The (Mis)Education of Religion and the American Founding

In 1989, the Supreme Court ruled in County of Allegheny v. American Civil Liberties Union that a nativity scene donated to the courthouse by a local Roman Catholic organization displayed with the words Gloria in Excelsis Deo (Glory to God in the Highest) was a violation of the Establishment Clause because it violated a section of the Lemon test—established in Lemon v. Kurtzman in 1971—whereby the “principal or primary effect” was to advance religion. Many modern Americans agree that this example is an obvious violation of the separation of Church and State doctrine established by the Founders. After all, Americans are taught in public schools that the Founders were opposed to any establishment of religion in American society. They learn about a “wall of separation of church and state” that was designed to protect the government from the undue influence of religion. They would be wrong.

Unfortunately, even college survey courses tend to overlook the influence of religion, particularly Protestant Christianity. In a conversation with a close friend who holds a B.A. in History from my alma mater, Texas A&M University, I expressed my dismay at the omission of numerous instances where religion shaped the revolution and early American government. He simply shrugged and casually remarked, “I probably missed those days in class.” Despite being a Christian himself, he was surprised by my assertions regarding the significant role of the Christian faith. Regrettably, my own experience mirrored his. Christianity was scarcely addressed in my US History classes, prompting me to conduct independent research. Fortunately, I gained insights through a graduate-level political science course focused on religion in American political culture.

When Thomas Jefferson wrote his letter to the Danbury Baptists in January of 1802, he coined the phrase, “wall of separation between Church & State,” which is modernly cited as Jefferson’s disapproving of entanglements between the state and religion.

The modern interpretation of this phrase, however, mischaracterizes Jefferson’s meaning. The “wall of separation between Church and state” is meant to protect the government from restricting worship or religious living in America, not to protect the government from religious influence. Indeed, our Founding Fathers consistently recognized the significance of religion in society from the years preceding the American Revolution well into the early 19th century.

According to James Hutson, “the principal reason for the unparalleled impact of Common Sense (1776) was Paine’s extensive use of the Bible to prove that the British monarchy was illegitimate, that it could not be ‘defended on the authority of Scripture; for the will of the Almighty, as declared by Gideon and the prophet Samuel expressly disapproves of government by kings.’”[1] It is clear that this public invoking of religion into the civil sphere had a great impact on our birth as a country. In 1776, a British agent in New York stated, “at Bottom [this] was very much a religious War.” This observation was supported by a British historian who called the American Revolution “the last great war of religion in the western world.”[2] Many battle flags of the Revolution carried religious inscriptions, including one that stated, “Resistance to Tyrants is Obedience to God,” which is an idea put forth by Jonathan Mayhew, pastor of West Church in Boston.[3]

A primary example of the mixture between the religious and civil spheres is the story of John Witherspoon.

Witherspoon, a Presbyterian minister and president of Princeton, was one of many ministers who served in civil capacities. In fact, “most committees of safety and correspondence had clerical representation at one time or another. Ministers served in state legislatures and constitutional conventions, and at least three of them sat in the Continental Congress.”[4] The most prominent of these ministers was Witherspoon, who signed the Declaration of Independence and, during his six-year stint in Congress, served on over one hundred committees. Witherspoon stated the following on the role of religion in the Revolution, “The separation of this country from Britain has been of God; for every step the British took to prevent seemed to accelerate it, which has generally been the case when men have undertaken to go in opposition to the course of Providence.”[5] Obviously, if religion was prohibited subject matter by civil leaders, our course as a country during the revolution would have taken a much different path.

Regarding the endorsement or establishment of religion by governmental bodies such as the Allegheny County courthouse, while the founding generation was against a nationally established church, the actions of our early governments clearly prove a role for religion in the civil sphere.

