Jefferson’s Danbury Letter and the Separation of Church and State

A fine video by Professor John Eastman for Praeger University demonstrating how Church State relations today in the United States bears almost no relationship to that envisioned by the Founding Fathers.  The vehicle of this misaprehension has been Thomas Jefferson’ s letter to  a congregation of Baptists in Danbury, Connecticut.  Here is the text of that letter:

To messers. Nehemiah Dodge, Ephraim Robbins,  & Stephen S. Nelson, a committee of the Danbury Baptist association  in the state of Connecticut.

Gentlemen

The affectionate sentiments of esteem and approbation which  you are so good as to express towards me, on behalf of the Danbury Baptist  association, give me the highest satisfaction. my duties dictate a faithful  and zealous pursuit of the interests of my constituents, & in proportion  as they are persuaded of my fidelity to those duties, the discharge of them  becomes more and more pleasing.

Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies  solely between Man & his God, that he owes account to none other for  his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach  actions only, & not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence  that act of the whole American people 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 & State. Adhering to this expression of the supreme will of the  nation in behalf of the rights of conscience, I shall see with sincere satisfaction  the progress of those sentiments which tend to restore to man all his natural  rights, convinced he has no natural right in opposition to his social duties.

I reciprocate your kind prayers for the protection &  blessing of the common father and creator of man, and tender you for yourselves  & your religious association, assurances of my high respect & esteem.

Th Jefferson           Jan. 1. 1802.

It would have astounded Jefferson if he could have foreseen that the Supreme Court would make his letter the cornerstone of errecting a wall of separation between Church and State.  Jefferson did not intend to have the letter be a centerpiece of Constitutional theory, but rather it was a partisan attempt by his to refute Federalist arguments that he was an infidel.  In a brilliant essay, which may be read here, James Hutson, Chief of the Manuscript Division of the Library of Congress, explains the historical background of the letter:

Jefferson heeded Lincoln’s advice, with the result that  he deleted the entire section about thanksgivings and fasts in the Danbury  draft, noting in the left margin that the “paragraph was omitted on  the suggestion that it might give uneasiness to some of our republican friends  in the eastern states where the proclamation of thanksgivings etc. by their  Executives is an antient habit & is respected.” Removed in the  process of revision was the designation of the president’s duties as “merely  temporal”; “eternal” was dropped as a modifier of “wall.”  Jefferson apparently made these changes because he thought the original  phrases would sound too antireligious to pious New England ears.

In gutting his draft was Jefferson playing the hypocrite,  sacrificing his principles to political expediency, as his Federalist opponents  never tired of charging? By no means, for the Danbury Baptist letter was  never conceived by Jefferson to be a statement of fundamental principles;  it was meant to be a political manifesto, nothing more.

Withholding from the public the rationale for his policy  on thanksgivings and fasts did not solve Jefferson’s problem, for his refusal  to proclaim them would not escape the attention of the Federalists and would  create a continuing vulnerability to accusations of irreligion. Jefferson  found a solution to this problem even as he wrestled with the wording of  the Danbury Baptist letter, a solution in the person of the famous Baptist  preacher John Leland, who appeared at the White House on Jan. 1, 1802, to  give the president a mammoth, 1,235-pound cheese, produced by Leland’s parishioners  in Cheshire, Mass.

One of the nation’s best known advocates of religious liberty,  Leland had accepted an invitation to preach in the House of Representatives  on Sunday, Jan. 3, and Jefferson evidently concluded that, if Leland found  nothing objectionable about officiating at worship on public property, he  could not be criticized for attending a service at which his friend was  preaching. Consequently, “contrary to all former practice,” Jefferson  appeared at church services in the House on Sunday, Jan. 3, two days after  recommending in his reply to the Danbury Baptists “a wall of separation  between church and state”; during the remainder of his two administrations  he attended these services “constantly.”

Jefferson’s participation in House church services and  his granting of permission to various denominations to worship in executive  office buildings, where four-hour communion services were held, cannot be  discussed here; these activities are fully illustrated in the forthcoming  exhibition. What can be said is that going to church solved Jefferson’s  public relations problems, for he correctly anticipated that his participation  in public worship would be reported in newspapers throughout the country.  A Philadelphia newspaper, for example, informed its readers on Jan. 23,  1802, that “Mr. Jefferson has been seen at church, and has assisted  in singing the hundredth psalm.” In presenting Jefferson to the nation  as a churchgoer, this publicity offset whatever negative impressions might  be created by his refusal to proclaim thanksgiving and fasts and prevented  the erosion of his political base in God-fearing areas like New England.

Jefferson’s public support for religion appears, however,  to have been more than a cynical political gesture. Scholars have recently  argued that in the 1790s Jefferson developed a more favorable view of Christianity  that led him to endorse the position of his fellow Founders that religion  was necessary for the welfare of a republican government, that it was, as  Washington proclaimed in his Farewell Address, indispensable for the happiness  and prosperity of the people. Jefferson had, in fact, said as much in his  First Inaugural Address. His attendance at church services in the House  was, then, his way of offering symbolic support for religious faith and  for its beneficent role in republican government.

It seems likely that in modifying the draft of the Danbury  Baptist letter by eliminating words like “eternal” and “merely  temporal,” which sounded so uncompromisingly secular, Jefferson was  motivated not merely by political considerations but by a realization that  these words, written in haste to make a political statement, did not accurately  reflect the conviction he had reached by the beginning of 1802 on the role  of government in religion. Jefferson would never compromise his views that  there were things government could not do in the religious sphere — legally  establish one creed as official truth and support it with its full financial  and coercive powers. But by 1802, he seems to have come around to something  close to the views of New England Baptist leaders such as Isaac Backus and  Caleb Blood, who believed that, provided the state kept within its well-appointed  limits, it could provide “friendly aids” to the churches, including  putting at their disposal public property that even a stickler like John  Leland was comfortable using.

