With July 4th looming, I expect the usual flurry of e-mails telling me the following: 1. On the aluminum cap atop the Washington Monument are two Latin words, Laus Deo, meaning, “Praise be to God;” 2. the Founding Fathers were deeply religious men who founded the American republic on Christian principles; and, 3. the phrase “separation of church and state” does not appear in the United States Constitution. All those points are true or mostly true, in my view; however, the usual implications drawn from them in the free-floating Internet ditties I receive are not.
As to point one, yes, “God language” is and always has been a prominent part of our national dialect. The president’s recent speech addressing the disaster in the Gulf was rich in religious imagery. He spoke of the blessing-of-the-fleet ceremonies in which Gulf fishermen appeal for God’s protection and help in good times and bad. Despite highly publicized attempts to remove “In God We Trust” from our coins or the phrase “under God” from the Pledge of Allegiance, the Supreme Court has consistently held that such generic references to “God” are permissible. It is advancing one religion at the expense of another that violates the spirit and substance of the First Amendment.
As to point two, it is true most of the Founders were conventionally religious for their place and time, meaning they were Deists. They were not, for the most part, evangelical Christians, but more philosophically minded believers who thought God wound up the Universe like a clock and was now letting it run according to “natural law.” So, yes, the Founders believed “God” was, in some sense, watching over the republic, founded on the general principles of the Judeo-Christian heritage that characterized the Western world.
Nonetheless, they deliberately did not create a “Christian Republic,” but a secular one — despite some of those present at the Constitutional Convention of 1787 pressing for a formal acknowledgment of Christianity in our founding document. This faction did not prevail — not because the other delegates were anti-religious, but because they were fiercely committed to freedom of conscience for all people and had seen the atrocities perpetrated by state-sponsored religion in both Europe and the colonies.
As to point three, it is correct that the literal phrase “separation of church and state” does not appear in the Constitution. Neither does “separation of powers” nor “a trial by a jury of one’s peers.” Each expression is, rather, a shorthand phrase that summarizes important constitutional provisions.
The phrase “separation of church and state” is usually dated to Thomas Jefferson’s letter to Connecticut’s Danbury Baptist Association in 1802. The Baptists were thankful for Jefferson’s strong support of religious liberty, since they were then facing rebuff and ridicule from the local Congregational religious establishment.
“Separation of church and state” means the state doesn’t get to “establish” religion or “prohibit” its “free exercise.” As always, the devil is in the details, and conscientious Christians and other people of faith (and no faith) will disagree about the application of this principle in practice. But the all-too-common sentiment this time of year that America is, or should be, a Christian nation is neither true to the facts nor to the American experience.
Nations, after all, can’t be Christian. Only people can. As that Baptist maverick of yesterday, Carlyle Marney, would remind us, “Christian” is best used as a noun, not an adjective.