Hutson notes that “Equally remarkable [as defeating the British] was the energy Congress invested in encouraging the practice of religion throughout the new nation, energy that far exceeded the amount expended by any subsequent American national government.”[6] Many examples support Hutson’s observation. The first order of business of the initial meeting of the Continental Congress was to, “find a Gospel minister to open its sessions with prayer.”[7] On June 12, 1775, Congress’s “first charge to its constituents was its resolution…setting a national day of ‘public humiliation, fasting, and prayer.’”[8]  A May 8, 1778 address from Congress stated that “our dependence was not upon man, it was upon Him who hath commanded us to love our enemies’; our success has been ‘so peculiarly marked, almost by direct interposition of Providence, that not to feel and acknowledge his protection would be the height of impious ingratitude.’”[9]

Most convincingly, Article III of the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 states, “Religion, Morality and knowledge being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, Schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged.”[10] Two weeks later, Congress even “offered financial support to a church.”[11] Clearly, our first government was not opposed to religion, but indeed supported the spread of religion to ensure morality in society. It was believed that morality, civil obedience, and government went hand in hand.

Note that I am not arguing that the Continental Congress supported an established religion, but merely that they supported religion to promote good government and that Christianity was the preferred religion to do so.

When transitioning to our current constitutional government, religion continued to be a topic of concern among the framers. As noted by Barry Alan Shain, “In America, however, ‘everything had a Protestant beginning’; thus, past ‘and present condition[s] are unquestionably due mainly to the influence of Protestant principles.’”[12] Shain continues by stating, “Prominent colonial historians continue to find that ‘no understanding of the eighteenth century is possible if we consciously omit, or consciously jam out, the religious themes,’ for in America, ‘the most enduring and absorbing public question from 1689 to 1777 was religion’ and the major political developments of the 18th century continued to be ‘discussed and understood by men of the time in terms derived from the Puritan ethic.’ At the very least then, ‘for most inhabitants of the American colonies in the eighteenth century, Calvinism was…in the position of laissez-faire in mid-nineteenth century England or democracy in twentieth century America.’”[13] Shain quotes John Adams stating, “the general Principles, on which the Fathers Atchieved Independence, were…the Principles of Christianity, in which all” were united.[14] During the Constitutional Convention, even Benjamin Franklin stated, “We have not hitherto once thought of humbly applying to the Father of lights to illuminate our understandings.”[15] “He implored this to be done, for he noted that ‘the longer I live, the more convincing proofs I see of this truth—that God governs in the affairs of men.’”[16]

According to Shain, even Mark Tushnet, a critical legal theorist but certainly no Christian apologist, “has argued that the liberal establishment clause of the First Amendment cannot be properly understood without recognizing that the for those who ratified it, America was foremost ‘a Protestant nation.’”[17]

Finally, the actions of our early Constitutional government show that the framers, even supposed separationist icon Thomas Jefferson and colleague James Madison, did not oppose religion and government intermixing in general terms.

To Madison and his colleagues, the establishment clause meant that Congress could not pick out one denomination and promote it to the status of an official national religion by favoring it—and it alone—with tax support and coercive authority. But Madison evidently thought that the Constitution conferred some modest degree of authority that would permit the national government to support Christianity in a non-discriminatory, non-coercive way, for he, like his friend Jefferson, did precisely this during his presidency.[18]

According to Hutson, our first Constitutional Congress attended a church service after swearing in George Washington as president, reaffirmed the Confederation Congress’s Northwest Ordinance, and re-passed legislation for imposing Christianity on the army and the navy.[19] Church services began in the House of Representatives as soon as the government moved to Washington in 1800 and services even continued on Capitol grounds for several years after the passage of the 14th Amendment, which people today claim prohibits religious activities of public property.

Jefferson himself donated money to churches and attended church regularly during his presidency. He allowed the executive Marine Band to play at services as well as allowed “executive branch buildings, the War Office and the Treasury, [to] be used for church services.”[20] Jefferson, often labeled a deist, realized the importance of religion in public affairs during the latter part of his life. “I am a Christian,” he wrote to Benjamin Rush on April 21, 1803, “in the only sense in which he [Jesus] wished any one to be.”[21] “I am a real Christian,” he wrote to Charles Thomson in 1816, “a disciple of the doctrines of Jesus.”[22] In 1801, he wrote again, “The Christian religion brought to the original purity and simplicity of its benevolent institutor, is a religion of all others most friendly to liberty.”[23] Madison and Jefferson’s opposition to religious assessments—public tax support for churches—in Virginia was clearly the minority view of the time. General assessment laws were passed in Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Hampshire, Georgia, Maryland, and South Carolina. State-established churches existed at least until 1833. Interestingly, much of Madison’s argument against assessments was to prevent the government from corrupting religion, as Madison himself was a devout believer.

