Back to the Roots: The Founders and the Separation of Church and State

The cry, “That violates the separation of church and state!” has been the centerpiece of the secularist drive to marginalize Christianity in the public sphere since the 1940s. The real — and often neglected — question is what precisely that separation means and how it should be interpreted and applied.

The secularists’ interpretation of the establishment clause — the line of the First Amendment that reads, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof” — ultimately rests upon anti-Christian prejudice and involves cherry picking from certain founders’ writings. In recent years, we have seen groups such as the ACLU, the Freedom from Religion Foundation, Americans United for the Separation of Church and State; Web sites such as; and leftist publications such as the Nation come out of the woodwork with attempts to refute the notion that America was ever a Christian nation. Instead, they recast the founders as anti-clericalists in the mold of the French revolutionaries.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

Like all historical documents, the Bill of Rights must be read within the context of what its framers meant when they penned the establishment clause. To get inside the minds of the authors, we must first recall the period in which they wrote.

Following Queen Elizabeth I’s reestablishment of the Anglican Church in 1560, Parliament and the queen were made the ultimate source of religious dogma in England. Where the Roman Catholic clergy and bishops had previously decided matters of religion, secular leaders of the House of Commons and House of Lords mandated by law which articles of faith were to be believed by the queen’s subjects and which were to be considered illegal.

As a result, Catholics and non-conforming Protestants suffered tremendous persecutions in England because of their refusal to submit to the Anglican church. This state of affairs continued throughout the colonial period and into the Americas, where each colony — except Pennsylvania and New York — had its own state church.

This was a problem the Founding Fathers knew they had to change, and so they made it impossible for the new government to decide matters of religious dogma by prohibiting the creation of a state religion.

Thomas Jefferson was keenly aware of this when he wrote his famous letter to the Danbury Baptists stating that the establishment clause erected a “wall of separation” between church and state — a point made clear by the next sentence in the original draft: “Congress thus [is] inhibited from passing acts respecting religion.”

The argument for the political separation of church and state in the First Amendment must then be understood within the historical context of the struggles between Catholics and Protestants, especially as regards the English origins of what ultimately became the United States of America.

Jefferson on Christianity in Government

Even Jefferson, arguably the founder most opposed to traditional Christian dogmas such as the Incarnation and Trinity, did not in practice oppose Christianity’s ceremonial role in government or its influence upon national morality, as evidenced by some of his actions during his presidency.

During his term, for example, the halls of Congress were routinely used for religious services presided over by clergy from the Washington, D.C., region.

Anson Phelps Stokes, a mid-20th century Yale historian, relates in his book Church and State in the United States:

[T]he preaching services were established early in the Jefferson administration (1801-1809), and the seats were always kept for the president and his secretary, the former attending regularly…. The services were so popular that the floor of the House proved inadequate, and the platform behind the speaker’s chair and every other spot was filled….

Contrary to secular myth, Jefferson’s writings show that Christianity played a strong role in his moral thinking. Like the Christian clergy, he was a moral absolutist who would have been shocked by the Democratic Party’s present support for moral nihilism. “It is strangely absurd to suppose that a million of human beings, collected together, are not under the same moral laws which bind each of them separately,” Jefferson wrote in an 1816 letter to George Logan.

In fact, contrary to the claims of atheists who call Jefferson to their cause, the founder explicitly described himself as a Christian in an 1803 letter to Dr. Benjamin Rush, where he wrote, “To the corruptions of Christianity I am indeed opposed; but not to the genuine precepts of Jesus himself. I am a Christian, in the only sense he wished any one to be; sincerely attached to his doctrines, in preference to all others; ascribing to himself every human excellence; & believing he never claimed any other.”

The founder, unlike radicals such as Thomas Paine or Ethan Allen, saw religion as useful in preserving society’s moral compass. Jefferson placed preachers and moralists on the same footing with legislators as guarantors of social morality. He wrote the following in an 1814 letter to Thomas Law:

When [the moral sense] is wanting, we endeavor to supply the defect by education, by appeals to reason and calculation, by presenting to the being so unhappily conformed, other motives to do good and to eschew evil, such as the love, or the hatred, or the rejection of those among whom he lives, and whose society is necessary to his happiness and even existence…. These are the correctives which are supplied by education, and which exercise the functions of the moralist, the preacher, and legislator; and they lead into a course of correct action all those whose depravity is not too profound to be eradicated.

Jefferson would have likely been appalled by modern liberals’ efforts to assert that the First Amendment’s establishment clause was intended to apply to matters of societal morality, rather than core matters of religious dogma, such as the divinity of Christ, the Holy Trinity, or the creation of a Church of the United States of America.

