Forsaken Roots is an anonymously written paper based, as the author explains, upon a thesis that “Revisionists have rewritten history to remove the truth about our country’s Christian roots.” But because this anonymous author provides no documentation whatsoever in support the “facts” claimed in his paper, it is reasonable to ask, “Has this author presented his reader with an honest and factual accounting of history or is he simply propagandizing?” The answer to that question is the focus of this paper.
Some readers may prefer to go directly to the Point-by-Point Analysis of Forsaken Roots and skip the Introduction altogether. In doing so, be reminded that if you have questions about anything you read in this paper, you may find those answers in the Introduction. The reader should find the following helpful in assessing the value and validity of my critique.
A Reader’s Guide Authenticating Quotes
When contradictory quotations are given for the same source, the following three rules will help you decide which of the two is the most reliable:
- A quotation with a cited authority should be considered more reliable than one having none at all.
- If each quote has a cited authority, the quotation having more respected authority of the two should be considered the more reliable one.
- A quotation attributed to an individual that is found in his certified personal papers or public documents is more reliable than one that is not.
About the Establishment Clause
The Establishment Clause is found the First Amendment to our Constitution and says, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, ….” In the case of Lemon v. Kurtzman-1971, the Supreme Court set the following guidelines to use as a test of compliance with the Establishment Clause:
- A statute [or public policy] must have a secular legislative purpose
- The principal effect of the statute [or policy] must neither advance nor inhibit religion
- The statute [or policy] must not foster “excessive [government] entanglement with religion”
Knowing how the courts interpret the Establishment Clause will help you better understand the issues under discussion.
While the anonymous author’s lack of cited authority is a real concern, the more serious criticism of his work is that he has purposely edited quotes from existing historical documents to change their meaning; Washington’s Farewell Address and John Adams’ Address to the Military are two of the more egregious examples. There are many other problems with this work but the redactions of actual documents alone is enough to cast doubt on the reliability of the entire document and to question the motivations of its author (perhaps the author wished to remain anonymous because of his redactions).
One who is truly intent upon correcting the historical record does not set the record straight by falsifying documents or by making unsubstantiated claims and then calling them facts. This author seems to be motivated not by genuine concern for the protection of religious liberties in America but instead by a malicious desire to instill in the reader’s mind an unnecessary and unwarranted fear and distrust in our government and our law courts.
The goal of my critique therefore is to expose the redactions and inaccurate claims made by this anonymous author and in the process to provide a documented historical look back at the political and religious origins of America.
Religious Faith vs. Religious Freedom
There is no doubt that our Founding Fathers were religious men who shared a common belief in a monotheistic God and the majority of them were Christians But there were among the principal Founding Fathers many who were not of the Christian faith at all (they were often either Unitarians or Deists). For example some of the notable non-Christian Founding Fathers were: John Adams (Unitarian), Thomas Jefferson (Unitarian), James Madison (Deist), Benjamin Franklin (Deist), Thomas Paine (Deist) and Ethan Allen (Deist).
Remarkably, it was not religious “sameness” the founders sought but religious freedom for men of differing faiths. It was their religious differences that brought us a Constitution that guaranteed religious freedoms for all – a constitution that created the instruments of government and at the same time barred that government from making any law “respecting any establishments of religion or inhibiting an individual’s right to freely exercise his religious beliefs.” They created a “secular” government; one that was legally forbidden to enact any law or policy that would advance or inhibit religious belief.
Because Christianity represented the religious denominational majority, one might think that the subject of religious differences was not of great concern to the Founding Fathers. But even among Christians, religious differences were significant enough that numerous Christian denominational sects existed. And these differences, however small, were nevertheless of concern as James Madison wisely forewarned:
“Who does not see that the same authority which can establish Christianity, in exclusion of all other religions, may establish with the same ease any particular sect of Christians, in exclusion of all other sects?”– James Madison, A Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments, addressed to the Virginia General Assembly, June 20, 1785.
Finally, affirming and enabling a secular Constitutional Government did not mean that our Founding Fathers intended to leave their religious faith behind as they looked to the future promise of our newly born republic. That future promise was oft expressed by these men in the language of their own religious faith. Moreover, a Christian man might very well prefer an office holder to be a Christian like himself just as a Deist might prefer another Deist or a Unitarian another Unitarian. Therefore, and this is very important, we cannot say some two hundred years later that one Founding Father or another did not intend the secular nature of our Constitutional Republic because of how he expressed himself in these religious ways.
