“God in America” or “Church and State in the United States”?

“Those who don’t know history are destined to repeat it.”[i]

This quote illustrates the fact that if we don’t know the mistakes that people have made in the past, we can quite easily make similar erroneous decisions.  It should be noted, however, that some things in the past were not errors, and are actually better than modern times. Hopefully we can learn from those and follow those examples. For example, the Israelites perform the Passover feast to remember the good example of God’s deliverance and their belief in following God during that critical time in history. In any event, history provides us invaluable information so that instead of from starting from scratch, we can build upon the hard learned lessons of our ancestors.

If I were to say to you:

  • It is illegal to do anything contrary to Anglican doctrine in North Carolina.
  • New York City is the center of Protestant evangelical reform.
  • Public schools teach Protestant doctrine directly from the Protestant Bible.
  • A Catholic priest is an advocate of social change to the point of recommending political candidates who get elected and create laws to end religious instruction in public schools.

Would you think that I’m crazy?  Yet those points and more are both true and the subject of the PBS documentary, “God in America.”[ii] Part one of  this fascinating documentary keys on topics like Anglicans settling in Virginia, and Puritans, later becoming Congregationalists, settling in Massachusetts, Jesuits settling in New Mexico, and these religious factions establishing themselves as governments in the days before the establishment of the great government of the United States of America. Key figures noted in the discussion are Anne Hutchinson, who challenged the Puritan rule in Massachusetts, George Whitefield drawing crowds in the thousands in the first Great Awakening, Jefferson focusing on religious toleration because of his vulnerability as a Deist in Anglican controlled lands, and “Dagger John”,  a Catholic priest,  who fought  religious persecution against Catholics in America, to the point of working to get candidates elected to  create laws stop the religious instruction (promoting exclusively Protestantism) in the public schools .

As for myself, being born in the great State of Pennsylvania, I am thankful for my heritage of being born in a state conceived in the ideal of religious freedom.  The very nature of this website seeks to investigate and discuss topics that in very many places would be prohibited by law, even in this country only a few centuries ago.

One of the points discussed in this first section of this documentary is Jefferson’s reference to the separation of church and state.  Those in the know are aware that Jefferson did not include any language that says that there is a separation of church and state in the original Constitution, or the Bill of Rights. This documentary points out that he made a later reference to a “wall of separation between church and state” in a later speech, but that language is not “constitutional,” although it does give some insight into Jefferson’s intent regarding the establishment clause.   The documentary points out that the no establishment of religion clause in the Bill of Rights was made because governments were so intertwined with religious leaders that religious law and civil law were indistinguishable. This happened not only in England, Spain, France, Germany, Netherlands, and other places from which immigrants flooded into the new world, but the original governments of colonies like Massachusetts,  Virginia,  the Carolinas,  etc  were ruled by people who were not only civil leaders but religious leaders as well .  The trial of Anne Hutchison in Massachusetts by Governor Winthrop is an easy example of this problem to understand. Anne Hutchison claimed to have personal revelation from God herself.   This was against Puritan theology. Governor John Winthrop charged her with sedition, and both banished and excommunicated her from the colony. The civil leader here, Governor Winthrop, is both the religious and the civil leader.

This illustrates the point, to me and many other Christians ,  that  the “no establishment of religion ”  clause  was Jefferson’s  inclusion  to allow religious tolerance, not to ban the religious practice of people in government, or anyone else, for that matter.  In other words, it was not in a “no practice of religion” clause. Rather it was a provision that forbids a religious faction from controlling the government exclusively.    The ramifications of this are that  it is legal to be Anglican,  Congregational, Baptist,  or “other ”  where  “other”  may refer to someone  who has no religion at all .  So therefore there is no law that can be made that would say that a Baptist can say to the Anglican, “you must be Baptist, and practice and teach only and exclusively in Baptist ways.” However there is no indication that it ever meant, for example, that anyone doing anything, whether in government service or not, could be excluded from the practice of their religion in their service.  So therefore the congressman from Massachusetts could pray as he liked, and the senator from Virginia could pray or not as he liked.  It has no appearance that would that it was ever meant to be a law that said that neither the congressman from Massachusetts nor the senator for Virginia, nor anyone else for that matter, could pray at all in the performance of their duties, either publicly or privately.

So far, my opinion is that while the documentary does focus on numerous spiritual impacts of faith in America it perhaps is a little too focused on the interaction between faith and law in America.  Nevertheless, it provides valuable lessons from which we can learn, both good and bad.

[i] Edmund Burke (1729-1797)

[ii] PBS currently has a website with a section devoted to this topic, located at http://www.pbs.org/godinamerica/?gclid=CJ3bruvAz6QCFd9n5QodXDULjA

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