“Intent of the Founders” — Separation of Church and State

The Founders Disagreed and Held Different Opinions

During political arguments and constitutional debates people often cite the “intent of the Founders” to prove their point. However, discerning the “intent” is not as easy as people think.

The Founders were independent thinkers with strong personal opinions. They were not united in their beliefs, statements, or actions. The Drafters often disagreed. There were intense, and sometimes heated, debates.

The difficulty in establishing the “intent of the Founders” is most apparent on the issue of the separation of church and state.

In my law school class on “Religion and the Law,”  I told the students that basically our first two presidents advocated a close relationship between religion and government, while our next two presidents believed in a strict separation of church and state.

George Washington’s View

Prior to becoming president, George Washington supported a state-sponsored established church in Virginia, with a tax to pay for the clergy.  Upon becoming president, he added “so help me God” to the oath of office.

As president, Washington proclaimed days of prayer and thanksgiving.  He urged the country “to unite in most humbly offering our prayers and supplications to the great Lord and Ruler of Nations and beseech him to pardon our national and other transgressions.” Washington declared, “It is impossible to rightly govern without God and the Bible.

Washington observed that “religion and morality are indispensable supports” for “political prosperity.”  He explained that his “first official act” as president was to offer “fervent supplications to that Almighty Being who rules over the universe” and “who presides in the councils of nations.”

John Adams’ View

John Adams followed in Washington’s footsteps.  He continued to use “so help me God” in the presidential oath.  Like Washington, he issued several proclamations establishing days of prayer, fasting, and thanksgiving. Adams believed, “Government is only to be supported by true religion or austere morals.  Private and public virtue is the only foundation of republics.”

View of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison

Unlike Washington and Adams, Thomas Jefferson and James Madison believed in a high wall of separation between church and state.

Jefferson and Madison killed the Virginia statute to establish a church and tax the citizens to support the clergy.

Jefferson and Madison had serious misgivings regarding the federal government’s involvement in religious affairs. Jefferson wrote, “I consider the government of the United States interdicted by the Constitution from inter-meddling with religious institutions, their doctrines, or exercise.”

Jefferson and Madison opposed federal proclamations regarding thanksgiving. Jefferson and Madison even interpreted the First Amendment as preventing the U.S. Census Bureau from asking any questions dealing with religion. They both opposed government chaplains.

Practices versus Proclamations

Not only did the Founders disagree over the separation of church and state, their actions often contradicted their utterances.  Their practices often contradicted their proclamations.

During the Continental Congress in Philadelphia, Benjamin Franklin moved that each session begin in prayer offered by a local clergy member.  Although the motion failed, Congress did adopt the custom of opening each session with prayer.

The Continental Congress issued several proclamations calling for “solemn thanksgiving and praise.

The Congress imported 20,000 Bibles.

Congress established an annual day of public prayer and thanksgiving, to be observed “by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many signal favors of Almighty God.” 

Congress also provided for congressional and military chaplains to be paid from public funds.

Congress re-enacted the Northwest Ordinance, which stated: “Religion, morality, and knowledge, being necessary to good government. . . schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged.” 

Congress allowed government buildings to be used for religious services, and resolved that the presidential oath would be administered in St. Paul’s Chapel by the chaplain of the Congress.

Bottom Line

In the debates on the separation of church and state, advocates of a close relationship cite Washington and Adams, while opponents cite Jefferson and Madison.  Proponents of complete separation rely on principles and official utterances, while opponents rely on practices and official actions.

Accordingly, it is virtually impossible to discern a clear “intent of the Founders/Framers.

Questionable Quotations Attributed to the Founders

Moreover, many quotations attributed to the Founders are fabricated. These false quotes are often cited by members of congress. (See: Allen, “Memo to the U.S. Congress: Thou Shalt Not Bear False History,” Church & State Magazine, June 1997)

Generally, if the quote suggests that Washington or Adams advocated a high wall of separation, or if the quote suggests that Jefferson or Madison wanted a close relationship between government and religion, those quotations are suspect.       

One Point of Agreement: There Would be no National Church 

With reference to the “intent of the Framers,” there is one point on which all scholars agree.  There is one concept beyond debate.  The Founders were in complete harmony on one issue.  There would be no national church.

(Sources: Brett London, “Religion and the Law: Cases and Materials,” 5th Ed., 1998, 8-18; Dallin Oaks, ed. “The Wall Between Church and State, (1963); Stokes and Pfeffer, “Church and State in the United States,”1964, pp. 3-9; Carter, “The Culture of Disbelief: How American Law and Politics Trivialize Religious Devotion,” 1993; Curry, “Church and State in the Seventeenth and Eighteen Century America,” 7 Journal of Law and Religion, 1989; Engel v. Vitale, 370 U.S. 421, 446, fn. 3 (1962); Lee v. Weisman, 120 L.Ed.2d 467, 497-798 (1992).)

(Other articles at: londonedition.home.blog or http://www.londonedition.net)

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