I believe in the concept of the Separation of Church and State. Thomas Jefferson popularized the phrase and discussed the wall of “separation of church and state” in a letter to the Danbury Baptist Association of Connecticut in 1802. Jefferson was there to address the congregation’s concerns that the rumors of the nation’s religion was to be Congregationalist. He assured them that it was not and that no denominations or religions could be appointed to the people by the government. When I hear of the “separation of church and state,” I believe that it is a good thing. Our first amendment ensures us that religion cannot be forced upon the people by the state. In this multi-layered amendment, it also addresses the right of the people to worship freely.
In the case of prayer in school, I believe that one should be able to pray or congregate as they see fit on school grounds as long as the time is appropriate, i.e. clubs or before or after school. If a student reading the Bible in the classroom was neglecting instruction for his math assignments, but was instead focusing on his devotional, I believe the teacher has every right to tell the student to refrain from her activity. I remember being a part of a prayer club in high school. It has been nineteen years since I’ve been in public education. My mother is a teacher and to my knowledge her school still has a similar extracurricular prayer club. When my father was in education, he even participated in a morning-prayer service on school property before classes began. The teachers gathered to pray daily for guidance in teaching the middle school and thank God for all of their many blessings. I constantly hear that prayer has been taken out of school. If this is reference to prayer led by public school teachers whose salaries are paid for by the government, then it doesn’t bother me that it has been taken out of the schools. Dad’s participation in morning prayers was voluntary. If he had been leading his students in a prayer during class it would have been considered improper.
When she was six, my mom was harassed by her first grade teacher. Every Monday, Miss Mary Clark would ask which student attended Sunday school the day before. Mom’s family rarely visited church and when it was brought to the teacher’s attention by a show of hands that she hadn’t gone, Miss Mary Clark made my mother and one other student stand in front of the class. The teacher would then chastise them publicly for not going. She then went so far as to tell them that they were both going to hell. Weeks later, Mom reluctantly told her father about her embarrassment at school. My grandfather called the teacher and told her to never do this again and that if she truly cared so much about little Janie’s salvation, that she had permission to pick her up every Sunday and take her to church. Miss Clark never extended the offer to Mom and she never questioned the student’s Sunday school attendance in class again.
Until 1961, prayer in school was mandatory. As a ruling of the Supreme Court it was finally outlawed. Billboards line the highways and interstates as if they were memos from God stating, “Please put me back in the schools”— God. I chuckle at these. It is sincerely doubtful to me that our problems in education and our problems in the world stem from this 1961 law.
I’ve heard many times that we began as a “Christian Nation” and that Christianity was the religion of our founding fathers. Many of our founding fathers (including the original George W., John Adams, Thomas Jefferson and Ben Franklin) were intelligent individuals and many of our founding fathers were far more outspoken of their non-centered beliefs than that of our modern politicians who have all claimed Christianity in an outspoken way since Jimmy Carter said that he was “born-again.”
George Washington was a spiritual man who believed in God, but had his issues with Christianity. He could not be categorized as a deist because he believed God actually intervened militarily. He was accepting though of other beliefs. He even appointed John Murray, a Universalist, to Army Chaplain. Washington did this knowing that Murray dismissed the concept of hell. Washington proclaimed the role of religion in his farewell address, “Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports”.
When dealing with the Barbary Coast Muselmen (Moorish Muslims), John Adams (during his administration) ratified the Treaty of Peace and Friendship, which states in Article XI that “the government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian Religion”. Adams, was a Unitarian who rejected many doctrines of Christianity, but like Franklin, believed that religion was key to guiding the people morally.
Thomas Jefferson, the most famous of the deists, rewrote Jesus’ story in what is appropriately known as The Jeffersonian Bible. He omitted the miracles and only translated up to Jesus’ burial. He also believed that Jesus’ moral lessons were exemplary.
Let us not forget Ben Franklin. Ben Franklin believed in a providential God, but doubted the divinity of Jesus. He donated money to all denominations that asked for contributions, claiming that religion promoted morality.
These four, who many think of as our most influential founding fathers, by all means believed in God, but by many of today’s standards would not be considered Christians. I’m not trying to draw a conclusion that our Founding Father’s church education did not influence them in their personal involvement in the creation of a new country’s law, but they were wise enough not to intertwine the two directly. When many today claim that these men did not have to put the words “God” or “Christianity” in our law because it was an assumption that most were Christians leaves little credit to them.
It is obvious that “God” is in our government. “Under God” was added to the pledge of Allegiance in the mid 50s to distinguish our nation from Communist one’s which were mostly considered atheist. Of course, “In God We Trust” was already on our coins due to the rising religious sentiment during the Civil War. Do these things bother me? Of course not, but it also does not bother me when there is a prospect of them being taken away. The word “God” on money or in a pledge, whether it is there or not does not effect my personal faith. I find that these issues are really more about drawing lines and rallying a political base than actually about faith or religion.
The majority of the people in America, including our politicians, can be categorized as some denomination of Christian. Considering that the populace is made up of Christians, it goes without saying that as a majority we are and have been a “Nation of Christians,” but I do not feel comfortable calling the United States a “Christian Nation.” Not until we affect Jesus’ teaching in community living, after we feed the world’s poor and care for our elderly and after we put away our armaments, then I will feel that the title will be more befitting. As a nation, no matter who is at the head, I do not feel that we could collectively act as Christ would. I also feel that is dangerous to consider other nations non-Christian. This only displays our arrogance when we name those who we believe are inferior.
As far as offending others with our displays, we have always offended. There has never been a time when we could worship or display our religion without the fear of alienating or offending. For example (I think this works well in the South), If a Catholic school teacher led the class in a ceremony or invocation that seemed to idolize Mother Mary, might someone whose parents were fundamental Baptists and not Catholic take issue with this. Whose Christianity would be correct? Is it fair to make Jewish, Muslim or Atheist children sit through a Christian prayer at a football game that is on school grounds during a school function?
I believe religion in its simplest terms is a relationship between God and one’s self. Government cannot dictate this whether it is a law or not, but to allow the expression of faith to appear sanctioned and endorsed by the state will only guarantee civil strife.