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America’s Founders did not want Congress to establish a national church, and many opposed establishments at the state level as well. Yet there was virtually no support for the sort of separation of church and state promoted today by organizations such as the ACLU…

In Everson v. Board of Education (1947), Justice Wiley Rutledge proclaimed that “no provision of the Constitution is more closely tied to or given content by its generating history than the religious clause of the First Amendment. It is at once the refined product and the terse summation of that history.” Like many jurists and academics since, he proceeded to argue that the Founders intended the First Amendment to create a strict separation of church and state. As evidence, he relied almost solely on a handful of statements by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, most of which were made before or well after the Religion Clauses were drafted.

Earlier this month I contended that there is no good reason to believe that America’s Founders were deists. There is even less reason to think that they desired the strict separation of church and state. This is true even for Jefferson, but I’m going to focus on the group of Founders most relevant for understanding the First Amendment: the men who drafted it. 

One of Congress’ first acts was to agree to appoint and pay congressional chaplains. Shortly after doing so, it reauthorized the Northwest Ordinance, which held that “Religion, Morality, and knowledge being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, Schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged.”

More significantly for understanding the First Amendment, on the day after the House approved the final wording of the Bill of Rights, Elias Boudinot, later president of the American Bible Society, proposed that the president recommend a day of public thanksgiving and prayer.

In response to objections that such a practice mimicked European customs or should be done by the states, Representative Roger Sherman, a Calvinist from Connecticut whose pastor was Jonathan Edwards Jr.,

justified the practice of thanksgiving, on any signal event, not only as a laudable one in itself, but as warranted by a number of precedents in holy writ: for instance, the solemn thanksgivings and rejoicings which took place in the time of Solomon, after the building of the temple, was a case in point. This example, he thought, worthy of Christian imitation on the present occasion; and he would agree with the gentleman who moved the resolution.

Note that Sherman appealed directly to the Bible to support Boudinot’s proposal. His argument won the day. The House of Representatives agreed with Sherman, and the Senate agreed with the House. President George Washington—the indispensable Founder—agreed with Congress. On October 3, 1789, he issued a Thanksgiving day proclamation, which reads in part:

Whereas it is the duty of all Nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey his will, to be grateful for his benefits, and humbly to implore His protection and favor…

I do recommend…the People of these States to the service of that great and glorious Being, who is the beneficent Author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be…

And also that we may then unite in most humbly offering our prayers and supplications to the great Lord and Ruler of Nations and beseech Him to pardon our national and other transgressions, to enable us all, whether in public or private stations, to perform our several and relative duties properly and punctually; to render our national government a blessing to all the People…

Similar proclamations were routinely issued by the Continental and Confederation Congresses and Presidents Washington, Adams, and Madison. Jefferson, it is true, refused to issue such formal proclamations, yet as Daniel L. Dreisbach has pointed out, he “employed rhetoric in official utterances that, in terms of religious content, was virtually indistinguishable from the traditional Thanksgiving day proclamations.”

America’s Founders did not want Congress to establish a national church, and many opposed establishments at the state level as well. Yet there was virtually no support for the sort of separation of church and state promoted today by organizations such as the ACLU and Americans United for Separation of Church and State.

Republished with gracious permission from The Intercollegiate Review (September 2017). The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.

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7 replies to this post
  1. Many with views that are different from conservatives shout “separation of church and state,” while they simultaneously impose their own dogmas and secular religion on everyone. Often, they enforce their religion on everyone via legislation. This is classic Alinsky Rules For Radicals. Today this -ism enforcement of their religion – totalitarianism, progressivism, marxism, communism, democrat-ism, etc – is so clear when they start labeeing actions and words that speak a different dogma as “hate,” “hate speech,” “hate crime.”

    When it pleases them, they separate church and state; so they can establish their secular religion as the religion of the state. Check out the new state religion that followed the French Revolution –
    and then, of course, the inevitable Reign of Terror.

    Guy McClung, Texas

  2. It is clear that the First Amendment was put there to handcuff any Leviathan in the wings, but the country has produced politicians and judges who can’t read, or, for whatever reason, are at his service.

  3. It was St. Augustine that gave meaning to “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, render unto God what is God’s”, in establishing a philosophy of separation of church and state. This great Saint had a profound influence on the Founding Father’s according to Perry Miller in his great work, The New England Mind of the Seventeenth Century.

    St. Augustine claims perfection to only be found in the Church, and the state to always be less perfect, with the Church having a role to play in making the state better, He did not object to using the state to suppress the Donatists that he viewed as a heretical threat.

