We Americans like to think of our country as the most religious, the most Christian nation on the face of the earth. In an irritating article I wrote for the Spectator (“America: Not A Christian Country,” August 27, 2005), I demonstrated the hollowness of this claim. Whatever Americans may say they believe, they do not act like Christians. In a comparison of America’s rates of divorce, teenage pregnancy, and abortion with those of E.U. countries, America’s reputation for Puritanism takes a beating. Some of our rates are skewed by the somewhat different sexual mores of African- and Mexican-Americans, but they are, after all, Americans, and even discounting those minorities will not produce a statistical profile of the model citizens of the City on a Hill. We do attend church services more frequently than Europeans do, but here, too, the numbers are skewed by the high number of churchgoing Christians who are elderly, Southern, and female.
Despite the number of religious fanatics who landed on our shores early on, America has never been a Christian nation. Conservative evangelicals are fond of saying that the Founding Fathers were all pious Christians, but few of the men who led the Revolution or drafted the Constitution could be described as pious or even orthodox. George Washington was an ordinary Episcopalian who showed no conspicuous attachment to religion. His biographer Parson Weems has preserved touching stories about Washington’s faith, but Weems was a notorious liar, and his morale-building stories have repeatedly been debunked. The chaplain to the First Continental Congress knew Washington well and respected him, but, when asked in 1832 about the first president’s religion, he replied, “I do not believe that any degree of recollection will bring to my mind any fact which will prove General Washington to have been a believer in the Christian revelation.”
Revelation, miracles, and mystery were a stumbling block to John Adams, who was an undoubted Unitarian, like his wife, Abigail. Ben Franklin turned deist at the age of 15, before turning into a freethinker and Freemason. He was also a notorious philanderer who fathered bastards and wrote a famous essay on how to get and keep a mistress. Small wonder that Newt Gingrich says Franklin was “great in the way he lived his life.” Thomas Jefferson was also a mildly anti-Christian deist.
As Tocqueville told us 150 years ago, we are a conventional people, afraid of controversy. Going to church, in most periods of our history, has entailed fewer social complications than a reputation for atheism. No known atheist has ever been elected president: Lincoln learned to keep his skepticism to himself. America’s tradition of toleration—a peculiar blend of public hypocrisy and personal indifference to religion—is often explained by the First Amendment. Anti-American Catholics and ACLU liberals agree that the development of a Christian social order (much less a religious establishment) was prevented by the so-called wall of separation between Church and state. The phrase comes from a letter that Thomas Jefferson addressed to a Baptist association in Danbury, Connecticut, in 1802. The Baptists were afraid that the Congregationalists who dominated their state might not grant them full religious liberty. In the view of the Connecticut constitution and state government, freedom of religion was not a natural right but a concession from the legislature, as “favors granted.” At this time, Connecticut did have a Church establishment: One had to be a Protestant to hold office, and taxes were raised for the support of the Congregational Church. To calm their fears, Jefferson assured the Baptists that he favored religious freedom:
Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between man & his god, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, and not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof, thus building a wall of separation between church and state.
Jefferson was President at the time, but this letter is not an official state paper, much less a part of the Constitution or even a court decision. Nonetheless, this sentence is usually taken as a radical interpretation of the First Amendment. Some color is given this interpretation by the following sentence, which he bracketed for deletion, to avoid giving offense:
Congress thus inhibited from acts respecting religion, and the Executive authorised only to execute their acts, I have refrained from presenting even occasional performances of devotion presented indeed legally where an Executive is the legal head of a national church, but subject here, as religious exercises only to the voluntary regulations and discipline of each respective sect.
What President Jefferson is saying is that he found a public display of religion to be incompatible with his role as a chief executive whose powers to act were limited by Congress. He did not, however, say that it would be unconstitutional for him to preside over a national religious ceremony—only that it might be inappropriate, since there was no national church.
There is a serious problem with Jefferson’s statement—at least it would be a serious problem for most Christians throughout history and is still a problem for Catholic and Orthodox Christians, of course, but also for serious Anglicans, Lutherans, and Presbyterians. The problem is the dangerous notion that religion is a matter solely between an individual and the god in whom he chooses to believe. In fact, from the beginning, the Christian Church acted as a community, not a random association of individuals, and, from the beginning, the Church spoke with the authority of the Holy Ghost, not only on matters of faith, but on morals and politics. Calvinists and Catholics might have wished to burn each other at the stake, but neither thought it was a matter of indifference whether a Christian followed the pope or John Calvin. Jefferson’s opinion derives from his own indifference to religion, a habit he picked up from French Enlightenment thinkers from Montaigne to Voltaire. It is a dangerous idea, but it has nothing to do with the U.S. Constitution.
To be fair to that good man, Jefferson was in something of a bind. His indifference (at best) to religion was well known, and he knew that anything he wrote could and would be used against him by political rivals who had always tried to represent him as the enemy of Christianity. Cleverly, Jefferson did not even answer the Baptists’ main point: He wrote nothing about the rights of Baptists in Connecticut or the power of the legislature but spoke only of the national legislature—that is, the U.S. Congress—which is forbidden to establish a church or interfere in the exercise of religion.
Jefferson’s wall of separation cannot honestly be used to justify the government’s campaign to eliminate Christianity from public places. The President thought, rightly or wrongly, that he was merely restating and applying the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment, which says: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press, or of the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”
It is not easy today to get the point of this clause, since so few of us have lived in a country with an established religion. At its most severe, an established church is not only the official church of the country, it is the only legal church. In Elizabethan England, the Church of England was established, and members of other churches, whether Catholics or Anabaptists, could be punished in a variety of unpleasant ways. By the time of the American Revolution, the Anglican establishment, though milder, was still strict. The Church was supported by compulsory tithes; the parish churches were the basis of poor relief; no Catholics, much less Jews, could attend a university or one of the great public schools, and none could hold office. On the eve of the American Revolution, all 13 colonies accorded privileges to the Christian religion, and nine of them had established churches. In 1788—the year the Bill of Rights was adopted—six states had religious establishments supported by taxpayers, and eleven required officeholders to be Christians.