To this end, Jefferson wrote in an 1809 letter to a James Fishback:

Reading, reflection and time have convinced me that the interests of society require the observation of those moral precepts only in which all religions agree (for all forbid us to murder, steal, plunder, or bear false witness), and that we should not intermeddle with the particular dogmas in which all religions differ, and which are totally unconnected with morality.

Thus, Jefferson was opposed to legislating theological matters, not the promotion or defense of religiously motivated moral principles.

The Christian Origins of the Establishment Clause

In European countries where churches were subject to state control, churchmen became little more than religiously oriented bureaucrats whose Christianity was as deep as the clothes they wore on Sunday mornings.

The established churches in the American colonies were no exception, and dissatisfaction over their “spiritual dryness” led to the movement known as the Great Awakening in the mid-18th century.

Many scholars and politicians caught in the contemporary fight over church and state separation tend to emphasize the deism and anti-Christian currents of the Enlightenment. At the same time, they ignore the impact of this first Great Awakening during the 1740s and 1750s upon American religious and cultural life, which Princeton University scholar Frank Lambert attributes, in part, to the post-revolutionary attitudes in some circles about the institutional connection between the churches and the states.

Additionally, this post-Great Awakening movement was keenly aware of how the institutional dependence of churches upon the state was often detrimental to the quality of the faith expressed in those churches. Thus, they reasoned that the only way to have an authentically pure form of Christianity was to divorce ecclesiastical institutions from their dependence upon the state.

This period led many colonists — especially those in Virginia’s remote western frontier — to defy civil and ecclesiastical authority to preach the message of the “New Birth” without regard to existing institutions and laws. As a result, followers of this movement rejected preachers in the established churches whom they considered unconverted, causing a backlash among those established churches against the new evangelicals.

Coincidentally, both Jefferson and James Madison, hailing from Virginia’s mountain country, came of age amid the Great Awakening struggles between the Protestant non-conformists and the Anglican Church in Virginia. Not surprisingly, this served as the backdrop for their arguments against the formal establishment of the Anglican Church in Virginia and ultimately their case against religious establishments after the ratification of the Constitution. 

This is demonstrated by Jefferson’s 1779 Notes on the State of Virginia, where the founder points out that nearly two-thirds of Virginians belonged to sects arising out of the Great Awakening rather than the established Anglican Church. These Virginians faced serious legal impediments to practicing their faith, and considering that Jefferson came from Charlottesville, in the Virginia mountains, his neighbors’ religious difficulties could not but have affected his thinking on established religion and religious freedom. 

Lambert argues that the evangelicals agreed with the establishment churches about the importance of religion in society; nevertheless, “they argued that true Christianity was voluntary, not coercive, and, therefore, society was best served through free and independent churches preaching the gospel.”

Madison’s 1785 Memorial and Remonstrance, often cited by atheists who try to portray the founder as anti-Christian or as a believer that Christians were bigoted or ignorant because of its explicit usage of those epithets, is actually rooted in this Great Awakening tradition. Madison’s target, however, was not Christianity, but rather the corrupting influence of the state upon the church.

To this end, Madison wrote regarding the English-style institutional domination of the church:

[T]he establishment proposed by the Bill is not requisite for the support of the Christian Religion. To say that it is, is a contradiction to the Christian Religion itself, for every page of it disavows a dependence on the powers of this world: it is a contradiction to fact; for it is known that this Religion both existed and flourished, not only without the support of human laws…. Nay, it is a contradiction in terms; for a Religion not invented by human policy, must have pre-existed and been supported, before it was established by human policy. It is moreover to weaken in those who profess this Religion a pious confidence in its innate excellence and the patronage of its Author; and to foster in those who still reject it, a suspicion that its friends are too conscious of its fallacies to trust it to its own merits.

7. Because experience witnesseth that ecclesiastical establishments, instead of maintaining the purity and efficacy of Religion, have had a contrary operation…the Bill [the proposed legal establishment of the Anglican Church in Virginia] is adverse to the diffusion of the light of Christianity. The first wish of those who enjoy this precious gift ought to be that it may be imparted to the whole race of mankind. Compare the number of those who have as yet received it with the number still remaining under the dominion of false Religions.

Despite the claims that Memorial and Remonstrance proves Madison’s irreligiosity, it clearly shows that Madison was indeed a Christian who saw the institutional establishment of a state church as an obstacle to authentic Christianity. (It is unlikely an atheist would refer to non-Christian religions as “false.”)

Debating the Establishment Clause

While Americans came to oppose what they saw as a “tyrannical” Christianity of the governmentally controlled variety, they supported Christianity’s place in the free market of ideas. These undercurrents found a clear voice in the debates over the First Amendment in 1789.

