Vultures Row: Religion and the U.S. Government

Religion and the U.S. Government

There has been a long standing argument over the role that religion should play in government. One side of the debate states that religion should be used as a source, for its strong moral value system makes for a great foundation to build upon. The other side believes that there should be no mention of religion whatsoever and that any mention of it invalidates the meaning of the issue in which it was brought up.

A look at the source documents, the papers that were written at the time, shows us that the founding fathers did indeed draw upon the Bible and their faith when drafting the documents that would lead the young nation.
The issue of religion in America dates well before the founding of the United States Government, it even dates back to before immigrants came to the new world. Religious freedoms were almost nonexistent in Europe. Dutch Anabaptists or Mennonites were persecuted by the Roman Catholic Church, English Protestants sentenced Jesuits to death by hanging and disembowelment and an estimated twenty thousand Lutherans were driven from Austria. All of this was done in the name of one church or another. Nations of the day had official religions and held the ears of men in power and therefore could set policy of the nation concerning rival religions.

When the Founders set about to create a new nation, they had the peace of mind to remember the trials and tribulations of their ancestors and wanted to set in place the right to freedom of religion. The government was given direct powers, the constitution clearly stated that the government could do nothing to endorse or create any one religion. The intent was to allow all peoples to practice their faith without fear. They also recognized the need for a religious basis for morality. Jonathan Mayhew delivered a sermon entitled “Resistance to Tyranny as a Christian Duty”. In it, he suggests that Christians were obliged to suffer under an oppressive ruler. Mayhew asserted that resistance to a tyrant was a "glorious" Christian duty. (Mayhew 1750) His position was in line with most of the ministers in the coming conflict. Abraham Keteltas is one such minister. He argued in his sermon “God Arising and Pleading his peoples Cause: Or the American War…” that it was a religious duty as plainly as God Fighting Satin.

Once America had won its freedom dependence on God and Christian religion did no end. There were a large number of religious men were in attendance at the Continental-Confederation Congress which drew upon their faith as a guide while writing the foundations of the government. On of the official acts of the congress was to appoint chaplains for the congress, the military and sponsored a printing of the bible. The first Congressional chaplain had defected to the English during the war leaving a vacancy. Congress acted with foresight by filling the post with A Presbyterian minister and a Christ Church Pastor. This move was proof to the public that more than one religion would be tolerated.

Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson and John Adams were tasked with creating an official seal for the Young Nation of the United States of America. Jefferson and Franklin both had in their minds a religious basis for their seals. Jefferson wanted to depict the "Children of Israel in the Wilderness, led by a Cloud by Day, and a Pillar of Fire by night. . . ." and Franklin wished the parting of the Red Sea to be the centerpiece of the seal. Jefferson later gave into Franklin and sent his version to committee to be voted upon. The design was not adopted but its nomination indeed shows the role of Christian history in the founding of the nation. (Legend for the Seal of the United States, August 1776)

Ever since the fist vessel left sight of land for the first time, professional sailors have had to deal with the reputation of being drunken louses, with nothing more than debauchery and mayhem on their minds. The Continental Congress was concerned with the lack of morals amongst the men they paid to be their presence upon the seas of the earth. To combat this they decreed in “Rules and Regulations of the Navy”, adopted on November 28, 1775, that all commanders "to be very vigilant . . . to discountenance and suppress all dissolute, immoral and disorderly practices." The second article required those same commanders "to take care, that divine services be performed twice a day on board, and a sermon preached on Sundays." Congress wanted its sailors to be professional and of high moral character going so far as to provide for their spiritual well being. (The Rules and Regulations of the Navy, 1776)

One of the casualties of the war was the import of bibles from the United Kingdom. Congress attempted to remedy this by publishing bibles in Philadelphia. These bibles were intended for consumption by American citizens. It was a service provided to Americans by their government, it was not an attempt to establish Christianity as the official religion. (Aitken, 1782)

From the moment the convention to adopt a constitution began it was filled with reference to God and religion. In his speech to the Speech to the Constitutional Convention, on June 28, 1787, Benjamin Franklin asked that each day’s deliberations begin with a prayer. His view was that the work they were undertaking was of such importance that it should have the blessing of God upon it. In his speech He stated; "the longer I live, the more convincing proofs I see of this Truth--that God governs in the Affairs of Men. I also believe, without his concurring Aid, we shall succeed in this political Building no better than the Builders of Babel." In a perfect example of irony the motion failed because the government could not find the funds to pay the local clergy for the service of prayer. (Franklin, 1787) The drafters also drafted specific language into the constitution stating that no test of religion could be used to determine if a person was fit to hold any public office. (Article 6, Constitution of the United States)

Almost immediately, it was recognized that there were no rights specifically spelled out in the constitution and this became a major political issue. The Anti-federalists wrote many editorials and letters pointing out this flaw. The Federalists were quick to seize on the issue and drafted the Bill of rights. The first of which reads; "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." (First Amendment, Constitution of the United States of America).

President Washington’s Farewell address to the people of the United States is a powerful, moving document that has an enormous amount of influence throughout the history of the office of the President. Many subsequent Holders of that office have looked back upon it to help guide them. He stated “Religion and morality are the great Pillars of human happiness, these firmest props of the duties of Men and citizens." Washington also warned that “National morality could not exist in exclusion of religious principle." His words are still true today. He concluded that "Virtue or morality, as the products of religion, were a necessary spring of popular government." Without a moral basis, all governments will only lead to tyranny. His warning should be re-read and should be studied by anyone who seeks to serve the public. (Washington, 1796)

Many people in today’s world have taken this to mean that the Government has absolutely no business dealing with religion at all. Some read the first part of the sentence, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion” and interpret that alone as to mean there is no incidence where government should touch upon the subject of religion in any form. In their zeal to defend their position they ignore that they are in fact violating the second half of the sentence, “or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”


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