clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

Founding Fathers' religious intent refereed

Author strives for 'book of history, not polemic'

Author Forrest Church has a divinity degree and doctorate from Harvard.
Author Forrest Church has a divinity degree and doctorate from Harvard.
Provided by Forrest Church

The battle over the religious pedigrees of the Founding Fathers is usually an "are too, are not" kind of schoolyard fight. Over here, waving the Bible, we have the Christian right, insisting that George Washington et al. wanted a Christian-based government. Over there, waving the First Amendment, are those who insist the Founding Fathers wanted, above all, to keep church and state separate.

Now, into the fray like a kindly recess monitor comes Forrest Church and his book, "So Help Me God: The Founding Fathers and the First Great Battle Over Church and State." Church (the man, not the institution) is a religious historian and a minister of All Souls Church in Manhattan. He was in Salt Lake City earlier this week to speak at First Unitarian Church.

Church's conclusion: The religious right and secularists "are each 100 percent half right" about the Founding Fathers. In other words, some of the men who wrote the U.S. Constitution and ran the fledgling country were practicing Christians, and some of those Christians wanted a state religion, or at least a government founded on religion. Others wanted to make sure government and religion were two distinct entities, neither influencing the other. And the two sides duked it out from day one.

According to a recent poll, 55 percent of Americans believe that the Constitution created a Christian nation, when in fact the only mention of God in the text was "the Year of our Lord, one thousand seven hundred and Eighty seven," Church notes. In "So Help Me God," he wanted to dispel that notion of the Constitution's Christian roots but also wanted to dispel "the myth among secular humanists that there was no religious momentum at the time of the founding."

His goal, he said in an interview this week, was "a book of history, not a polemic."

The tension between Christians and secularists in the years between George Washington's inaugural and the aftermath of the War of 1812 was fierce, he writes; the first great culture war in American political history, "a vigorous, sometimes savage, yet nearly forgotten 30-year conflict to redeem the nation's soul." The vitriol expressed by both sides was enough to make a modern-day talk-show host blush, he says.

And the roles of the players were not what you might suspect.

The Unitarians, Congregationalists and Episcopalians — who tend to be more liberal today — were champions of a Christian Commonwealth ideal at the end of the 18th century. The Baptists were the ones who championed the separation of church and state. In fact, it was the Baptists' passion for freedom of conscience, Church writes, that led directly to the First Amendment's "establishment clause."

The Unitarian, Congregationalist and Episcopalian churches were state churches — "they had no concern about God having a seat in government because they knew it would be their God," he says — whereas "the Baptists knew from the long experience of being religious outsiders that unless there was a clear separation of church and state, they would be persecuted." Already, Baptists in Massachusetts, Connecticut and Virginia were forced to pay taxes that went to support churches other than their own.

The 1800 presidential election between Thomas Jefferson and John Adams pitted the notion of what Church calls "sacred liberty" against "divine order." Both Jefferson and Adams, he says, had similar religious views (neither believed in the divinity of Jesus Christ or that the Bible was the revealed word of God, for example) but differed completely about the role of religion in the public square.

Adams and the New England clergy favored the English ideal of a Christian Commonwealth, and people like Jefferson promoted the French Enlightenment ideal of reason and personal freedom. At the heart of that divide was the nature of human nature. Adams, Church says, believed in the Puritan notion that humans were, at heart, sinners who needed moral guidance; Jefferson believed that people were by nature good.

It's the tension between order and liberty that today underlies the battle over Homeland Security, Church notes — "how much security at the expense of how much freedom."

"If there's a moral in the story," he says, "it's that we're at our best when we approximate the balance between order and liberty, and reach e pluribus unum, where both a moral center holds and individuals are given great freedom to follow their own conscience."

Church, the son of former Idaho Sen. Frank Church, has a divinity degree and a doctorate from Harvard. After serving almost 30 years as senior minister at All Souls Unitarian Universalist Church in New York, he is now the church's "minister of public theology."

The religious divide in America came close to tearing the country apart during the War of 1812, he says. "We could have easily had New England seceding from the union to establish a Christian Commonwealth, believing that the nation had become Godless."

The New England clergy opposed the war on moral and cultural grounds, viewing America's French ally as "an infidel, anti-Christian republic," he says, and did everything possible to subvert the American military effort.

When America won the war, the New England clergy were branded as traitors, which meant that they lost their political clout, and church-state separation "was finally codified as the American way." The separation lasted for the next 10 presidencies, until the Civil War — when the wall came down and "in God we trust" first appeared on the nation's money.

Wartime, Church notes, has always convinced the country to bring church and state closer. In peace time, the separation becomes stronger. It's a push-pull that continues today.