  4. While the First Amendment undoubtedly was intended to preclude the government from establishing a national religion as Hall notes, that was hardly the limit of its intended scope. The first Congress debated and rejected just such a narrow provision (“no religion shall be established by law, nor shall the equal rights of conscience be infringed”) and ultimately chose the more broadly phrased prohibition now found in the Amendment. During his presidency, Madison vetoed two bills, neither of which would form a national religion, on the ground that they were contrary to the establishment clause. While some in Congress expressed surprise that the Constitution prohibited Congress from incorporating a church in the town of Alexandria in the District of Columbia or granting land to a church in the Mississippi Territory, Congress upheld both vetoes. In keeping with the Amendment’s terms and legislative history and other evidence (which is considerably more complex than Hall’s post suggests, but I’ll not lengthen this already long comment to get into the details), the courts have wisely interpreted it to restrict the government from taking steps that could establish religion de facto as well as de jure. Were the Amendment interpreted merely to preclude government from enacting a statute formally establishing a state church, the intent of the Amendment could easily be circumvented by government doing all sorts of things to promote this or that religion–stopping just short of cutting a ribbon to open its new church.

    Separation of church and state is a bedrock principle of our Constitution. Just as the founders did not simply say in the Constitution that there should be separation of powers and checks and balances, but rather actually separated the powers of government among three branches and established checks and balances, they also did not merely say there should be separation of church and state, and rather actually separated them by (1) establishing a secular government on the power of “We the people” (not a deity), (2) according that government limited, enumerated powers, (3) saying nothing to connect that government to god(s) or religion, (4) saying nothing to give that government power over matters of god(s) or religion, and (5), indeed, saying nothing substantive about god(s) or religion at all except in a provision precluding any religious test for public office. Given the norms of the day (by which governments generally were grounded in some appeal to god(s)), the founders’ avoidance of any expression in the Constitution suggesting that the government is somehow based on any religious belief was quite a remarkable and plainly intentional choice. They later buttressed this separation of government and religion with the First Amendment, which affirmatively constrains the government from undertaking to establish religion or prohibit individuals from freely exercising their religions. The basic principle, thus, rests on much more than just the First Amendment.

    Regarding Everson, it bears noting that Justice Rutledge was hardly alone in his interpretation of the Constitution. All nine justices in the Everson case read the Constitution to call for separation of church and state, and indeed all of the parties and all of the amici curiae did as well; no one disputed the principle, they differed only in how it should be applied in the circumstances of the case.

    • “Separation of church and state is a bedrock principle of our Constitution. ”

      No it isn’t. In fact, those words are to be found nowhere in any of our founding documents. That idea was taken from a letter written by Jefferson (as if private letters had any force of law) and manipulated by God hating atheists to the point where a teacher wearing a cross in the classroom or a 17 year old valedictorian mentioning Jesus in a graduation speech can find themselves being punished by the authorities.

  5. The first 10 Amendments were to be applied against the General Government. Thus States did and are today free to establish a Church is they so decide.

  6. Eric, Yes, it is–for the very reasons outlined in my comment.

    You note that the words “separation of church and state” do not appear in the text of the Constitution, an obvious fact that assumes much importance, it seems, to some who once mistakenly supposed they were there and, upon learning of their own error, fancy they’ve solved a Constitutional mystery. The absence of the metaphorical phrase commonly used to name one of its principles, though, is no more consequential than the absence of other phrases (e.g., separation of powers, checks and balances, federalism) used to describe other undoubted Constitutional principles.

    To the extent that some nonetheless would like confirmation–in those very words–of the founders’ intent to separate government and religion, Madison and Jefferson supplied it. Madison, who had a central role in drafting the Constitution and the First Amendment, confirmed that he understood them to “[s]trongly guard[] . . . the separation between Religion and Government.” Madison, Detached Memoranda (~1820).

    Some also try to pass off the Supreme Court’s decision in Everson as simply a reading or even misreading of Jefferson’s letter to the Danbury Baptists–as if that were the only basis of the Court’s decision. Instructive as that letter is, it played but a small part in the Court’s decision. Rather, the Court discussed the historical context in which the Constitution and First Amendment were drafted, noting the expressed understanding of Madison perhaps even more than Jefferson, and only after concluding its analysis and stating its conclusion did the Court refer–once–to Jefferson’s letter, largely to borrow his clever metaphor as a catchy label or summary of its conclusion. The notion, often heard, that the Court rested its decision solely or largely on that letter is a red herring.

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