THE HISTORY OF CHURCH-STATE SEPARATION IN THE UNITED STATES
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More than most nations, the history of the United States is full of striking paradoxes. Though “Conceived in Liberty”, much of the economy depended on African-American slavery. During a dramatic war fought mostly by whites for independence from Britain, Native American tribes were devastated by conquest, alcoholism and infectious diseases. One of the first modern anti-Imperial nations gave rise to an immense and powerful Empire. Similarly, the U. S. Constitution prohibited the establishment of any religion – perhaps the first in the world to do so in a formal sense – yet today most opinion polls confirm Americans to be overwhelming religious. Part of the reason for these paradoxes is the simple diversity of governance, including church-state relations, from the earliest colonization.
In the 16th century, America was contested ground for old European powers: Spain and France were Catholic, and Britain was Protestant. In Mexico, including what is now the State of New Mexico, the Inquisition executed heretics, just as in the mother country. In the thirteen colonies along the Atlantic seaboard, there were striking variations in religious matters. Some, like Massachusetts, were founded by Puritans, escaping an episcopal established church in Britain, only to promulgate a highly authoritarian theocracy of their own. Neighboring Rhode Island, however, was organized by Roger Williams, who insisted on freedom of conscience. Virginia was under the rule of the Anglican church, and suppressed dissenters such as Baptists, jailing them for resisting obligatory church taxes. In Maryland, the Catholic Calvert family ruled, and in some respects allowed more toleration than Britain did, where Catholics could not vote or hold public office. And in the South, colonies like Georgia were almost heathen enclaves, with few Christian ministers or churches of any kind. In sum, this range of religious experience and governance has characterized the U. S. to the present day, making it difficult to generalize about “American religion.”
In the 17th century, as in Europe, dissenters and heretics were sometimes subject to harsh punishment, including executions. The latter ceased by the 18th century, but imprisonment for heretical preaching was quite common in colonies like Virginia. In addition, church authorities regularly enforced “blue laws”, which prohibited drinking alcohol, sports or gambling on Sundays. Popular resentment of the Anglican Church grew stronger as it attempted to expand its political authority. This, wrote John Adams, “contributed as much as any other cause to arouse the attention, not only of the inquiring mind, but of the common people, and urged them to close thinking on the constitutional authority of parliament over the colonies.” With the victory of the Revolution, Jefferson succeeded in 1785 in passing a Statute of Religious Liberty in Virginia, which provided for freedom and conscience, and prohibited forced payment of any taxes to churches or ministers. As is well known, many of America’s “founding fathers”, such as Jefferson, Washington, Madison and Paine were not Christians, but Deists. This accounts for the mention in various foundational documents such as the Declaration of Independence of “the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God.” This remarkable international intellectual ferment of the late 18th century was something so strong that it amounted to a brotherly bond between France and America.
When in the late 1780s, citizens (no longer subject to any crown or royal authority), determined that the Articles of Confederation were not serving the needs of the nation, they commenced writing a new document. The result was a “godless constitution”, with no mention whatever of God, Jesus Christ, or the Christian religion. During the Constitutional Convention, the revered but elderly Benjamin Franklin proposed opening their sessions with prayer – an idea which, however, found little support and was quickly dropped. Indeed, the only mention of religion in the original document is a prohibition of a “Test” for political office. In Britain, Catholics and Dissenters could not vote or hold political office, but the new American Constitution gave equal rights to all without exception. Even during the period of discussion of the new Constitution, there was a widespread feeling among the citizenry that it gave too much power to the national government, and did not protect against abuses. Hence, a Bill of Rights was proposed and adopted in 1791. The first article states: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” This became the classic organic concept for church-state relations in American history, and remains in effect today. However, there was fierce opposition from a variety of Christian ministers, who felt the Constitution should have established Christianity as the official religion. Thus, even at the inception of the Republic, there was a resolute resistance to this fundamental principle of the Enlightenment. Some historians have argued that this was a period of outright “Counter Revolution” – of political retrenchment in response to the radical progress of the preceding years. By the late 1790s, this grew into a real political campaign against “infidels” in the universities and among the common people.
A crucial presidential election in 1800 concluded with the victory of Jefferson, in spite of bitter attacks on him as an “atheist” which he was not, though he defended the rights of all in religious matters, including atheists. Starting in 1800, there arose a series of events throughout the American South, which have been called a “Great Awakening.” In rural areas, people by the tens of thousands would gather to listen to preachers for several days; there were frequent episodes of conversion, marked by falling to the ground, fervent praying and the like, which today we regard as classic instances of mass hysteria. The social motivation for such excesses is controversial, but it seems apparent that it arose from widespread alcoholism, family violence, and remorse for having led “wicked lives.” Christianity expanded to entire sections of the country that had practically been “heathen” to that point. Phenomena like this marginalized the remaining Deists, whose numbers began to dwindle as the “founding fathers” aged and died. By the late 1820s, a political campaign erupted against Freemasonry, where various Deisticminded men had found a social and cultural home. Throughout the first half of the 19th century, it may truly be said that America was “awash in a sea of faith.” Historians now acknowledge that a form of “civil religion” became dominant, with common political expressions of piety, regulation of morality, and a de facto fusion of government and church.
