Senator John McCain’s recent comments about America’s heritage as a “Christian nation” ignited an ill-tempered blast of self-righteous condemnation – a reaction that highlighted the widespread misunderstandings, distortions and downright ignorance surrounding the nation’s founders and their view of religion’s role in society.
Asked a question about a recent poll that showed 55% of the public believing that “the Constitution establishes a Christian nation,” McCain responded: “I would probably have to say yes, that the Constitution established the United States of America as a Christian nation. But I say that in the broadest sense. The lady that holds her lamp beside the golden door doesn’t say, ‘I only welcome Christians.’ We welcome the poor, the tired, the huddled masses. But when they come here they know that they are in a nation founded on Christian principles.”
The National Jewish Democratic Council, a partisan group affiliated with the Democratic Party, denounced McCain’s remarks as “repugnant.” The Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR) said that the Arizona Senator’s comments went “against the traditions of American pluralism and religious pluralism and inclusion.” The general counsel of the mainstream American Jewish Committee declared that “to argue that America is a Christian nation… puts the very character of our country at stake.”
Meanwhile, Charles Haynes, senior scholar at the Freedom Forum’s First Amendment Center, made the most sweeping and profoundly misleading comments. Regarding the poll that provoked the McCain controversy in the first place, he noted that its results “suggest that a great many people have deeply misunderstood the Constitution. The framers clearly wanted to establish a secular nation…”
Like so many other commonly held convictions about the role of faith in the nation’s founding this politically correct contention isn’t just confused and unfocused; it is, rather, appallingly, demonstrably and inarguably wrong.
In order to put today’s church-state controversies into proper perspective, we must first clear-away some of the ubiquitous misinformation that pollutes are present public discourse. Honest historians and fair-minded observers will acknowledge eight undeniable and sometimes uncomfortable truths:
1. THE FOUNDERS NEVER “WANTED TO ESTABLISH A SECULAR NATION.” In fact, they repeatedly and insistently averred that the survival of liberty and the prosperity of the United States required a deeply religious society and a populace passionately committed to organized faith. In his Farewell Address of 1797, President Washington (who had also served as presiding officer of the Constitutional Convention) unequivocally declared that “reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle…Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports.” His successor as president, John Adams (also known as “The Atlas of Independence”) wrote to his wife Abigail in 1775: “Statesmen may plan and speculate for liberty, but it is Religion and Morality alone which can establish the principles upon which freedom can securely stand.
A patriot must be a religious man.” Thomas Jefferson, who disagreed with Adams on so many points of policy, clearly concurred with him on this essential principle. “God who gave us life gave us liberty,” he wrote in 1781. “And can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are of the Gift of God?” Jefferson’s friend and colleague, James Madison (acclaimed as “The Father of the Constitution”) declared that “religion is the basis and Foundation of Government,” and later (1825, after retiring from the Presidency) wrote that “the belief in a God All Powerful, wise and good…. is essential to the moral order of the World and the happiness of men.”
Far from insisting on a “secular nation,” the founders clearly believed that any reduction in the public’s fervent and near universal Christian commitment would bring disastrous results to the experiment in self-government they had sacrificed so much to launch. Elias Boudinot of New Jersey, who served as President of the Continental Congress in the last stages of the Revolution (1782-83 wrote: “Our country should be preserved from the dreadful evil of becoming enemies of the religion of the Gospel, which I have no doubt, but would be the introduction of the dissolution of government and the bonds of civil society.”
2. THE FOUNDERS DIDN’T EVEN WANT A SECULAR GOVERNMENT, AS WE UNDERSTAND THAT PHRASE TODAY. John Marshall, the father of American Jurisprudence and for 34 epochal years (1801-35) the Chief Justice of the United States, wrote: “The American population is entirely Christian, and with us Christianity and Religion are identified. It would be strange indeed, if with such a people, our institutions did not presuppose Christianity, and did not often refer to it, and exhibit relations with it.” His colleague on the court (1796-1811), Justice Samuel Chase, delivered an opinion (Runkel v. Winemill) in 1799 declaring: “Religion is of general and public concern, and on its support depend, in great measure, the peace and good order of government, the safety and happiness of the people. By our form of government, the Christian religion is the established religion, and all sects and denominations of Christians are placed upon the same equal footing, and are equally entitled to protection in their religious liberty.” These judicial opinions make clear that the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment never constrained early judges from classifying the United States as an enthusiastically Christian society.
