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'Founding Documents: Shaped In and By Faith'

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[This article first appeared in the November  2011 Issue of Citizen magazine]

by Matt Kaufman

You've heard the message over and over, in various forms: "Religion and politics don't mix," "Religious values have no place in public policy," "There must be a strict separation between church and state," and "The U.S. was not founded on Christianity."

But have you heard it from the Founding Fathers' point of view?

"There was a consensus among the Founders that religion was indispensable to a system of republican self-government," says Daniel Dreisbach, professor of law, justice and American society at American University. "The Founders looked to religion (and morality informed by religious faith) to provide the internal moral compass that would prompt citizens to behave in a disciplined manner, and thereby promote social order and political stability."

founding-fathers-kneeling-in-prayerTake the nation's first president. In his first inaugural address, George Washington said that "the propitious smiles of heaven can never be expected on a nation that disregards the eternal rules of order and right which heaven itself has ordained."

In his farewell address, Washington sounded the same note: "Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to a political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports. In vain would that man claim that tribute of patriotism, who should labor to subvert these great pillars of human happiness."

Or take the second president. "Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people," John Adams declared. "It is wholly inadequate for the government of any other."

Quotes from our Founding Fathers are replete with references to faith, God's sovereignty, Jesus Christ and Christianity, as well as to the Bible and its role in the maintaining of order, ethics and morality. Succeeding generations also echoed their themes. As Daniel Webster succinctly put it in 1820:

"Whatever makes men good Christians, makes them good citizens."

Today, there are some — mainly on the Left — who paint the Founders not as Christians but as Deists, believers in an impersonal creator who left his creations to fend for themselves. But while that description fits less than a handful of the Founders, to varying degrees, it clearly doesn't fit the vast majority.

Of the 55 signers of the U.S. Constitution, "with no more than five exceptions, they were orthodox members of one of the established congregations," wrote the late University of Dallas historian M.E. Bradford. "References made by the Framers to Jesus Christ as Redeemer and Son of God … are commonplace in their private papers, correspondence and public remarks — and in the early records of their lives."

And this wasn't just lip service, Bradford noted: The faith the Framers professed played a large role in their lives.

Thus, both James Madison and Alexander Hamilton "regularly led their households in the observance of family prayers." Roger Sherman "was a ruling elder of his church." John Dickinson of Delaware "wrote persuasive letters to youthful friends conserving the authority of Scripture and the soundness of Christian evidences." Richard Bassett, also of Delaware, "rode joyfully with his former slaves to share in the enthusiasm of their singing on the way to Methodist camp meetings." Elias Boudinot of New Jersey "was heavily involved in Christian missions and was the founder of the American Bible Society."

The Wall That Never Was

Why would such men have written a First Amendment that sought to purge religious expression and values from the public square? Simple: They didn't.

The Founders wanted to preserve the many vibrant Christian churches that were thriving in America. So they provided in the First Amendment that no Congress could squelch the free exercise of religion or establish a national church body— as had happened in England, driving many of their ancestors to the New World.

They also created a decentralized system that left states free to pursue diverse policies. Some (New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Connecticut, South Carolina and Maryland) gave funding or property to churches. A few state constitutions contained religious requirements. Pennsylvania and New York required officeholders to pledge belief in the divine inspiration of Scripture.

To be sure, that wasn't the norm. Most states guaranteed religious liberty, on the principle that government compulsion was an affront to true worship. But the very language in those guarantees testified to the prevailing faith. Many used terms of praise like "Almighty God." Massachusetts spoke of "the right, as well as the duty, of all men in society … to worship the Supreme Being, the great Creator and Preserver of the universe."

And the federal government itself, though much more limited in its religious involvements, did things that would make an ACLU attorney blanch. Even one of the least religiously orthodox Founders, Thomas Jefferson, used federal funds during his presidency to build churches and to support Christian missionaries working among the Indians.

That's especially meaningful since it was Jefferson who authored the phrase "wall of separation between church and state" in a letter to the Danbury (Conn.) Baptist Association — words now commonly misused to claim that the Founders would have supported an ACLU-like approach. But as Dreisbach notes, "The absurd conclusion that countless courts and commentators would have us reach is that Jefferson routinely pursued policies that violated his own ‘wall of separation.' "

In truth, the Founders never dreamed that, one day, the government they helped to establish would so often be hostile to the faith that most of them — despite their many other differences — held in common.

And it's not hard to imagine what they would have said about it. Just recall Washington's words about religion and morality:

"In vain would that man claim that tribute of patriotism, who should labor to subvert these great pillars of human happiness."

FOR MORE INFORMATION

Download the footnoted version of this article at www.CitizenMagazine.com. To learn more about the Founding Fathers and our nation's historical documents, visit The Patriot Post at www.PatriotPost.us/document. Learn more about ICON Statues by Stan Watts at www.ICONstatues.com.

Matt Kaufman is a contributing editor for Citizen.

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