Thus, while the Constitution forbid an establishment of religion at the national level, many individual States such as Massachusetts retained such establishments, and persecuted freethinkers like Abner Kneeland for the crime of blasphemy. While America was not “officially” a Christian nation, in actual practice and legal authority, it was. Even so, freethinkers such as the socialists Robert Owen and Frances Wright spoke out in defense of intellectual liberty. In the mid-1820s, Owen purchased an entire village in southwest Indiana, which he called “New Harmony”, and founded it on freethought principles. The town still exists today, as a kind of community museum of early utopian society and culture. Even after Owen himself returned to Britain, his children became political and intellectual leaders, not only in Indiana, but for the nation. Robert Dale Owen was one of the main leaders of the successful effort to found the now-renowned Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D. C. In the midst of an increasingly “Christian” social scene, freethinkers did not surrender the struggle for reason and science.
Curiously, while many view the Civil War of 1861-65 as a period of yet more religiosity, it is certain that President Lincoln was not a Christian, nor were such prominent figures as Generals U. S. Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman. It is also now known to scholars though not widely recognized, that immigrant freethinkers from France, Italy and German provided a substantial force within the victorious Union Army. The momentum of the Union victory provided the basic for what some have called “The Golden Age of Freethought”, which lasted in America until World War I. Robert G. Ingersoll, a former Colonel of an Illinois union regiment, became known as the Great Agnostic, and the most famous orator of the entire century. Yet, as during the 1790s, there was equally fierce opposition. The National Reform Association promoted the adoption of a Constitutional amendment making the U. S. a Christian nation. This, however, was never successful. By the 1890s, in spite of the rise of the Populist and Labor movements, including large-circulation radical newspapers, there was so much repression of freethinkers that the types of people who had once been “founders” in Jefferson’s time became “fugitives”. There were numerous imprisonments of freethinkers for publishing information on sexuality and birth control. Thus, under the banner of “The Suppression of Vice”, Christian morality became politically and legally enforced. The Sunday “blue laws”, some of which originated during the colonial period, continued in some places even until the 1990s. World War I brought the social parameters of the 19th century to an abrupt end. But it also once more brought forward righteous “patriotism”, so political radicals, including freethinkers, were beaten, jailed, and deported by the thousands. Militant labor organizations like the Industrial Workers of the World, who “modified” church hymns to make them radical, were a particular target because of their “disrespect” for religion. With the added incentive of a reactionary response to the Russian Revolution, it may truly be said that conservative political parties and groups enforced a sort of social taboo on radical ideas and independent thinking. Even so, some of the most popular writers of the 1920s, like the novelist Sinclair Lewis, bitterly exposed puritanism and political corruption.
The shock of the Great Depression, which began in 1929 and lasted throughout most of the 1930s, brought the radicals back to political life. To some extent, the New Deal under President Franklin Roosevelt invigorated the old ideas of the Populist and Progressive movements. Secularism, a hallmark of modern social culture, made great strides among the people because it focused not on distant heavenly rewards, but on making a better life right here on earth. There were some remarkable developments concerning church-state relations during this period. For instance, some members of the Jehovah’s Witnesses refused to recite the Pledge of Allegiance to the flag. At first the courts confirmed their conviction, but the Supreme Court reversed it in 1943. The Court’s opinion was written by Justice Robert Jackson, who later represented the U. S. at the Nuremberg trials. Parts of this opinion resonate strongly to the present day. “Compulsory unification of opinion”, Jackson wrote, “achieves only the unanimity of the graveyard . . . There is no mysticism in the American concept of the State or of the nature or origins of its authority. We set up government by consent of the governed, and the Bill of Rights denies those in power any legal opportunity to coerce that consent. If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein.”
With the end of World War II, and Roosevelt’s death, the alliance with the U. S. S. R. was broken by Rightists, and similarly, the Left in the labor unions was crushed. The 1950s were a period of cultural conservatism, and even reactionary domination. In 1954, The Congress passed a law adding the phrase “under God” to the pledge of allegiance to the flag. The reasoning behind this was that it would be a rebuke to “godless Communism.” It is one of the curious developments in American culture that a society which had passed through so many dramatic phases of mass citizen action, going back to the Revolution, continuing through the utopian experiments, and the armies of the Civil War, had by the second half of the 20th century devolved into an entirely different direction. This was the age of Consumerism, with television, shopping malls, mass marketing, etc. As the sociologist C. Wright Mills observed, people who had recently been proud Citizens, were reduced to Consumers. Instead of being activists, many lapsed into to a passivity so profound that it amounted to inertia. It has produced a society in which people tend to “shop” for churches, and correspondingly, churches try to appeal as Entertainment.