In fact, the same Congress that approved the First Amendment gave a clear indication of the way they understood its language when, less than 24 hours after adopting the fateful wording, they passed the following Resolution: “Resolved, that a joint committee of both Houses be directed to wait upon the President of the United States, to request that he would recommend to the people of the United States a day of public thanksgiving and prayer, to be observed by acknowledging, with grateful hearts, the many signal favors of Almighty God, especially by affording them an opportunity peaceable to establish a Constitution of government for their safety and happiness.” It never occurred to this first Congress in 1789 that their call for a government sponsored day of “thanksgiving and prayer” would conflict with the prohibition they had just adopted prohibiting “an establishment of religion.” Not until the infamous Everson decision of 1947 did the Supreme Court create the doctrine of a “wall of separation between church and state,” quoting (out of context) from an 1802 letter from Thomas Jefferson to the Danbury Baptist Association. President Jefferson created the image of the wall in order to reassure the Baptists that government would never interfere with their religious life, but he never suggested that religion would have no role in government. In 1803, in fact, Jefferson recommended to Congress the approval of a treaty that provided government funds to support a Catholic priest in ministering to the Kaskaskia Indians.
Three times he signed extensions of another measure described as “An Act regulating the grants of land appropriated for Military services and for the Society of the United Brethren for propagating the Gospel among the Heathen.” Jefferson also participated every week in Christian church services in the Capitol Building in Washington DC; until 1866, in fact, the Capitol hosted worship every Sunday and, intermittently, conducted a Sunday school. No one challenged these 71 years of Christian prayer at the very seat of federal power: given the founders' endorsement of the positive role of organized faith, it hardly inspired controversy to convene worship at the Capitol. In fact, at the time of the first Continental Congress, nine of the thirteen original colonies had “established churches” – meaning that they each supported an official denomination, even to the point of using public money for church construction and maintenance. These religious establishments – clearly in contradiction to the idea of a “secular government” – continued in three states long after the adoption of the First Amendment. Connecticut disestablished its favored Congregational Church only in 1818, New Hampshire in 1819, and Massachusetts in 1833.
Amazingly enough, these established churches flourished for nearly fifty years under the constitution despite the First Amendment’s famous insistence that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.” Their existence reflected the fact that the founders never wanted to secularize all of government, but intended rather to allow the states to handle religious issues in their own way while avoiding the imposition of any single federal denomination on the diverse, often quarreling regions of the young nation. Joseph Story, a Supreme Court Justice from 1811 to 1845 (appointed by President Madison) and, as a long-time Harvard professor the leading early commentator on the Constitution, explained the First Amendment with the observation that “the general if not universal sentiment in America was that Christianity ought to receive encouragement from the State so far as was not incompatible with the private rights of conscience and the freedom of religious worship.
An attempt to level all religions, and to make it a matter of state policy to hold all in utter indifference, would have created universal disapprobation, if not universal indignation. The real object of the First Amendment….was to exclude all rivalry among Christian sects, and to prevent any national ecclesiastical establishment which should give to a hierarchy the exclusive patronage of the national government.” As Stephen Mansfield comments in his invaluable book on the Establishment Clause, “Ten Tortured Words,” Justice Story’s “understanding of the meaning of the First Amendment should be taken as definitive.”
3. EARLY SETTLERS DID NOT FLEE ENGLAND AND BUILD NEW WORLD COLONIES IN ORDER TO ESTABLISH “FREEDOM OF RELIGION.” For the most part, those Colonists motivated by religious conviction more than a desire for financial gain wanted to establish faith-based utopias that would be more rigorous and restrictive, not less zealous, than the Mother Country. The Puritans behind the original New England colonies (Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Hampshire) and two later states (Vermont and Maine) wanted strict enforcement of Sabbath rules, mandatory attendance at worship services, tax money to support religious seminaries (prominently including Harvard and Yale), and other rules befitting a “Christian Commonwealth.” If anything, they distrusted the Church of England for its backsliding, corruption and compromises rather than its vigorous imposition of religious standards. Other denominations (Quakers in Pennsylvania, Catholics in Maryland) founded their colonies not to create secular or diverse religious environments, but to provide their own versions of model communities and denominational havens. Among the original colonies, only Roger Williams’ Rhode Island made a consistent priority of religious tolerance and pluralism.
4. THE REVOLUTIONARY GENERATION DID NOT FIGHT TO ESTABLISH “RELIGIOUS FREEDOM” OR A SECULAR SOCIETY. The favored marching tune of the Continental Army wasn’t “Yankee Doodle” (which achieved its wider popularity only after the Revolution) but “Chester,” adapted from a beloved church hymn by Boston composer William Billings. Its words proclaimed: “Let tyrants shake their iron rods/And slaver clank her galling chains/We fear them not, we trust in God/New England’s God forever reigns.” The army’s Commander in Chief felt no discomfort at all with this explicitly religious rhetoric. In 1776, for instance, General George Washington issued the following message to his troops: “The blessing and protection of Heaven are at all times necessary, but especially so in times of public distress and danger. The general hopes and trusts that every officer and man will endeavor to live and act as becomes a Christian soldier, defending the dearest rights and liberties of his country.”