The American History Timeline
When analyzing the traditional relationship between religion and government in American history, it is essential to keep in mind that our history is divided into a pre-Constitution era and a post-Constitution era. The insinuation of religion in government was commonplace in pre-Constitutional American and notably uncommon in post-Constitutional America.
Today it is popular among some religiously minded Americans to believe that secular influences and liberal courts are undermining the close nexus between religion and government that was originally intended by our Founding Fathers. But their viewpoint reflects a pre-Constitutional perspective and the evidence offered in support of this view is always dated prior to 1789 before our Constitution was finally ratified into law. Failing to understand the differences in pre and post-Constitutional American history is probably a major contributor to the angst that these individuals feel.
Unfortunately too many of today’s contemporary religious leaders are themselves guilty of perpetuating this angst because they fail to recognize or accept that in post-Constitutional America, the church cannot have the same prominent position in the affairs of state that it once did in the pre-Constitutional era. The litmus test that will serve you best, therefore, is to categorize any citing of authority as being either pre-Constitutional or post-Constitutional history and, when all is said and done, make up your own mind based upon the facts then in evidence.
For an excellent essay on the colonial debates about religion and government and the Baptist evangelical support of a separation of church and state, I suggest that you read “The Framers and the Faithful” by Steven Waldman. Steven Waldman is editor in chief ofBeliefnet, the leading faith and spirituality website and a Washington Monthly contributing editor. He is writing a book on religion and the Founding Fathers.
In the Point-by-Point Analysis below, the quotations in red type-face are taken directly from the Forsaken Roots paper. My comments follow in black type-face.
Did you know that 52 of the 55 signers of the Declaration of Independence were orthodox deeply committed Christians? The other three all believed in the Bible as the divine truth, the God of scripture, and His personal intervention.
There are two errors in fact and one error in implication here. The first error in fact is that the number of signers was fifty-six not fifty-five. The second error in fact concerns the non-Christian signers. At least one was undeclared or possibly a Deist (Benjamin Franklin) and two were Unitarians (Thomas Jefferson and John Adams). Deists do not believe that God is concerned with the worldly affairs of man or that the Bible is God’s word and Unitarians reject the Christian doctrine of the Holy Trinity.
The error in implication is that the signers were declaring independence from Great Britain in order to form a self-governed “Christian” country. As discussed in my Introduction that was not our Founding Fathers’ goal at all.
The Declaration of Independence does reveal the religious nature of our Founding Fathers but also note that in the entire document, there are only two religious references made and they were carefully expressed in non-denominational language. The word “God” appears only once: “….the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, ……”. “Nature’s God” was how Deists often referred to God by way of comparison to the Christian notion of a triune god. And the word “Creator” appears only once: “……that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, …..” This was clearly intended as a rejection of the royalist claim to the “divine right of kings”. You will not find any of the following words in the Declaration: “Christ”, “Christianity”, “Bible”, “Ten Commandments” or “Decalogue” which would have certainly been there had a Christian government been the Founders’ goal.
It is the same congress that formed the American Bible Society. Immediately after creating the Declaration of Independence, the Continental Congress voted to purchase and import 20,000 copies of scripture for the people of this nation.
Here is the more complete history. The Aitken Bible was the particular Bible endorsed by this Congress. The war with Britain cut off the supply of Bibles to the United States with the result that on Sept 11, 1777 , Congress instructed its Committee of Commerce to import 20,000 Bibles from ” Scotland , Holland or elsewhere.” On January 21, 1781 , Philadelphia printer Robert Aitken (1734 – 1802) petitioned Congress to officially sanction a publication of the Old and New Testament which he was preparing at his own expense.
“The Congress voted to, ‘..highly approve the pious and laudable undertaking of Mr. Aitken, as subservient to the interest of religion .. in this country …’ and recommended this edition of the bible to the inhabitants of the United States.”, September 12, 1782 , endorsing Robert Aitken’s Bible [page 468 – 469].
The date of this Continental Congressional resolution is 1782 in the pre-Constitutional period seven years before our Constitution was ratified and implemented in 1789. Congress then was not subject to the same laws, specifically the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, that governs our Congress today. Therefore the Continental Congressional legislative action cannot be used as a model for our Congress to follow today.
Patrick Henry, who is called the firebrand of the American Revolution, is still remembered for his words, “Give me liberty or give me death.” But in current textbooks the context of these words is deleted. Here is what he said: “An appeal to arms and the God of hosts is all that is left us. But we shall not fight our battle alone. There is a just God that presides over the destinies of nations. The battle sir, is not of the strong alone. Is life so dear or peace so sweet as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it almighty God. I know not what course others may take, but as for me, give me liberty, or give me death.” These sentences have been deleted from our school textbooks.
