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Friday, March 2, 2012

Raised Eyebrows For 300 Years

Early Americans expected the state to not interfere with church governance, and the authority of the church did not extend to civil policy-making. But mixing biblically-informed standards with civil affairs was normative. In fact, such standards were mixed with the public square from the start of the colonies until 1947, when the Supreme Court first suggested otherwise. The idea of not mixing biblically-informed standards with the public square would have been met with raised eyebrows for 300 years.  

As late as 1911, Woodrow Wilson, our 28th President, said:

“We know that there is a standard set for us in the heavens, a standard revealed to us in this book [the Bible] which is the fixed and eternal standard by which we judge ourselves… We do not judge progress by material standards. America is not ahead of other nations of the world because she is rich. Nothing makes America great except her thoughts, except her ideals, except her acceptance of those standards of judgment which are written large upon these pages of revelation… Let no man suppose that progress can be divorced from religion, or that there is any other platform for the ministers of reform than the platform written in the utterances of our Lord and Savior. America was born a Christian nation. America was born to exemplify that devotion to the elements of righteousness which are derived from the revelations of Holy Scripture.

Not all Americans at the time of the nation's birth were followers of Christ, and those who claimed to be had their faults. But the early American ethos was bent toward a biblially-informed view of the world, as evidenced by the following statement issued by the House Judiciary Committee of Congress on March 27, 1854: “At the time of the adoption of the Constitution and the amendments, the universal sentiment was that Christianity should be encouraged, but not any one sect....In this age there is no substitute for Christianity....That was the religion of the founders of the republic, and they expected it to remain the religion of their descendants.”

Expected? Encouraged? Why?

Because, as George Washington put it, “reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.”

Did he mean biblically-informed principle?

Seems so, according to the House Judiciary Committee of 1854, and Woodrow Wilson.  

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4 comments:

  1. John Adams said that our Constitution would only work for a religious and moral people. It would not work for any other. We are slowly losing our religion and morality as shown by the same sex marriage issue. Church leaders and Christians need to begin to stand for our religious beliefs in the public arena before we lose our country to the atheists and progressives.

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  2. It has been suggested, rightly so, that I provide references to recent quotes in my posts. So with this in mind:

    The Coolidge quote is from The Price of Freedom: Speeches and Addresses by Calvin Coolidge (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1927), 290-291.

    The Wilson quote is from Woodrow Wilson’s, The Papers of Woodrow Wilson, Vol. 23 (Princeton University Press, 1977), 18, 20. [Note: After giving this speech, Wilson wrote a personal note to a friend, Mary Ellen Hulbert Peck, in which he said, “The Bible…is undoubtedly the book that has made democracy and been the source of all progress.” [This quote in on page 11 of The Papers….]

    The George Washington quote from his Farwell Address can be found in James D. Richardson, A Compilation of the Messages and Papers of the Presidents, 1789-1897 (Published by the authority of Congress, 1899), 281-291.

    The John Adams quote can be found in The Works of John Adams, Second President of the United States, by John Adams, Charles Francis Adams, ed., (Boston: Little Brown, 1854), Vol. IX 229, Oct. 11, 1789.

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  3. It is important to distinguish between the "public square" and "government" and between "individual" and "government" speech about religion. The constitutional principle of separation of church and state does not purge religion from the public square--far from it. Indeed, the First Amendment's "free exercise" clause assures that each individual is free to exercise and express his or her religious views--publicly as well as privately. The Amendment constrains only the government not to promote or otherwise take steps toward establishment of religion. As government can only act through the individuals comprising its ranks, when those individuals are performing their official duties (e.g., public school teachers instructing students in class), they effectively are the government and thus should conduct themselves in accordance with the First Amendment's constraints on government. When acting in their individual capacities, they are free to exercise their religions as they please. If their right to free exercise of religion extended even to their discharge of their official responsibilities, however, the First Amendment constraints on government establishment of religion would be eviscerated. While figuring out whether someone is speaking for the government in any particular circumstance may sometimes be difficult, making the distinction is critical.

    Nor does the constitutional separation of church and state prevent citizens from making decisions based on principles derived from their religions. Moreover, the religious beliefs of government officials naturally may inform their decisions on policies. The principle, in this context, merely constrains government officials not to make decisions with the predominant purpose or primary effect of advancing religion; in other words, the predominant purpose and primary effect must be nonreligious or secular in nature. A decision coinciding with religious views is not invalid for that reason as long as it has a secular purpose and effect.

    Wake Forest University has published a short, objective Q&A primer on the current law of separation of church and state–as applied by the courts rather than as sometimes caricatured in the blogosphere. I commend it to you. http://tiny.cc/6nnnx

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  4. Thanks, Doug, for your informed contribution to the discussion, and for letting us know about the resource from Wake Forest University.

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