“A very fine examination of the role that religion, and religious conflict, has played in our American story. Artfully blending history and narrative, Meyerson breathes life into an often misunderstood story, examining the beliefs of our founders, and showing how those beliefs did not always determine their policy decisions... This is a wonderful book, a needed corrective to the heat that often defines the current debate.”
Endowed by Our Creator
1) What did the Framers’ understand Freedom of Religion to mean?
The framers believed that the American government should neither fund religion nor acknowledge religion in a way that favors any particular creed or denomination. Nevertheless, they also believed that religion could instill virtue and help to unify a diverse nation. They created a spiritual public vocabulary, one that could communicate to all—including agnostics and atheists—that they were valued members of the political community. Through their writings and their decisions, the framers affirmed that respect for religious differences is a fundamental American value.
2) Was America founded as a Christian Nation?
No. At no time during America’s founding was there a “Christian” colony, state, or nation, if the word “Christian” is understood to include Catholics and numerous other disfavored denominations. The colonies were generally narrowly sectarian. For example, Virginia established the Anglican Church and Massachusetts was dominated by Puritans. Disfavored Christian denominations, such as Baptists and Quakers, were harshly treated. During the Revolutionary War, the Continental Congress strove to acknowledge most Protestant denominations.
After the Constitution went into effect, the nation’s leaders avoided any action that would imply that the United States was a Christian Nation. Not once during their presidencies did Washington, Adams, Jefferson, or Madison ever state that either the nation or the national government was a “Protestant nation” or a “Christian nation.” To have done so would have risked encouraging what Madison termed the “erroneous idea of a national religion.”
3) Did the First Amendment create an absolute wall between church and state?
Jefferson’s famous metaphor is a good but imprecise description of the complex view of the framers. They generally opposed the federal government financing religion or using sectarian language. However, despite what many “strict separatists” believe, the framers were not afraid of all mention of religion in the public arena. As presidents, both Madison and Jefferson, like Washington before them, employed sincere religious language in their inaugurals. Madison gave his pious supplication to “the guardianship and guidance of that Almighty Being whose power regulates the destiny of nations.” Jefferson said: “I shall need, too, the favor of that Being in whose hands we are, who led our forefathers, as Israel of old, from their native land.” The framers created a spiritual public vocabulary that could be both appreciated as religious by those from orthodox religions. But they made sure the language was expansive enough to communicate to all, including followers of minority religions, as well as the agnostic and atheistic, that they were equally valued members of the political community.
4) Did George Washington say “So Help Me God”?
In all likelihood, no. Of the hundreds of accounts written at the time of Washington’s inauguration on April 30, 1789, not one reported that he uttered the phrase “So help me God.” Even Ashbel Green, a Presbyterian minister who would become Senate chaplain and who attended the inauguration, did not mention Washington using the phrase. The first time anyone wrote that Washington used the phrase was in 1854, sixty-five years after the event, when Rufus Griswold, a New York writer , said that he had recently heard it from Washington Irving, (who was only six years old at the time of the inauguration.) Neither John Adams, nor Thomas Jefferson, nor James Madison uttered the phrase. The first eyewitness documentation of any president saying “so help me God” is Chester Arthur, in 1881.
5) Is the Constitution “Godless”?
The Constitution does not contain any explicit religious language, but it expresses some important thoughts on the relationship between religion and government. Unlike most governmental charters of the day, the Preamble does not reference God but refers to “We the People.” Article VI, section 3, declared that “no religious test” may ever be required for service in the U.S. government. There are several sections, concerning Senators sitting to try an impeachment, the presidential oath, and the oath of loyalty to the Constitution that federal and state officials must take, which provide the option of giving an “oath or affirmation.” The option of “affirmation” was considered essential for religious denominations such as the Quakers whose interpretation of the Bible forbade the swearing of oaths, though it also protected atheists. But the word “oath” is inherently religious; after all, the Constitution doesn’t simply let people “promise” to uphold the Constitution. Additionally, Article I, section 7, says that a bill will become a law, if the president does not veto it, “within ten Days (Sundays excepted) after it shall have been presented to him.” The “oath” provisions and the “Sunday excepted” language display governmental respect for religious practices and an awareness that the vast majority of American citizens were Christians. The “no religious test” clause and Preamble reveal a counter-impulse, signifying that regardless of the individual religious beliefs of most citizens, the American government was not to be defined by even the broadest religious conception.
6) Is the Declaration of Independence a religious document?
The phrase “they are endowed by their Creator with inherent & inalienable rights” is theologically ambiguous. The term “Creator” was used both by conservative Protestant clergy as well as those who believed in “natural rights,” but not in a traditional view of God.
Congress edited Jefferson’s version of the Declaration and added two references to God, one stating that the signors appealed “to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions,” the other describing their “firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence….” These phrases are not specifically Protestant or Christian, but they are unmistakably religious.
The final Declaration of Independence presents a public expression of religion that is devout but that recognizes the variety of belief systems. It represents a quintessentially American achievement by being specific enough to be embraceable by those with orthodox religious views but broad enough to permit others to feel included.