Here again is an error in fact and an error in implication. The error in fact is that this famous Patrick Henry speech has not been erased from public school text books; at least it hasn’t been erased from the history textbook used by the Los Gatos Union School District schools in California. Their history textbook is entitled The Americans a History and is published by McDougal Little/Houghton Mifflin. The full and unedited text of Henry’s speech appears on page 125 of this textbook.
The error in implication is that Henry’s speech was stricken from public school textbooks because it makes references to God. But our courts have never ruled that public schools cannot recognize the impact that religion and the belief in a God or gods has had in the history of the world. Teaching about the role religion has played in history is not a violation of the Establishment Clause whereas teaching denominational religious dogma is.
Was Patrick Henry a Christian? The following year, 1776, he wrote this “It cannot be emphasized too strongly or too often that this great nation was founded not by religionists, but by Christians; not on religious, but on the Gospel of Jesus Christ. For that reason alone, people of other faiths have been afforded freedom of worship here?”
I am confident that Patrick Henry was a Christian based upon letters and documents written by him although I have not found this particular quote among any of Henry’s papers available to the public. David Barton publisher of the WallBuilders, an evangelical group that denies the separation of church and state, agrees that there is no evidence that Patrick Henry ever said this.
Nevertheless, we can still ask the question, “Of what importance would it be if he had said it?” Prior to the Constitution, the Founding Fathers deliberated for years about what role religion in general and Christianity in particular should play in the affairs of government. It was an not an easily settled issue and Henry may well have believed in 1776, some thirteen years before the Constitution was ratified, that America should be founded as a Christian nation.
But regardless of the personal opinions of Patrick Henry, we are interested in how the Founding Fathers would ultimately decide the character of the relationship between religion and government. In 1779, Thomas Jefferson drafted The Virginia Act for Establishing Religious Freedom but it was not passed by the General Assembly of the Commonwealth of Virginia until 1786 a year after Patrick Henry introduced a bill that would have assessed all Virginia citizens in support of the teaching of religion.
James Madison’s wrote his now famous Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments (1785) in opposition to Henry’s proposed bill. The ideas expressed in that paper were so compelling that the Virginia General Assembly voted overwhelmingly to support Jefferson’s bill over that of Patrick Henry’s. Below are some of the important philosophies Madison brought to the forefront on the subject of religion and government:
“We maintain therefore that in matters of Religion, no man’s right is abridged by the institution of Civil Society and that religion is wholly exempt from its cognizance.” and “Because Religion be exempt from the authority of the society at large, still less can it be subject to that of the Legislative Body.” and “Because finally, the equal right of every citizen to the free exercise of his Religion according to the dictates of conscience is held by the same tenure with all our other rights.“
Madison’s Memorial and Remonstrance was the seminal work that led to the protection of American religious liberties through a separation of church and state. The ideas he expressed there were later reflected in Amendment 1 of the Bill of Rights which reads as follows (underlining is my own):
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof(1); or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.“
In another example of our Founding Fathers thinking, Thomas Jefferson himself recalls the following incident:
“…an amendment was proposed by inserting the words, ‘Jesus Christ…the holy author of our religion,’ which was rejected ‘By a great majority in proof that they meant to comprehend, within the mantle of its protection, the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and the Mahometan (Mohammedan), the Hindoo (Hindu) and the Infidel of every denomination.’ ” — Thomas Jefferson, Autobiography, 1821
In the pre-Constitutional era, Henry may have expressed his preference for a Christian government, but by 1789, the Founding Fathers obviously thought differently because they signed into law the Constitution and the Bill of Rights which established the secular Constitutional Republic we have inherited.
(1) This prohibition is often narrowly interpreted by Christian Fundamentalists as meaning only to prevent the Federal Government from” establishing” a state approved religion in the same way, for instance, that the government of England has established the Anglican Church as the official Church of England. But they are wrong and there are good arguments to support my contention.
Perhaps the simplest argument against the Fundamentalist interpretation is to recognize that this introductory prohibition of the First Amendment says nothing about “establishing” anything. It does, however say that the Federal Government may not enact any laws (and later interpreted to include any policies) that would bring religious establishments, as a group, under the control or auspices of the government. Hence, by parsing the sentence, it is clear that the word “establishment”, is being used as a collective noun that is intended to include all establishments of religion in the same way, for instance, that commerce laws might include all establishments of business. .
