November 24, 2004

Thanksgiving and Separation of Church and State

Marc Comtois
Since Thanksgiving is upon us, I thought I'd provide an excerpt from Paul Johnson's A History of the American People that puts the Separation of Church and State, and Thanksgiving, in their proper historical context.
'Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.' This guarantee has been widely, almost willfully, misunderstood in recent years, and interpreted as meaning that the federal government is forbidden by the Constitution to countenance or subsidize even indirectly the practice of religion. That would have astonished and angered the Founding Fathers. What the guarantee means is that Congress may not set up a state religion on the lines of the Church of England, ‘as by law established.’ It was an anti-establishment clause. The second half of the guarantee means that Congress may not interfere with the practice of any religion, and it could be argued that recent interpretations of the First Amendment run directly contrary to the plain and obvious meaning of this guarantee, and that for a court to forbid people to hold prayers in public schools is a flagrant breach of the Constitution. In effect, the First Amendment forbade Congress to favor one church, or religious sect, over another. It certainly did not inhibit Congress from identifying itself with the religious impulse as such or from authorizing religious practices where all could agree on their desirability. The House of Representatives passed the First Amendment on September 24, 1789. The next day it passed, by a two-to-one majority, a resolution calling for a day of national prayer and thanksgiving [emphasis mine].

It is worth pausing a second to look at the details of this gesture, which may be regarded as the House’s opinion of how the First Amendment should be understood. The resolution reads: ‘We acknowledge with grateful hearts the many signal favors of Almighty God, especially by affording them an opportunity peacefully to establish a constitutional government for their safety and happiness.’ President Washington was then asked to designate the day of prayer and thanksgiving, thus inaugurating a public holiday, Thanksgiving, which Americans still universally enjoy. He replied: ‘It is the duty of all nations to acknowledge the providence of 144 Almighty God, to obey His will, to be grateful for His mercy, to implore His protection and favor ... That great and glorious Being who is the beneficent author of all the good that was, that is, or that ever will be, that we may then unite in rendering unto Him our sincere and humble thanks for His kind care and protection of the people.’

There were, to be sure, powerful non- or even anti-religious forces at work among Americans at this time, as a result of the teachings of Hume, Voltaire, Rousseau, and, above all, Tom Paine. Paine did not see himself as anti-religious, needless to say. He professed his faith in ‘One god and no more.’ This was ‘the religion of humanity.’ The doctrine he formulated in The Age of Reason (1794-5) was ‘My country is the world and my religion is to do good.” This work was widely read at the time, in many of the colleges, alongside Jefferson’s translation of Volney’s skeptical Ruines ou Meditations sur les revolutions des empires (1791), and similar works by Elihu Palmer, John Fitch, John Fellows, and Ethan Allen. The Age of Reason was even read by some farmers, artisans, and shopkeepers, as well as students. As one Massachusetts lawyer observed, it was ‘highly thought of by many who knew neither what the age they lived in, nor reason, was.’ With characteristic hyperbole and venom, John Adams wrote of Paine: ‘I do not know whether any man in the world has had more influence on its inhabitants or affairs for the last thirty years than Tom Paine. There can be no severer satire on the age. For such a mongrel between pig and puppy, begotten by a wild boar on a bitch wolf, never before in any age of the world was suffered by the poltroonery of mankind, to run through such a career of mischief. Call it then The Age of Paine.’

As it happened, by the time Adams wrote this (1805), Paine’s day was done. His ‘age’ had been the 1780s and the early 1790s. Then the reaction set in. When Paine returned to America in 1802 after his disastrous experiences in Revolutionary France, he noticed the difference. The religious tide was returning fast. People found him an irritating, repetitive figure from the past, a bore. Even Jefferson, once his friend, now president, gave him the brush-off. And Jefferson, as president, gave his final gloss on the First Amendment to a Presbyterian clergyman, who asked him why, unlike Washington and Adams (and later Madison), he did not issue a Thanksgiving proclamation. Religion, said Jefferson, was a matter for the states: ‘I consider the government of the United States as interdicted from intermeddling with religious institutions, their doctrines, disciplines, or exercises. This results from the provision that no law shall be made respecting the establishment of religion, or the free exercise thereof, but also from that which reserves to the states the powers not delegated to the United States. Certainly no power over religious discipline has been delegated to the general government. It must thus rest with the states as far as it can be in any human authority.’ The wall of separation between church and state, then, if it existed at all, was not between government and the public, but between the federal government and the states. And the states, after the First Amendment, continued to make religious provision when they thought fit, as they always had done. [Paul Johnson, A History of the American People, p. 144-45]
To be sure, many of the founders were not what we today would consider conventional Christians (rather, they were deists), but most recognized the importance of organized religion in society. (For more on the deism of the Founders, refer to p.141-44 of Johnson's History).

With that, I wish you all a Happy Thanksgiving. (I may be around some time this weekend, but I have a tour of southern New England scheduled, so free time, much less blogging time, will be at a premium).

ADDENDUM: I'd also recommend Ken Masugi's piece, which touches on the same theme and points to the Thanksgiving Proclamations of Presidents George Washington and Abraham Lincoln.