Orville Jenkins Articles Menu
Orville Jenkins Home

Faith and Life

Religion and the State
Distinguishing between the place of Religion in the public arena and Religion as Foundation of the State
Dr. Orville Boyd Jenkins

Discussion List Comment:
The Ten Commandments ought to be in every town square and every public building, IMHO. this nation and this government were founded on principles from the Bible and the 10 commandments, by Christian men who believed in freedom and liberty!

The US has a heritage of Christianity.  It is appropriate and worthwhile to recognize that.  Oh, and by the way, this doesn't violates the "separation clause" that preserves the independence of of church and state.  Those that claim that it does don't really understand where we've come from and what that really means.

Thoughts in Response:
ince September 11, 2001, I have read many discussions focusing attention on American history and political philosophy.  A vital part of our mutual cultural interests reflected in those various discussions is a concern for the moral values in this society.

I share this interest and concern.  This has led me to reflect some on the principles of American origin, which I try to keep in review all the time.

Biblical Foundations?
I hear many declamations on the biblical foundations of the American Republic.  I am sometimes puzzled by some of the claims when I review first-hand the actual language of some of the founding documents.

There is a difference between the Christian beliefs and motivations of some of the early settlers (the Puritans come to mind) and the philosophical basis of the new American republic, which was established almost 200 years later!

I think it is important to distinguish between the Christian, or at least biblical sources of thought in the philosophies behind the American revolution and establishment of the new republic, and the alleged attempt to establish a religious republic.  The latter certainly is not the same as the former.

Sources and Intents
Aside from that, the actual sources of thought are to be found in the Enlightenment philosophers and a new concept of the natural world, which led Western thought to diverge from the traditional theocratic concept common not only to the West but many other traditional cultures.  Check it out.  John Locke and Jean-Jacques Rousseau are not your classic Christians.

The founding principles, and indeed the documents, were strongly, firmly religious, one might say even biblical.  This, however, is quite different from the claim that this country was founded on the Bible or as a Christian country.  A key problem here is the simplistic attitude of some recent political-religious activists who want to focus on the religious strema of influence in the founding of the US and ignore everything else.  To say that the only founding source of thought for the United states was (mainsteam, orthodox) Christianity expresses an appalling ignorance of th facts at best.

In fact, it was devout Christian leaders who worked the hardest to be sure there was no tie between formal religious organizations and the fledgling government of the young republic.  Likewise, religious thought and belief were central to the public arena in that era.  This value is now in danger of being lost in a reaction against formal religion in our time.

The founding philosophy distinguished between religious institutions and personal religious convictions.  The former was feared, the latter honored and protected.

Religion in the Public Arena
This was a bold new experiment in society and government, new to the world, to history and to political or moral philosophy.  It is not appropriate to revise history just to support a current point of view.  The new American Republic was established as a secular state where power was centered in the citizenry, religious institutions were prevented from using the powers of the state for coercion.

Likewise the state was prohibited from limiting the activities of any religious institution.  This preserved access to the public arena for all views, including religious views.

I find it amusing, though troubling, that some argue today that the purpose of the founding documents was to eliminate religious views or principles from the public arena.  On the contrary, the church was set free, and all individuals were acknowledged as free and able to speak on any topic (including religion) in the public arena.  The government was specifically prohibited from proscribing the expression of personal views, including religious views.

Religious individuals and institutions were required thus to win others to their point of view by discussions and persuasion, not coercion, as had been done in the early colonies.  The constitution did not promise freedom from religious opinion, though religious harassment would be monitored just as any other form of harassment.

It is unconstitutional to dismiss or prohibit a perspective or opinion simply because its foundation is "religious."  Likewise, religion was not to be the primary factor in deciding any question in this new republic.

Naturalistic Enlightenment Philosophy
We cannot go into any detail here on the founding documents, but the documents are publicly available to all, as close  as the local library, or on the Internet. The language of the founding documents actually studiously avoided specifically Christian terminology.

Reading from a biblical, neo-traditional perspective, the language may be compatible.  But if we simply read our current biblicist concepts back into that creative language, we dishonor the facts of the matter

The worldview appearing in those founding documents arises out of the new Enlightenment scientific concept that the world has an objective structure, and moral principles are then likewise derived from this constant structure.  That worldview is a scientific Rationalism, not a devotional Christian theism.

