My last article addressed the moral problems associated with same-sex marriage and how they relate to constitutional and societal concerns. Not surprisingly I took some heat for my views even though a few short decades ago these same arguments would have been accepted without too much fanfare. So what’s changed? Well, many seem to think that morality should play no part in our political process today, citing the First Amendment as proof. But is this a proper interpretation of the Constitution?
A typical belief from our Founding Fathers is found in this quote from our second president, drafter and signer of the Declaration of Independence John Adams who said, “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people.” It seems the Founders believed morality was absolutely critical to the freedom and success of our society. But this belief didn’t stop with a simple desire for a moral nation.
The Founders knew that a moral society does not happen by accident, but must be instilled through religious teaching. Again, another typical quote from our Founders comes from Benjamin Franklin while addressing the Continental Congress: “Whereas true religion and good morals are the only solid foundations of public liberty and happiness…it is hereby earnestly recommended to the several States to take the most effectual measures for the encouragement thereof.” And so, these “effectual measures” recommended by Franklin are exactly what our government did.
For example, in 1787, the same year the Constitution was ratified, the same Continental Congress passed the Northwest Ordinance with the overall purpose of creating the Northwest Territory. However, in Section 14 Article 3 it stated, “Religion, morality, and knowledge being necessary to good government and happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged.” Not only was religion and morality “necessary”, but what many today believe to be anathema to public policy was originally viewed by our Founders as critical enough to the nation’s general welfare that it must be taught in schools.
Many of you are probably wondering how this did not violate the intent of Thomas Jefferson’s letter concerning the separation of church and state. But is that what Jefferson’s famous letter to the Danbury Baptist Association in 1803 intended?
Thomas Jefferson is considered one of the most un-religious of the Founding Fathers; yet as head of the Senate in 1800 he helped pass a law that established the Capitol as a church building on Sundays. Six weeks later Jefferson became president and for the next eight years attended weekly services in the capitol. Furthermore, as the Commander-in-Chief he ordered the Marine Corps Band to play the worship music. Additionally, in 1803 President Jefferson negotiated a treaty with the Kaskaskia Indians that included federal funds for missionaries and the construction of church buildings. With this context in mind you see that Jefferson’s famous letter concerning the so-called ‘separation of church and state’ certainly doesn’t have the same meaning we attach to it today. It’s sort of like Indigo Montoya’s famous line in ‘The Princess Bride’ where he says, “I do not think that word means what you think it means.” But here is the real kicker: Jefferson’s main point in the letter was that states should hold the primary responsibility of ensuring moral values. In other words, he never intended a separation of church and state as we know it today, but was simply advocating states’ rights!
But that’s not all, our Founding Fathers believed the best way to instill morality was through Christianity. Noah Webster, lexicographer, prolific author and the ‘Father of American Education’ made this comment about religious teaching: “[T]he Christian religion, in its purity, is the…source of all genuine freedom in government…and I am persuaded that no civil government of a republican form can exist and be durable in which the principles of that religion have not a controlling influence.”
Please don’t misunderstand. The Founders were not forcing anyone to accept Jesus Christ as Lord which would have surely violated the intended restriction of the First Amendment. Instead their belief was that the following Christian core values were paramount: Responsibility for one’s actions, not victimhood but hard work; Welfare from family and church for those who truly cannot care for themselves; and Equality that spawns tolerance, which in turn teaches us to respect others as equals so all can be heard (this is far from today’s politically correct version of tolerance that says if you don’t agree with me you are a bigot). These pillars are responsible for creating the most successful, prosperous and benevolent society of all time.
Over half of the 56 signers of the Declaration of Independence had seminary degrees. Not only was this nation founded on Christian principles, but our Founding Fathers fully expected a religious and virtuous electorate to be fully engaged, voting their conscience. Benjamin Franklin, also one of the more un-religious of the Founders, understood this all too well when he said, “Only a virtuous people are capable of freedom.” So from the very beginning our Founders intended for a separation of church from state, but never did they intend for there to be a separation of state from church.