The deliberations show that the first Congress’s intent differed sharply from that of the French revolutionaries who sought to destroy Christianity as a force in society. As 19th-century Union Theological Seminary historian Philip Schaff observed, “The American separation of church and state rests upon respect for the church; the infidel [European anticlerical] separation, on indifference and hatred of the church, and of religion itself…. The constitution did not create a nation, nor its religion and institutions. It found them already existing, and was framed for the purpose of protecting them under a republican form of government, in a rule of the people, by the people, and for the people.”

Legal scholars, such as LSU law professor John Baker, argue that the founders and most educated Americans living during the 18th century understood that a religious establishment was an institutional church under the control of the state, and to which all citizens would be expected to belong. An August 15, 1789, entry in Madison’s papers indicates he intended for the establishment clause to prevent Congress from mandating that very thing — it was not a wholesale ban on Christianity’s influence on the nation’s public morality or laws.

The entry says: “Mr. Madison said he apprehended the meaning of the words to be, that Congress should not establish a religion, and enforce the legal observation of it by law [as had been the practice in many of the colonies], nor compel men to worship God in any manner contrary to their conscience….”

Many on the Left make much out of the fact that Madison’s proposed language — that Congress should make no law regarding the establishment of a “national religion” — was rejected by the House, in favor of the more general “religion.” But their point ignores the historical context for removing the word “national” from the establishment clause. The rejection was rooted in the arguments between the Federalist and anti-Federalist forces, not because they wanted to prevent the government from allowing religious expression in a more general manner. During the debate, Rep. Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts took issue with Madison’s language regarding whether the government was a national or federal government (in which the states retained their individual sovereignty). The question compelled Madison to withdraw his language from the debate.

Legal scholars, including Baker, argue that using the term “national government” was unconscionable for both Federalist and anti-Federalist forces. Thus, removing the word “national” from the establishment clause was necessary to secure ratification by the states, many of which were wary of having their authority undercut by the federal government.

Following the argument between Madison and Gerry, Rep. Samuel Livermore of New Hampshire proposed language that would have said, “Congress shall make no laws touching religion or the rights of conscience,” which raised uproar from members, such as Rep. Benjamin Huntingdon of Connecticut and Rep. Peter Sylvester of New York. They worried the language could be used to harm religious practice because federal courts might construe the establishment clause in a manner different from Madison’s intent. Almost 220 years later, those objections have proven prophetic.

Others, such as Rep. Roger Sherman of Connecticut, believed the clause was unnecessary because the original Constitution only gave Congress stated powers, which Sherman believed made it impossible for Congress to establish a national religion (since doing so was not among its stated powers).

Anti-Federalists such as Rep. Thomas Tucker of South Carolina moved to strike the establishment clause completely because it could preempt the religious clauses in the state constitutions, but the anti-Federalists were unsuccessful in persuading the House of Representatives to drop it from the amendment.

The Senate went through several more narrowly targeted versions before reaching the contemporary language.

One version read, “Congress shall make no law establishing one religious sect or society in preference to others, nor shall freedom of conscience be infringed,” while another read, “Congress shall make no law establishing one particular religious denomination in preference to others.” Ultimately, the Senate rejected the more narrowly targeted language.

The establishment clause did not nullify the religious establishments in states such as Connecticut and Massachusetts, nor did it abolish elements of the common law that were connected with Christian belief. Although religious groups were institutionally separate from the state, religion continued to have an impact upon all three branches of government.

In fact, the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania acknowledged this in the 1822 case of Updegraph v. the Commonwealth: “The constitution of the United States has made no alteration, nor in the great body of the laws which was an incorporation of the common law doctrine of Christianity, as suited to the condition of the colony, and without which no free government can long exist…. If Christianity was abolished, all false oaths, all tests by oath in the common form by the book, would cease to be indictable as perjury.”

Despite the passage of the establishment clause in 1789, Congress did not stop itself from issuing a proclamation of thanksgiving to God just two months later. Clearly, they saw no contradiction.

Secularists often point to the fact that the Senate ratified a treaty in 1797 with Tripoli, in which the eleventh article states, “The government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian religion.”

This statement, however, should be understood within the context of the founders’ repudiation of the divine right of kings, which claimed the monarch’s power came from God alone and thus the king was also the head of the church. It was also intended to assert that the United States government — unlike the Christian kings of Europe — was a civil government that didn’t seek to use force to compel the Muslim rulers of North Africa to convert to Christianity, hence the clause, “No pretext arising from religious opinions shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries.”

Finally, the founders, according to Lambert, didn’t equate the government with the nation, which they clearly associated with the people. The founders established a civil government, based upon civil laws, some of which were influenced by Christian principles and morality.

