The separation of church and state in America grew out of competing visions of divine order and sacred liberty that divided the nation’s founders and its religious communities.
“The Apotheosis of Washington” (detail), by Constantino Brumidi, painted in the U.S. Capitol dome in 1865. (Architect of the Capitol)
One week after the Union debacle at Bull Run in July 1861, the Reverend Horace Bushnell ascended his Hartford, Connecticut, pulpit to issue a lament: “Our statesmen, or politicians, not being generally religious men, take up with difficulty conceptions of government . . . that suppose the higher rule of God.” Bushnell traced this failure of moral imagination back to the founders. In his view the nation’s story opened blasphemously. Where a faithful citizen would expect to find “In the beginning, God . . . ,” the story read, “In the beginning, Thomas Jefferson. . . .”
Recognizing how profoundly Enlightenment influences shaped the Declaration of Independence and American Constitution, Bushnell called on the people to reject the founders’ vision. Ironically, his modern-day counterparts beseech their fellow Americans to return to the founders to resurrect a Christian America. But Bushnell’s quest to save America by reestablishing the nation on sounder religious footing was by no means novel. As early as 1800, in the first hotly contested presidential campaign, Federalist Party preachers denounced Jefferson as an “infidel” and rallied behind John Adams’s “God-fearing” presidency. From the outset of our experiment in government, in fact, the founders fought tooth and nail in a contest over American values, a vigorous, sometimes savage, yet nearly forgotten thirty-year conflict to redeem the nation’s soul.
Bushnell called for the creation of a Commonwealth of God. Jefferson spoke as wistfully of establishing an Empire of Liberty. Both visions arose from spiritual first principles—call them divine order and sacred liberty. Cast in terms of the nation’s motto, “E pluribus unum” (“Out of many, one”), the advocates of divine order believed that to uphold one nation under God, the secular and sacred realms must rest on a single foundation. Without a united sense of purpose and clear moral vision, they argued, liberty would lapse into license. Champions of sacred liberty believed that to promote liberty and justice for all, the secular and religious realms must be kept autonomous. Government attempts to impose religious (or moral) values suppress religion instead, they claimed, by violating individual freedom of conscience.
American politicians may not have been “religious men”—not one of the nation’s early presidents was an orthodox Christian, for example—but Bushnell was mistaken in lumping the founders together in secular opposition to their Puritan forebears. The early nation’s pastors were divided as well. In league with many Presbyterians and Quakers, church leaders accustomed to operating under state aegis (old-school Episcopalians, Congregationalists, and, yes, Unitarians) believed that the nation would not survive independent of a strong Christian government. An equal majority of sectarian Protestants (Scots Presbyterians, Baptists, Methodists, etc.) together with Jews, Roman Catholics, and a smattering of influential Deists championed strict church-state separation as a guarantor of the religious liberty they long had labored to secure. When political parties emerged at the turn of the nineteenth century, their constituencies mustered for battle across the same spiritual divide. Pitting order versus liberty, England versus France, the established church versus champions of church-state separation, and America’s original Puritan versus its new Enlightenment inheritance, the first great culture war in American political history—waged from George Washington’s inauguration in 1789 to the outset of James Monroe’s presidency in 1817—was joined.
A Virginia gentleman was judged on appearances. The negative print image of a good New England Calvinist, trained not to care a whit for life’s trappings as long as her conscience was clear with God, for George Washington appearances were everything. Virtue proved itself by deeds apparent to all, not by a contrite heart or spotless soul. This made him no less moral. On the contrary, his attentiveness to outward propriety protected him from moral embarrassment as readily as the dread of guilt in the eyes of God might restrain a devout Puritan. To Washington, virtue and honor coalesced into a single overriding aspiration: “to do my duty in this world as well as I am capable of performing it, & to merit the good opinion of all men.”
Washington was elected America’s first president by acclamation; he received every electoral vote. New Englanders couldn’t help but think of “election” theologically. In Puritan theology, the saved were God’s “elect.” Viewing himself (if in a very different light) among the chosen, Washington, too, would honor his election by striving to prove himself worthy of it. In so doing, his thinking was Roman, not Christian; duty called, not God; and honor, not salvation, would be his reward. Yet his destiny, he was certain, was written in the stars. Washington felt anointed as the protagonist in a divine drama. The entire country, in fact, was cast to play a providential role. “The citizens of America,” he said, were “the actors of a conspicuous theatre, which seems to be peculiarly designated by Providence for the display of human greatness and felicity.”