Analyzed with the help of the latest technology, the Danbury  Baptist letter has yielded significant new information. Using it to fix  the intent of constitutional documents is limited, however, by well established  rules of statutory construction: the meaning of a document cannot be determined  by what a drafter deleted or by what he did concurrently with the drafting  of a document. But it will be of considerable interest in assessing the  credibility of the Danbury Baptist letter as a tool of constitutional interpretation  to know, as we now do, that it was written as a partisan counterpunch, aimed  by Jefferson below the belt at enemies who were tormenting him more than  a decade after the First Amendment was composed.

Courts are places where arguments are made in an adversarial setting and short shrift is given to facts that do not support the argument that a proponent is making.  In regard to the Danbury letter, shearing off the historical context in which the letter was written, has taken the US down a path of Church State relations that most of the Founding Fathers, including Jefferson, would have regarded as a mistake.

Published in: on May 30, 2013 at 5:30 am  Comments (26)  
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26 Comments

  1. Too many words for our generation of progressives! Too many words! Anything beyond a simple slogan – and one that asserts what they believe – and they will charge you with being a hater and a conservative drone. (Been there, had that done to me.)

    • “and they will charge you with being a hater and a conservative drone.”

      True Fabio, but I am the eternal optimist and believe that the truth usually wins out in the end even against popular lies.

  2. There is no moderate thinking or common sense left in our country. Our founding fathers would be shocked at who their beloved country has become. I have never read the Jefferson’s Danbury Letter, so I really thank you for this blog post. There’s a lot here for me to slowly digest!

    • “There is no moderate thinking or common sense left in our country.”

  3. Eastman offers but a compact collection of common canards. Prager “University” is but a blog site featuring five-minute videos.

    Separation of church and state is a bedrock principle of our Constitution much like the principles of separation of powers and checks and balances. In the Constitution, the founders did not simply say in so many words that there should be separation of powers and checks and balances; rather, they actually separated the powers of government among three branches and established checks and balances. Similarly, they did not merely say there should be separation of church and state; rather, they actually separated them by (1) establishing a secular government on the power of “We the people” (not a deity), (2) saying nothing to connect that government to god(s) or religion, (3) saying nothing to give that government power over matters of god(s) or religion, and (4), indeed, saying nothing substantive about god(s) or religion at all except in a provision precluding any religious test for public office. Given the norms of the day, the founders’ avoidance of any expression in the Constitution suggesting that the government is somehow based on any religious belief was quite a remarkable and plainly intentional choice. They later buttressed this separation of government and religion with the First Amendment, which constrains the government from undertaking to establish religion or prohibit individuals from freely exercising their religions. The basic principle, thus, rests on much more than just the First Amendment.

    That the phrase “separation of church and state” does not appear in the text of the Constitution assumes much importance, it seems, to some who may have once labored under the misimpression it was there and, upon learning they were mistaken, reckon they’ve discovered a smoking gun solving a Constitutional mystery. To those familiar with the Constitution, the absence of the metaphor commonly used to name one of its principles is no more consequential than the absence of other phrases (e.g., Bill of Rights, separation of powers, checks and balances, fair trial, religious liberty) used to describe other undoubted Constitutional principles.

    To the extent that some nonetheless would like confirmation–in those very words–ofthe founders’ intent to separate government and religion, Madison and Jefferson supplied it. Some try to pass off the Supreme Court’s decision in Everson v. Board of Education as simply a misreading of Jefferson’s letter to the Danbury Baptists–as if that were the only basis of the Court’s decision. Instructive as that letter is, it played but a small part in the Court’s decision. Rather, the Court discussed the historical context in which the Constitution and First Amendment were drafted, and only after concluding its analysis did the Court refer–once–to Jefferson’s letter, largely to borrow his famous metaphor as a clever label or summary of its conclusion.

    Perhaps even more than Jefferson, James Madison influenced the Court’s view. Madison, who had a central role in drafting the Constitution and the First Amendment, confirmed that he understood them to “[s]trongly guard[] . . . the separation between Religion and Government.” Madison, Detached Memoranda (~1820). He made plain, too, that they guarded against more than just laws creating state sponsored churches or imposing a state religion. Mindful that even as new principles are proclaimed, old habits die hard and citizens and politicians could tend to entangle government and religion (e.g., “the appointment of chaplains to the two houses of Congress” and “for the army and navy” and “[r]eligious proclamations by the Executive recommending thanksgivings and fasts”), he considered the question whether these actions were “consistent with the Constitution, and with the pure principle of religious freedom” and responded: “In strictness the answer on both points must be in the negative. The Constitution of the United States forbids everything like an establishment of a national religion.”

    • “Prager “University” is but a blog site featuring five-minute videos.”

      Because brick and mortar is so much more important than the quality of ideas expressed.

      “Separation of church and state is a bedrock principle of our Constitution ”

      What a ludicrous statement. The Supreme Court discovered this bedrock principle in 1947.

      “by (1) establishing a secular government on the power of “We the people” (not a deity), (2) saying nothing to connect that government to god(s) or religion”

      I assume that the Declaration of Independence that created the American Union is not on your reading list?

      “Given the norms of the day, the founders’ avoidance of any expression in the Constitution suggesting that the government is somehow based on any religious belief was quite a remarkable and plainly intentional choice.”

      Which of course ignores the many, many invocations of God at the Constitutional Covention, and in the writings of the Founding Fathers, and in legislation passed during the early Congresses providing for chaplains, giving aid to missionaries to Indians, etc. You are deliberately confusing the American Revolution with the French Revolution.

      “To those familiar with the Constitution, the absence of the metaphor commonly used to name one of its principles is no more consequential than the absence of other phrases (e.g., Bill of Rights, separation of powers, checks and balances, fair trial, religious liberty) used to describe other undoubted Constitutional principles.”

      This is an attempt to read back into history the hostility to religion by liberal elites since the early twentieth century. The type of separation of church and state celeberated by current relionphobes was completely foreign to the worldview of the Founders.

      “Madison, Detached Memoranda (~1820).”

      A document that Madison never published during his lifetime, and which indeed was unknown until 1946, and which is contradicted by Madison’s actions as President and his public statements. A weak reed for secularists.