This is not to say that this scientific concept led directly to an abandonment of traditional moral values, but rather that the basis of society and morality was gradually shifting from a religious church-oriented foundation to a naturalistic concept in which even moral laws were thought to exist irrespective of any divine action.

Deists followed a Divine philosophical concept of God rather than classical Christian faith, though many were active Christians, though they disbelieved some of the dogmas.  You can get the details from history sources.  Benjamin Franklin was one of the noted Deists.

Thomas Jefferson was suspicious of established religion, ironically one of the reasons he was so influenced by the separatist Baptists, who feared established religion and the persecutions they had suffered at the hands of an established church using the power of the state as coercion against them as dissenters.

Deists and the Bible
I have heard a comment that Benjamin Franklin could not have been a Deist because he read the Bible.  Well, why not?  Most of the Deists did.  It was the only devotional or religious source book available to that culture.  Many Deists were active Christians.  Compare today some of the actual ideas many church members have about God.  These are actually very different from the official Christian idea or even more different from the biblical concept of God.

What prohibition is there for a Deist to read the Bible?  Some of these were active in established churches, others eschewed the institutional church.  Biographers of Franklin point out that he was positively disposed toward formal Christian religion because of the social good he felt it did, and the positive moral value of the Christian way of life.

Various Deists may well have used the Bible as their sacred text and devotional sources, and being Deist did not exclude one from being Christian.  Thomas Jefferson was deeply interested in the teachings of Jesus, studying the Gospels in Greek, Latin and French, and outlining the "Philosophy of Jesus."  But it was philosophical principles inspired by the Enlightenment and John Locke's and Rousseau's philosophies that guided the thinking of the New World.  Christian expression of some kind was the only viable alternative open to folks at that time.

State, Church and Political Power
An important value in the new society was to protect citizens by prohibiting the use of state apparatus to foster interests of any particular church.

This was by design, because a major focus was to avoid the domination of the state apparatus by any particular organized religious organization.  Early settlers wanted to get out from under the domination of the state-church apparatus in England, but then succeeded in establishing their own similarly repressive theocratic dictatorships on their subjects.

Baptistic free-thinkers (the extreme liberal-radicals of their day) like Roger Smith, together with rationalists Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin, resisted this and proposed alternatives based on a new political-metaphysical way of thinking.  They worked hard to avoid the weight of the state being imposed on churches again, and vice versa.

Some recent religious activists have lost that second emphasis, protecting the government from the religious establishment – any religious establishment  Nnow want the state to espouse certain religious perspectives and even enforce them on other citizens who do not share those beliefs.  They have turned the traditional conviction of Baptists and other dissenters on its head.

A Wall of Separation
It was Thomas Jefferson who, reportedly in correspondence with a Baptist congregation in Danbury, Connecticut, coined the term "wall of separation between church and state."  The congregation had written to request his support in working for the disestablishment of the official government church in Connecticut, the Congregational Church.  They believed no church should be favored by the government or receive tax funds.

In his letter to the congregation, Jefferson affirmed the concept behind the constitutional documents concerning the independence of the government and any religious denomination.  In the draft of the letter from Jefferson's private papers, with his own notes and corrections, we can see how he was thinking as he tried to develop and express this concept for public expression in his letter.

Recent individuals also calling themselves Baptist have amazingly rewritten history to suit their new-found purposes, openly declaring that there was never any such thing as "Separation of Church and State" in the United States.  Where did these people learn their history? Not from the actual records and documents.

The Danbury Baptists and their kindred Virginia Baptists fought for freedom of expression and suffered persecution and prison to fight against the use of state power to enforce the power of one church over the consciences of citizens who did not believe in or support that religious organization.  They fought for the right of religious self-expression and toleration of a variety of religious views in the public area.

These Baptists cooperated with non-Christians like Jefferson (called an atheist by New England Federalists who supported a state church concept)* and others who did not agree with their religious convictions.

Some of the debaters in the early state congresses and the continental congress were indeed men of faith and devout, including church leaders.  In general the church leaders argued why their denomination ought to be acknowledged as the official state church (while many would still allow for the free exercise of alternative churches), receiving the special privileges and financial benefits from this.  More suspicious and radical thinkers, like the Baptist and Deists fought together to keep that from happening.

Keep in mind that motives were mixed and intentions were clouded by many considerations.  The more radical elements were influenced by the French Revolution, a totally anti-religious movement, reacting in all its gory disgust against the corrupt French Roman Catholic hierarchical collaboration with the Royal family and greedy nobility to accumulate wealth and power at the expense of the poorest and most disadvantaged elements of the French society.