Baptized into the Church of Virginia, Washington was elected to the church vestry shortly after his marriage. Religious fervor, or church membership for that matter, was not a prerequisite for service in the vestry, though it smoothed Washington’s way in Virginia politics. To the end of his days he would stand with the other noncommunicants during prayers and leave following the sermon right before the service of the Lord’s Supper on Communion Sundays, while Martha kneeled with the faithful and remained to partake of the Eucharist. He was culturally Christian, to be sure, but throughout volumes of correspondence Washington mentions Christ by name only once. Contrasting him with fellow Deists Thomas Paine and Thomas Jefferson, both of whom expressed sincere admiration for Jesus, the most fastidious student of Washington’s religion calls his muteness concerning Jesus “truly remarkable.”
On his watch, the government was by no means Christian, but neither was it constructed on a purely secular foundation. As long as the language employed was inclusive, for example, Washington had no qualms about calling his fellow citizens to prayer. On September 26, 1789, one day after the House of Representatives passed the First Amendment to the Constitution avowing that “Congress shall enact no legislation respecting the establishment of religion or the free practice thereof,” it pivoted on its heels and recommended that the president proclaim a National Day of Prayer and Thanksgiving to honor God for “affording them an opportunity peacefully to establish a constitutional government for their safety and happiness.” A week later Washington submitted the proclamation as requested, marking November 26, 1789, as the first national thanksgiving to be celebrated under the new Constitution.
The president’s philosophy toward church and state was simple: Religious freedom would be honored fastidiously as long as the church behaved. When America’s Baptists appealed to the newly inaugurated president to support the addition of a Bill of Rights to the Constitution to protect the “liberty of conscience,” Washington agreed that “every man, conducting himself as a good citizen and being accountable to God alone for his religious opinions, ought to be protected in worshipping the Deity according to the dictates of his own conscience.”
Washington never lost sight of a second priority, “quiet to the state.” He would uphold religious freedom, but religion had no business intruding itself in government affairs. When a delegation of Quakers appealed to him in October 1789 to support “unfeigned righteousness in public as well as private stations,” and again a few months later to promote the abolition of slavery, Washington dismissed their proposals as “very mal-apropos.” Quaker meetings were coming to the divinely inspired conclusion that slavery was an evil that must be eradicated from society. Washington, however, believed that if individuals or self-sanctioned groups should attempt to impose their moral or political agenda on society at large, the nation would be beset by faction.
The United States, at least on paper, began as a one-party state. There was no official opposition, loyal or otherwise. Parties emerged only after Washington left office. Yet, however much he scorned them, factions did exist, with tempers between them growing shorter throughout his tenure. Since faction was a four-letter word in early American politics, champions of liberty and order alike were quick to pin its tag on their opponents, each “antifactional” party bidding to preserve the peace by eliminating the other.
At the outset of his second term, with growing evidence to gird his anxieties, Washington saw disorder everywhere. He viewed the disruptions in American politics as a foreign import from France, where the revolution that drew inspiration from Lady Liberty’s triumph in America was running amok. His principal obsession was the Francophile Democratic Societies, founded in cities across the country to advance the revolutionary gospel of “liberty, equality, and fraternity.” They gathered to keep the revolutionary spirit of ’76 alive, but the president viewed them as rabble-rousing anarchists.
There is no doubt that the democratic clubs were party seedlings dedicated to advancing the principle of sacred liberty. In denouncing them, Washington reawakened a sizable cadre of New England clergymen eager to defend the government. By the middle of 1795, the battle lines between friends of order and friends of liberty had been drawn. Hamilton and Jefferson marshaled their respective forces secretly as long as Washington remained in office; the fight for America’s soul was set to begin.
John Adams is the most vivid American founder. Everything Adams touched bore the imprint of his nature: petty, querulous, and vain; yet also candid, playful, and curious. Adams elevated self-scrutiny into an art. His diary drips with Puritan angst, yet Adams fell several tenets short of the basic requirements of Christian orthodoxy. For starters, he rejected original sin and the doctrine of predestination; the Atonement—“Christ died for our sins”—fit nowhere in his theology. He didn’t think like a true believer, but he felt like a true believer. A lifelong churchgoing animal like his fathers and mothers before him, to Adams the Bible was the best book in the world and Christianity the one indispensable guarantor of public morality.
Adams, Washington’s vice-president, narrowly defeated Jefferson in the election of 1796. As he took office, Americans were dividing. Was America going to fritter away its moral capital in a presumptuous pursuit of happiness or would it return to the Puritan pursuit of godliness that sanctified the government of its Bible-toting forebears? To Federalist eyes, American “Jacobins” in French tricolor ribbons had taken the Fourth of July hostage; Puritan pillar John Lowell warned his Boston listeners to beware “the seductive doctrines of ‘Liberty’ and ‘Equality.’”