      “March 4, 1815

      By the President of the United States of America
      A Proclamation

      The Senate and House of Representatives of the United States have by a joint resolution signified their desire that a day may be recommended to be observed by the people of the United States with religious solemnity as a day of thanksgiving and of devout acknowledgments to Almighty God for His great goodness manifested in restoring to them the blessing of peace.

      No people ought to feel greater obligations to celebrate the goodness of the Great Disposer of Events and of the Destiny of Nations than the people of the United States. His kind providence originally conducted them to one of the best portions of the dwelling place allotted for the great family of the human race. He protected and cherished them under all the difficulties and trials to which they were exposed in their early days. Under His fostering care their habits, their sentiments, and their pursuits prepared them for a transition in due time to a state of independence and self-government. In the arduous struggle by which it was attained they were distinguished by multiplied tokens of His benign interposition. During the interval which succeeded He reared them into the strength and endowed them with the resources which have enabled them to assert their national rights and to enhance their national character in another arduous conflict, which is now so happily terminated by a peace and reconciliation with those who have been our enemies. And to the same Divine Author of Every Good and Perfect Gift we are indebted for all those privileges and advantages, religious as well as civil, which are so richly enjoyed in this favored land.

      It is for blessings such as these, and more especially for the restoration of the blessing of peace, that I now recommend that the second Thursday in April next be set apart as a day on which the people of every religious denomination may in their solemn assemblies unite their hearts and their voices in a freewill offering to their Heavenly Benefactor of their homage of thanksgiving and of their songs of praise.

      Given at the city of Washington on the 4th day of March, A. D. 1815, and of the Independence of the United States the thirty- ninth.

      JAMES MADISON.”

      • One thing about the French Revolution: separation of Church and State and/ or suppression of religion were the last things it wanted.. Even in the few months of delirium that ended with Ropesbierre’s execution, the destructive extremists were still looking for a religion of their own, “Goddess reason,” “Supreme Being”; but that was over fast and left no trace except for a suppressed sense of shame and ridicule at the follies grown men could be dragged to. There was a real political conflict between Catholic Church and French Republic, that has never altogether been healed, but what actually caused it was the drive to nationalize the Church (“Civil constitution of the clergy”), separating it from Rome. The Revolution was never atheistic, indeed it persecuted atheists. To look for atheist and anti-religious revolutionaries you have to move forward at least a century and to different countries – as late as 1905, Combes was still trying to nationalize the Church by having the bishops elected by the laity and taking over church buildings. Separation of Church and State was the last thing the French revolutionaries wanted.

      • You are largely correct Fabio. Although there was a segment of the French Revolutionaries who were atheist, and rather more who were extremely hostile to Catholicism, the overall drive was to make the Church a mere arm of the State.

      • “Because brick and mortar is so much more important than the quality of ideas expressed.”

        And pretending to have brick and mortar? Even better.

        “The Supreme Court discovered this bedrock principle [if separation of church and state] in 1947.”

        During his presidency, Madison vetoed two bills, neither of which would form a national religion or compel observance of any religion, on the ground that they were contrary to the establishment clause. While some in Congress expressed surprise that the Constitution prohibited Congress from incorporating a church in the town of Alexandria in the District of Columbia or granting land to a church in the Mississippi Territory, Congress upheld both vetoes. Separation of church and state is hardly a new invention of modern courts.

        It is instructive to recall that the Constitution’s separation of church and state reflected, at the federal level, a “disestablishment” political movement then sweeping the country. That political movement succeeded in disestablishing all state religions by the 1830s. (Side note: A political reaction to that movement gave us the term “antidisestablishmentarianism,” which amused some of us as kids.) It is worth noting, as well, that this disestablishment movement was linked to another movement, the Great Awakening. The people of the time saw separation of church and state as a boon, not a burden, to religion.

        This sentiment was recorded by a famous observer of the American experiment: “On my arrival in the United States the religious aspect of the country was the first thing that struck my attention. . . . I questioned the members of all the different sects. . . . I found that they differed upon matters of detail alone, and that they all attributed the peaceful dominion of religion in their country mainly to the separation of church and state. I do not hesitate to affirm that during my stay in America, I did not meet a single individual, of the clergy or the laity, who was not of the same opinion on this point.” Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America (1835).

        “[Stating that given the norms of the day, the founders’ avoidance of any expression in the Constitution suggesting that the government is somehow based on any religious belief was quite a remarkable and plainly intentional choice] ignores the many, many invocations of God at the Constitutional Covention, and in the writings of the Founding Fathers, and in legislation passed during the early Congresses providing for chaplains, giving aid to missionaries to Indians, etc.”

        Uh no. Much the opposite. Seeing the significance of the Constitution’s avoidance of such religious provisions is predicated on recognizing that the norms of the day generally called for some such religious observation.

        While the religious views of various founders are subjects of some uncertainty and controversy, it is safe to say that many founders were Christian of one sort or another and held views such as you note regarding religion. In assessing the nature of our government, though, care should be taken to distinguish between society and government and not to make too much of various founders’ individual religious beliefs. Their individual beliefs, while informative, are largely beside the point. Whatever their religions, they drafted a Constitution that establishes a secular government and separates it from religion as noted earlier. This is entirely consistent with the fact that some founders professed their religiosity and even their desire that Christianity remain the dominant religious influence in American society. Why? Because religious people who would like to see their religion flourish in society may well believe that separating religion and government will serve that end and, thus, in founding a government they may well intend to keep it separate from religion. It is entirely possible for thoroughly religious folk to found a secular government and keep it separate from religion. That, indeed, is just what the founders did.

        Lest there be any doubt on this score, note that shortly after the founding, President John Adams (a founder) signed, with the unanimous consent of the Senate (comprised in large measure of founders), the Treaty of Tripoli declaring, in pertinent part, “the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion.” No need to resort to reading tea leaves to understand that. This is not an informal comment by an individual founder, but rather an official declaration of the most solemn sort by the United States government itself. Note that the Constitution provides that treaties, apart from the Constitution itself, are the highest law of the land.

