April 26, 2005

Separating the Establishment of a State Religion from the "Separation of Church and State"

Marc Comtois

When studying history, in particular an event, person or idea, it is necessary to keep in mind the context in which history occurred. The idea of a separation of church and state is one such topic that often gets divorced from the context in which the ideal was originally formulated and proclaimed by our Founding Fathers, particularly Thomas Jefferson.

In an essay on the 17th and 18th century religious "fad" known as deism (worth reading on its own), Avery Cardinal Dulles traces the history and tenets of deism and how it was embraced by the philosophers of the Enlightenment and many of the Founding Fathers, particularly Thomas Jefferson.

None of the Founding Fathers meditated more assiduously on religion than Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826). He was brought up in the rituals and traditions of the Anglican Church, as it existed in Virginia at the time. In his college years at William and Mary he came to admire Francis Bacon, Isaac Newton, and John Locke as three great paragons of wisdom. Under the influence of several professors he converted to the deist philosophy. He made a careful study of the philosophical writings of Viscount Henry Bolingbroke, a strict deist whose God was remote and unconcerned with human affairs.

In his public pronouncements as a statesman and legislator, Jefferson expressed what he considered to belong to the common and public core of religion. He kept his more personal opinions to himself, refraining from putting them in any writing that might find its way into print, but he occasionally penned confidential memoranda for himself and a few friends.

Jefferson’s public religion appears in the Declaration of Independence, which refers to “the laws of Nature and Nature’s God,” to “inalienable” rights conferred upon all human beings by their Creator, and to “the protection of divine Providence.” In his first inaugural address, in 1801, Jefferson spoke of how the American people were “enlightened by a benign religion, professed indeed, and practiced in various forms, yet all of them inculcating honesty, truth, temperance, gratitude, and love of man, acknowledging and adoring an overruling Providence.” In his second inaugural, four years later, he emphasized the nation’s need for the favor and enlightenment of Providence and asked his hearers to unite with him in supplication to “that Being in whose hands we are.”

One of Jefferson’s firmest principles, as we know, was that of religious freedom. In 1777, as a legislator, he composed what later became the Virginia Statute on Religious Freedom, which embodies his personal conviction that the government should exercise no coercion in religious matters. In his famous letter of 1802 to the Danbury Baptist Association he referred to the “wall of separation between Church and State”—a term that had previously been used by the Baptist Roger Williams. But as we have seen, he did not hesitate to bring religion into his public pronouncements. As President he frequently attended religious services in Congress. While opposing a federal religious establishment, “he personally encouraged and symbolically supported religion by attending public church services in the Capitol,” as Daniel Driesbach has written.

Like his contemporaries Franklin, Washington, Adams, Hamilton, and Madison, Jefferson was convinced that the republic could not stand without a high level of public morality, and that moral behavior could not survive in the absence of divine authority as its sanction. Obedience to the teachings of Jesus and reflection on the purity of Jesus’ life could enable people to overcome their selfishness and parochialism.

However, as Dulles also explains, Jefferson eventually became a "Christian deist" and was less willing to believe strictly in the power of reason.
Jefferson’s religion, however, was not purely philosophical. For a living religion, he knew, scope must be given to the inclinations of the heart. He was enraptured by the beauty of the Psalms, which in his opinion surpassed all the hymnists of every language and of every time, including the hymn of Cleanthes to Jupiter so much admired by his friend John Adams. When he attended church services as an old man, the sounds of familiar hymns would bring tears to his eyes.

In his plan of studies for the University of Virginia Jefferson wanted natural religion to be taught to the exclusion of all doctrine attributed to revelation. But he knew that religion could not be purely academic and therefore recognized the importance of worship in the churches. He took pride in the fact that students at his university had opportunities to worship in Episcopal, Presbyterian, Methodist, and Baptist services in the sanctuary at Charlottesville. Interdenominational competition, he believed, was the best protection against fanaticism. In matters of religion the aphorism “united we stand, divided we fall” had to be reversed. Divided we stand, he said, but united we fall.

In summary, then, Jefferson was a deist because he believed in one God, in divine providence, in the divine moral law, and in rewards and punishments after death, but did not believe in supernatural revelation. He was a Christian deist because he saw Christianity as the highest expression of natural religion and Jesus as an incomparably great moral teacher. He was not an orthodox Christian because he rejected, among other things, the doctrines that Jesus was the promised Messiah and the incarnate Son of God.

