UPON THE BASIS OF RELIGION AND VIRTUE
by David Sisler
In 1802, Thomas Jefferson wrote about "a wall of separation between church and State." That memorable phrase is not in the Constitution, and although his intent when he penned it has been, and will be, debated for years, it may be that Jefferson's purpose was to protect the Church from the State and not the other way around. Associate Justice William Rehnquist called Jefferson's metaphor "misleading" and wrote in the 1985 U.S. Supreme Court case Wallace v. Jafree, "There is simply no historical foundation for the proposition that the framers intended to build a wall of separation..."
Critics who insist on such a wall miss the fact that Mr. Jefferson included God in his political and governmental dealings.
The year before he wrote the Declaration of Independence (in which he referred to our "Creator," "Nature's God," "the Supreme Judge of the World," and called for "a firm reliance on the protection of Divine protection") Jefferson composed "The Declaration of the Causes and Necessity for Taking Up Arms." In that document he flatly stated, "With a humble confidence in the mercies of the Supreme and impartial God and Ruler of the Universe, we most devoutly implore His Divine goodness to protect us."
Three years after the Declaration of Independence was signed, Jefferson issued a "Proclamation Appointing a Day of Public and Solemn Thanksgiving and Prayer to Almighty God." The future-president prayed that God "would establish the Independence of these United States upon the basis of religion and virtue."
On June 7, 1789, James Madison introduced the First Amendment to the Constitution in the first session of the United States Congress: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof..."
Twenty-three years later, during the War of 1812, then President Madison called for a National Day of Public Humiliation and Prayer. He called on all citizens to render to "the Sovereign of the Universe... the public homage due to His holy attributes... [to] seek His merciful forgiveness, and His assistance in the great duties of repentance..."
The very next year President Madison called for another National Day of Prayer, stating, "If the public homage of a people can ever be worthy of the favorable regard of the Holy and Omniscient Being to whom it is addressed, it must be... guided only by their free choice" [and] freed from all coercive edicts" (emphasis added).
On March 4, 1915, at the end of the War of 1812, President Madison issued a "Proclamation of a National Day of Thanksgiving and Devout Acknowledgments to Almighty God." He urged that "every religious denomination may in their solemn assemblies unite their hearts and their voices in a freewill offering, to their Heavenly Benefactor, of their homage of thanksgiving and their songs of praise" (emphasis added).
President Madison evidently esteemed faith a fundamental component of American life and welcomed the recognition of God in government declarations. He appreciated that worship was valuable only when it was a "freewill offering," not a "coercive edict." Those are hardly the statements of a man who, as has been wrongly suggested, intended to remove worship from the public arena when he authored the First Amendment.
George Washington in his First Inaugural Address, stated: "It would be peculiarly improper to omit, in this first official act, my fervent supplications to that Almighty Being who rules over the universe, who presides in the councils of nations and whose providential aids can supply every human defect.... We ought to be no less persuaded that the propitious smiles of Heaven can never be expected on a nation that disregards the eternal rules of order and right which Heaven itself has ordained."
President Martin Van Buren prayed, "May it be among the dispensations of His Providence to bless our beloved country with honors and length of days; may her ways be pleasantness, and all her paths peace!"
Grover Cleveland, the only man to be elected to the presidency in non-consecutive terms, said in his First Inaugural Address, "Let us not trust to human effort alone, but humbly acknowledge the power and goodness of Almighty God who presides over the destiny of nations, and who has at all times been revealed in our country's history, let us invoke His aid and His blessings upon our labors."
President after President -- up to, and including Bill Clinton -- have declared public confidence in the Lord God Almighty and asked for His special protection and blessings on our nation. It all sounds so very different when you read what the men who have led America actually said.
Separation of church and state? Tommy, we done ye wrong.
Published in the Augusta Chronicle 7/6/96
Copyright 1996 by David Sisler
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