        Jefferson, by the way, signed over forty treaties with various Indian nations. Only the one with the Kaskaskia said anything about religion; in it, the U.S. traded various items, including $300 to help the tribe (whose members were largely Catholic) erect a church and $100 per year for seven years to support a priest, in exchange for nearly 9 million acres of land. That’s it. You see the difference, I trust, between entering into a treaty with a sovereign nation providing what it asks and, well, as you put it, “legislation . . . giving aid to missionaries to Indians.”

        “[Recognizing that the absence of the metaphor commonly used to name the principle of separation of church and state is no more consequential than the absence of other phrases used to describe other undoubted Constitutional principles] is an attempt to read back into history the hostility to religion by liberal elites since the early twentieth century.”

        Why you would suppose that is not apparent. As noted above, the constitutional separation of church and state is not predicated on “hostility to religion.”

        With respect to chaplains and proclamations, Madison discussed just this point in his Detached Memoranda. As it happens, he not only stated plainly his understanding that the Constitution prohibits the government from promoting religion by such acts as appointing chaplains for the houses of Congress and the army and navy or by issuing proclamations recommending thanksgiving, he also addressed the question of what to make of the government’s actions doing just that. Ever practical, he answered not with a demand these actions inconsistent with the Constitution be undone, but rather with an explanation to circumscribe their ill effect: “Rather than let this step beyond the landmarks of power have the effect of a legitimate precedent, it will be better to apply to it the legal aphorism de minimis non curat lex [i.e., the law does not concern itself with trifles]: or to class it cum maculis quas aut incuria fudit, aut humana parum cavit natura [i.e., faults proceeding either from negligence or from the imperfection of our nature].” Basically, he recognized that because too many people might be upset by reversing these actions, it would be politically difficult and perhaps infeasible to do so in order to adhere to the constitutional principle, and thus he proposed giving these particular missteps a pass, while at the same time assuring they are not regarded as legitimate precedent of what the Constitution means, so they do not influence future actions.

        All in all, as one would expect, the available historical evidence does not all point in the same direction. For instance, while Washington offered Thanksgiving proclamations, seemingly seeing no problem in that, Jefferson refrained from issuing any such proclamations for the very reason he thought the Constitution precluded it. Madison too preferred not to issue any such proclamations, but upon being requested by Congress to do so, reluctantly issued one, though taking pains to word it so as merely to encourage those so inclined to celebrate the day. He later almost sheepishly acknowledged that had been a mistake.

        While some also draw meaning from the references to “Nature’s God” and “Creator” in the Declaration of Independence (references that could mean any number of things, some at odds with the Christian idea of God) and try to connect that meaning to the Constitution, the effort is largely baseless. Important as the Declaration is in our history, it did not operate to bring about independence (that required winning a war), nor did it found a government, nor did it even create any law, and it certainly did not say or do anything that somehow dictated the meaning of a Constitution adopted twelve years later. The colonists issued the Declaration not to do any of that, but rather to politically explain and justify the move to independence that was already well underway. Nothing in the Constitution depends on anything said in the Declaration. Nor does anything said in the Declaration purport to limit or define the government later formed by the free people of the former colonies. Nor could it even if it purported to do so. Once independent, the people of the former colonies were free to choose whether to form a collective government at all and, if so, whatever form of government they deemed appropriate. They were not somehow limited by anything said in the Declaration. Sure, they could take its words as inspiration and guidance if, and to the extent, they chose–or they could not. They could have formed a theocracy if they wished–or, as they ultimately chose, a government founded on the power of the people (not a deity) and separated from religion.

      • “And pretending to have brick and mortar? Even better.”

        What pretence? It would take a click to get to their website:

        http://www.prageruniversity.com/

        “Separation of church and state is hardly a new invention of modern courts.”
        It most certainly is in the crazed manner in which it has been pursued than 1947. Under both Jefferson and Madison Church services were routinely held in Congress with both Jefferson and Madison in attendance. The attempt to read back into our history the hostility and fear felt by modern separationists against religion in general and Christianity in particular is simply ahistoric.

        “The people of the time saw separation of church and state as a boon, not a burden, to religion.”

        You are confusing apples and rock salt. Not having an established Church was the reason for the ban on a Federal established Church in the constitution. Disestablishment on the state level was a widely popular political movement in the early Republic. That has nothing to do with current attempts by separationists to have the State hostile to any religious sentiment expressed in public forums and to seek to delegitimize arguments on public policy based in part on religious belief.

        “Alexis de Tocqueville”

        De Tocqueville’s musings on the interplay of Church and State were a good deal more complex than the selections you quote indicate. For
        example:

        “While I was in America, a witness, who happened to be called at the assizes of the county of Chester (state of New York), declared that he did not believe in the existence of God or in the immortality of the soul. The judge refused to admit his evidence, on the ground that the witness had destroyed beforehand all confidence of the court in what he was about to say. The newspapers related the fact without any further comment. The New York Spectator of August 23rd, 1831, relates the fact in the following terms:
        “The court of common pleas of Chester county (New York), a few days since rejected a witness who declared his disbelief in the existence of God. The presiding judge remarked, that he had not before been aware that there was a man living who did not believe in the existence of God; that this belief constituted the sanction of all testimony in a court of justice: and that he knew of no case in a Christian country, where a witness had been permitted to testify without such belief.””

        “Lest there be any doubt on this score, note that shortly after the founding, President John Adams (a founder) signed, with the unanimous consent of the Senate (comprised in large measure of founders), the Treaty of Tripoli declaring, in pertinent part, “the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion.””