Why is all this important?

Well, for one, the truth is important; accurately teaching history is essential. Secondly, we must recognize that the modern interpretation of the Constitution regarding the religious clauses of the 1st Amendment is vastly different from what the Founders intended. However, two SCOTUS decisions in 2022 have begun to roll back some of the separation that exists between the state and religion. In Kennedy v. Bremerton School District, a coach who was fired for praying with students on the field after football games was reinstated to his job, and in Carson v. Makin, state money that was made available to students attending private schools in remote areas of Maine could not exclude religions school from the program. Both of these decisions were criticized by much of the public, who were completely unaware that these rulings were closer aligned with the original intention of the 1st Amendment than either Allegheny or Lemon.

In fact, no provision of the Constitution should be changed in meaning without an amendment, as the Founders proscribed. If it can, as judicial activists and living constitutionalists believe, the document itself has no real meaning. The Founders addressed this issue as well.

On every question of construction carry ourselves back to the time when the Constitution was adopted, recollect the spirit manifested in the debates and instead of trying what meaning may be squeezed out of the text or invented against it, conform to the probable one in which it was passed.  —Thomas Jefferson

Can it be of less consequence that the meaning of a Constitution should be fixed and known, than a meaning of a law should be so? — James Madison

If in the opinion of the people the distribution or modification of the constitutional powers be in any particular wrong, let it be corrected by an amendment in the way which the Constitution designates. But let there be no change by usurpation; for though this in one instance may be the instrument of good, it is the customary weapon by which free governments are destroyed. — George Washington

Educating the public about the role of religion in the Founding as a historical matter is important. Still, it is perhaps even more important as a philosophical matter—for the Founders believed that religion was integral for the survival of our Republic. Greek philosophers and originators of the republican ideal, Lycurgus and Plato, along with French philosopher Montesquieu, also knew that a republican form of government needed a virtuous people in order to survive.

“We have no government armed with power capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion . . . Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other,” John Adams wrote in an address to the military in 1798.

For those of us who value our form of self-government and wish for its survival, a turn back to a time when the government supported and encouraged Christianity in its people and in its education system is necessary.

[1] Hutson, James. 1998. Religion and the Founding of the American Republic. Washington: Library of Congress, 42.

[2] Ibid

[3] Ibid

[4] Ibid, 46-47

[5] Ibid, 47

[6] Ibid, 49

[7] Ibid, 51

[8] Ibid

[9] Ibid, 52

[10] Ibid, 57

[11] Ibid

[12] Shain, Barry Alan. 1994. The Myth of American Individualism: The Protestant Origin of American Political Thought. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 195.

[13] Ibid, 195-196

[14] Ibid, 196


[16] Ibid, 196-197

[17] Ibid

[18] (Hutson 1998, 78)

[19] Ibid

[20] Ibid, 89

[21] Ibid, 83

[22] Ibid

[23] Ibid, 84

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  • Will Moravits

    Will Moravits is an Instructor of political science for Texas State University and previously taught for Alamo Community Colleges District. For three years, he was a police officer for the City of San Marcos, Texas, having graduated Top Cadet from the Basic Training Academy of the University of Texas at Austin. He is the author of "The Blue Divide: Policing and Race in America." He holds a master of arts in political science from Texas State University and a PhD in public policy and administration from Walden University. He is a native of Uvalde, Texas.

