Makela wasn’t sure what to do. The professor’s lecture on the separation of church and state was not just incomplete, it was inaccurate. She had been warned about this professor before enrolling in his class. His anti-Christian bias was legendary throughout the student body. Comments about him on social media could be summarized in these words: “Christian students beware.” Hardly a semester went by without the university’s administration receiving complaints about this professor’s demeaning treatment of Christian students.
Even unbelievers in his classes were offended by the professor’s aggressive attacks on students who had the audacity to suggest that America’s founders were guided by Christian principles. Believers face this kind of anti-Christian bias in schools, colleges, universities, and the public square all the time. To suggest what the historical record clearly shows—that America was founded on Christian values and principles—is to invite not just criticism, but ridicule. There is a large and growing element in American society that is determined to eliminate all evidence of the Christian foundation of American government. One of the cornerstone issues of those who deny the influence of Christianity on America’s Founders is the supposed requirement that a wall of separation be maintained between church and state.
This is one of the most pernicious myths ever foisted on the American public. This myth had its birth in a misguided Supreme-Court decision in 1879 (Reynolds V. United States) that relied on a letter written by Thomas Jefferson to validate that court’s interpretation of the establishment clause of the First Amendment. Later, in Everson v. Board of Education, Justice Hugo Black used the same letter to justify the Court’s decision supporting a wall of separation between church and state. Not only did these two cases represent poor legal scholarship on the part of the Supreme Court, the decisions in both appear to be early examples of legislating from the bench.
In the first place, to rely on one paragraph from one letter written by one individual to justify a decision of this magnitude was not just questionable, it was irresponsible. When you consider there are reams of founding documents easily accessed by anyone conducting research on this subject, it is difficult to understand why one paragraph from one letter written by one Founder could carry so much weight. Difficult, that is, unless the justices in question made their decisions about the establishment clause of the First Amendment based on personal bias rather than legal scholarship. The justices in the majority appear to have been looking for a way to validate a decision they had already made, and Jefferson’s letter suited their purpose. This kind of perfidy has become common practice among those who deny the influence of Christianity on the Founders and, in turn, American government.
The divinity our Founders opposed was not the God of Holy Scripture but that of kings and queens, the self-proclaimed divinity of European royalty. America’s Founders believed that people could be judged superior to one another only on the basis merit, not birth; a sentiment reflected in the Declaration of Independence which begins: “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…” In other words, the rights of the people—including religious liberty—come from God not monarchs.
By the time the Founders drafted the Constitution, Europe had a long history of monarchs claiming to be rulers by divine right and then using their power to make their religion of choice the only acceptable and allowable religion. The Founders universally rejected the divinity of human monarchs and set about establishing a country in which the people being ruled would choose their rulers as well as their religions. Further, the Founders expected that those who governed as well as those who were governed would be guided by the values and principles set forth in Holy Scripture.
Advocates of the wall-of-separation concept sometimes quote Jefferson’s friend and contemporary, James Madison, on the issue. However, once again they conveniently interpret his words on the basis of preconceived notions. Taken in context, Madison’s views appear to reflect the prevailing view of the Founders. He, like they, wanted to ensure that the kind of state-mandated religion long associated with Europe would not be replicated in America. Without understanding how European monarchs persecuted subjects who subscribed to any but the state-approved religion, it is difficult to understand how important preventing the government from undermining freedom of religion was to the Founders. But even a cursory study of the founding documents validates this contention.
The religion clause of the First Amendment reads as follows: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…” Advocates of a wall-of-separation emphasize the establishment clause of the First Amendment while conveniently ignoring the free-exercise clause. Over time, this emphasis has transformed the concept of freedom OF religion into freedom FROM religion, or at least freedom from the Christian religion. This was never the intention of the Founders. The Founders almost universally encouraged religion and valued its beneficial effects on human thinking and behavior. What they opposed was not religion, but state-mandated religion in which the only denomination allowed was the one prescribed by those who held the reins of power.
A more thorough study of the founding documents would have shown the Supreme Court Justices that the brave men and women who risked everything to establish the United States of America had no intention of erecting a wall of separation between church and state. Quite the contrary, the First Amendment was written to ensure freedom of religion, not freedom from it. The establishment clause of the First Amendment—one of the most grossly misinterpreted clauses in the Constitution—was intended to protect citizens from a state-sponsored church that could tax citizens for its support while banning attendance at any other church; the very situation the Pilgrims came to America to escape.
It is worth noting at this point that Americans in the late 1700s were overwhelmingly Christian. Approximately ninety-nine percent of them were either protestant or Catholic. Having made this point, when I state that America rests on a Christian foundation, I am not claiming that our country was founded as a theocracy. Rather, I am stating what is obvious from the historical record: Our Founders were guided by the moral values of Holy Scripture in their deliberations, beliefs, and subsequent actions just as you and I should be as we engage in the political process. The Christianity of the Founders was a powerful force in shaping their views and actions.
The Founders believed people should be free to practice their religions or not practice them without government interference or coercion. They envisioned a nation in which religion was an issue between God and the people, not government and the governed. Having said this, it is important to understand that peer pressure in favor of the Christian religion was much stronger in the days of the Founders, as can be seen in their writings and the state constitutions of the time. In the days of the Founders, Christian values were a given, not something debated in the public square or denied by secular humanists pushing an anti-Christian agenda.
Dr. Goetsch is the author of Christian Women on the Job: Excelling at Work without Compromising Your Faith, Fidelis Books, an imprint of Post Hill Press and Christians on the Job: Winning at Work Without Compromising Your Faith, Salem Books, an imprint of Regnery Publishing, 2019: www.david-goetsch.com