Vail Daily columnist Jack Van Ens: Constitution separates church, state
Vail, CO, Colorado
Matt Kaufman, contributing editor for Focus on the Family’s Citizen newsletter, doubts the Constitution sanctions strict separation of church and state.
In “Founding Documents: Shaped In and By Faith,” Kaufman spreads a faulty reading of constitutional history (Citizen, November 2011, pp. 4-5).
He uses to buttress his errant argument, “Remember the days of old; consider the generations long past” (Deuteronomy 32:7).
Unfortunately, Kaufman’s memory is dim when he insists that many founders’ faith blinded them to constitutional separation of church from state.
He soundly starts his commentary, showing how Founding Fathers believed our republic survived on a strong Judeo-Christian moral base. Unless citizens and statesmen trusted one another, practiced tolerance toward political opponents and formed strong ethical spines, our country would flounder.
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Kaufman quotes John Adams, who warned our national ship wouldn’t float if severed from its ethical anchors. “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and righteous people,” argued John Adams. “It is wholly inadequate for the government of any other.”
Because a majority of the signers practiced Christian faith, writes Kaufman, they wouldn’t endorse a Constitution that separated religion from politics. His argument is historically wrong that there’s no church-state separation because the Constitution signers’ faith bridged the gap between religion and politics.
Kaufman cherry picks the colonial historical record to prove his specious argument. Sure of hitting the target of a merged church-state, Kaufman shoots slanted history first and then calls whatever he hits the target.
The majority of delegates at the Constitutional Convention in 1787 felt no compunction to advance or jettison religion. With the exception of Article VI – “no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any Office or Public Trust under the United States” – the Constitution makes no statement about church-state relations.
The Constitution’s framers intentionally wrote a thoroughly secular document. This functions as a dagger thrust into the hearts of contemporary Christians who concoct fanciful history.
The Constitution has only two passing references to Christianity. Article I, Section 7, removes Sundays from the 10 days a president has to veto legislation. Article VII uses the Christian calendar to date the Constitution “in the year of our Lord one thousand seven hundred and eighty seven.”
When an impasse arose after vitriolic debate in late June 1787, Benjamin Franklin proposed a remedy involving divine intervention. He suggested a chaplain be hired to offer daily prayers. This proposal didn’t pass because no money was allocated for its implementation.
Delegates weren’t biased against Christianity. Rather, they believed our secular government thrived at arm’s length to religious culture. These constitutional framers frowned on mixing the two.
When Focus on the Family advocates an overlap between church and state because many of the Founding Fathers swore allegiance to Christ, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison are usually avoided. They introduced into the Virginia Legislature of the 1770s a series of resolutions to repeal existing laws restricting religious freedom and giving state preference to the Anglican Church.
The toughest battle Jefferson fought involved erecting a wall between church and state. Anglicans confessed that their Lord ruled over every segment of life, including politics. They were conditioned to believe state support of their religious tradition was God’s will.
Jefferson, who led dissenters’ attacks on the established, entrenched Anglican Church, “brought on the severest contests in which I have ever been engaged.” Why? Because, he noted, “a majority of our citizens were dissenters, a majority of the legislature were churchmen.”
However, Jefferson, at times, approved of overlapping church and state. His initial draft of the Virginia Constitution required ministers to pledge their loyalty to the state. This draft allowed a crossover between religion and politics, with state courts deciding ecclesiastical law. Jefferson waffled in dealing with clergy. His revised constitution of 1783 banned ministers from holding office. James Madison wisely persuaded him to drop this anti-Christian provision.
Madison didn’t mix Christianity and politics. While Jefferson served as minister to France, he shepherded through the legislature his friend’s 1779 Bill Establishing Religious Freedom. After many stops and starts, Madison got the Virginia Legislature in January 1786 to adopt it. This bill stated, “No man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place or ministry whatsoever, nor shall otherwise suffer on account of his religious opinions or belief.”
For our nation’s good, let us uphold the Constitution’s secular nature. Religious freedom is curtailed when an errant reading of U.S. history prevails, which mixes church with state.
The Rev. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the Creative Growth (www.theliving
history.com), which enhances Christian worship through storytelling and dramatic presentation.