Avoiding Religious and Political Extremes
The more philosophical thinkers, Deists and others influenced by the Enlightenment vision of a new free world, avoided both the extremes of the French fiasco, and even maintained their cultural loyalty to the Homeland and its cultural and religious heritage.

Keep in mind that both England and the whole United Kingdom to some extent were still painfully recovering from the bloody "Christian" Revolution established by the Reformation Theology radicals in the Reformed (Presbyterian) movement in England (called the Puritans), who violently took control of the reigns and infrastructure of the British political system, killed the King and his close supporters, plunging the kingdom into a dark era of bloody religious repression that matched or exceeded the regime they overthrew.  More blood was shed by the equally bloody political response of those not within the inner "religious" circle of this "divinely-appointed" reform group.

It was so bad that the people revolted against their "saviors," who had become even worse than their previous oppressors, and invited a caretaker monarch to come over from Europe to reestablish a royal balance.  The "legitimate" royal succession finally fell upon a German branch of the family, who knew little and cared less about those troublesome colonies across the water, leading to renewed dissatisfaction in the New Worlds.

No one wanted either the previous horrible Anglican or Catholic religious dictatorship nor the equally horrid "Protestant" military dictatorship in the tender new land.  Thus overtly institutional Christian identities and foundations were studiously avoided, while the highest of moral principles, including Biblical guidance – honored by both radical Christian leaders like the Baptist and other Separatists, as well as the Deists who were acutely aware of the dreaded alternatives they tiptoed between in the volatile American atmosphere – went into a high vision of orderly, moral society defined for the mutual and common good.

Religious Foundations?
It would be correct to say that Christian principles played a large part in the establishment of the new, rebellious political experiment that became "America."  But America was never intended to be Christian nation.  I do not see this intent declared in any of the founding documents.

Religious motivations for free exercise of religion is in no way the same as the limitation of the state to be a Christian state.

The United States constitution insures freedom of religion, without specifying it must be Christian.  It is an individual and family decision, not a state decision.  Differences in individuals or families lead to differences in religion and religious observance.

It was "Christian" they wanted to get away from, for as far as they had experienced – both philosopher and Baptist dissenter alike – "Christianity" represented the worst the society had experienced.  In this regard "Christian faith" is not the same thing as "Christianity."  It was those with strong Christian faith who fought hardest to prevent America from becoming a "Christian" nation.  The state was not allowed to use the power of religion to coerce its citizens.  This was the center of the American experiment.

Yes, I do think it might, on the other hand, well be argued that basic biblical concepts like the 10 Commandments were considered a basic value in the moral and legal system of the new republic.  But, no, this is not the same as having a religious republic.

They rightly tried to keep the firm moral base of biblical principles, without establishing a religious society which would get trapped in the administrative web of power and control they had seen in the "empowered" churches – where the power of the state could coerce conscience, religious or moral, and the power of the church could control the force of society for its own institutional benefits.  The common weal was in focus for the first time!

Free Church in a Free Society
This was America.  Because this vision of a free church in a free country gives me the freedom to speak out without fear (which needs to be preserved and defended as well, and needs attention right now), and requires me to be knowledgeable and vigilant as others likewise exercise their protected freedom to proclaim and attempt to convince me of their beliefs.

It is the unique contribution of America to the stream of world political history that we are most free when we can affirm each other's right to differ and agree together to accept the diversity necessary to ensure the freedom to exchange the full range of ideas in the private and the public arenas.

I agree with you and many others that the latter is now in danger of loss or at least damage.  This should not, however, blind us to the true historical situation and values which truly and in fact did actually cause us to be as a nation.

Diversity:  Exercising and Defending Freedom
Let us be vigilant in exercising our freedom to preserve it!!  Differences of opinion, self-expression and exchange of diverse ideas is a critical component of America.  For America is diversity, variety and change, exchange and mutual commonweal and acceptance, affirmation of difference.  This is indeed a challenging type of society to manage!  Suppression of unpopular ideas is what this country was founded to prevent!

Much of this dynamic is being lost in various attempts (liberal or conservative, it all comes out the same in the end) to blunt the differences and homogenize the unique contributions out of the diverse streams of religious and a-religious thought and the mixed ethnicity and culture in our modern society.  Too many people are too uncomfortable with the diversity, wherein we should – I think – gain courage and celebrate the wondrous beauty of God's variety in human cultural expression.

