One of my interests is the role of Christian belief in the Founding of America. My reading convinces me that our Founders, all members of Christian denominations, fashioned our Nation in accordance with Christian thought. Over my lifetime (I was born in 1953), under the guise of the “separation of church and state,” America has dramatically reduced its reliance on Christian belief in its law and culture. Our society is poorer for this change.
Faith of the Settlers
America’s Christian roots go back to the beginning. According to the Mayflower Compact (1620), William Bradford and the Pilgrims traveled west “for the glory of God and the advancement of the Christian faith.” Europeans considered it part of their mission to spread the Good News of Jesus Christ to those who lived in darkness, i.e., the Native Americans. The King granted William Penn a charter to settle Pennsylvania because of his “commendable desire to . . . [convert] the savage natives by gentle and just manners to the love of civil society and Christian religion. . . .” The first united government in the colonies was the New England Federation (1643), which declared: “[W]e all came into these parts of America with one and the same end and aim, namely to advance the kingdom of our Lord Jesus Christ.”
Catholic missionaries settled along the St. Lawrence River, Texas, New Orleans, Florida, and along the Camino Real in California. The names of their missions live to this day: San Diego, Los Angeles, San Francisco, San Antonio, and St. Augustine, to name a few.
The first laws for public education of children were in Massachusetts (1642) and Connecticut (1647). Their purpose was to teach children to read Scripture. The settlers viewed illiteracy as evil because it denied access to the Bible. In America’s first public schools, the Bible was the chief textbook.
Faith of our Founders
In 1776 our Founders signed the Declaration of Independence, which declared to the world: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” They trusted on God to protect them against the grave danger they invited by signing their names to this revolutionary document: “And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor.” Of the 56 signers of the Declaration of Independence, 24 (nearly half) held seminary degrees.
Two months before the Declaration, the Continental Congress designated May 17, 1776, as “a day of humiliation, fasting and prayer; that we may with united hearts confess and bewail our manifold sins and transgressions and, by a sincere repentance and amendment of life . . . and through the merits and mediation of Jesus Christ, obtain His pardon and forgiveness.”
During the Revolutionary War, when the British embargo made it impossible for the colonists to import Bibles, the Continental Congress organized the printing of a Bible in America bearing this endorsement: “Whereupon, Resolved, That the United States in Congress assembled . . . recommend this edition of the Bible to the inhabitants of the United States.”
Following Colonial victory in 1781, Congress set aside a time to thank God: “Resolved, That Congress will at two o’clock this day go in procession to the Dutch Lutheran Church and return thanks to Almighty God for crowning the allied arms of the United States and France with success by the surrender of the whole British Army under the command of the Earl Cornwallis.”
The Founders ratified the Constitution in 1789. They created a government of limited powers and checks and balances because our Founders understood Man to be fallen. They comprehended the tendency of men in power to seek greater power, and so separated the powers of the federal government into three branches.
When George Washington was sworn in as our first President, his first official act was a prayer: "It would be peculiarly improper to omit, in this first official act, my fervent supplications to that Almighty Being who rules over the universe. . . . No people can be bound to acknowledge and adore the Invisible Hand which conducts the affairs of men more than those of the United States.”
On September 25, 1789, Congress requested that President Washington recommend 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 peaceably to establish a Constitution of government. . . .” Congress made this request the very same day it approved the First Amendment, which provides: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof. . . .” Obviously, our Founders did not consider encouraging public thanksgiving and prayer to be an establishment of religion.
In fact, our Founders made many public statements about the importance of religious morality in a free country. George Washington said, “Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports.” Our second President, John Adams, said, “Religion and virtue are the only foundations . . . of republicanism and of all free governments.” John Jay (one of the authors of the Federalist Papers) declared it “the duty of all wise, free, and virtuous governments to countenance and encourage virtue and religion.”
Contemporaneous with the Constitution, the Founders adopted the Northwest Ordinance, which provided for six new states northwest of Ohio River (OH, IN, IL, MI, WI, MN). They emphasized that schools in the territories must teach religious morality: “Religion, morality, and knowledge, being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged.” Today, of course, our public schools are forbidden to teach or encourage religious belief.
Separation of Church and State
In a letter to a Baptist congregation in Danbury, Connecticut, President Thomas Jefferson stated that the First Amendment would make it impossible for the federal government to interfere with their religious faith. “Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between man and his God; that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship; and that the legislative powers of government reach actions only and not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people [the Constitution] which declared that their legislature should ‘make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,’ thus building a wall of separation between Church and State.” Jefferson intended the wall of separation to protect religion from governmental interference, not to prohibit government policy from relying on Biblical teachings. Unfortunately, in our lifetimes the wall of separation has been abused by those who would make America a secularist country. Supreme Court rulings have used “separation of church and state” to mean that government may not base laws upon religious principles, but must adopt laws only for secular purposes. In public schools, the Court has condemned voluntary prayer, Bible reading, and the posting of the Ten Commandments as impermissible governmental encouragement of religion.
The effect of the Court’s purge of religion from our law has been profound. If religion is no longer a valid basis for lawmaking, then religious arguments may not be used to justify laws against contraception (Griswold v. Connecticut, 1965), abortion (Roe v. Wade, 1973) or homosexual conduct (Lawrence v. Texas, 2003).
The current battleground is marriage. In a nation that no longer allows religion to justify law, can Biblical marriage be protected? Let us continue to pray and work to defend our values, faith, and freedom.