Church & State vs. God & State
There are two basic aspects to any nation: the society and the government. Neither by itself is sufficient to define “nation.” In some nations, the government rules the society. As King Louis XIV of France famously said about himself, L'etat c'est moi! “The state [i.e., nation] is me.” In England, the monarch is head of both church and state.
In America, it is different. Our society and our government are founded on two radically differing principles. Our society is based on freedom; our government is based on restraint of power so it doesn’t infringe on our freedom.
The society of America long preceded the federal government of America. It was a religious society – and overwhelmingly Christian – from the start, when the Pilgrims, upon landing in the New World, wrote the Mayflower Compact which begins, “In the name of God, Amen.”
When our nation was established through the Constitution, the Founders saw the federal government as amounting to a relatively small part of the nation’s total government. The greater part, by far, was composed of the states, municipalities and the people themselves, who were to be left free to govern themselves as they saw fit in their pursuit of happiness except for those powers and responsibilities explicitly assigned to the federal government. The Tenth Amendment underscored that. The Constitution was intended to govern the federal government, not the people.
Even though our Founders wisely separated church and state in the Constitution, they did not separate God and state. How could they? The Declaration of Independence – our founding document – has four references to deity (Creator, nature’s God, Supreme Judge of the world, Divine Providence) which collectively make clear that our Founders saw God as the mighty author of our existence and the moral authority for our laws. The Declaration’s enunciated principles form the framework of the Constitution.
By thoughtful design, America has a secular government but a religious society. Our government makes no religious test of civic officials but nevertheless requires moral behavior of them, using moral standards arising from religious traditions, especially the Ten Commandments of Judeo-Christianity which became the basis of English – and hence American – civil law. God and nation are one.
However, the Creator whom we recognize as the fountainhead of American government and society is not the exclusive property of any denomination. The First Amendment prohibits any denomination from becoming the established, official religion of America; likewise it prohibits government from interfering with religious freedom and thereby allows We the People to have full public expression of religion according to one’s conscience.
Moreover, the First Amendment’s clause prohibiting an establishment of religion applied to the federal government, not the states. It clearly says “Congress [not the states] shall make no law…”
Why didn’t the First Amendment apply to the states? Many of them already had establishments of religion. At the time of the War for Independence, Massachusetts had a state church, Puritanism (or Calvinism). Connecticut’s official religion was Congregationalism. Rhode Island’s established church was Baptist. Pennsylvania’s was Quakerism. Maryland’s was Roman Catholicism. Virginia’s was the Anglican Church of England (which, after the war, became the Episcopal Church of America).
In fact, most of the thirteen states at one time had their own official churches/establishments of religion and five of the thirteen had their own at the time the First Amendment was ratified. When James Madison was writing the Constitution, no mention of a guarantee of religious liberty was at first included because he feared that states such as Massachusetts and Virginia, with their strong state churches, would otherwise not accept the Constitution. However, he was persuaded to include the “no religious test” clause of Article VI. The Bill of Rights, Amendment I, which he later supported, provided the final corrective to the situation. The last of the state religions was disestablished in 1833. They were disestablished not by the Supreme Court but by the states’ own free will. The states voluntarily gave up their establishments of religion in the name of freedom of conscience.
As yet another proof that our Founders recognized God as the ultimate authority for our government and our society, consider the symbolism of the reverse of the Great Seal of the United States. It shows a 13-step pyramid representing the 13 original states, placed under what the designer described as “the Eye of Providence.” The Latin words Annuit Coeptis, meaning “He [God] has favored our undertakings,” float above the scene. The seal was approved after six years of deliberation over various designs. Secretary of Congress Charles Thomson reported to the Congress that “The Eye over & the Motto allude to the many signal interpositions of providence in favour of the American cause.”
If the doctrine of separation of church and state had been intended by the Founders to keep God and religion out of government, does it seem reasonable that such direct references to deity would have been approved for the official signature of our nation? Of course not!
Thomas Jefferson saw that clearly when he wrote in Notes on the State of Virginia, “And can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are of the gift of God?” Likewise James Madison: “The belief in God All Powerful wise and good, is so essential to the moral order of the World and to the happiness of man, that arguments which enforce it cannot be drawn from too many sources…” Benjamin Franklin agreed: “Man will ultimately be governed by God or by tyrants.”
All were implicitly echoing the statement by William Penn, founder of Pennsylvania, a century earlier: “Unless we are governed by God, we will be governed by tyrants.”
Our founding document, the Declaration of Independence, states the fundamental principles on which America rests. There are four references to deity in it. Taken together, these terms make clear that God, not government, is the source of our freedom, our sovereignty, our equality, our rights, our justice and our human dignity. They are preexisting in us, before there ever was any government. So the Constitution does not grant any of that; it simply guarantees them for us and prevents government from interfering with it.
Therefore it is perfectly legal, constitutional and (in the view of our Founders and Framers) right for citizens to publicly express their religion via prayers and symbols such as the cross, Star of David, menorah and others. That includes the military; one of George Washington’s first acts when he became Commander of the Continental Army in 1775 was to create the Chaplain Corps for the benefit of his citizen-soldiers. At the same time, Congress itself often held church services in the Capitol and also has had a chaplain since 1774.
In replying to the Barbary States question about the religious nature of America, President John Adams said America was not a Christian nation. He was correct – because he was referring to the national government, which clearly was, and is, secular.
In April 2009, President Obama spoke in Cairo, Egypt. He told his audience that America is not a Christian nation. On the basis I’ve just described, we can see why his comment was wrong – fundamentally wrong – and is typical of a widespread misunderstanding about America. In his mind, President Obama equates the federal government with the nation. Since the government is secular, the President tells himself, America is secular.
Wrong! If you begin reasoning from a false premise, you will get a false answer.
America has a secular government, but we are, and always have been, a religious society. The assault on religion in general, and especially on Christianity, which is under way today from many quarters – ranging from the ACLU, atheists and liberals to the Obama administration’s hidden war on the military – is ultimately intended to overthrow the religio-spiritual foundation of America. If that happens, hell on earth will follow.