Wednesday, February 25, 2004

Early History of Church and State

Justin at Dust In the Light , when commenting on how the Supreme Court voted Wednesday to let states withhold scholarships from students studying theology, made a pithy comment about secular humanism and Marxism which reminded me of something. I've long thought that perhaps the only way to stop the confusion about what the separation of church and state is SUPPOSED to mean would be to point out that so-called secularism is a religion of another sort. In fact, what it really is is the modern form of what was called Deism. Deism gained some adherents during the Enlightenment, though those were mostly of the aristocratic or intellectual class and were relatively few in number.

Deists believed in a sort of "watchmaker God" who basically set up the world to act according to specific laws of Nature and then stepped back to see what would happen. They believed that God and Rationalism could coexist and these deists and other Rational Christians were one side of the Great Awakening of the mid-18th century. (The other side was Jonathan Edwards and his Evangelical crowd). Some noted Deists (whether the average American realizes it or not) were Thomas Jefferson and Ben Franklin. Some historians believe that Deism was the first step down the road to secularism. That may be true, but what I want to focus on is how some of its adherents, such as Jefferson and Franklin, had religion at the top of their minds when founding our nation. As will also be shown, there were other religious figures who had interesting things to say about both formulating a new government and religious rights who weren't Deists.

Regardless of the version of religion practiced by the Founding Fathers, they were all heavily influenced intellectually by the Enlightenment. As such, the most important and lasting impact of the Enlightenment in America was its influence on the political thinking and government of the colonies and eventually the United States. The concepts of natural law, inherent freedoms, and self-determination that have been embedded in the American fiber were Enlightenment ideals as well as religious. Basically, the influence of the Enlightenment, through its many Deist proponents in America, didn't mean the abandonment of the Protestant ideas that originally inspired the settlement of America. In fact, if nothing else, the ideals of the Enlightenment combined with the traditional moral teachings of Christianity to inspire the ideals spelled out in the founding documents of our country.

For instance, the Enlightenment bedrock principle of reason is reflected in the appeal in the Declaration of Independence to "the Law of Nature and of Nature's God,"; the assertion in the preamble of the Constitution that Justice, domestic tranquility, the common defense, the general welfare, and the Blessings of Liberty were the proper purposes of government; and the Federalist Papers? preference for "reflection and choice" over "accident and force" as the foundation of political society is another example. However, it is important to note that these ideas had been inspired by the classical and Judeo-Christian thought that was much older than the Enlightenment. This emphasizes the relationship between Christian thought and Enlightenment ideals. Documents such as the Mayflower Compact (1620) and William Penn's Frame of Government for Pennsylvania (1682) show that ideas for government resting at least partially on reason and consent had been part of colonial political philosophy prior to widespread exposure to Enlightenment ideas.

Tangentially related to the historical relationship between religion and our government, it should be noted that religious figures took a central role in American political thought. John Wise stated in 1717 that civil government was not unlike church organization in that it could rest on reason and rational conclusions instead of being dependent on divine rights, archaic customs or even Scripture. In other words, man could use reason to discover and apply the proper principles to human government. Wise called these principles natural law, which he believed to be consistent with God's law. In 1744, the Puritan clergyman Elisha Williams declared that "all are born . . . naturally equal" and everyone "is a reasonable . . . moral and accountable Being: and therefore . . . must reason, judge, and determine for himself." This laid important groundwork for the freedom of religious belief and expression. Another Puritan clergyman, Samuel Hopkins, extended these thoughts to attack the institution of slavery in 1776. The slaves brought to North America had "never forfeited their liberty or given anyone the right to enslave or sell them," Hopkins wrote in his A Dialogue Concerning the Slavery of Africans. He also pointed out the inconsistency of a nation, America, championing liberty while maintaining institutionalized slavery. Reason abhorred this circumstance, he said. Yet, as the case of slavery is particularly good at pointing out, the ideals of reason, the Enlightenment, and Christianity in general did not always remain intellectually consistent or achieve practical results.

The subject of political obedience was also greatly affected by the linkage of Christianity and the Enlightenment. Jonathan Mayhew, in 1750, noted that Scripture and reason dictated that rulers be judged according to a "higher law." Fourteen years later, James Otis of Boston declared that every Briton in North America "is by the law of God and nature, by the common law, and by act of parliament . . . entitled to all the natural, essential, inherent and inseparable rights of our fellow subjects in Great Britain." Otis conflated divine, natural and constitutional rights into what to him appeared to be a rational and consistent whole. These examples are provided to show that the intertwining of religious thought and government goes back to the founding of our country.

In summary, the effect that the exposure of religion to the rationalism of the Enlightenment was a growth of rational religion and the idea of freedom of religion as a natural right. This led to changes in religious orthodoxies and traditions of churches throughout the American Colonies and a further splintering of religious sects. When it came time to unite against England, it became obvious that no single religious sect would prevail over the others and they all essentially agreed to disagree. This evolved into a realization that no one church could dominate a new nation, which resulted in the separation of church and state. This right of religious freedom, along with the difficulty of sustaining orthodox thought in the midst of splintered religious sects, led to guarantees of religious freedom in the constitutions of many states and the Bill of Rights.

However, it is notable that the God who grants equality in the Declaration of Independence is the deist version, not the God worshipped in the majority of the traditional churches of the colonies at the time. The Enlightenment's impact on religion influenced many of the leaders of the American Revolution. Jefferson and Franklin both spent time in France and were exposed to the French Enlightenment, which tended to be more antagonistic to religion than did the English version. This point is not intended to denigrate Jefferson and Franklin. They believed what they believed and recognized that it was important to allow all Americans to worship (or not worship) freely, without being dictated by the government the form their religious observances were to take.

Thus, the true intent of the "separation of church and state" was to permit citizens to practice their religion freely without fear of governmental prosecution. Implicit in this is the right to not practice any form of religion. The effort to divorce ourselves from the importance of religion to our national heritage may indeed point to the secularization of our society. To disqualify something from government funding simply because God is mentioned misses the mark. Our Founding Fathers, whether they be Deists, Congregationalists or Catholics, would have never imagined that the clause "separation of church and state" would have been perverted in such a way. Not in their wildest dreams.

* Believe it or not, I didn't know all of this just off the top of my head. Many of the ideas are my own, but it should be assumed that most of the "hard information" comes from the Encyclopedia of the North American Colonies, Jacob Ernest Cooke ed., Vol. 3. New York: Charles Scribner Sons, 1993. The many external links from this document are provided for further investigation, not to annoy.

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