Adams appointed a national day of fasting and repentance in May 1798. To Adams, the covenant his forebears made with their God in establishing a Christian commonwealth anticipated a yet more momentous compact—that between God and the new republic. When Washington spoke of Providence favoring America, his words were generic and theologically inclusive. Adams uttered them with a strong New England accent. The fast day unified the progovernment faction, but it also raised populist hackles, alienating untold numbers of Baptists and Methodists, whose churches were not languishing as New England divines complained theirs to be, but flourishing and multiplying, lifted on the wings of religious freedom.
As Adams ran for reelection against Jefferson in 1800, ferocious attacks filled the Federalist press. The president of Yale, Timothy Dwight, posed this question about the Deist from Monticello: “Is he an infidel? Then you cannot elect him without betraying our Lord.” One parson cautioned: “Look at every leading Jacobin as at a ravening wolf.” More than one Republican apologist fairly pointed out that the unitarian Jefferson was no greater an infidel than the unitarian Adams. Another Republican made the religious case for Jefferson’s election by posing what was fast becoming the real religious question of the hour: “The captain of salvation is not so weak as to need an army and a navy and a majority in Congress to support his cause.”
The spirited Republican defense of Jefferson resonated in particular with America’s religious minorities, already a near majority of the Christian electorate. The Baptists and Methodists together soon would eclipse the establishment churches in both spiritual and temporal clout. As if on political cue, the Second Great Awakening opened with a bang during the height of the 1800 campaign. By the thousands, seekers gathered at interfaith, evangelical camp meetings, hoping to be liberated by the gospel of freedom in Christ from all earthly authorities, including the established church.
Due in no small measure to the religious wars galvanizing the electorate, voter turnout practically doubled. Jefferson claimed 80 percent of the southern vote, Adams an even higher percentage in the north, but Jefferson prevailed.
Thomas Jefferson is best remembered for seven words, the unalienable rights he enumerated as “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” in the Preamble to the Declaration of Independence. He grounded these rights in an Enlightenment metaphysic, guaranteeing them as a universal bequest from nature and nature’s God. To Jefferson, they were interdependent ideals. “The God who gave us life gave us liberty at the same time,” he said. True happiness, in turn, could arise only in a life free from the shackles of tyranny. The result was a civil ethic, in which the individual conscience received unprecedented priority. The transcendent point of reference was no longer the monarch but the people themselves, whose rights he endowed with sovereign, even divine, authority.
Jefferson’s participation in organized religion can be sketched in a few brief lines. Although he was elected to an Anglican parish vestry, no record exists of his having served in that capacity. He was famous for not attending church and did so semiregularly only during his presidency and near the end of his life. To friends, he referred to himself variously as a “Theist,” “Deist,” “Unitarian,” “Rational Christian,” and “Epicurean”; “I am a sect unto myself, as far as I know,” he wrote. He worked for seven years (with James Madison and strong Baptist support) to reverse almost two centuries of Anglican hegemony in Virginia, and numbered the Statute for Establishing Religious Freedom in Virginia among his most significant accomplishments.
Jefferson’s 1802 letter to the Danbury, Connecticut, Baptists remains the single most influential presidential document in the history of American church-state relations. Its central passage encapsulates a lifetime of thought and effort dedicated to liberating the individual from government interference in matters of religion: “Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between man and his God, . . . that the legislative powers of government reach actions only, and not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should ‘make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,’ thus building a wall of separation between church and state.” The wall he built has proved both time-worthy and abidingly controversial; it endures as a delineating symbol for American church-state separation.
Jefferson held faithful to his intention never to declare a national prayer day. He won reelection in 1804 by a landslide.
James Madison, Jefferson’s acolyte and devout champion of sacred liberty, followed him into the presidency in 1809. At once, the prospect of war between the United States and Great Britain reawakened the clergy, and before long the president found himself fighting to defend the Empire of Liberty on two fronts: against England in the War of 1812 and New England in the battle for the nation’s soul. The nation split right down the middle, with New England soon muttering about secession.
In Jefferson’s estimation, for America to reign triumphant all that remained was “to include [Canada] in our confederacy,” the spoils of which would give America “an empire for liberty as [the world] has never surveyed since the creation.” But militant expansion struck other Americans as wicked. During Madison’s first year in office, a Federalist Christian newspaper pronounced that waging war against England “would be a GROSS IMPIETY.”