A corollary has been that many of the recent milestones for churchstate relations are to be found in court decisions, and not from initatives of the broader society, or legislative bodies like the Congress. Hence, starting in the early 1960s, a series of Supreme Court rulings ended compulsory prayers in public schools, as well as Bible readings – both of which had existed since colonial times. While militant organizations such as the American Atheists under Madalyn Murray O’Hair grew, they were also subject to harassment, including death threats and the like. In fact, because of her involvement in one important school prayer case, O’Hair soon became a subject of hatred among evangelical Christians. The social turmoil of the late 1960s around the Vietnam War again produced a strong disillusionment with patriotic “Americanism.” The rise of the Women’s Movement, stimulated in part because of a Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion, threatened the “patriarchal” authority of the churches. Right-wing religious organizations such as the Moral Majority and the Christian Coalition provided a political base for the Republican Party, which elected former movie star Ronald Reagan President in 1980. A considerable momentum for such groups was the social dislocation and insecurity of many Christian males, whose traditional dominance was profoundly undermined by the latest advances of modern secularism. Thus many contemporary social problems, including crime, teenage pregnancies, children born outside of marriage, etc. were blamed on the reviled “secular humanists.”
As in the Great Awakening of 1800, a new revival of activist Christianity promised solutions to such problems, but now through political action. Another factor propelling the Christian Right was the advance of the teaching of Evolution in the public schools. At first, there was an outright effort to force the teaching of Creationism, that is, the Biblical account of the origins of the world, as given in the Book of Genesis. Again, courts held that such teaching was an unconstitutional establishment of religion, so Christians developed a new strategy of promoting the teaching of the theory of Intelligent Design as well as Evolution, so that students could “make their own decisions.” The scientific community has to some extent rallied to the teaching of Evolution as the accepted factual view of life’s origins, but this is a struggle that still continues in various States.
With the Gulf War in 1991, a new urgency began to make itself apparent among evangelical Americans. More and more, apocalyptic interpretations of contemporary politics were becoming popular. While the first President Bush was a moderate Episcopalian, he accepted such support at the same time he was obviously rather uneasy about it. In contrast, his son, also named George Bush, openly declared he was a “born-again Christian,” and embraced the Right without reservations. In a context when President Clinton’s personal morality was brought into question, the second Bush promised a revival of “family values.” He forged a coalition based on the Catholic Church and the evangelicals, who together amount to as much as two-thirds of the American population. Correspondingly, the moderate churches found themselves in a weak and defensive posture at the same time the Democratic Party was similarly enervated.
The Presidential election of 2000 produced a victory for Bush, though not without profound controversy concerning votes in the State of Florida. In spite of his narrow victory, all but conceded by the pallid Democrat Al Gore, Bush quickly began to act as if he had won a great mandate. He reversed the Clinton administration’s support of family planning funds for international agencies, and launched what he called a Faith-Based Initiative program. This gutted secular government social service programs, in favor of those based in Christian churches. To date, more than $1 billion in federal government funds have flowed to churches to provide counseling, health care, housing, etc. In past decades, such a bias would have been thrown out by courts as unconstitutional, but now there is scarcely a protest, outside the small remaining humanist organizations.
The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 in New York and Washington provided Bush with another opportunity to resuscitate “civil religion,” and proclaim what has amounted to a Holy War in Afghanistan and Iraq. As with the earlier Gulf War, this provided a great psychological boost to the apocalyptic expectations of the Christian Right. Previously Satan was thought to reside in Moscow, but now he was in Baghdad. “Evil” had to be rooted out with an immense invasion force.
As disheartening as this scenario has been to rational humanists, it is now apparent that Bush’s military efforts have resulted in chaos, disgrace and disaster. Promoted as “pure,” American soldiers have committed the most appalling outrages on innocent Iraqis and Aghans. While new apologists for “Empire” have flourished in the press and even in “scholarly” publications, the grim and corrupting realities common to all such enterprises have been exposed to the world. In the present context, the old contradictions and paradoxes of American history again come into play. Like all Empires, that of America produces a kind of internal rot and decay, which threatens to destroy the morale of our people. It must be acknowledged that history produces few examples of Empires which have successfully “reversed” their course. Is it possible that we will return to the promise and hope of the founding fathers, for a society based on reason, science, and progress? If so, as in France and elsewhere, the concept of being Citizens in a Republic will have to be revived and invigorated, including a new respect for the strict Separation of Church and State.
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