Monday, July 25, 2005
Joseph Hilbe in his commentary on July 19th claimed the Founding Fathers “made [the] nation non-religious.” Even though Hilbe had some points that were accurate, the premise that the “Founders made [the] nation non-religious” is erroneous and misleading. On the contrary, the Founding Fathers made the national government a civil, earthly one with no intentions of having the nation or people “non-religious”. One can see by looking at their words and actions that they hoped for the very opposite. Their desire was to write the Constitution so that it would guard the people from a government mandated religion like the Church of England at the beginning and for the future.
While the Founders weren’t perfect and did not foresee and solve all the problems for our nation, they did strive to protect all religious expression and people in our new nation by setting up a government that would defend the rights of people of all faiths. They never intended the government to be nonreligious or secular. Kevin Hasson, from the Brecket Fund for Religious Liberty explained in his book The Right to Be Wrong, that the word temporal is better than secular. The Founders arranged for a temporal government dealing with issues in this realm not the hereafter (Hasson). While many of the Founders were Christians, they didn’t agree on which sect or belief was best, and because of their experience with England, they were wise enough to protect those with whom they disagreed. The framers of the Constitution wrote The First Amendment which says that, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof” to do just that. “Congress” in that amendment was referring to the federal government, and not the state governments. States were left to make their own laws concerning the establishment of state run religions if they so desired. New England had an arrangement that most Americans today would now consider an establishment of religion by the state (Feldman).
Looking at the following examples, one can see that these two founders hoped and planned for America to be religious. Signer of the Declaration of Independence, John Jay said, “A proper history of the United States would have much to recommend it: in some respects it would be unlike all others; it would develop the great plan of Providence, for causing this extensive part of our world to be discovered and these ‘uttermost parts of the earth’ to be gradually filled with civilized and Christian people and nations.” John Jay hoped for a Christian nation. Also, Founder Patrick Henry affirmed that “this great nation was founded, not by religionists” and “not on religions, but on the gospel of Jesus Christ. For this very reason peoples of other faiths have been afforded asylum, prosperity, and freedom of worship here.”
And so it began, and as people from all over the world saw the principles of freedom on which America was based, they began to come to the New World. Even if the Founders had a notion of what they had started, they probably had no idea the direction this new freedom would take the nation. They could not anticipate the huge immigration of Catholics, Jews, and Muslims, to name only a few. They didn’t imagine government run public schools that would have to deal with objections, first from Catholics to Protestant ideas being taught, then from atheists and agnostics to prayers and bibles in the classroom. But according to Noah Feldman in his book, Divided by God, Americans did and still do feel strongly that governments should not coerce people in religious matters and affairs of individual conscience. The reason Americans have fought through the decades over religious freedom and expression is because of their strong belief in the “principle of the liberty of conscience” spoken about by John Locke. The Founding Fathers leaned heavily on the ideas of John Locke, who inspired their work more than any other philosopher (Feldman).
Thereafter, the course through American history over the church/state issue has been anything but clean and straight. E. J. Dionne Jr., in his book review of Divided by God, in the Washington Post, said that Americans “...have seen a good deal of incoherence and inconsistency, a fair bit of hypocrisy and a huge amount of contention. We have muddled through in a way that has allowed Americans to believe and worship God as they choose to – and reject faith altogether if they are so inclined” (Dionne). The "great experiment" that our Founding Fathers started has afforded Americans throughout the generations the right to be free, because of the Founder's and Framer's incredible wisdom, bravery, and foresight. Our national government was set up to protect all people from government-mandated religion like the Church of England, to worship whatsoever way or thing they chose. For that I will be eternally grateful.
Declaration of Independence
Dionne Jr., E. J. “American Spirit.” Book World. The Washington Post 10 July 2005: T7.
Feldman, Noah. (2005). Divided by God. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States
The Junto Society, Founder of the Month, John Jay, Dec. 2002. 22 July 25, 2005
The Junto Society, Founder of the Month, Patrick Henry, May 2003. 22 July 25, 2005
Hasson, Kevin Seamus.(2005).The Right to Be Wrong.
Raspberry, William. “Our Religious Culture.” Editorial. The Washington Post 11
July 2005 pp. A15.