The Establishment Clause and Public Morality

This knowledge was commonplace throughout the 19th century, and courts frequently gave Christian morality a privileged place when deciding family law cases. Christian principles were invoked time and again by the Supreme Court as the reason polygamy should remain illegal in the United States. In its 1890 case of The Mormon Church v. The United States, the Court wrote in its majority opinion, “The organization of our community for the spread and practice of polygamy is, in a measure, a return to barbarism. It is contrary to the spirit of Christianity and of the civilization, which Christianity has produced in the Western world. The question, therefore, is whether the promotion of such a nefarious system and practice, so repugnant to our laws and to our [Christian] civilization is to be allowed to continue by the sanction of 
our government.”

Similar points were made in the 1890 Davis v. Beeson case where the court said outlawing bigamy and polygamy was constitutional because they were “crimes by the laws of all civilized and Christian nations.” Consequently, polygamy was not outlawed because of secular concerns over how polygamy would adversely affect children but only because they were offensive to Christianity.

In practice, the founders’ intent to keep government away from mandating popular adherence on matters of theology did not extend to the expression of Christian sentiments by public officials, nor through statutes aimed at preserving public morality. The 1890s polygamy cases should be considered precedent for our current debates over “gay rights,” abortion, euthanasia, etc., because the court acknowledged that Christian morality was part of our common law. (And, of course, those cases have never been overturned.)

Our founders never mandated a complete exclusion of Christianity from the public square because they wanted to foster a marketplace of ideas wherein Christianity would remain vibrant. In contrast, secularists try to undermine that same marketplace and reduce traditional Christians to the status of second-class citizens. But they should tread lightly here. The 1965 Supreme Court decision United States v. Seeger shows that belief in a deity is not essential for a system of beliefs to be considered a religion within our legal 
system. From that standpoint, the degree of devotion homosexual-rights advocates or feminists give their own ideologies could actually be considered a form of religion.

The irony is rich. 

This article originally appeared in the October 2005 issue of
Crisis Magazine.


John Rossomando is a journalist in Philadelphia.

  • James Connor

    This article put into clear language all the things I have been thinking for years. I’m a historian myself and what Mr. Rossomondo stated so admirably about Jefferson is quite correct. Congratulations on a fine article.
    James Connor: Author of Kepler’s Witch

  • Mary

    does, however, appear in the Constitution of the Soviet Union

  • Maria

    I’m fully aware that my background in history is lacking, so if I’m confused about something let me know. I’m just trying to clarify what the christian right’s thoughts are. I do disagree, but I will try my hardest to be respectful and would appreciate the same.

    From this Jefferson quote it seems to me that christianity should be part of the marketplace of ideas, not discriminated against or specifically endorsed by the government. Is that how you enterpret it?

    “The interests of society require the observation of those moral precepts only in which all religions agree (for all forbid us to murder, steal, plunder, or bear false witness), and that we should not intermeddle with the particular dogmas in which all religions differ, and which are totally unconnected with morality.”

    (also this is probably going to release a tyraid of responses, but I’ll bait you) how has the government discriminated against christians? I can think of no examples (in american history)

    Then the Davis vs. Beeson case you quote seems to use government endorsing of christianity in their verdict against poligamy. Now I don’t support poligamy, but this doesn’t seem to be a valid arguement.

  • Doug Indeap

    James Madison, who had a central role in drafting the Constitution and the First Amendment, understood them to “trongly guard[] . . . the separation between Religion and Government.” Madison, Detached Memoranda (1817). Mindful that old habits die hard and that tendencies of citizens and politicians could and sometimes did 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 questioned whether these were “consistent with the Constitution, and with the pure principle of religious freedom.” His response: “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.” What then, Madison further inquired, should be made of these various actions already taken in the nation’s then “short history” inconsistent with the Constitution? Ever practical, he answered not with a demand these actions 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].”

    Apart from Madison’s commentary, the legislative history of the First Amendment belies the narrow scope you would give it. As you note, the first Congress debated and rejected just such a narrow provision (actually several) and ultimately chose the more broadly phrased prohibition now found in the Amendment. As reflected in his Detached Memoranda, Madison certainly did not read the Amendment as you suggest. In keeping with the Amendment’s terms, the courts have wisely interpreted it to restrict the government from taking steps that could establish religion de facto as well as de jure. Were the Amendment interpreted merely to preclude Congress from enacting a statute formally establishing a national church, the intent of the Amendment could easily be circumvented by Congress and/or the Executive doing all sorts of things to promote this or that religion–stopping just short of formally establishing a church.

    You quote a statement by Madison of August 15, 1789, that “he apprehended the meaning of the words to be, that Congress should not establish a religion, and enforce the legal observation of it by law, nor compel men to worship God in any manner contrary to their conscience . . . .” and suggest that this “indicates he intended for the establishment clause to prevent Congress from mandating that very thing . . . .”

