Debates over whether America is a “Christian nation” have gone on for a very long time. But clarity in those debates has been in very short supply. A July 4 CNN.com column
on the subject by Kenneth C. Davis is, sadly, no exception.
In it, Davis appealed to Thomas Jefferson’s famed “Letter to the Danbury Baptists” and used tiny snippets here and there from George Washington, John Adams, and James Madison, in attempt to show that ours is a “secular government.” That it was so at its beginning, that it continues so even now, and that it will remain so as long as those intent on refashioning it a “Christian nation” can be held at bay.
The problem with Davis’ assertions is that he appeared to twist the meaning of those whom he quoted in order to make their words support an argument with which he agrees, even though the argument is demonstrably false. Because of this, a careful look at the persons he quotes and the context from which he took their words versus the context in which he used them, reveals a picture of America’s founding that in no way resembles the one Davis’ op-ed presents.
For example, Davis began his column with the claim that those who argue for the Judeo-Christian roots of our government like to seize on Jefferson’s appeal to the “Creator” in the Declaration of Independence, while avoiding his mention of a so-called “separation of church and state” in his letter to the Danbury Baptists. He seems to think Christians who are quick to embrace Jefferson’s reference to God as Creator are equally quick to distance themselves from the Danbury letter because, in Davis’ opinion, the Danbury letter shows that Jefferson sought a “secular republic” rather than one built on appeals to God.
To bolster his position, Davis cited a passage from Madison which he believed demonstrated Madison’s desire for a “secular government” as well: “No man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever, nor shall be enforced, restrained, molested, or burthened (sic) in his body or goods, nor shall otherwise suffer on account of his religious opinions or belief ...."
With all respect to Mr. Davis, the premises he used to support his argument
actually serve to undermine it.
For example, the “Letter to the Danbury Baptists” was not a letter written to convince citizens that ours is secular government, but that our government was one that would not recognize one religion as a national religion. And more specifically, writing as he was to Baptists, Jefferson wanted to assure those church-goers in Danbury that the government would not recognize one denomination (i.e., Baptists, Episcopalians, Quakers, etc.) as nationally predominant over another.
And this is exactly what Madison was communicating when he wrote that “No man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever….” In other words, the First Amendment tied the hands of the government, while the leaving churches, and those who might attend them, free.
Moreover, and perhaps most importantly, Jefferson’s use of the phrase “a wall of separation between church and state” in the letter to the Danbury Baptists is not at all indicative of anti-Christian sentiment. The idea of two God-created spheres, one heavenly in its grounding and one civic, is part of Christianity 101. Our Founding Fathers, including Jefferson, drew from centuries of thought passed down to them from the Apostle Paul, St. Augustine, John Calvin, and Martin Luther, among others, to comprehend the church and state as separate but complementary: the role of the church was to preach the gospel and guide men to heaven while the role of the state was to enforce order and provide defense, military and otherwise, of civil life.
Although Davis, and those who share his worldview, have chosen to take another view altogether of Jefferson’s “wall of separation between church and state,” they cannot change what Jefferson meant in the context in which he wrote those words. As John Adams, the second President of the United States, said: “Facts are stubborn things, and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passions, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.”
So the overarching problem with Davis’ argument is that while he correctly understands that our Founders did not want an “established religion,” he unjustifiably equates that with a pursuit of secularism. And as history shows, such secularism frequently results in the use of the “separation” metaphor as a call to action against the National Motto, the National Day of Prayer, and even the posting of the 10 Commandments or the Pledge of Allegiance: all of which actions would have amazed the Founders, many of whom we can judge even now by what they did as much as by what they wrote.
For example, Davis’ strained reliance upon Jefferson and Madison notwithstanding, it is undeniable that both men attended church regularly in the House of Representatives during their respective presidencies. As a matter of fact, their attendance was so frequent that in the Library of Congress, part of the history of the two administrations
begins thus: “It is no exaggeration to say that on Sundays in Washington during the administrations of Thomas Jefferson (1801-1809) and of James Madison (1809-1817) the state became the church.”
The summation presented by the Library of Congress – that “the state became the church” on Sundays under presidents Jefferson and Madison – is demonstrably stronger than the distorted premises on which Davis contrived a “secular republic.”
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