        Please. That is an ever popular factoid on atheist websites that is meaningless. The Barbary States routinely made war on all Christian states. This treaty was an attempt to convince them to make an exception in regard to the United States. The efforts failed and we fought two wars against the Barbary pirates to safeguard our shipping. What Adams actually thought about the role of religion and the State was set forth in this proclamation:

        “I have thought proper to recommend, and I do hereby recommend accordingly, that Thursday, the 25th day of April next, be observed throughout the United States of America as a day of solemn humiliation, fasting, and prayer; that the citizens on that day abstain as far as may be from their secular occupations, devote the time to the sacred duties of religion in public and in private; that they call to mind our numerous offenses against the Most High God, confess them before Him with the sincerest penitence, implore His pardoning mercy, through the Great Mediator and Redeemer, for our past transgressions, and that through the grace of His Holy Spirit we may be disposed and enabled to yield a more suitable obedience to His righteous requisitions in time to come; that He would interpose to arrest the progress of that impiety and licentiousness in principle and practice so offensive to Himself and so ruinous to mankind; that He would make us deeply sensible that “righteousness exalteth a nation, but sin is a reproach to any people;” that He would turn us from our transgressions and turn His displeasure from us; that He would withhold us from unreasonable discontent, from disunion, faction, sedition, and insurrection; that He would preserve our country from the desolating sword; that He would save our cities and towns from a repetition of those awful pestilential visitations under which they have lately suffered so severely, and that the health of our inhabitants generally may be precious in His sight; that He would favor us with fruitful seasons and so bless the labors of the husbandman as that there may be food in abundance for man and beast; that He would prosper our commerce, manufactures, and fisheries, and give success to the people in all their lawful industry and enterprise; that He would smile on our colleges, academies, schools, and seminaries of learning, and make them nurseries of sound science, morals, and religion; that He would bless all magistrates, from the highest to the lowest, give them the true spirit of their station, make them a terror to evil doers and a praise to them that do well; that He would preside over the councils of the nation at this critical period, enlighten them to a just discernment of the public interest, and save them from mistake, division, and discord; that He would make succeed our preparations for defense and bless our armaments by land and by sea; that He would put an end to the effusion of human blood and the accumulation of human misery among the contending nations of the earth by disposing them to justice, to equity, to benevolence, and to peace; and that he would extend the blessings of knowledge, of true liberty, and of pure and undefiled religion throughout the world.”

        Presidential proclamation of a national day of fasting and prayer (6 March 1799)

      • “You see the difference, I trust, between entering into a treaty with a sovereign nation providing what it asks and, well, as you put it, “legislation . . . giving aid to missionaries to Indians.” ”

        This was not a sui generis case, as Chief Justice Rehnquist noted in his dissent in Wallace v. Jaffree:

        “As the United States moved from the 18th into the 19th century, Congress appropriated time and again public moneys in support of sectarian Indian education carried on by religious organizations. Typical of these was Jefferson’s treaty with the Kaskaskia Indians, which provided annual cash support for the Tribe’s Roman Catholic priest and church.(5) It was not until 1897, when aid to sectarian education for Indians had reached $500,000 annually, that Congress decided thereafter to cease appropriating money for education in sectarian schools. See Act of June 7, 1897, 30 Stat. 62, 79; cf. Quick Bear v. Leupp, 210 U.S. 50, 77-79, 28 S.Ct. 690, 694-696, 52 L.Ed. 954 (1908); J. O’Neill, Religion and Education Under the Constitution 118-119 (1949). See generally R. Cord, Separation of Church and State 61-82 (1982). This history shows the fallacy of the notion found in Everson that “no tax in any amount” may be levied for religious activities in any form. 330 U.S., at 15-16, 67 S.Ct., at 511-512.

        Joseph Story, a Member of this Court from 1811 to 1845, and during much of that time a professor at the Harvard Law School, published by far the most comprehensive treatise on the United States Constitution that had then appeared. Volume 2 of Story’s Commentaries on the Constitution of the United States 630-632 (5th ed. 1891) discussed the meaning of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment this way:

        “Probably at the time of the adoption of the Constitution, and of the amendment to it now under consideration [First Amendment], the general if not the 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] [A]mendment was not to countenance, much less to advance, Mahometanism, or Judaism, or infidelity, by prostrating Christianity; but 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. It thus cut off the means of religious persecution (the vice and pest of former ages), and of the subversion of the rights of conscience in matters of religion, which had been trampled upon almost from the days of the Apostles to the present age. . . .” (Footnotes omitted.)

        Thomas Cooley’s eminence as a legal authority rivaled that of Story. Cooley stated in his treatise entitled Constitutional Limitations that aid to a particular religious sect was prohibited by the United States Constitution, but he went on to say:

        “But while thus careful to establish, protect, and defend religious freedom and equality, the American constitutions contain no provisions which prohibit the authorities from such solemn recognition of a superintending Providence in public transactions and exercises as the general religious sentiment of mankind inspires, and as seems meet and proper in finite and dependent beings. Whatever may be the shades of religious belief, all must acknowledge the fitness of recognizing in important human affairs the superintending care and control of the Great Governor of the Universe, and of acknowledging with thanksgiving his boundless favors, or bowing in contrition when visited with the penalties of his broken laws. No principle of constitutional law is violated when thanksgiving or fast days are appointed; when chaplains are designated for the army and navy; when legislative sessions are opened with prayer or the reading of the Scriptures, or when religious teaching is encouraged by a general exemption of the houses of religious worship from taxation for the support of State government. Undoubtedly the spirit of the Constitution will require, in all these cases, that care be taken to avoid discrimination in favor of or against any one religious denomination or sect; but the power to do any of these things does not become unconstitutional simply because of its susceptibility to abuse. . . .” Id., at * 470–* 471.”

        http://www.belcherfoundation.org/wallace_v_jaffree_dissent.htm

      • “As noted above, the constitutional separation of church and state is not predicated on “hostility to religion.””

        Of course it is. Those who call today for the separation of Church and State are almost always those hostile to religion as can be quickly gleaned by reading the comments on any Leftist site when the subject of religion comes up. To argue otherwise is to deny current reality.

        ” Basically, he recognized that because too many people might be upset by reversing these actions, it would be politically difficult and perhaps infeasible to do so in order to adhere to the constitutional principle, and thus he proposed giving these particular missteps a pass, while at the same time assuring they are not regarded as legitimate precedent of what the Constitution means, so they do not influence future action.”