We can also argue for this interpretation by reading what Madison himself wrote about his opposition to public taxation for support of religions. In his Memorial and Remonstrance, Madison said, “Who does not see ……. that the same authority which can force a citizen to contribute three pence only of his property for the support of any one establishment, may force him to conform to any other establishment in all cases whatsoever?”
Clearly, the Founding Fathers never intended for the First Amendment to be applied in the narrow context that Fundamentalists have attributed to it today.
Consider these words that Thomas Jefferson wrote on the front of his well-worn Bible: “I am a Christian, that is to say a disciple of the doctrines of Jesus. I have little doubt that our whole country will soon be rallied to the unity of our Creator and, I hope, to the pure doctrine of Jesus also.”
It is clearly a fabricated attribution since Thomas Jefferson was a self-professed Unitarian. He wrote the following:
“I trust there is not a young man now living in the United States who will not die a Unitarian.” — Thomas Jefferson, letter to Waterhouse, June 26, 1822.
Consider these words from George Washington, the Father of our Nation, in his farewell speech on September 19, 1796 :
“It is impossible to govern the world without God and the Bible. Of all the dispositions and habits that lead to political prosperity, our religion and morality are the indispensable supporters. Let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion. Reason and experience both forbid us to expect that our national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.”
This is one of the most disturbing claims made by the anonymous authors because he has redacted the original text of Washington’s Farewell Address by adding the following words of his own: “It is impossible to govern the world without God and the Bible.” The full text of Washington’s Farewell Address is available here so you can compare the anonymous authors quote to the original text of Washington’s speech.
Below is the excerpt from Washington’s address that contains the other language in the quote given above:
“Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports. In vain would that man claim the tribute of patriotism, who should labor to subvert these great pillars of human happiness, these firmest props of the duties of men and citizens. The mere politician, equally with the pious man, ought to respect and to cherish them. A volume could not trace all their connections with private and public felicity. Let it simply be asked: Where is the security for property, for reputation, for life, if the sense of religious obligation desert the oaths which are the instruments of investigation in courts of justice ? And let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.”
Reading the entire passage in context, it becomes clear that Washington believed, as many do today, that our religious institutions are a primary source for the teaching of morality. But Washington never said, “It is impossible to govern the world without God and the Bible.”
Was George Washington a Christian? Consider these words from his personal prayer book: “Oh, eternal and everlasting God, direct my thoughts, words and work. Wash away my sins in the immaculate blood of the lamb and purge my heart by the Holy Spirit. Daily, frame me more and more in the likeness of thy son, Jesus Christ, that living in thy fear, and dying in thy favor, I may in thy appointed time obtain the resurrection of the justified unto eternal life. Bless, O Lord, the whole race of mankind and let the world be filled with the knowledge of thy son, Jesus Christ.”
George Washington was very reticent about disclosing his personal religious beliefs so we really don’t know for sure what he believed. He was a member of the Episcopal Church and served on the church’s vestry so I think that entitles us to assume that he was a Christian at least by association. But as to his being a “devout” Christian you can read below what his own Bishop has to say about him. As to the “prayer book”, it is not in evidence among Washington’s Papers and many American History Scholars are doubtful of the prayer’s authenticity. Some of the facts of that controversy are also discussed below.
The Bishop’s Opinion:
As to whether Washington was a devout or pious Christian, here is what Bishop White the father of the Protestant Episcopal Church of America opines. In response to a letter dated Fredericksburg , Aug. 13, 1835 , Colonel Mercer sent Bishop White the following inquiry relative to this question:
“I have a desire, my dear Sir, to know whether Gen. Washington was a communicant of the Protestant Episcopal church, or whether he occasionally went to the communion only, or if ever he did so at all. … No authority can be so authentic and complete as yours on this point.“
To this inquiry Bishop White replied as follows:
” Philadelphia , Aug. 15, 1835 .
Dear Sir: In regard to the subject of your inquiry, truth requires me to say that Gen. Washington never received the communion in the churches of which I am the parochial minister. Mrs. Washington was an habitual communicant. …. I have been written to by many on that point, and have been obliged to answer them as I now do you. I am respectfully.
Your humble servant,
(Memoir of Bishop White, pp. 196, 197).”
In the absence of any recorded statements from Washington himself concerning his religious belief, the most conclusive evidence that can be presented is the admissions of his clerical acquaintances. Among these there has been preserved the testimony of his pastors, Bishop White and Dr. Abercromble.
In a letter to Rev. B.C.C. Parker of Massachusetts, dated Nov. 28, 1832 , in answer to some inquiries respecting Washington’s religion, Bishop White says:
“His behavior [in church] was always serious and attentive, but as your letter seems to intend an inquiry on the point of kneeling during the service, I owe it to the truth to declare that I never saw him in the said attitude. … Although I was often in company with this great man, and had the honor of dining often at his table, I never heard anything from him which could manifest his opinions on the subject of religion. … Within a few days of his leaving the presidential chair, our vestry waited on him with an address prepared and delivered by me. In his answer he was pleased to express himself gratified by what he had heard from our pulpit; but there was nothing that committed him relatively to religious theory” (“Memoir of Bishop White,” pp. 189-191; Sparks’ “Life of Washington,” Vol. ii., p. 359)
The Prayer Book and Prayer Controversy:
I consulted three authorities:(1) TruthorFiction.com (which quotes from John C. Fitzpatrick’s collection of the writings of George Washington at the University of Virginia) ; (2) George Washington Resources: The Writings of George Washington from theOriginal Manuscript Sources 1745-1799 at the University of Virginia Library; and (3) the George Mason University History Department;
“There is a certain lack of integrity with the prayer …. in that he (Washington) never really formally prayed it in the way that is circulated. Someone along the way decided to create the prayer from one of Washington’s letters and packaged it in the fabricator’s own religious cultural language. The original words from Washington are from the closing paragraph of a letter to the governors of the 13 states on the occasion of his retirement from command of the Continental Army and public life.
We consulted John C. Fitzpatrick’s collection of the writings of George Washington that are available through the University of Virginia Library and which includes the text of the letter. In the letter, Washington said that he wanted the governors to convey his words to their legislatures and that he hoped it would be regarded as coming from someone who always wished to be useful to his country and who in the shade of retirement would not fail to “implore divine benediction upon it.”
Then his final paragraph contains the words of his benediction:
“I now make it my earnest prayer, that God would have you, and the State over which you preside, in his holy protection, that he would incline the hearts of the Citizens to cultivate a spirit of subordination and obedience to Government, to entertain a brotherly affection and love for one another, for their fellow Citizens of the United States at large, and particularly for their brethren who have served in the Field, and finally, that he would most graciously be pleased to dispose us all, to do Justice, to love mercy, and to demean ourselves with that Charity, humility and pacific temper of mind, which were the Characteristics of the Divine Author of our blessed Religion, and without an humble imitation of whose example in these things, we can never hope to be a happy Nation.”
“The prayer that is circulated, however, adds a formal salutation and prayer ending, changes it to King James English (used for formal prayers among many Christian groups), changes some of the wording, and leaves out words from the original. A blessing that was written to the governors of the states about their states and their soldiers was changed to be a general prayer about the country. We even found one reference that claimed the prayer was prayed by George Washington during battle at Valley Forge.”
”George Mason University – the origins of popular legends about Washington, I found the following:
“Mason Locke Weems manufactured stories to establish Washington as a pious Christian, a man who succeeded in part because he prayed for God’s blessing. Weems was a parson, and his inaccuracies (including the moralistic “I can not tell a lie” tale about cutting down a cherry tree) have shaped the perspective of Washington for two centuries now. Many modern writers still repeat second-hand information of questionable reliability to describe Washington as a traditional Protestant. The individuals who describe Washington’s life as one marked by prayer and steady attendance at church are often advocates of a religious perspective, proselytizing the perspective of a particular denomination or at least trying to shape American society so more people attend church regularly.”
Consider these words by John Adams, our second president, who also served as chairman of the American Bible Society. In an address to military leaders he said, “We have no government armed with the power capable of contending with human passions, unbridled by morality and true religion. Our constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”
Here we find the second serious redaction of an existing historical document by the anonymous author together with an error of fact. The redaction in this instance is not an addition of language but rather the deletion of Adams’ own words. What Adams actually said in his Address to the Military on October 11, 1798 was,
“We have no government armed with power capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion. Avarice, ambition, revenge, or gallantry, would break the strongest cords of our Constitution as a whale goes through a net. Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.“
The underlined sentence was deleted by the anonymous author to change the emphases of Adams’ message. Read unedited, however, it is clear that Adams holds the view that our freedom is a fragile commodity and cannot survive against a society built on avarice, ambition, revenge or gallantry. It will survive only if Americans steadfastly adhere to moral teaching and conduct. In this context, his reference to religious people is simply to hold them up as models who exemplify moral rectitude.
As to the error of fact, John Quincy Adams (our sixth President) not his father John Adams (our second President) served as chairman of the American Bible Society.
How about our first Court Justice, John Jay? He stated that when we select our national leaders, if we are to preserve our Nation, we must select Christians. ” Providence has given to our people the choice of their rulers and it is the duty as well as the privilege and interest of our Christian Nation to select and prefer Christians for their rulers.”
This quote can be found in The Correspondence and Papers of John Jay, Henry P. Johnston, ed. (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1890), Vol. IV, p. 393, Oct. 12, 1816. Jay’s quote does not go to the intent of our Founding Fathers but it does illustrate two issues discussed in my Introduction. First, the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment says: “Congress shall make no law …. prohibiting the free exercise thereof (religious belief and practice) and it protects every citizen’s right to freedom of religious expression. The Chief Justice made this remark in his personal papers and not as part of an official ruling of the court. Thus he is simply exercising his First Amendment right of free speech and whether you agree or disagree with what he said, his personal opinion does not carry the weight of law.
Second, as I said before in the Introduction, “….a Christian man might very well prefer an officer holder to be a Christian like himself just as a Deist might prefer another Deist or a Unitarian another Unitarian.” Most people prefer to vote for someone who shares their own political and religious ideology.
John Quincy Adams, son of John Adams, was the sixth U.S. President. He was also the chairman of the American Bible Society, which he considered his highest and most important role. On July 4, 1821 , President Adams said, “The highest glory of the American Revolution was this: it connected in one indissoluble bond the principles of civil government with the principles of Christianity.”
John Quincy Adams was a Christian (he became our sixth President in 1825 not 1821) but he is unlikely to have made the statement attributed to him. Adams surely must have understood and appreciated the secular nature of our constitutional republic because during his father’s presidency, the Senate ratified the Treaty of Tripoli on June 10, 1779. Article 11 of this treaty states (“bolding” is my own):
“As the government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian Religion, as it has in itself no character on enmity against the laws, religion or tranquility of Musselmen, as the said States never have entered into any war or act of hostility against any Mahomet nation, it is declared by the parties that no pretext arising from religious opinions shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries.“
Moreover, the statement attributed to Adams does not fit within the meaning of the Establishment Clause and therefore does not accurately reflect the intent of the Founding Fathers as evidenced by the Constitution and Bill of Rights that they wrote and ratified in 1789.
Calvin Coolidge, our 30th President of the United States reaffirmed this truth when he wrote, “The foundations of our society and our government rest so much on the teachings of the Bible that it would be difficult to support them if faith in these teachings would cease to be practically universal in our country.”
I have not tried to verify the attribution of this statement to Coolidge because, whether accurate or not, there is absolutely no reaffirmation of truth in it. President Coolidge is simply exercising his freedom of speech with no greater consequence than achieved by Justice Jay’s opinion.
In 1782, the United States Congress voted this resolution: “The congress of the United States recommends and approves the Holy Bible for use in all schools.”
I could find no authority that records a Congressional Resolution of this nature. It sounds a bit like an adaptation of the 1781 Resolution pertaining to the Aitken’s Bible.
In colonial America, there were no publicly financed schools so public education was provided by churches of various religious denominations. Naturally a Christian school would want to include the teaching of Christianity as a part of the reading, writing and arithmetic curriculum. And colonial governments did debate how they might give financial aid to the churches that were providing the free public education.
James Madison who is credited with drafting much of the language of our Constitution fought against financial support for churches in the Virginia Congress when a bill was introduced in 1785 (by Patrick Henry) to levy a general tax for the support of “Teachers of the Christian Religion.” His argument against this proposed law was so compelling that he successfully prevailed upon the Virginia Congress to reject it in favor of recognizing the need to separate the interests of religious groups from the interests of government. This Virginia law became a model for the Establishment Clause that appears in our Bill of Rights. Reference source – Letter to General Lafayette, November, 1826 (Madison 1865, III, page 543)
Listen to these words of Mr. McDuffie: “The Christian religion is the religion of our country. From it are derived our notions on character of God, on the great moral Governor of the universe. On its doctrines are founded the peculiarities of our free institutions. From no source has the author drawn more conspicuously than from the sacred Scriptures. From all these extracts from the Bible I make no apology.”
A personal opinion may reflect the true beliefs of the speaker but it does not mean conversely that the beliefs of the speaker are necessarily a reflection of the truth. To say that the Christian religion is the religion of our country can be understood in either of two ways. There is truth in the statement if it means that the majority of religious Americans claim Christianity as their faith of choice – there is no truth to the statement if it implies that the United States is a Christian theocratic republic as opposed to a secular constitutional republic.
Of the first 108 universities founded in America, 106 were distinctly Christian, including the first. Harvard University , chartered in 1636. In the original Harvard Student Handbook rule number 1 was that students seeking entrance must know Latin and Greek so that they could study the scriptures ….. Harvard University , chartered in 1636. In the original Harvard Student Handbook rule number 1 was that students seeking entrance must know Latin and Greek so that they could study the scriptures: …. For over 100 years, more than 50% of all Harvard graduates were pastors!
Every private university may establish whatever curriculum it deems necessary to fulfill its educational mandate. How many pastors graduated from Harvard University may be interesting to some but it is hardly relevant to the history of our Founding Fathers’ intent to create a secular Constitutional republic in order to insure preservation of religious freedoms for all Americans.
Religiosity in America may not be as common today as it was in our early history but if it is waning, we must look elsewhere rather than to our government or our courts for the cause. Our government and our courts have continued to protect our religious liberties so the cause cannot be blamed upon a suspension of our religious freedoms contrary to what some Christians may believe.
It is clear from history that the Bible and the Christian faith were foundational in our educational and judicial system. However in 1947, there was a radical change of direction in the Supreme Court. Here is the prayer that was banished:
“Almighty God, we acknowledge our dependence on Thee. We beg Thy blessings upon us and our parents and our teachers and our country. Amen.”
“In this particular claim, the anonymous author is simply wrong. The Supreme Court did not and does not ban religious prayer. The prayer in question was the subject of the Supreme Court case of Engle v Vital in 1963 (not 1947) in which the court held that the Board of Education of Union Free School District No. 9, New Hyde Park, New York could not require the prayer (cited above) to be said aloud by each class in the presence of a teacher at the beginning of each school day “on the ground that these actions of official governmental agencies violate that part of the First Amendment of the Federal Constitution which commands that ‘Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion’ – a command which was made applicable to the State of New York by the Fourteenth Amendment of said Constitution.”
The important distinction to note here is that the courts ruling was an estoppel only against the school administration and did not suspend any public school student’s rights to freedom of religious expression. In other words, a student was free to say the prayer in school if he wished but could not be compelled to do so by the school administrators.
In 1963, the Supreme Court ruled that Bible reading was outlawed as unconstitutional in the public school system. The court offered this justification: “If portions of the New Testament were read without explanation, they could and have been psychologically harmful to children.”
Here again the anonymous author is simply wrong. In fact nearly forty years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in School District of Abington Township vs. Schempp (1960) that public schools may teach about the Bible so long as it is presented in a scholarly way as part of a secular program of education (.i.e. is not being used to teach a particular religious dogma). This is a good point perhaps at which to review the facts about prayer in school as well.
The religious freedoms guaranteed to all Americans by the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment have not been suspended for public school students. The 1969 landmark ruling Tinker v. Des Moines, said that students do not “shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.” So contrary to what many Christians believe about our public schools:
- Students may pray alone or in groups on school property and in school facilities.
- Students may form religious clubs and use school facilities to hold their meetings (Good News Club v Milford, NY school district – Supreme Court June 11, 2001).
- Students may bring their Bible or other religious canon to school and read from it before and after class on school property.
- Students may wear jewelry that depicts religious icons.
The anonymous author makes a further error in implication by suggesting that the court believed “psychological harm to students” comes from Biblical readings. It was instead concerned about the potential harm to non-Christian students who do not include the Bible as part of their religious canon if forced to accept religious teaching that is contrary to their own beliefs.
For those interested in a more comprehensive review of current law about religion in school, the American Jewish Committee has published an excellent paper on the subject entitled Religion in the Public Schools – a primer for students, parents, teachers and school administrators.
Bible reading was now unconstitutional, though the Bible was quoted 94 percent of the time by those who wrote our constitution and shaped our Nation and its system of education and justice and government.
What the anonymous author claims of course is untrue if not somewhat preposterous. We know that reading the Bible or reading the Bible in public school is not unconstitutional. But he cannot, nor can we, say with any specificity how many times those who wrote the Constitution may have quoted from it in their lifetimes.
If the author is suggesting, on the other hand, that the 94% of the Constitution itself was taken from the Bible, then again he is simply wrong. No Biblical scripture was quoted in the Constitution nor will you find anywhere in the Constitution or its Amendments any of the following words: “Bible”, “God”, “Creator”, “Christian” , “Christ”, “Ten Commandments” or “The Decalogue”.