    The legislative history does not bear out your claim. Madison doubted that an amendment on this subject was even necessary because he thought it beyond the power of the federal government to establish religion. As others felt the need for such an amendment, though, he was persuaded to draft and introduce such a provision and then shepherd it through various iterations to adoption and ultimate ratification. Madison spoke the words in question on August 15, 1789, with respect to a proposal stating, “no religion shall be established by law, nor shall the equal rights of conscience be infringed.” He proposed adding the term “national,” thinking that would address the expressed concerns of some. Following his motion, others expressed misgivings not only about the wording but also the scope of the proposal. Mr. Livermore suggested that it be altered to state “Congress shall make no laws touching religion, or infringing the rights of conscience.” Madison withdrew his motion, and the House then considered and passed Livermore’s motion (a critical fact omitted from your recitation). The Annals of Congress reveal little more other than that over the next several weeks, the proposal went through several more iterations and emerged as what we now know as the First Amendment. While combining elements of both Livermore’s proposal and the one figuring in the remarks of Madison that you would cast as the ultimate intent of the First Amendment, it reads closer to the former than the latter. There is a substantial and substantive difference between saying “no religion shall be established by law” and “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.” (That difference, moreover, is entirely independent of the omission of the word “national” from the text.)

    When discussing separation of church and state, it is critical to distinguish between the “public square” and “government.” Contrary to your suggestion, the 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. Students, for instance, are free to pray or otherwise exercise their religion in school as long as they do so in a time, manner, and place that does not interfere with school programs and activities.

    [continued in next post]

  • Doug Indeap

    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 may sometimes be difficult, making the distinction is critical.

    The First Amendment embodies the simple, just idea that each of us should be free to exercise his or her religious views without expecting that the government will endorse or promote those views and without fearing that the government will endorse or promote the religious views of others. By keeping government and religion separate, the establishment clause serves to protect the freedom of all to exercise their religion. Reasonable people may differ, of course, on how these principles should be applied in particular situations, but the principles are hardly to be doubted. Moreover, they are good, sound principles that should be nurtured and defended, not attacked. Efforts to undercut our secular government by somehow merging or infusing it with religion should be resisted by every patriot.

    Wake Forest University recently published a short, objective Q&A primer on the current law of separation of church and state. I commend it to you.

  • BenK

    To deal with ‘a little off’ briefly (and his attempt to undermine the article, presuming Wake Forest to be objective, current law to be anything other than today’s mistakes); there was, in the NYTimes, no less, a nice little piece talking about how religion – that is, the elements of world view that deals with ultimate origins, ultimate ends, the nature of man and the purposes of things – is something that everyone has; further, that there can be no society, no governance, and no government with out it. Without a coherent conception of good, bad, wrong, happiness, etc, there is no ability to create or maintain a social contract or have any group purpose. The market, the government, the community, the family, they all simply cease to be.

    In short, there will be a religion that undergirds the society – and if that society creates a nation-state, then religion will be fundamental to it.

    The antiestablishment clause has been discussed at some length. It creates a formal relationship between the clergy and government officials, such that the people will deal with the two hierarchies separately, not simultaneously, and neither shall directly appoint the other, in general.

  • Fr. Vincent Fitzpatrick

    Note that the First Amendment says, “Congress shall make no law respecting AN establishment of religion.”

    As the article notes, the establishments of religion in the states were unaffected by the amendment.

    Those who say such things as “the First Amendment prohibits the government from promoting religion, because that’s establishing a religion,” and such things, are, of course, twisting the words and distorting the meaning of the amendment.

    The word “establishment” in the amendment is a NOUN. The amendment means that Congress may not create any establishment of religion, AND may not make any law respecting any [already existing] establishment of religion.

    In order to rule us as they do, the Supreme Court and the entire federal government depend on one thing: Intellectual sloth.

    As Bertrand Russell said: “Most people would rather die than think; and millions have.”

  • Austin

    I think that the Founding Fathers wanted the Government to advocate Christian principles, i.e. the Ten Commandments, without sponsoring a specific religion. They had seen established churches, such as Anglicism in England, Catholocism in Spain, etc, and had witnessed the rot and corruption and wanted separation of Church and State for the betterment of both. In Europe, established churches were often corrupted by money and influence from the state, and an independent church that can speak truth to power, is much more desirable.

    Back in the 1950’s and before, I think that the United States had a good situation: the Government generally advocated Christian Principles, and did not have this current “secular religion” that we now seem to have, which seems to encourage gay marriage, abortion, etc. I don’t believe that trying to go back to an established church is a good idea at all, but to return to the scenario that we had in the 1950’s and before would be desirable. Unfortunately, public morality has declined and that is not possible.