Madison asked for a declaration of war in 1812, securing support for his reelection, but the country was militarily unprepared. Worse, a third of the nation was cheering for Great Britain. The Presbyterian and Dutch Reformed churches joined forces to proclaim a national day of repentance. From Madison’s perspective, ecclesiastical critics of the war were softening national resolve. Eager to regain the religious upper hand, the Republican Congress instructed him to issue a patriotic summons to prayer, invoking God’s aid and favor in prosecuting the war.
Madison’s call to prayer—he issued four during the course of the war—stood the American religious body politic on its head. Southern Christians who had balked at Adams’s fast days as an infringement on their liberty welcomed Madison’s religious proclamations, whereas the Standing Orders of New England, which repeatedly had chastised Republican presidents for refusing to issue such declarations, scorched Madison for doing so.
By 1814, with British troops in Maine and laying siege to Washington, some Massachusetts townships were openly toying with the idea of secession. Their fondness for the mother country may have united New Englanders, but it divided New England from the rest of the Union. However poorly Madison’s War was going, to credit the nation’s humiliation to God, who was, by the severe logic of covenant theology, punishing the United States for abetting atheistic France in her struggle against Christian England, offended more Christians than it seduced.
Then, in a dramatic reversal of fortunes, the very war that threatened to be America’s undoing brought her people together instead. The British withdrew; America had won. (Canada, however, did not fall.) The doomsayers who had scorned Madison’s godless leadership by predicting American defeat at the hands of Christian England were served up crow for Madison’s final fast day in 1815. In one of history’s endless ironies, out of a thirty-month national embarrassment arose a new sense of nationhood.
James Monroe, elected in 1816, was able to enjoy the religious peace for one reason above all others: The New England Federalist clerics, so long dedicated to preserving the sanctity of state religion, lost their political franchise.
After the War of 1812, Baptists—joined by Episcopalians and Methodists—plotted the end of state support for Connecticut’s Congregational churches. In early 1818, a narrow majority of voters approved a written constitution guaranteeing equal rights and privileges to all denominations.
With their establishment in ruins and the government in secular hands, the deposed lords of Connecticut wasted little time nursing their wounds. Having lost first the White House and then the State House, they set their sights higher: on the entire nation. They rededicated their smoldering moral ambition to educating ministers, disseminating Christian tracts, battling intemperance, defending the Sabbath day, and abolishing the curse of slavery, rekindling from old embers what Congregational impresario Lyman Beecher called a “voluntary establishment” that, even more effectively than the old involuntary one, promised to transform American moral discourse.
Their new strategy for America’s moral redemption would have lasting impact on American sacred politics. Voluntary associations had begun locally in pockets throughout the country years before, but emerged as a nationwide movement only after the War of 1812. Beginning in earnest in 1816, a bevy of national Christian associations leapt into action, their mission: to propagate the gospel and save the nation’s soul, one Christian at a time.
Monroe didn’t obsess about the clergy in the way that his predecessors had. As long as the church was not imposing its theological strictures on government, Monroe welcomed its activities as a stabilizing force in society. In return, not recognizing him as an enemy, Christians of all denominations embraced their president as a friend. On reflection, given the ferocity of the decades-long contest to redeem the government and save the nation’s soul, the pulpit silence concerning presidential faith and Christian government during Monroe’s presidency is breathtaking to behold. This silence echoes even more tellingly, given Monroe’s notable indifference to Christianity and the negligible ceremonial role the church played in his administration.
Monroe’s balancing act—keeping God out of the White House without offending the churches—would be passed along to his presidential successors. They would adapt his model of a religiously neutral and disengaged White House, more or less successfully and regardless of faith or party, throughout ten succeeding administrations. Religion and politics would continue to mix, sometimes combustively, in the country at large, but for decades to come no president would have to suffer anything close to the religious calumnies that spiritual partisans had lavished on Adams, Jefferson, and Madison during the height of American’s first great culture war. With the collapse of New England’s Standing Orders and their reemergence at the vanguard of a voluntary establishment of religion, the battle to save the American government, either from French infidelity or Puritan theocracy, had finally ended. Only with the coming of the Civil War and the emergence of Abraham Lincoln as national theologian did God reenter the White House. But that is another story.
Adapted from So Help Me God: The Founding Fathers and the First Great Battle over Church and State, © 2007 by Forrest Church. Reprinted with permission of Harcourt, Inc.
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The Rev. Dr. F. Forrester Church (1948–2009) served the Unitarian Church of All Souls in New York City as senior minister from 1978 to 2007 and as minister of public theology from 2007 until his death in September 2009. A frequent contributor to UU World, he was the author many books, including So Help Me God: The Founding Fathers and the First Great Battle Over Church and State (2007), Love and Death: My Journey through the Valley of the Shadow (2008), and The Cathedral of the World: A Universalist Theology (2009).
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