For the past few years a friend of mine in the Midwest has been engaged in a war of words in the columns of a local newspaper. Every so often someone writes a letter to the editor claiming that the United States is a Christian nation and that, as the formula goes, "freedom of religion doesn't mean freedom from religion." In response, my friend writes a letter pointing out that the Founding Fathers tended to be deists, not Christians. They saw God as, essentially, a watchmaker. He created the universe, wound it up and then stood back to let it run. If Franklin, Washington, Jefferson and Paine had a religion, it was a faith in reason, not in the Bible.
It was a pretty avant-garde notion for the 18th century. And even, it seems, for the 21st, at least in certain regions of the world (some of them within our own borders). It hardly matters that my friend, a history professor, knows what he is talking about. Fundamentalist groups circulate leaflets containing stock responses to such arguments -- including quotations that, torn from context, "prove" that the separation of church and state was never a basic American value. (After all, even the least orthodox of the Founding Fathers occasionally said something nice about Jesus.)
This is pretty much right on, though from my reading on the subject, even deists acknowledged a God and recognized that a higher power was necessary to have gotten the ball rolling, so to speak. But while he is accurate in saying that Fundamentalist groups take some quotes out of context, the fact remains that the separation of church and state has still been confused from the original meaning, notwithstanding the assertions of the the book's author or the reviewer. Rational religion was an outgrowth of the Enlightenment. As I said in my earlier blog about this:
". . . 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. . . 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."