  • Doug Indeap


    I’m not sure what to make of the unremarkable observation that everyone has a worldview of some sort and that societies reflect the collective worldviews of those comprising them. I agree with those saying that American society was at the time of the founding and is today largely dominated by Christianity. Given the republican nature of our government, it is only natural and expected then that the laws enacted by our government largely reflect Christianity’s influence.
    That said, I would stop short of saying that Christianity–or, even more generally, theism–is an inherent aspect of our government. To the extent any such claim seeks to “establish” some form of theism as an inherent aspect of our government, it is antithetical to the constitutional principle of separation of religion and state.

    Whatever their religions, the founders drafted a Constitution that plainly establishes a secular government on the power of the people (not a deity) and says nothing substantive of god(s) or religion except in the First Amendment where the point is to confirm that each person enjoys religious liberty and that the government is not to take steps to establish religion and another provision precluding any religious test for public office. 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.

    As I noted before and as reflected in the Wake Forest summary, the constitutional principle of separation of church and state does not banish religion from the public square or from politics. (The concept of separation of church and state as a political doctrine, distinct from the constitutional principle, is another matter; some argue as a matter of political doctrine that we should endeavor to minimize the influence of religion in politics.) The constitutional principle merely prohibits our government from taking steps to establish–de facto or de jure–religion as a fixture or aspect of the government.

  • Doug Indeap

    Fr. Vincent Fitzpatrick,

    So . . . Madison is twisting the words and distorting the meaning of the First Amendment?

  • Fr. Vincent Fitzpatrick

    Fr. Vincent Fitzpatrick,

    So . . . Madison is twisting the words and distorting the meaning of the First Amendment?


  • Donald R. McClarey

    Current jurisprudence in this area bears no relationship as to how the nation interpreted the free exercise clause in practice up until the Supreme Court went off the rails in this area in 1948.

    “Whereas the Congress of the United States, by a joint resolution of the two Houses, have signified a request that a day may be recommended to be observed by the people of the United States with religious solemnity as a day of public humiliation and prayer; and

    Whereas such a recommendation will enable the several religious denominations and societies so disposed to offer at one and the same time their common vows and adorations to Almighty God on the solemn occasion produced by the war in which He has been pleased to permit the injustice of a foreign power to involve these United States:

    I do therefore recommend the third Thursday in August next as a convenient day to be set apart for the devout purposes of rendering the Sovereign of the Universe and the Benefactor of Mankind the public homage due to His holy attributes; of acknowledging the transgressions which might justly provoke the manifestations of His divine displeasure; of seeking His merciful forgiveness and His assistance in the great duties of repentance and amendment, and especially of offering fervent supplications that in the present season of calamity and war He would take the American people under His peculiar care and protection; that He would guide their public councils, animate their patriotism, and bestow His blessing on their arms; that He would inspire all nations with a love of justice and of concord and with a reverence for the unerring precept of our holy religion to do to others as they would require that others should do to them; and, finally, that, turning the hearts of our enemies from the violence and injustice which sway their councils against us, He would hasten a restoration of the blessings of peace.

    Given at Washington, the 9th day of July, A. D. 1812.


    By the President:


  • Doug Indeap


    Madison, as noted above, later explained his opinion of the constitutionality of “[r]eligious proclamations by the Executive recommending thanksgivings and fasts”–one differing from the opinion you seemingly would derive from his proclamation. He considered the question whether these 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.” Madison, Detached Memoranda (~1820).

    Rather apologetically, he also explained how he came to issue the proclamation you quote and why he worded it as he did: “During the administration of Mr. Jefferson no religious proclamation was issued. It being understood that his successor [i.e., Madison] was disinclined to such interpositions of the Executive and by some supposed moreover that they might originate with more propriety with the Legislative Body, a resolution was passed requesting him to issue a proclamation. It was thought [presumably by Madison] not proper to refuse compliance altogether; but a form & language were employed, which were meant to deaden as much as possible any claim of political right to enjoin religious observances by resting these expressly of the voluntary compliance of individuals, and even by limiting the recommendation to such as wished simultaneous as well as voluntary performance of a religious act on the occasion.”

    It appears that he responded to perceived political imperatives, held his nose, and issued a proclamation worded to minimize its ill effects, knowing he was deviating from the First Amendment’s principles, which he held dear. Madison’s practical suggestion, also noted in my earlier post, is to acknowledge it as a mistake that is not legitimate precedent of proper government action.

  • Donald R. McClarey

    Doug, the Detached Memoranda that you quote is a fairly mysterious document purportedly written by Madison. It came to light in 1946 among the papers of Madison biographer William Cabell Rives. Rives who died in 1868 wrote a three volume biography of Madison and never mentions this document.