Two years later, Washington proclaimed: “The commander in chief directs that Divine service be performed every Sunday at 11 o’clock, in each brigade which has a Chaplain….While we are duly performing the duty of good soldiers, we certainly ought not to be inattentive to the higher duties of religion. To the distinguished character of a patriot, it should be our highest glory to add the more distinguished character of a Christian.” The war emphasized a long standing difference between America and Europe noted by the leaders of the Patriot faction, future visitors like Alexis de Tocqueville, and even contemporary pollsters and demographers; the United States has always displayed greater religious intensity and fervor than Great Britain or the other nations of Western Europe.
5. THE FOUNDERS WEREN’T ATHEISTS, AGNOSTICS OR SECULARISTS; THEY WERE, ALMOST WITHOUT EXCEPTION, DEEPLY SERIOUS CHRISTIANS. The comments of John Adams might count as typical of the Revolutionary generation. In a July, 1796 diary entry, the then-Vice President of the United States declared: “The Christian religion is, above all the religions that ever prevailed or existed in ancient or modern times, the religion of wisdom, virtue, equity and humanity….” He strongly supported the use of tax money in Massachusetts to support church construction and religious instruction. Dr. Benjamin Rush, signer of the Declaration of Independence and leading Colonial physician, in 1800 wrote sketches of his colleagues in the Continental Congress in which he evaluated them based on their personal religiosity.
About Sam Adams of Massachusetts he wrote: “He considered national happiness and the public patronage of religion as inseparably connected; and so great was his regard for public worship, and the means of promoting religion, that he constantly attended divine service in the German church in York town while Congress sat there, when there was no service in their chapel, although he was ignorant of the German language.” About Sam’s cousin John Adams, Rush wrote: “He was strictly moral, and at all times respectful to Religion.” Of Roger Sherman of Connecticut, Rush observed: He was not less distinguished for his piety than his patriotism. He once objected to a motion for Congress sitting on a Sunday upon an occasion which he thought did not require it, and gave as a reason for his objection a regard of the commands of his Maker.” Rush praised his Pennsylvania colleague James Wilson who “had been educated for a clergyman in Scotland and was a profound and accurate scholar,” and Charles Thompson as “a man of great learning and general knowledge, at all times a genuine Republican, and in the evening of his life a sincere Christian.”
Of course, many of the Founding Fathers held religious beliefs that challenged the Orthodoxy of their day, but they continued the assiduous study of the Bible (as a lifelong passion in the case of Jefferson and Franklin) and showed little sympathy for the excesses of the French Revolution with its denunciation of Christianity of proclamation of a new “Age of Reason.” Even the most radical of the Founders, pamphleteer Thomas Paine, would fit more comfortably with today’s religious conservatives than with the secular militants who seek to claim his as one of their own. This restless Revolutionary traveled to France to take part in their Revolution and wrote a scandalous book “The Age of Reason,” which proclaimed his “Deism” while attacking traditional Christian doctrine—a position that alienated and offended virtually all of his former American comrades (including many who have been mistakenly identified as “Deists” themselves). Nevertheless, in 1797 he delivered a speech to a learned French society insisting that schools must concentrate on the study of God, presenting his arguments with an eloquent insistence on recognizing the Almighty that would delight James Dobson of Focus on the Family, but mortally offend the secular militants of the ACLU.
“It has been the error of the schools to teach astronomy, and all the other sciences and subjects of natural philosophy, as accomplishments only; whereas they should be taught theologically, or with reference to the Being who is the author of them: for all the principles of science are of Divine origin,” Thomas Paine declaimed. “Man cannot make, or invent, or contrive principles. He can only discover them; and he ought to look through the discovery to the Author.
When we examine an extraordinary piece of machinery, an astonishing pile of architecture, a well executed statue or a highly finished painting where life and action are imitated, and habit only prevents our mistaking a surface of light and shade for cubical solidity, our ideas are naturally led to think of the extensive genius and talents of the artist. When we study the elements of geometry, we think of Euclid. When we speak of gravitation, we think of Newton. How then is it, that when we study the works of God in the creation, we stop short, and do not think of God? It is from the error of the schools in having taught those subjects as accomplishments only, and thereby separated the study of them from the Being who is the author of them.” In short, even the least religiously committed of the founders wanted to approach public education in a manner that would deeply offend today’s uncompromising separationists, and those who ludicrously claim that the designers of our Constitution intended a “secular nation.”
The ludicrous indignation about Senator McCain’s recent remarks remains an expression of both ignorance and intolerance, and a mean-spirited refusal to recognize the simple truth in his statements. The framers may not have mentioned Christianity in the Constitution, but they clearly intended that charter of liberty to govern a society of fervent faith, freely encouraged by government for the benefit of all. Their noble and unprecedented experiment never involved a religion-free or faithless state but did indeed presuppose America’s unequivocal identity as a Christian nation.