The First Amendment was intended to protect the church from the state, not to insulate the state from moral and religious values.
The question of application of Judeo-Christian ethics to public policy has generated serious discussion as well as some shrill and sadly misinformed rhetoric over recent months. Moral Majority has been the most readily available target. For some, it has been shocking to be confronted with large, organized groups of Christians who lobby for or against particular political positions.
There is, in a sense, good reason for this reaction: for nearly a century, large groups within the evangelical church have been virtually trapped in a type of pietism that often excluded public involvement. Why, then, in a society that has traditionally reveled in democratic action, are we not rejoicing that these people have finally come out of their cultural cloister? I personally believe the debate is healthy for our nation. I see the resurgence of a viewpoint that calls for strong foundations in ethics as a sign of hope in a culture that seems to have forgotten its roots.
The framers of the U.S. Constitution wanted to keep the federal government out of the business of the church. At the same time, they expected the church and its members to have influence in the development of this nation’s policies. They did not write the concept of absolute separation of the church from the state into the Constitution. And while not all members of the Continental Congress or the men who wrote the Constitution were practicing Christians, they lived within a framework of Christian principles, and they revered Christianity as a necessary undergirding for social structure. It was thus that Benjamin Franklin, a reknowned religious skeptic of his time, could make the following comment during the Constitutional Convention of 1787:
“We have not hitherto once thought of humbly applying to the Father of Lights to illuminate our understanding. In the beginning of the contest with Great Britain, when we were sensible to danger, we had daily prayers in this room for divine protection. Our prayers, sir, were heard, and they were graciously answered … do we imagine that we no longer need his assistance? I have lived, sir, a long time, and the longer I live, the more convincing proofs I see of this truth—that God governs the affairs of men.
“And if a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without his notice, is it probable an empire can rise without his aid? We have been assured, sir, in the sacred writings that except the Lord build the house, they labor in vain that build it. I firmly believe this.”
John Adams made the following comment:
“Statesmen may play and speculate liberty, but it is religion and morality alone upon which freedom can securely stand. A patriot must be a religious man.”
The very concept of our representative form of government—the checks and balances system and the doctrine of enumerated powers—was founded upon the Christian belief that man is fallible and prone to wrongdoing. Thus, in order to ensure that no one man or group could attain and misuse excessive power, the federal government was limited.
The Constitution is not, nor was it intended to be, a religious creed. Christian theism, however, so permeated the minds of those who wrote it that the principles within it are “indubitably Christian,” as the English historian and renowned skeptic, H. G. Wells, put it.
The First Amendment states: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” It appears that it was not the intention of the framers to keep Christian influence out of the state. Rather, they intended to prohibit the federal government from setting up a national church.
Thomas Jefferson, who was no lover of the church, said in his second inaugural address: “Religion is independent of the powers of the General Government and religious exercises should be left as the Constitution found them, under the direction and discipline of the church or state authorities.”
In his book American Constitutional History, Edward S. Corwin interpreted Jefferson’s statement this way: “In short, the principal importance of the amendment lay in the separation which it effected between the respective jurisdictions of state and nation regarding religion, rather than in its bearing on the question of separation of church and state.”
The purpose therefore of the First Amendment was to keep the federal government out of religion. It provides freedom for religion, not the modern interpretation of absolute freedom from religion—which I believe is logically impossible.
The founding fathers lived in a time when the intellectuals readily admitted that the Christian religion, with its roots deeply embedded in Judaism, served as the source for many aspects of eighteenth-century criminal law, tort liability, the role of voluntary agencies and charities, the concepts of just defense of nations, and the definitions of basic human dignity and human rights. When the First Amendment was ratified in 1791, many of the states presumed that members of the churches, with Christianity’s wealth of ethics and tradition of involvement in policy formation, would work intimately with both local and state governing bodies.
As Alexis de Tocqueville noted, “America is still the place where the Christian religion has kept the greatest real power over men’s souls; and nothing better demonstrates how useful and natural it is to man, since the country where it now has the widest sway is both enlightened and the freest.”
Commenting further on those who attack Christian influence in America, he said: “Unbelievers in Europe attack Christians more as political than as religious enemies; they hate the faith as the opinion of a party much more than as a mistaken belief, and they reject the clergy less because they are the representatives of God than because they are the friends of authority.”