By the early 19th century, deism started to fail. According to Dulles, deism
drew its vitality from the oppressive policies of the religious establishments against which it was reacting. In the minds of the Enlightenment thinkers, confessional religion, unless checked by law or by free competition, led inevitably to tyranny and persecution. But this assumption was based on a time-conditioned union or alliance between throne and altar, not on the gospel of Christ, which gave Caesar no authority over the things of God.

Jefferson himself came gradually to this realization. As a young adult he seems to have held that Christian faith was favorable to despotism and hostile to free society. But his friend Benjamin Rush convinced him that Christianity and republicanism were, so to speak, made for each other. As Eugene Sheridan has written, Rush regarded Christianity as “part of a divine plan to bring about the kingdom of God on earth by freeing mankind from the burden of royal and ecclesiastical oppression through the spread of the principles of human equality and Christian charity.” With Rush’s help Jefferson found a way of accepting Christianity without diminishing his commitment to the freedom of conscience. Deism, therefore, was not necessary to offset religious oppression.

However, to my mind, Dulles also hits on something that lay beneath deist presumptions that even those who believed in it didn't recognize.
Although deism portrayed itself as a pure product of unaided reason, it was not what it claimed to be. Its basic tenets concerning God, the virtuous life, and rewards beyond the grave were in fact derived from Christianity, the faith in which the deists themselves had been reared. It is doubtful whether anyone who had not been brought up in a biblical religion could embrace the tenets of deism. The children of deists rarely persevered in the faith of their parents.
To me, there is a parallel between the deists and today's secularists who believe that they can use reason to teach virtue without all of the "baggage" of religion. They seem to ignore, or not fully appreciate, that their own "good sense" is a product of a society steeped in, as Dulles explains, American civil religion.
Our American republic has therefore had what, following Jean-Jacques Rousseau, we may call a civil religion. Rousseau enumerates the positive dogmas of such a religion as follows: “the existence of a mighty, intelligent, beneficent divinity, possessed of foresight and providence, the life to come, the happiness of the just, the punishment of the wicked, and [Rousseau added] the sanctity of the social contract.” The civil religion of this country has been expressed in our national institutions and in the great pronouncements of our national heroes, most notably Abraham Lincoln.

The dominance of civil religion produced a favorable climate in which the various forms of biblical religion could and did thrive. Although the United States was never, in the technical sense, a Christian nation, it has been and remains a nation in which the biblical faiths are at home and in which other religions are welcome, provided that their tenets and practices are not a threat to public order. Deism by itself was too dry and abstract to elicit warm adherence, but the American consensus always surrounded the positive teachings of deism with the flesh and bones of specific faiths, whether Protestant, Catholic, or Jewish. The American civil religion can still be heard in the pronouncements of recent Presidents, but it is now being eroded or at least threatened by the increasingly pluralist shape of American society and by a judiciary that is reluctant to support or encourage any form of religion, however generic.

Today, therefore, we are faced with new questions. Can the biblical religions maintain themselves and win new adherents or must they resign themselves to becoming a minority? Should the American consensus be modified to make room for a broader pluralism? Can Islam, the Eastern religions, New Age religion, and even agnosticism and atheism, find equal acceptance in American society?

Jefferson would probably have insisted on the positive articles of deism as a required minimum. For him and the other Founding Fathers, the good of society requires a people who believe in one almighty God, in providence, in a divinely given moral code, in a future life, and in divinely administered rewards and punishments. He and they expected that the example and teachings of Jesus, as known from the Gospels, would be accepted in principle by the great majority of citizens. Although Jefferson wanted the state to refrain from meddling in the particulars of religion, he counted on families, churches, and educational institutions to perpetuate and disseminate in more vivid and concrete forms the basic truths also taught in his moderate form of deism.

If he were alive today, Jefferson would doubtless ask himself whether the welfare of the republic can stand in the absence of the minimal consensus I have described. If pluralism goes unchecked, will the nation still have a corporate vision sufficient to sustain the sense of mission and collective purpose that have characterized it at its best? Will factionalism, corruption, violence, and aimlessness proliferate? Each of us must strive to answer these questions as best we can with the help of the Sage of Monticello.