On February 18th, I’ll be delivering a speech about religion, the founding fathers and the separation of church and state to a group at Grand Valley State University. In that speech I will consider the question of how their personal beliefs related to their positions about separation of church and state. I’ve said many times that there is no intrinsic connection and pointed out that some of the staunchest defenders of strict separation were devout Christians, particularly Baptist ministers.
But among the leading founders, all of whom were theistic rationalists rather than Christians, there was a key disagreement that I believe did color their approach to the first amendment’s establishment clause. Among those key founders, there was a split between Washington and Adams, on the one hand, and Jefferson and Madison on the other, over the question of whether religion was necessary to support public virtue and morality and that view also defined the difference between the accommodationism of the former two and the strict separationism of the latter two.
That Washington and Adams believed that religion was a necessary support for public virtue and morality is well know. This belief was most famously expressed in Washington’s 1796 farewell address:
“Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports… And let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.”
As I’ve documented before, neither Washington nor Adams was particularly concerned about which religion one adhered to, only that one adhered to some religion. They had universalist tendencies and believed that all religious traditions were paths to the one true god; thus their repeated references to the “Great Spirit” when writing to Native American leaders. But they both firmly believed that religion was a necessary support for morality.
Jefferson just as firmly believed otherwise. In his now famous letter to his nephew Peter Carr, in which he provided a framework for Carr’s education, he reinforced his belief in the primacy of reason when he told his charge, “Fix reason firmly in her seat, and call to her tribunal every fact, every opinion. Question with boldness even the existence of a God; because, if there be one, he must more approve of the homage of reason, than that of blindfolded fear.” But he also told him not to be concerned if this should result in his unbelief:
Do not be frightened from this inquiry by any fear of its consequences. If it ends in a belief that there is no God, you will find incitements to virtue in the comfort and pleasantness you feel in its exercise, and the love of others which it will procure you. If you find reason to believe there is a God, a consciousness that you are acting under his eye, & that he approves you, will be a vast additional incitement; if that there be a future state, the hope of a happy existence in that increases the appetite to deserve it; if that Jesus was also a God, you will be comforted by a belief of his aid and love. In fine, I repeat, you must lay aside all prejudice on both sides, and neither believe nor reject anything, because any other persons, or description of persons, have rejected or believed it. Your own reason is the only oracle given you by heaven, and you are answerable, not for the rightness, but uprightness of the decision.
And in a letter to Thomas Law, Jefferson clearly argued that atheists were as moral as theists:
“If we did a good act merely from the love of God and a belief that it is pleasing to Him, whence arises the morality of the Atheist? It is idle to say, as some do, that no such being exists…Diderot, D’Alembert, D’Holbach, Condorcet, are known to have been among the most virtuous of men. Their virtue, then, must have had some other foundation than the love of God.”
This difference of opinion on religion and morality correlated directly to their difference of opinion on whether the government should make proclamations and declarations regarding religious matters. Washington and Adams both believed that the government should reinforce and support religion in general, though not any specific religion, through non-coercive statements of support such as these.
They were non-coercive in the sense that they were only suggestions, not legal requirements. No one had to actually participate in a day of prayer and fasting, and Washington and Adams would have been strongly opposed to any attempt to make them mandatory. And they were always careful to use broadly theistic and deistic language, no mention of Christianity specifically.
For Jefferson, who rejected the notion that religion was necessary for morality, this was still a clear violation of their authority. He steadfastly refused to issue any such proclamations despite numerous attempts to convince him to do so. When a minister named Samuel Miller wrote to him urging him to issue such a declaration, Jefferson replied and explained why he refused to do so:
Sir, — I have duly received your favor of the 18th and am thankful to you for having written it, because it is more agreeable to prevent than to refuse what I do not think myself authorized to comply with. I consider the government of the U S. as interdicted by the Constitution from intermeddling with religious institutions, their doctrines, discipline, or exercises. This results not only from the provision that no law shall be made respecting the establishment, or free exercise, of religion, but from that also which reserves to the states the powers not delegated to the U.S. Certainly no power to prescribe any religious exercise, or to assume authority in religious discipline, has been delegated to the general government. It must then rest with the states, as far as it can be in any human authority. But it is only proposed that I should recommend, not prescribe a day of fasting & prayer. That is, that I should indirectly assume to the U.S. an authority over religious exercises which the Constitution has directly precluded them from. It must be meant too that this recommendation is to carry some authority, and to be sanctioned by some penalty on those who disregard it; not indeed of fine and imprisonment, but of some degree of proscription perhaps in public opinion. And does the change in the nature of the penalty make the recommendation the less a law of conduct for those to whom it is directed? I do not believe it is for the interest of religion to invite the civil magistrate to direct it’s exercises, it’s discipline, or it’s doctrines; nor of the religious societies that the general government should be invested with the power of effecting any uniformity of time or matter among them. Fasting & prayer are religious exercises. The enjoining them an act of discipline. Every religious society has a right to determine for itself the times for these exercises, & the objects proper for them, according to their own particular tenets; and this right can never be safer than in their own hands, where the constitution has deposited it.
I am aware that the practice of my predecessors may be quoted. But I have ever believed that the example of state executives led to the assumption of that authority by the general government, without due examination, which would have discovered that what might be a right in a state government, was a violation of that right when assumed by another. Be this as it may, every one must act according to the dictates of his own reason, & mine tells me that civil powers alone have been given to the President of the U S. and no authority to direct the religious exercises of his constituents.
Madison agreed with Jefferson, though he did bow to enormous political pressure surrounding the War of 1812 and issue a couple of vaguely worded proclamations as Congress demanded. He did so very reluctantly and regretted it greatly. In his Detached Memoranda, he wrote of such proclamations:
Religious proclamations by the Executive recommending thanksgivings & fasts are shoots from the same root with the legislative acts reviewed.
Altho’ recommendations only, they imply a religious agency, making no part of the trust delegated to political rulers.
The objections to them are 1. that Govts ought not to interpose in relation to those subject to their authority but in cases where they can do it with effect. An advisory Govt is a contradiction in terms. 2. The members of a Govt as such can in no sense, be regarded as possessing an advisory trust from their Constituents in their religious capacities. They cannot form an ecclesiastical Assembly, Convocation, Council, or Synod, and as such issue decrees or injunctions addressed to the faith or the Consciences of the people. In their individual capacities, as distinct from their official station, they might unite in recommendations of any sort whatever, in the same manner as any other individuals might do. But then their recommendations ought to express the true character from which they emanate. 3. They seem to imply and certainly nourish the erronious idea of a national religion. The idea just as it related to the Jewish nation under a theocracy, having been improperly adopted by so many nations which have embraced Xnity, is too apt to lurk in the bosoms even of Americans, who in general are aware of the distinction between religious & political societies. The idea also of a union of all to form one nation under one Govt in acts of devotion to the God of all is an imposing idea.
As we look to apply these different interpretations of the first amendment to modern controversies, I think it’s clear that Washington and Adams would have no problem at all with things like “under God” in the pledge of allegiance or “In God We Trust” on currency. I doubt they would have any problem with posting the Ten Commandments in a courthouse either, though that’s not as certain to me.
Jefferson and Madison, on the other hand, would be strongly opposed to such things. Madison argued in his Detached Memoranda that it is important to guard against “silent accumulations & encroachments” that would be used to justify further encroachments later on. Madison was actually more strict on this issue than even the modern ACLU. He also argued that there should be restrictions on the right of churches to own property, while the ACLU went to court to defend Jerry Falwell and overturn a Virginia law that limited the amount of property a church could own.