he hoped that the new nation would be large and diverse enough, with enough “different interests and parties… that no common interest or passion to unite a majority of the whole number in an unjust pursuit.”
In another letter to Jefferson, he wrote: “Wherever the real power in a Government lies, there is the danger of oppression. In our Governments, the real power lies in the majority of the Community, and the invasion of private rights is chiefly to be apprehended, not from the acts of Government contrary to the sense of its constituents, but from acts in which the Government is the mere instrument of the major number of the constituents.”
In Federalist Paper 51 he wrote, “It is of great importance in a republic not only to guard the society against the oppression of its rulers but to guard one part of the society against the injustice of the other part. If a majority be united by a common interest, the rights of the minority will be insecure.”
Earlier, in his Memorial and Remonstrance, he wrote, “Who does not see that the same authority which can establish Christianity in exclusion of all other religions may establish, with the same ease, any particular sect of Christians in exclusion of all other sects?”
Baptists in Madison’s time, for example, supported the separation between church and state. They were a minority Christian sect at the time, and they understood how separation of church and state would help them. They understood the point Madison was making. Baptist minister John Leland, for example, was a significant advocate of separation between church and state in the founding era. Unfortunately, many Baptists began to change their opinion once their numbers grew.
Some argue that they are being persecuted if they have to play on a level field with others. This is the consequences of being so long in the majority and having their way; it’s the result of Christian privilege. As Founder Benjamin Franklin–sometimes called “The First American”–pointed out, “If we look back into history for the character of present sects in Christianity, we shall find few that have not in their turns been persecutors, and complainers of persecution.”
Some of the same people who are so irrationally worried about the imaginary threat of having Islamic sharia law in America–that they feel they have to pass laws keep it from happening–are the same people who promote their own Biblical laws, or they pass so-called “Religious Freedom” bills designed to discriminate against the civil liberties of others. They understand why it’s important to have their civil liberties protected from the religious laws of others, but they seem to have no issue oppressing others with their laws based on their religion.
This would seem to go against their own “Golden Rule” commandment of doing unto others as they would have done unto them. That point seems to get missed so often by Christian theocrats that one wonders if they even understand—or are aware of–the implications of their own prime directive.
For over 100 years, Supreme Court rulings have cited Jefferson’s interpretation that the First Amendment established a “wall of separation” between Church and State. Madison, the “Father of the Constitution” and “Architect of the Bill of Rights” thought that the First Amendment meant a “total separation of the Church from the State.” Both of these men–who had most to do with this specific amendment–thought that the First Amendment would protect the “Freedom of Conscience” of every citizen, both thought that any entanglement between the two would corrupt both Church and State, and both thought that separation was “absolutely essential in a free society” to protect the civil rights of everyone, the religious and nonreligious alike.
This is why it’s important to fight for a secular government that maintains the Constitutional principle of separation of Church and State.
For more information:
The Separation of Church and State – introduction
Is America a Christian Nation?
Quotations that Support the Separation of State and Church
James Madison on Separation of Church and State