    The document has been ascribed to years ranging from 1817-1832. This document contradicts actions taken by Madison in his public career and Madison’s writings on these issues elsewhere.

    If Madison wrote this document, he certainly kept deadly quiet about it during his life, just as quiet about it as Mr. Rives his biographer did.

  • R.S.Newark

    Does Richard Neuhouse’s “The Naked Public Square” relate to any of this?

  • Alex

    It’s not the secularists who are intellectually lazy, whatever their faults. It’s the establishers.

    Nation-states collapse.

    It is utter immature — or senile — Americanism, not Christianity, to suppose that the United States of America need endure to the end of days.

    Christainity will, of course, but its prospects within the territory now ruled from Washington, and perhaps soon to be usurped by the fifty states, are only diminished by hypothetical establishment.

  • Doug Indeap


    Do you mean to suggest that the Detached Memoranda is not Madison’s writing? While the document (which was first published in 1914) has had an interesting history, its authenticity is not in serious doubt.

    Nor does the substance of the document conflict with Madison’s earlier actions and statements in any manner suggesting he did not write it. For instance, in stating his view that the Executive’s issuance of religious proclamations is not consistent with the Constitution, he explained, as noted above, his own action in that regard and suggested it be discounted as a mistake.

    Note too that, as President, Madison vetoed two bills, one to incorporate a church in the town of Alexandria in the District of Columbia and another to grant land to a church that had mistakenly erected a building on federal land, because he found them to violate the First Amendment.

  • John Lamont

    From a Catholic point of view, there is not a lot of point to this debate, because the original American view of separation of Church and state, and indeed on the nature of civil power, is unacceptable on any interpretation.

    On the nature of civil power, Leo XII in his encyclical Diuturnum states:

    5. Indeed, very many men of more recent times, walking in the footsteps of those who in a former age assumed to themselves the name of philosophers,(2) say that all power comes from the people; so that those who exercise it in the State do so not as their own, but as delegated to them by the people, and that, by this rule, it can be revoked by the will of the very people by whom it was delegated. But from these, Catholics dissent, who affirm that the right to rule is from God, as from a natural and necessary principle.
    6. It is of importance, however, to remark in this place that those who may be placed over the State may in certain cases be chosen by the will and decision of the multitude, without opposition to or impugning of the Catholic doctrine. And by this choice, in truth, the ruler is designated, but the rights of ruling are not thereby conferred.

    12. Those who believe civil society to have risen from the free consent of men, looking for the origin of its authority from the same source, say that each individual has given up something of his right,(15) and that voluntarily every person has put himself into the power of the one man in whose person the whole of those rights has been centered. But it is a great error not to see, what is manifest, that men, as they are not a nomad race, have been created, without their own free will, for a natural community of life. It is plain, moreover, that the pact which they allege is openly a falsehood and a fiction, and that it has no authority to confer on political power such great force, dignity, and firmness as the safety of the State and the common good of the citizens require. Then only will the government have all those ornaments and guarantees, when it is understood to emanate from God as its august and most sacred source.

  • John Lamont

    On the recognition of the Church by the state, Leo XIII i his encyclical Libertas on the nature of Christian freedom teaches:

    18. There are others, somewhat more moderate though not more consistent, who affirm that the morality of individuals is to be guided by the divine law, but not the morality of the State, for that in public affairs the commands of God may be passed over, and may be entirely disregarded in the framing of laws. Hence follows the fatal theory of the need of separation between Church and State. But the absurdity of such a position is manifest. Nature herself proclaims the necessity of the State providing means and opportunities whereby the community may be enabled to live properly, that is to say, according to the laws of God. For, since God is the source of all goodness and justice, it is absolutely ridiculous that the State should pay no attention to these laws or render them abortive by contrary enactment.

    19. To make this more evident, the growth of liberty ascribed to our age must be considered apart in its various details. And, first, let us examine that liberty in individuals which is so opposed to the virtue of religion, namely, the liberty of worship, as it is called. This is based on the principle that every man is free to profess as he may choose any religion or none.