Foundation of Freedom
To some degree, this anomaly of history and this reversal of conviction about the relationship of church and state has been due to many honest and concerned Christians who have been misled by some intellectually dishonest leaders with their own political agendas.

Some of these leaders have rightly desired to defend the right of exchange of religious views in the public arena.  They have supported the second principle mentioned above, the right to express diverse religious views.  Recent decades have seen a repressive attitude toward Christian views, and suppression of their expression in government circles and locales.

However they have wrongly attacked the underlying concept of Separation of Church and State.  This does not help their case at all, but simply indicates they have confused the issue at best.  The very principle of Religious Freedom of expression is based upon the idea of the Separation of Church and State! This position claims that the state is incompetent to prescribe the religious perspectives of the consciences of its citizens.

On the other hand, the government has the responsibility to defend the right of each citizen to express his thoughts, however uninformed or silly they may be.  (And I agree with many of the concerned citizens, that in recent years or even decades some pretty silly ideas have been expressed and even gained currency!)  The state (any government) has no right to limit or suppress the expression of religious beliefs, or proscribe them as a basis of interaction with the government of the public.

Separation of Church and State is large in the spirit and documents of founding of the United States.

Conviction in Diversity
The atheist is my friend – as long as he rationally and honestly proclaims his belief that there is no Creator, and likewise honors my cry that indeed there is – nay, has to be – a Creator.

The Muslim is my friend, as he too cries out against the moral corruption I see in this country, even as I, in the name of the Savior whom he sees only as a prophet, declare that there is a higher good for all of us in God's plan of faith in Jesus.

My Hindu neighbor and I affirm each other in our diversity even as we try to convince each other of what we believe, and jointly fight against the corrupting influences in the society that affect our children.

Likewise I can laugh at the ludicrous claims of the anthropomorphic descriptions of "chance" and "nature" and other thinking, planning, guiding principles of inanimacy that the evolutionist insists on referring to, while decrying my simple faith that all this planning, guiding, creating and thinking was in fact done by the loving, purposeful living God

I can proclaim my beliefs – and am likewise obligated to honor the beliefs of those who disagree – because we are free in this society.  I do not want anyone – "Christian" or otherwise – to take that away from me or from my friends who believe differently from me.
*Did you know Jefferson cut up copies of the Gospels, taking out pieces of Jesus teachings he wanted to use, to rewrite a version of the Gospels, leaving out the parts of the Gospel stories he did not want, while keeping the core of Jesus' teachings?  He pasted together these individual passages on pages to organize his version of the good things from the Gospels, while rejecting those he did not like.  Recent proponent of a religious government don't like to mention these and other differences with founders of the Republic, in their attempt to reject the principles and intentions behind the founding of the new nation committed to liberty.  Christian and non-Christian alike cooperated to found a new form of government.

See related articles on this site:
Enlightenment in and out of the American Churches
Ethnicity and Religion
John Adams:  Meeting a Founding Father
Myth and Morality in Modern Science
One Continent, Three Siblings
Naivitι and Intellectual Poverty in Modern America:  The Ethical Challenges
One Continent, Three Siblings
Rationalism, Natural Religion and Tolerance
Sabbath, Sunday and Covenant Relationships: The Sabbath for the Christian: Thoughts on Commandment Four

See related articles on the Internet:
Benjamin Franklin, Religious Affiliation
Jefferson and the Baptist congregation in Danbury, Connecticut
The Jefferson Bible
Jefferson's Draft of Letter to the Baptists of Danbury
Jefferson's Jesus Without the Miracles
Jefferson's Letter to the Baptists of Danbury
When Baptists Voted for a Heretic: Colonial Baptists Cooperated with non-Christians like Jefferson


Based on comments arising in an email exchange 15 October 2002
Finalized as an article and posted 17 March 2003
Revised 15 November 2011
Last edited 20 June 2014

Orville Boyd Jenkins, EdD, PhD
Copyright © 2003, 2014 Orville Boyd Jenkins
Permission granted for free download and transmission for personal or educational use.  Please give credit and link back.  Other rights reserved.
Email: orville@jenkins.nu 
Orville Jenkins Articles Menu
Orville Jenkins Home

filename:  religionstatefl.html