5 thoughts on “The (Mis)Education of Religion and the American Founding

  1. There have been many articles (and encyclicals) written about the role of the church vis-a-vis the state -perhaps the most succinct was by Erich Bonhoeffer, when the Lutheran church became Hitler’s State religion –
    “What is that role? The church must “continually
    ask the state whether its action can be justified as
    legitimate action of the state, i.e., as action which
    leads to law and order, and not to lawlessness and
    disorder.” In other words, it is the church’s role to
    help the state be the state. If the state is not creating
    an atmosphere of law and order, as Scripture says
    it must, then it is the job of the church to draw
    the state’s attention to this failing. And if on the
    other hand, the state is creating an atmosphere of
    “excessive law and order,” it is the church’s job to
    draw the state’s attention to that too.
    If the state is creating “excessive law and order,”
    then “the state develops its power to such an
    extent that it deprives Christian preaching and
    Christian faith … of their rights.” Bonhoeffer
    called this a “grotesque situation.” “The church,”
    he said, “must reject this encroachment of the
    order of the state precisely because of its better
    knowledge of the state and of the limitations of its
    action. The state which endangers the Christian
    proclamation negates itself.”
    Bonhoeffer then famously enumerated “three
    possible ways in which the church can act towards
    the state.” The first, already mentioned, was for
    the church to question the state regarding its
    actions and their legitimacy—to help the state
    be the state as God has ordained. The second way
    and here he took a bold leap—was “to aid the
    victims of state action.” He said that the church
    “has an unconditional obligation to the victims of
    any ordering of society.” And before that sentence
    was over, he took another leap, far bolder than
    the first—in fact, some ministers walked out—
    by declaring that the church “has an uncondi-
    tional obligation to the victims of any ordering of society, even if they do not belong to the Christian
    community.” Everyone knew that Bonhoeffer was
    talking about the Jews, including Jews who were
    not baptized Christians. Bonhoeffer then quoted
    Galatians: “Do good to all men.” To say that it is
    unequivocally the responsibility of the Christian
    church to help all Jews was dramatic, even revolu-
    tionary. But Bonhoeffer wasn’t through yet.
    The third way the church can act toward the
    state, he said, “is not just to bandage the victims
    under the wheel, but to put a spoke in the wheel
    itself.” The translation is awkward, but he meant
    that a stick must be jammed into the spokes of
    the wheel to stop the vehicle. It is sometimes not
    enough to help those crushed by the evil actions
    of a state; at some point the church must directly
    take action against the state to stop it from perpe-
    trating evil.

    – ut is from Eric Metaxas’ biography – “Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy”

  2. The essential part of religion to this republic, then and now, is “Public Virtue”, which goes back to the Roman Republics and Cicero. .

  3. Jefferson’s 1802 letter to the Danbury Baptists needs to be read in light of the fact that what is now the Congregational Church would remain established as Connecticut’s official church until 1818.

    I’m not that familiar with Connecticut (which initially was part of Massachusetts) but in Massachusetts each town was required to have a church and a minister, both of which were paid for by the local property tax. What Massachusetts eventually did around 1820 was to exempt Baptists from the portion of the property tax that was supporting the Congregational Church if they could prove that they were supporting a Baptist Church.

    But this is a far cry from banning religion from the public square. The Baptists were a minority in Connecticut at the time, and what I think Jefferson was trying to say was that they wouldn’t be summarily executed for their religious beliefs, as Quakers had been in Boston 150 years earlier.

    The Baptists still had to pay for a church — it was just the church of their choice. And the subsequent fights over reading the Bible in public schools was over which translation would be read, the Protestant or the Catholic — everyone agreed that the Bible should be read.

    1. An interesting law review on religion in Connecticut —

      There are a few points I would disagree with him on, starting with the fact that the Anglican Church (which swore allegiance to the King of England) became the Episcopal Church which didn’t/doesn’t but is part of the Anglican Communion. I don’t know about officially but Maryland had a strong Catholic influence and Pennsylvania a strong Quaker influence.

      As to the Federalists, their decline had started with the 1800 Election although they did live on through the Judiciary, and the supposedly secret Hartford Convention did happen. He raises an interesting point about Connecticut writing a new Constitution in 1818 because Massachusetts still has its Constitution of 1780.

      It’s an article worth reading.

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