In many ways, modern America has taken up the banner that de Tocqueville found not only inappropriate, but lacking in credibility. It has concluded that the church must be neutralized, and so Christianity that informs and influences the state has become a political threat to the independence of the state, which has put itself in the place of God.
“How dare they dictate their moral convictions to all Americans!” is the battle cry of those opposed to Moral Majority and similar groups. But if we do not base our legal and political decisions upon Christian morals, upon what morals then are they to be based?
Every man, whether he recognizes it or not, lives by a code of ethics in his personal life—a code that necessarily affects society in general. The belief in man’s adequacy to rule his own affairs (which is secular humanism in a nutshell) is a pervasive world view today, and it has vast influence on public policy formation in both the U.S. and abroad. The issue of authority is the ultimate question in all codes of ethics, whether personal or social. If the codes by which nations live are not drawn from transcendent truths, then they are created arbitrarily, and their basis is pure power. And where human power is the basis for solving all social problems, then consolidation and centralization of that power is the presumed means to the solution.
Some elite groups of people want to press the mold of their power philosophies upon the U.S. and the entire world. It is because much of the opposition to these philosophies has lacked a solid core of transcendent truth that they have grown so pervasively. Those elitists, those secular humanists, have created their own view of the world and reality. I believe they are misguided and therefore dangerous.
A summary of beliefs of the secular humanist religion is described in its published manifestos. Its religious/ethical beliefs are extensive: humanism denies and rejects God, theism, deism, faith, prayer, all divine purpose or providence, all religions that “place God above human needs,” the existence of life after death, “traditional religious morality,” “national sovereignty,” and a “profit-motivated society.”
Humanism proclaims its own set of self-serving, unproved dogmas as replacement for the tenets of traditional religion. It asserts that the universe is “self-existing and not created.” It says man is the product of evolution and that the “joy of living” and the “satisfactions of life” are the supreme goal of man. Ethics come from “human experience,” not from God.
Humanism recognizes and accepts abortion, euthanasia, suicide, and all varieties of sexual exploration and immoral lifestyles. It works for the establishment of a “secular society,” a “socialized economic order,” world government, military disarmament, and population control by government.
Whether consciously or unconsciously, those who support secular humanism are attempting to make it the religion of American government. The conflict between two philosophical beliefs surfaces in specific issues. Those of us who are in elective public life are being asked to take a stand. For example:
• Creation/evolution. Do we teach only one or both theories in public schools?
• Homosexual lifestyle/practice. Should the nation’s laws recognize and encourage a tolerance of it?
• Permissiveness. Should we discipline children in public school and, as a last resort, use corporal punishment?
• Prayer in public schools. Should a school district have the authority to permit an opening prayer?
• Pornography. Are there any circumstances where society can deal with the dehumanizing of sexuality and its downgrading to the level of animals?
• Capital punishment. Are there any circumstances where society can impose the death penalty?
• Deficit spending. Does the continued practice of deficits—money supply expansion, debasement of the currency—reach the point of theft prohibited by the seventh commandment?
• Abortion. When does life begin? And after it has begun, is there any point before birth at which taking it should be prohibited?
The Jewish-Christian Scriptures contain moral principles, usually referred to as the Judeo-Christian ethic. Where Scripture speaks on the issues described, the use of political power and influence to give them life is not the promotion of a religion, I believe, but rather a recognition of the heritage that has permitted our civilization to reach this point. Our political systems have legislated laws against murder, adultery, theft, perjury, and for parental control of children. No one can seriously suggest that the fact that these laws exist in the political system means the establishment of a state religion. These are principles that are basic to Western civilization. The Scriptures, which are the source of these moral ethical principles, contain other principles that, some believe, help people in civil authority to resolve those issues now being discussed in the political forum.
The first three commandments deal with the relationship between God and man. For the civil state to legislate compliance with any of these three would be to cross the line established and prohibited by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. But at the same time, to suggest that individuals in political authority may not use the other commandments that deal with man’s social relationships in order to orient the compass of the secular state is to subject the direction of our political system to whatever wind may come along—including secular humanism, itself a religion, which is the major contestant on the current scene.
In the final analysis, no man or woman, whether a private citizen or an elected official, can escape the choice God gives to every human: Do we follow God or man?
Congressman William E. Dannemeyer serves in the U.S. House of Representatives from California’s thirty-ninth district. He is a former member of the board of directors of the Southern California District of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod.
Have something to add about this? See something we missed? Share your feedback here.