How radical secularism erects a mythic wall between church and state

If we ask the question, “Did the founders wish to establish Christianity as the official religion?”—and we really go back to the founders, those who came over in the early 1600s and founded the various colonies—the answer is a resounding “Yes!”

What these many different founders wanted was not freedom from religion, but freedom for religion. That is, they wanted to found a thoroughly religious shining “City on the Hill” according to their own doctrinal lights. The most famous refugees from Europe, the Puritans, carry within their very name this aspect of America’s religious founding. They were escaping what they considered to be irreparable political and moral decadence of the Old World, decadence that they believed stemmed from a lack of religion in the public square. The Puritans wanted pure Christianity to permeate every aspect of society, especially its laws.

And so, if you consult the history of our country, you’ll find that there were in fact many established state churches. Of the thirteen original colonies, the Congregational church was established by law in Massachusetts, