“…no law respecting an establishment of religion”

Americans’ beliefs about the Constitution and their beliefs about the U.S. government’s relationship to religion have been widely debated in recent years by those concerned about the rise of Christian nationalism, the idea that America should be an overtly Christian, not secular, nation in which a certain interpretation of the Bible holds sway

There is a common misunderstanding concerning the religious beliefs of the nation’s Founding Fathers. The majority of the 55 members of the Constitutional Convention were affiliated with the major Christian churches of the day.  The largest number were raised in the three largest Christian traditions of colonial America: Anglicanism in the cases of George Washington, John Jay (first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court), and Edward Rutledge; Presbyterianism in the cases of Richard Stockton and Reverend John Witherspoon; and Congregationalism in the cases of John Adams and Samuel Adams

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Most of the Founders were Theists, who believe in the existence of one God viewed as the creative source of the human race. They shared a belief in a personal God, were familiar with the Bible, and believed in prayer. But acknowledgement of Christ as their personal Savior and acceptance of other Christian beliefs is uncertain.

This is reflected in the writings of the Founders, including George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, Benjamin Franklin, and John Adams. Perhaps that’s why the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution begins with “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.”

Thomas Jefferson, in an 1808 speech to the Virginia Baptists, said, “Because religious belief, or non-belief, is such an important part of every person’s life, freedom of religion affects every individual. Religious institutions that use government power to support themselves and force their views on persons of other faiths undermine all our civil rights [emphasis added]. Moreover, state support of the church tends to make the clergy unresponsive to the people and leads to corruption within religion. Erecting the ‘wall of separation between church and state,’ therefore, is absolutely essential in a free society. We have solved … the great and interesting question whether freedom of religion is compatible with order in government and obedience to the laws. And we have experienced the quiet as well as the comfort which results from leaving everyone to profess freely and openly those principles of religion which are the inductions of his own reason and the serious convictions of his own inquiries.”

George Washington incorporated terms such as “Providence” or “supreme architect” when making speeches or writings. These are Deist ideas, beliefs that God created the universe and established rationally comprehensible moral and natural laws but does not intervene in human affairs. Washington did not use the names “Jesus” or “Christ” in public appearances. “The Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion,” was placed in the 1796 Treaty of Tripoli by the first Vice President, John Adams.

Thomas Paine went so far as to say, “Whenever we read the obscene stories, the voluptuous debaucheries, the cruel and tortuous executions, the unrelenting vindictiveness with which more than half the Bible is filled, it would be more consistent that we call it the word of a demon than the word of God.”

The religious right has long supported conservative causes, but now it wants their particular set of Christian beliefs to be the foundation of our government. The separation of church and state was a “myth,” said Republican Doug Mastriano. “The church is supposed to direct the government, the government is not supposed to direct the church,” said Representative Lauren Boebert, a Republican from Colorado, “I’m tired of this separation of church and state junk.” They may be only the most conspicuous right-wing politicians who explicitly aim to promote Christian power in America (and who obviously never bothered to read the Constitution, which makes no mention of God).

According to a 2021 Pew Research Center survey, some Americans do long for a more avowedly religious and explicitly Christian country. For example, four-in-ten say religious symbols should be allowed on public property. Three-in-ten say public school teachers should be allowed to lead students in Christian prayers (a practice the Supreme Court ruled unconstitutional in 1962). Two-in-ten say that the federal government should stop enforcing the separation of church and state and that the U.S. Constitution was inspired by God. One-in-seven go as far as to say the federal government should declare the U.S. a Christian nation.

But according to Pew Research, a majority of Americans does not accept these opinions; the fringe vying for power is still a minority even among Christians and Republicans. Declaring the United States a Christian nation and ending federal enforcement of the separation of church and state are not widely-held views among adults, according to Pew Research. For example, two-thirds of adults say the Constitution was written by humans and reflects their vision, not necessarily God’s vision. A similar share believes the government should never declare any official religion.

Overall, more than half of U.S. adults express clear support for the principle of separation of church and state. Let us hope the vision of the Founders endures.

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Mark Berg is a community activist in Adams County and a proud Liberal. His email address is MABerg175@Comcast.net.

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Fran K. Ingram
Fran K. Ingram
3 months ago

If what is presented in this article is fact, then why is the USA Congress supporting Israel based on religious reasons? Not ALL US citizens believe Israel is a land promised to Israelis by God through some covenant stated in the Old Testament. Some believe the New Israel is the Kingdom of God promised by Jesus Christ to ALL in the New Testament.

3 months ago

Christian Nationalism is scary and has no precedent in the New Testament at all. Not once did Jesus say to protest the government or anything like it. He said to “Give unto Caesar that which is Caesars.” Humans were human then in the same way they are now, with all the good, bad, and ugly among our species. Christians were those who voluntarily opted to live by their own code, much of which is given to us by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount and the parable of the Sheep and Goats. Christian Nationalists seem to write their own… Read more »

Donald Marritz
Donald Marritz
3 months ago

The Pennsylvania Constitution also applies. Section 3 of the Declaration of Rights says
§ 3. Religious freedom.
All men have a natural and indefeasible right to worship
Almighty God according to the dictates of their own consciences;
no man can of right be compelled to attend, erect or support any
place of worship, or to maintain any ministry against his
consent; no human authority can, in any case whatever, control
or interfere with the rights of conscience, and no preference
shall ever be given by law to any religious establishments or
modes of worship.

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