        Except that Madison never published his Detached Memorandum and it lay undiscovered until 1946. Whatever his private musings, Madison contradicted his Detached Memorandum time and again as President. Additionally Madison was not shy about expressing himself publicly on other issues following his Presidency, for example on nullification and secession. One can only assume that Madison was content to have public policy proceed counter to his thoughts in the Detached Memorandum, perhaps recogizing that his views would have been anathema to almost all Americans of his day.

        “While some also draw meaning from the references to “Nature’s God” and “Creator” in the Declaration of Independence (references that could mean any number of things, some at odds with the Christian idea of God) and try to connect that meaning to the Constitution, the effort is largely baseless. Important as the Declaration is in our history, it did not operate to bring about independence (that required winning a war), nor did it found a government, nor did it even create any law, and it certainly did not say or do anything that somehow dictated the meaning of a Constitution adopted twelve years later. The colonists issued the Declaration not to do any of that, but rather to politically explain and justify the move to independence that was already well underway.”

        Rubbish on stilts. The Declaration of Independence created the American Union, and established the basis for political freedom in this country:

        “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.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed,”

        Without the belief that all men are created equal and have unalienable rights from God, the basis for the American experiment in self rule vanishes. This is all terribly inconvenient for an atheist I understand, but it is absolutely true. Abraham Lincoln understood this and that is why he uttered these ringing words in 1858:

        “These communities, by their representatives in old Independence Hall, said to the whole world of men: “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.” This was their majestic interpretation of the economy of the Universe. This was their lofty, and wise, and noble understanding of the justice of the Creator to His creatures. [Applause.] Yes, gentlemen, to all His creatures, to the whole great family of man. In their enlightened belief, nothing stamped with the Divine image and likeness was sent into the world to be trodden on, and degraded, and imbruted by its fellows. They grasped not only the whole race of man then living, but they reached forward and seized upon the farthest posterity. They erected a beacon to guide their children and their children’s children, and the countless myriads who should inhabit the earth in other ages. Wise statesmen as they were, they knew the tendency of prosperity to breed tyrants, and so they established these great self-evident truths, that when in the distant future some man, some faction, some interest, should set up the doctrine that none but rich men, or none but white men, were entitled to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, their posterity might look up again to the Declaration of Independence and take courage to renew the battle which their fathers began — so that truth, and justice, and mercy, and all the humane and Christian virtues might not be extinguished from the land; so that no man would hereafter dare to limit and circumscribe the great principles on which the temple of liberty was being built.”

      • The pretense–obviously–is to take on the title “University” falsely.

        A treaty entered into by the United States government, signed by a founder President and consented to by a Senate comprised largely of founders, declaring–as plainly as can be–that “the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion” can hardly be dismissed merely by pronouncing it a “meaningless” “factoid,” associating it with “atheist websites” (horror of horrors!), and observing that the government actually had reasons for making that declaration. Nor can this treaty somehow be trumped by a presidential proclamation about thanksgiving. Come on. Even one without a law degree knows better than that.

        “The Declaration of Indepence created the American Union, and established the basis for political freedom in this country.”

        Rubbish on stilts. (I like that; back at you.) The Declaration did not “create” any political or legal entity, let alone the “American Union.” It was a declaration by representatives of the several independent states that they were just that and no longer colonies. It remained for those independent states later to choose whether and how and on what terms to form a union.

        The Declaration of Independence may be said to “establish” the basis for political freedom in this country in the historical sense that it was one of the important events that occurred in the efforts of the states to achieve independence and thus the ability to provide for political freedom, and in the political and philosophical sense that it declared ideas that would inspire the people of the independent states to form a union that would foster their political freedom. My point, though, is that the Declaration did not “establish” any government or any law. (Read it and see for yourself.) That had to await later developments. Even less did the Declaration dictate or limit or establish the terms of the Constitution adopted by the independent states twelve years later.

      • “The pretense–obviously–is to take on the title “University” falsely.”

        Which Praeger University has not. You would have a point beyond mere quibbling if Praeger University was falsely claiming to bestow degrees which it is not.

        “Even one without a law degree knows better than that.”

        An ounce of history is worth more than a pound of ideology. I have explained the historical context and you have not attempted to refute it because the history is inconvenient to your atheist position. As for Adams he is really an inconvenient vehicle for those discounting the Christianity of the Founding Fathers as is illustrated by this passage from a letter to Jefferson of April 28, 1813:

        “The general principles on which the fathers achieved independence, were the only principles in which that beautiful assembly of young men could unite, and these principles only could be intended by them in their address, or by me in my answer. And what were these general principles? I answer, the general principles of Christianity, in which all those sects were united, and the general principles of English and American liberty, in which all those young men united, and which had united all parties in America, in majorities sufficient to assert and maintain her independence. Now I will avow, that I then believed and now believe that those general principles of Christianity are as eternal and immutable as the existence and attributes of God; and that those principles of liberty are as unalterable as human nature and our terrestrial, mundane system. I could, therefore, safely say, consistently with all my then and present information, that I believed they would never make discoveries in contradiction to these general principles. In favor of these general principles, in philosophy, religion, and government, I could fill sheets of quotations from Frederic of Prussia, from Hume, Gibbon, Bolingbroke, Rousseau, and Voltaire, as well as Newton and Locke; not to mention thousands of divines and philosophers of inferior fame.”

        “It was a declaration by representatives of the several independent states that they were just that and no longer colonies. It remained for those independent states later to choose whether and how and on what terms to form a union.”

        Incorrect. The Union was created by the Declaration. That a new entity had come into the world was demonstrated by the fact that Congress was simultaneously working on the Articles of Confederation for the new nation. Ratified in 1781 it contained this provision which is rather inconvenient for those like you who seek to pretend that the Founders were not religious men:

        “And Whereas it hath pleased the Great Governor of the World to incline the hearts of the legislatures we respectively represent in Congress, to approve of, and to authorize us to ratify the said Articles of Confederation and perpetual Union. Know Ye that we the undersigned delegates, by virtue of the power and authority to us given for that purpose, do by these presents, in the name and in behalf of our respective constituents, fully and entirely ratify and confirm each and every of the said Articles of Confederation and perpetual Union, and all and singular the matters and things therein contained: And we do further solemnly plight and engage the faith of our respective constituents, that they shall abide by the determinations of the United States in Congress assembled, on all questions, which by the said Confederation are submitted to them. And that the Articles thereof shall be inviolably observed by the States we respectively represent, and that the Union shall be perpetual.”

