What Does America Think?
According to the Flashpoints USA with Bryant Gumbel and Gwen Ifill nationwide survey, when asked the role religion plays in their daily lives, 22% of Americans say they make none of their decisions based on religion or the teachings of a particular church. However, 21% responded that they make most of their decisions on that basis — a fairly even split.
God is Everywhere
America seems to be a nation deeply divided along fault lines of belief and religion, yet the concept of "God" plays a huge role in public life whether we notice it or not. The Supreme Court ritually opens to "God save the United States and this honorable court." Chaplains pray daily over Congress. Our money is emblazoned with "In God we Trust." And since 1954 the Pledge of Allegiance has referred to a nation "under God."
Was it the intent of the founding fathers to have the notion of God so relevant in American life? Would they for example, have agreed with the phrasing "under God" in the Pledge?
Jon Butler, a historian from Yale University says absolutely not. "Those who were very active in the ratification of the Constitution would, in fact, have said, 'no we shouldn't have this [under God].'"
Joseph Loconte of The Heritage Foundation, disagrees, "They agreed that it was important for the government officials and public institution to acknowledge the deity. That was a good brake on tyranny and chaos."
What Did the Framers of the Constitution Have in Mind?
Butler believes, "the framers believed that religion was important in moderate American society in the eighteenth century. They also were very concerned about government interference in religion because of the long and dismal history of colonial establishments and the many problems that derived there from." Further Butler states, "that means they thought religion was important, but they didn't think that government should be involved in propagating religion."
In his interpretation, Leconte says the founders "put the emphasis on freedom for religion." He continues, I think the universal consensus - the near universal consensus of the founders was that you could not really sustain freedom without citizens of virtue, and you couldn't really get citizens of virtue across a vast republic without religion. So the basic America syllogism, or the - kind of the internal triangle of American politics was, 'freedom required virtue, virtue requires faith, and faith requires freedom.' They wanted a religion that was genuinely free, voluntary, uncoerced."
Though the framers of the Constitution were very specific in their commitment to freedom of religion and their freedom from religion, the actual wording of documents regarding religion and government are quite vague.
The founders did acknowledge a divine being. The Declaration of independence speaks eloquently of "the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God" and says men "are endowed by their Creator." However, in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, the founders were equally firm in prohibiting both government support for religion or religious tests for public office.
The First Amendment reads: Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.
These two clauses — known as the religious liberty clauses or the establishment clause and the exercise clause — guarantee that Congress will not favor or promote a national religion; and that Congress will not obstruct or penalize a particular religion. In their quest for freedom of religion and by establishing no national church, the framers were in essence leaving religion a matter that was best left to the states and a matter which has been open to interpretation from both sides any church and state discussion.
Separation of Church and State
Probably the most familiar phrase used when speaking of religion in America is the "separation of church and state". While it's one of the most frequently debated issues about the Constitution, those exact words don't even appear in the original document.
The only mention of religion in the Constitution is that there should be no "religious test" required by any federal officeholders and that a person should "affirm" rather than "swear" in taking the oath of office. How then did the separation of church and state evolve and how has it become the standard used when balancing issues of God in government?
Jon Butler says, "We've had problems in American politics with anti-Catholicism, local legislation, state legislation passed against the Roman Catholic Church; local legislation passed against Jews in the late nineteenth century and the early twentieth century; local ordinances passed to corral African-American preachers in New York City and in the suburbs in the 1920s and '30s. And we've had an ugly history at different points in the interaction between government and religion. So, the relationship has always been political, and it's always been difficult."
Like many of the founding fathers, Thomas Jefferson embraced a basic belief in God but was also a man of science, intrigued by the philosophies of the Age of Enlightenment, a European intellectual movement that contended all of life, including religion, could be understood through the process of reason.
There has long been debate over the role of religion in American political life. Among the documents both sides call into evidence is a letter written in 1802 by then-President Thomas Jefferson to the Danbury Baptists, in which he wrote of a "wall of separation between Church and State."
Scholars have long been analyzing Jefferson's words and actions to determine how the phrase in question should be interpreted. Opponents of the principle of the separation of church and state have argued that Jefferson's letter was a quickly written thank you note for a gift he received from the Baptists.
However, it has been documented that Jefferson sent the first draft of his letter to his attorney general for comments and corrections, then wrote notes about what was revised in the letter in the margins before sending out the official letter. Some claim that these things suggest the letter was carefully written.
In the Courts
No matter what the true intent of the founding fathers, the debate over church and state has been played out numerous times in the American courts. Because of the Constitution's vague language, there is an interpretive element that has resulted in myriad legal battles. Some of the most recent center on issues such as abortion, school prayer, reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, same-sex marriage, and the right to die. These challenge the Supreme Court to make sometimes controversial decisions as it deciphers the clause in order to protect individuals' freedom of religion rights. Read more about these issues in Religion and the Law.
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