The words “religion” and “religious” each appear only once. The former occurs in Article I of the First Amendment and the latter occurs in Article VI of the Constitution itself. The US Constitution is a secular document that empowers a secular government specifically because our Founding Fathers knew that this was the best way to insure religious freedom for all Americans into perpetuity.
In 1965, the Courts denied as unconstitutional the rights of a student in the public school cafeteria to bow his head and pray audibly for his food. In 1980, Stone vs. Graham outlawed the Ten Commandments in our public schools.
Here again the anonymous author has taken the courts ruling and extended its meaning beyond what the court said. Students may pray audibly in a cafeteria so long as they do not disturb the quiet enjoyment of other non-participating students present there. Common social etiquette and respect for others should have dictated without the courts having to intervene.
In Stone v Graham 449 U.S. 39 1980, Sydell Stone and a number of other parents challenged a Kentucky state law that required the posting of a copy of the Ten Commandments in each public school classroom. They filed a claim against James Graham, the superintendent of public schools in Kentucky.
In a 5-to-4 per curiam decision, the Court ruled that the Kentucky law violated the first part of the test established in Lemon v. Kurtzman (see Foreward above), and thus violated the Establishment Clause of the Constitution. The Court found that a requirement that the Ten Commandments be posted “had no secular legislative purpose” and was “plainly religious in nature.” The Court noted that the Commandments did not confine themselves to arguably secular matters (such as murder, stealing, etc.), but rather concerned matters such as the worship of God and the observance of the Sabbath Day.
Let’s explore this a bit further. Could a student bring a copy of the Ten Commandments to school? Of course and it could be displayed on the wall of the school room when the student religious club meeting was in session provided it was removed when the meeting concluded. The court’s ruling applies only to the school administrators and teachers and did not suspend any of the students religious freedoms.
James Madison, the primary author of the Constitution of the United States, said this: “We have staked the whole future of our new nation, not upon the power of government; far from it. We have staked the future of all our political constitutions upon the capacity of each of ourselves to govern ourselves according to the moral principles of the Ten Commandments.”
One should note that of the Ten Commandments, only four are religious in nature. The remaining six commandments are secular in nature and are not unique to Judaism or Christianity. None of the four religious commandments made it into our Constitution or any of its Amendments. The assertion that we should govern ourselves by these religious moral principles implies a co-existence of government and religion which is forbidden by the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.
Three are two reasons Madison would not have said this. First Madison was a Deist and Deists do not recognize the Bible as being the word of God. Second it was Madison who said,
“Who does not see that the same authority which can establish Christianity, in exclusion of all other religions, may establish with the same ease any particular sect of Christians, in exclusion of all other sects?“– James Madison, A Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments, addressed to the Virginia General Assembly, June 20, 1785.
In the absence of any citing authority for what the anonymous author claims, it seems clear that his quote has been falsely attributed to Madison.
Views of some Past US Presidents
“I believe in an America where the separation of church and state is absolute – where no Catholic prelate would tell the president (should he be Catholic) how to act, and no Protestant minister would tell his parishioners for whom to vote – where no church or church school is granted any public funds or political preference……I believe in an America that is officially neither Catholic, Protestant, nor Jewish; – where no public official either requests or accepts instructions on public policy from the pope, the National Council of Churches, or any other ecclesiastical source – where no religious body seeks to impose its will directly or indirectly upon the general populace or the public acts of its officials.“
John F. Kennedy to the Houston Ministerial Association, September 12, 1960
“We in the United States, above all, must remember that lesson, for we were founded as a nation of openness to people of all beliefs. And so we must remain. Our very unity has been strengthened by our pluralism. We establish no religion in this country, we command no worship, we mandate no belief, nor will we ever. Church and state are, and must remain, separate. All are free to believe or not believe, all are free to practice a faith or not, and those who believe are free, and should be free, to speak of and act on their belief.”
Ronald Reagan to Members of the Congregation of Temple Hillel and Jewish Community Leaders in Valley Stream, New York, 26 October 1984
True religious freedom exists only when government and all of its public agencies are restrained from making any laws or policies that either advance or inhibit religion and religious beliefs. It is precisely this restraint on government that the Founding Fathers intended when they wrote and ratified the First Amendment to our Constitution.
Those who would redact history, in order to claim that the Founders never intended to create a separation of “church and state,” move us inextricably closer to an American theocracy. We need only to look back at European history, as did the Founding Fathers, to see the evils that emerge when government and religion combine to form a public authority. We should therefore remember the words of Abraham Lincoln when he said, “America will never be destroyed from the outside. If we falter, and lose our freedoms, it will be because we destroyed ourselves.“
February 14, 2005