        The Union was created by the Declaration, while the form of government was left for the future to determine. As Justice Story wrote in 1833 in his Commentaries on the Constitution: “from the moment of the declaration of independence, if not for most purposes from an antecedent period, the united colonies must be considered as being a nation de facto, having a general government over it created, and acting by the general government of the people of all the colonies.”

        http://www.lonang.com/exlibris/story/sto-201.htm

    • I think you misunderstand and, in effect, help make my point about the Declaration of Independence not founding a government. Certainly, in sending representatives to the Continental Congress and in having them issue the Declaration of Independence, the several newly independent states acted in concert. They also raised an army. Hence, with the benefit of hindsight, we may speak of those actions in an historical sense as the beginning of a union or, as Story puts it, a “nation de facto.” That is a far cry, though, from saying that the Declaration established a government de jure. It plainly did not. Again, one need but read it to confirm that fact. Indeed, in characterizing the united colonies as a “nation de facto,” Story implicitly acknowledges that they were not yet a nation de jure. In issuing the Declaration, the several states voluntarily acted together for their common goal of making war and achieving independence from Britain. Each state remained free to go its own way in any and all matters. Not until later, with the Articles of Confederation and again later with the Constitution, did they actually form a government that bound them together (with rules and all).

      You again make much of the religiosity of many founders, and particularly John Adams. As I noted above, simply pointing to the religious views of individual founders does not reveal the nature of the government they formed in the Constitution.

      I agree with your overarching thesis that the founders would not establish a government that is inherently at odds with their religious convictions, which were largely Christian in nature. Moreover, given the republican nature of our government, I think it is only natural and expected that the laws enacted by our government–in both the founders’ time and today–largely reflect Christianity’s dominant influence in our society.

      That said, there is no reason to suppose that Christianity or theism is an inherent aspect of our constitutional government. Indeed, any such claim is antithetical to the constitutional principle against government establishment of religion (and contrary to the plain declaration in the Treaty of Tripoli). By founding a secular government and assuring it would remain separate, in some measure at least, from religion, the founders basically established government neutrality in matters of religion, allowing individuals to freely choose and exercise their religions and thus allowing Christianity (and other religions) to flourish or founder as they will. As noted above, it is to be expected that the values and views of the people, shaped in part by their religions, will be reflected in the laws adopted by their government. There is nothing in the Constitution that requires or calls for this; it is simply a natural outgrowth of the people’s expression of political will in a republican government. To the extent that the people’s values and views change over time, it is to be expected that those changes will come to be reflected in the laws adopted by their government. There is nothing in the Constitution to prevent this; indeed, just the opposite–the Constitution establishes a government designed to be responsive to the political will of the people. It is conceivable, therefore, that if Christianity’s influence in our society wanes relative to other influences, that may lead to changes in our laws. Nothing in the Constitution would prevent that–and moreover the establishment clause would preclude Christians from using the government to somehow “lock in” (aka establish) Christianity in an effort to stave off such an eventuality.

      • Sovereign personhood consists in recognizing and acknowledging the sovereign personhood of each and every human being. Endowed with reason and intellect, the human being stands alone as the epitome of all creation. Good will for the common good consists in constituting government and legislation that allows that sovereign persons are all created equal. Men are not to be dominated by the sovereignty of any other person without their free will consent.
        In recognizing and acknowledging the sovereign person of Jesus Christ, government is doing its duty to provide Justice to all men.
        The atheist “is free to go her own way.” The atheist is not free to deny to other sovereign persons acknowledgement of their sovereignty. The sovereignty of the human person constitutes the sovereign nation, the United States of America.

      • “Hence, with the benefit of hindsight, we may speak of those actions in an historical sense as the beginning of a union or, as Story puts it, a “nation de facto.” That is a far cry, though, from saying that the Declaration established a government de jure.”

        The Declaration of Independence established the American Union. The Continental Congress had already established a de facto government for the colonies in rebellion against King George. The Declaration of Independence gave a name to this new nation and proclaimed that the colonies were now independent states bound together in the Union. There was no thought that each of the new states would go their own separate way outside of the Union. The mechanics of government for this new nation were being worked on even as the new nation was being announced by the Declaration.

        “As I noted above, simply pointing to the religious views of individual founders does not reveal the nature of the government they formed in the Constitution.”

        Of course it does. The desire to establish a government where the people ruled would have been absurd if the Declaration had not contained the essence of how the colonists viewed the source of their rights from God and that all men are created equal.
        Lincoln got to the nub of the importance of this section of the Declaration:

        “I think the authors of that notable instrument intended to include all men, but they did not mean to declare all men equal in all respects. They did not mean to say all men were equal in color, size, intellect, moral development, or social capacity. They defined with tolerable distinctness in what they did consider all men created equal,—equal in certain inalienable rights, among which are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. This they said, and this they meant. They did not mean to assert the obvious untruth that all were then actually enjoying that equality, or yet that they were about to confer it immediately upon them. In fact, they had no power to confer such a boon. They meant simply to declare the right, so that the enforcement of it might follow as fast as circumstances should permit.

        They meant to set up a standard maxim for free society which should be familiar to all,—constantly looked to, constantly labored for, and even, though never perfectly attained, constantly approximated, and thereby constantly spreading and deepening its influence, and augmenting the happiness and value of life to all people, of all colors, everywhere.”

        The slave holders of Lincoln’s day derided the Declaration because of its proclamation of all men created equal. The atheists of our time deride the Declaration because of it putting God as the basis of our free society.