    21. This kind of liberty, if considered in relation to the State, clearly implies that there is no reason why the State should offer any homage to God, or should desire any public recognition of Him; that no one form of worship is to be preferred to another, but that all stand on an equal footing, no account being taken of the religion of the people, even if they profess the Catholic faith. But, to justify this, it must needs be taken as true that the State has no duties toward God, or that such duties, if they exist, can be abandoned with impunity, both of which assertions are manifestly false. For it cannot be doubted but that, by the will of God, men are united in civil society; whether its component parts be considered; or its form, which implies authority; or the object of its existence; or the abundance of the vast services which it renders to man. God it is who has made man for society, and has placed him in the company of others like himself, so that what was wanting to his nature, and beyond his attainment if left to his own resources, he might obtain by association with others. Wherefore, civil society must acknowledge God as its Founder and Parent, and must obey and reverence His power and authority. Justice therefore forbids, and reason itself forbids, the State to be godless; or to adopt a line of action which would end in godlessness-namely, to treat the various religions (as they call them) alike, and to bestow upon them promiscuously equal rights and privileges. Since, then, the profession of one religion is necessary in the State, that religion must be professed which alone is true, and which can be recognized without difficulty, especially in Catholic States, because the marks of truth are, as it were, engravers upon it. This religion, therefore, the rulers of the State must preserve and protect, if they would provide – as they should do – with prudence and usefulness for the good of the community.

    All pretty clear.

  • Brennan

    I second John Lamont’s quotes from Pope Leo XIII. Further, it is the system which was set up that counts more than any Founder’s particular religious beliefs. If the State cannot in some manner recognize the truth of the Catholic faith, then it is not surprising that religion will be pushed entirely to the private sphere.

  • Doug Indeap

    John and Brennan,

    Not knowing much about Catholicism, I am intrigued by your comments. Do I understand correctly that the teachings of that faith conflict with some of the fundamental aspects of the United States, particularly the civil or secular nature of the government and the separation of church and state?

    If so, I gather there is some disagreement among Catholics, since not all Catholics adhere to or live by those particular teachings. Right? John Kennedy comes to mind.

    To the extent that Catholics actually take these teachings to heart, how do they do it? How do they manage citizenship and patriotism and such? I ask because the ideas you describe seem so, well, subversive to the government, yet Catholics seem to function as good citizens every bit as well as the members of other faiths do. (I suspect this is a rather large subject–and a correspondingly large gap in my knowledge–so it may be I need to do some reading.)

  • Brennan

    John and Brennan,

    Not knowing much about Catholicism, I am intrigued by your comments. Do I understand correctly that the teachings of that faith conflict with some of the fundamental aspects of the United States, particularly the civil or secular nature of the government and the separation of church and state?

    If so, I gather there is some disagreement among Catholics, since not all Catholics adhere to or live by those particular teachings. Right? John Kennedy comes to mind.

    To the extent that Catholics actually take these teachings to heart, how do they do it? How do they manage citizenship and patriotism and such? I ask because the ideas you describe seem so, well, subversive to the government, yet Catholics seem to function as good citizens every bit as well as the members of other faiths do. (I suspect this is a rather large subject–and a correspondingly large gap in my knowledge–so it may be I need to do some reading.)

    Hi Doug,
    Good questions. I’m not an expert myself, but I can point to one of (IMHO) the greatest political documents already referenced, Libertas:

    and, Immortale Dei:

    So, Paragraph 4 of Immortale Dei says, “4. The right to rule is not necessarily, however, bound up with any special mode of government.”

    Immortale Dei states: “9. What has been said of the liberty of individuals is no less applicable to them when considered as bound together in civil society. For, what reason and the natural law do for individuals, that human law, promulgated for their good, does for the citizens of States. Of the laws enacted by men, some are concerned with what is good or bad by its very nature; and they command men to follow after what is right and to shun what is wrong, adding at the same time a suitable sanction. But such laws by no means derive their origin from civil society, because, just as civil society did not create human nature, so neither can it be said to be the author of the good which befits human nature, or of the evil which is contrary to it. Laws come before men live together in society, and have their origin in the natural, and consequently in the eternal, law. The precepts, therefore, of the natural law, contained bodily in the laws of men, have not merely the force of human law, but they possess that higher and more august sanction which belongs to the law of nature and the eternal law. And within the sphere of this kind of laws the duty of the civil legislator is, mainly, to keep the community in obedience by the adoption of a common discipline and by putting restraint upon refractory and viciously inclined men, so that, deterred from evil, they may turn to what is good, or at any rate may avoid causing trouble and disturbance to the State.”

    So, it is possible to be a faithful Catholic politician in the United States. However, a Catholic politician cannot support immoral laws which support crimes such as abortion, even if one’s constituency is in favor of it. The moral, or natual law transcends the will of the people if the people are misguided or wicked enough to support the legalisation of an objective evil.

    I personally am skeptical of the ability of democracies to maintain any sort of moral coherence in their lawmaking since democracies by their nature treat the will of the people as paramount over any natural or eternal law. So if the people want legal abortion the government really has no higher appeal to turn to (other than the courts, perhaps, but we see how well that has worked).

    Again, I recommend the two documents listed above for further reading. They also deal with the issue of the Church and the State.

    God bless.