The First Amendment, then, forbids Congress either to establish a national church or to interfere in the exercise of religion. Why Congress, specifically? Because Congress, elected from the people, is the supreme lawmaking body. As Jefferson understood, it was up to Congress to pass laws, which the president executed. The president could not have his own policies on religious freedom any more than he was entitled to have his own policies on war (much less the special “war powers” that Lincoln invented and subsequent presidents have abused): For a president to impose his own ideas on the nation would be tyrannical. Nor did anyone (except possibly Jefferson) ever think the federal courts would get involved in such an issue, since their role was to interpret the Constitution and federal laws, and they had virtually no authority to intrude themselves into the affairs of the separate sovereign states.
The fears of the Danbury Baptists were legitimate: Under the First Amendment, the states could, theoretically, interfere in the exercise of religion or establish a church, whether Anglican or Congregationalist. The fear of a national establishment came natural to Americans. What sort of national church could America have that would unite the Anglicans of Virginia and South Carolina with the Puritans of New England and the Quakers of Pennsylvania? Even the Southern states were religiously diverse. The Carolina backcountry was dominated by Presbyterians and, eventually, Methodists, Baptists, and Campbellites, while Charleston had a significant Catholic population even in the early 19th century, and eventually the number of Irish Catholics in the lower South and, after the Louisiana Purchase, French and Spanish Catholics in Louisiana was too great to be ignored. So, although Christianity held a privileged position, it was, for practical reasons, virtually impossible for states to maintain a church establishment.
Although the Bill of Rights is interpreted today as a guarantee of individual and minority rights to exercise freedoms of expression and religion, this was not the original reading. In this respect, Jefferson’s letter points in the wrong direction. The primary object of the Bill of Rights was to restrain the national government, particularly the Congress.
The rights guaranteed by the First Amendment are primarily collective political rights exercised by the citizens within the states. (On this point, the first part of Akhil Reed Amar’s The Bill of Rights is conclusive.) The freedoms of speech, press, petition, and assembly are intended to protect the people from a strong national government that might increase its power by abridging these rights, while the Establishment Clause, which says nothing about an individual’s religious freedom, prevents Congress from interfering in a state’s right to establish or not establish a church.
In each of the clauses of the First Amendment, the Framers (James Madison, primarily) were responding to past abuses of the British government. Britain had censored political speech both in and out of the press, restricted political assemblies, and (so some Americans believed) shown signs of wishing to establish the Anglican Church in Puritan New England.
Many of the specific incidents to which Americans objected took place in the decades before the American Revolution, which they helped to ignite, and, of the actions taken by the British government, none were so seriously resented as the Coercive Acts, a series of edicts, issued by the British government in 1774, whose primary objectives were to punish New England’s rebellious commercial and political leaders and to impose tighter restraints on all the North American colonies. Thrown in for good measure was the Quebec Act, which, although it was unrelated to the problems in Boston, also aroused suspicions, partly because it transferred jurisdiction over the Ohio country to Canada but, even more, because it offered protections to Catholics and allowed their clergy to collect tithes from professing Catholics. Strangely, this was taken as evidence that Parliament was preparing to establish the Church of England in New England. The Quebec Act, in other words, is partly the inspiration for the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, and what the Yankees objected to was any guarantee of religious freedom for the Catholics they hated so much. The last thing a New Englander wanted was freedom of conscience for those of a different faith.
Because of the differences among Christian sects even in fairly uniform areas such as New England, state religious establishments proved to be unworkable, and, one by one, they were abandoned with little controversy. Nonetheless, the American people were probably more Christian in 1850 than they had been in 1780, when the influence of Deism and rationalism were stronger. The federal government had no authority to interfere in the religious affairs of the states, though the passage of the 14th Amendment would eventually turn the Constitution—and American society with it—upside-down.
To explain the decline of American Christianity, conservatives continue to cling to the myth of a nation settled by pious believers seeking to found “a shining City on a Hill.” But this republican Eden, on which God has uniquely bestowed His blessings, was corrupted by the Tempter. The American people are still, for the most part, good and faithful Christians, but they are under assault from immoral Hollywood movies, wicked journalists, and pointy-headed intellectuals, etc. Setting aside the obvious problem of equating New England (particularly the worst aspects of it) with all of America, we should ask ourselves this: Could men and women of strong faith really be corrupted by Hollywood movies that no Christian has any business going to see? Can you imagine Saints Peter and Paul attending the premier of Kill Bill or Saint Monica watching Lost with little Augustine? If America were, in fact, a basically Christian or moral nation, Hollywood would be out of business, and so would most colleges and universities.
Conservative Christians are right to complain that they are being persecuted by the government, and I do not have a solution to this grave problem except to suggest that they are wasting their time in trying to change the laws. Instead, they might consider the example of early Christians living under the pagan Roman Empire. Most Christians paid their taxes to Caesar, served in Caesar’s army, and were good neighbors and loyal citizens of Caesar’s empire. They did not engage in futile protests about infanticide, nor did they abuse and insult their pagan neighbors. They minded their own business, went to church, and prayed for the empire’s conversion. If today’s American Christians had the faith of a mustard seed, they would spurn the false prophets who have enslaved them to a party or political ideology and go about their Master’s business.