      • “By founding a secular government and assuring it would remain separate, in some measure at least, from religion, the founders basically established government neutrality in matters of religion, allowing individuals to freely choose and exercise their religions and thus allowing Christianity (and other religions) to flourish or founder as they will.”

        The Founding Fathers did not want the Federal government to create an established Church along the lines of the Anglican Church. However, they were hardly neutral on the question of religion in that God and the relationship of the American people to God was placed at the very center of our experiment in self rule. They viewed religion and religious freedom both as positive goods and that government should accomodate and respect religion as much as possible, within limits. The clearest limit in the nineteenth century was the federal statute against polygamy which was clearly aimed at the Mormons. Otherwise the new government helped religion in numerous ways from mandating chaplains for the military to aiding missionaries to Indians, to allowing the holding of religious services in federal buildings. In short the role of the Federal government towards religion was one of benign accomodation, a wise policy that contrasts with that started by the Supreme Court in 1947 which has produced such absurdities as Federal judges monitoring speeches at high school commencements lest God be mentioned.

      • We need to encourage dougindeep to Dig in Deep. Weigh the Founding Fathers deeds along with their words. These men were for the most part men of a very active faith – not perfect, but men of faith. Their faith had an active and measurable effect on their words and deeds. They were militantly opposed to government sanctioned one church order having seen the abuse of both government and issues of faith in the English church debacle. Being opposed to a gov. church is totally different than seperation of church and state, (a false assumption held by recent lawyers, judges and atheist educated beyond their level of intelligence. They should learn to read with understanding before taking these degrees and positions of authority). These men did not divorce their faith from their daily practice. Nor did they expect their grandchildren to do such a foolish thing.

    • “there is no reason to suppose that Christianity or theism is an inherent aspect of our constitutional government.”

      “We, the people” constitute government through our constituency. Constituency posits power to government officials to act as representatives. The peoples’ constituency is an act of the free will, an attribute of the human being’s rational soul endowed by “their Creator” with unalienable civil rights. There is no way to separate a man from his immortal soul except by death which is the desecration of the Righ to Life. Government is predicated on man’s immortal soul endowed by “their Creator”, defined by our Constitution and delivered by the various offices.

  4. I really do not understand the confusion on this issue. It is so basic. Government was not to establish a state church as in England/Germany. It was not to interfere in things of the church. However our Founding Fathers clearly recognized God – the Christian’s God – had respect for the Bible and believed that men were better when influenced by Christian faith… The government had chaplains, prayed in offidial meetings, had church service in the capital building. By their deeds they showed their faith. They did not seperate or compartmentalize their lives. Seperation of church and state that we have today is opposed to what these great men understood and gave us – to our great shame.

    • “They did not seperate or compartmentalize their lives. Seperation of church and state that we have today is opposed to what these great men understood and gave us – to our great shame.”

      Precisely Dennis!

  5. I love Lincoln’s quote above Don, thanks. I am concerned that we will continue to see our nation’s history swept clean on the truth of Christ and God’s influence on our founding. Ironically the result will be a national or world church of man’s doing. True Christians will be demeaned initially passively (happening in some instances now) and later actively persecuted. Keep speaking the truth Don.

    • g the nature of our government, though, care should be taken to distinguish between society and government and not to make too much of various founders’ individual religious beliefs.”
      The absolute separation of society’s freedom and the government’s power, (power, incidentally, given over to the government by society), is to “secure the Blessing of Liberty to ourselves and to our (constitutional) posterity.” From the Preamble. Care ought to be taken to distinguish the duty of government to protect and preserve the innocence and virginity of its constituents. In its obligation to deliver Justice, innocence and virginity are an absolute necessity, the state’s compelling interest in its duty to deliver the virtue of Justice.
      Government is an artificial person constituted by the sovereign personhood of the individual, ordinary person, who is a citizen. All government officials are ordinary people, created equal and subject to acknowledgment as sovereign persons endowed with unalienable rights by “their Creator”.
      Faith, Hope and Charity are endowed gifts from “their Creator.” Religion is how each and every individual sovereign person, all citizens, all people, respond to the gifts of the Theological Virtues of Faith, Hope and Charity. The sovereign person who constitutes government has freedom endowed in unalienable civil rights to express his gift of Faith, Hope and Charity in thought, word and deed; in worship, in speech, in writing and in peaceable assembly as inscribed in the Constitutional First Amendment. The atheist and/or secular humanist, in his hatred of God, The Supreme Sovereign Being and Creator, cannot deny his Creator or his existence. This causes the atheist and or secular humanist to oppress, persecute and obliterate the freedom endowed by “their Creator” to the ordinary man, who is a sovereign person. The atheist, atheism, defined as a religion under the penumbra of Freedom of Religion, “may go her own way”. The atheist may not remove the freedom of any other person.
      According to parliamentary procedure, the person elected to and officiating at any peaceable assembly has the duty to choose the convocation for himself and his assembly. Teachers in public school teach “in loco parentis” only what the parents want their children to learn. Infant children, a captive audience without informed consent to give and without the legal capacity to determine their own destiny and pursuit of Happiness may be recipients of hearing only what their parents want their un-emancipated children to know.
      “You see the difference, I trust, between entering into a treaty with a sovereign nation providing what it asks and, well, as you put it, “legislation . . . giving aid to missionaries to Indians.” They could have formed a theocracy if they wished–or, as they ultimately chose, a government founded on the power of the people (not a deity) and separated from religion.”
      Whose theocracy? The finite theocrat can only function within the belief in an infinite “Creator”. Separating freedom of religion from the people is totalitarianism. The atheist, as a theocrat, is an autocrat. Autocracy is not constituted by the people.
      E PLURIBUS UNUM. “…the Government of the United States of America is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion” The Government of the United States of America is founded, in every sense, on the FREEDOM that flows from their unalienable civil rights endowed by “their Creator”. This freedom is necessary to the people, in their pursuit of their destiny, their Happiness.

  6. Donald, it seems as though you have handled quite nicely the atheist propagandist. Good job as always.

    • amen… none so blind as they who will not see.


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