God and Washington, George and D.C.

Posted on May 18, 2014

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A few weeks ago I wrote a column about three subjects that were taboo around Navy wardrooms: politics, religion, and sex. But, having been long out of the Navy, and wardrooms, I now feel free to engage in the old fashioned American sport of exercising my freedom of speech.

Are we a “nation under God” as our pledge of allegiance says? Do we trust in God, as a motto on our coins advertises? Or, are we governed by a small, godless, humorless lot of grumpy atheists who feel persecuted by those of us who believe God, and his supporters, are out to get them?

A recent decision by the Supreme Court to allow for an almost superficial, quick prayer by a town government brought the entire brouhaha of church and state, and the freedom of religion issues before the public again.

As far as I can tell, the town council of Greece, New York did not seek to convert anyone or to turn the city government over to the Pope in Rome.

The subject, by the way, came up during the 1960 presidential election when John Kennedy had to deny–if elected–that the Pope was likely to manipulate him like a puppet. The irony in this is rich, given that John Kennedy was a most unlikely candidate to be persuaded by the power or morality of the Church.

That is, by the way, why we separated church from state: to keep the Church out of the affairs of the State. It’s pretty simple, but we can truly complicate the issues when we work to squeeze the round peg into the square hole.

The subjects of church and state and religious freedom—two separate but related issues by the way—hasn’t vanished since the Founding Fathers credited God with putting everything in order. Even grumpy Deists like Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson grudgingly allowed that a Maker and Creator was behind it all, but Man also had some responsibility to make it all work rationally and with due regard for each other.

It is ridiculous to say or claim that any of the Founding Fathers were atheists, agnostics or any other “ists” or “tics” other than believers in God, no matter what they called him—Creator, Maker, Deity, etc.—and what point on the spectrum of belief they occupied.

George Washington, for example, at the request of Congress, issued the first Thanksgiving Proclamation in 1798. He asked that people across the country devote themselves in service to “that great and glorious Being who is the beneficent author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be.” Washington urged people to thank God for his protection of them through the Revolutionary War, for allowing the Constitution to be composed in a “peaceable and rational manner,” for the civil and religious liberty they possessed, and “in general, for all the great and various favors which He has been pleased to confer upon us.”

The Proclamation—as the Wikipedia entry on Washington and Religion details it well– ends by calling the people of the United States to prayer and to beseech God “to pardon our national and other transgressions”; to allow the national government to be wise and just; to “protect and guide” all nations; to promote “true religion and virtue, and the increase of science”; and to “grant unto all mankind such a degree of temporal prosperity as He alone knows to be best.”

The question then becomes, why were church and state separated? The answer is long and complicated, but can be easily extracted from what happened in Salem, Massachusetts. In 1692 twenty “witches” were executed by the State in Salem, the high—or low as the case may be—point of the church’s role in secular life.

In the new country, the Founding Fathers determined to keep the intrusive hand of the church out of the affairs of the State. No more Salems. No more witch trials. No more burnings at the stake.

The State promised not to impose its will—by creating a national religion that all were forced to adhere to for example—on the religious life of the people. And the church, Christians of all denominations for all practical purposes, was to keep its nose out of the affairs of government. If the Church promised to keep its nose out of the affairs of the State, the State reciprocated.

Freedom of religion was guaranteed, since freedom and liberty were so central to the new republic, and so guaranteed by the first ten amendments to the Constitution.

Liberty has a price though. It means atheists and believers both have a right to express themselves. And they do, often with placards, shouts, condemnations, marches, accusations, counter-accusations, Supreme Court rulings, and even occasionally prayer, the believers’ ultimate appellate court.

There is no wall of separation between church and state as Jefferson wrote in 1802. There is more of a fence than a wall, a low fence at that, with many gates we can step through occasionally to converse with our neighbor about common problems.

“Your cattle are grazing on my land neighbor.”

“It will not happen again my friend.”

I happen to think that the principle of “freedom of conscience,” or freedom of religion is even more important than the separation of church and state, if we arrange our freedoms and rights in some order of importance. Some would argue that all—freedom of speech, the right to bear arms, etc.—are equally important and that point certainly has merit.

But we like to rank everything. The best football team, the best President, the best looking, the richest, the best religion, and on down the line. It’s our competitive nature. And to have the rankings, we need our liberty to allow all to make their case. Take away that right to liberty, to freedom, to compete and you are going down the rocky road to tyranny. And when that happened in this English colony over two hundred years ago, liberty, and its preservation and extension, became the calling card of the Founding Fathers, to the crash of muskets and the roar of the cannons.

This column published as Our Founding Fathers Were Men of Faith in my column, The Port Rail, in The Tuscaloosa News Sunday May 18, 2014.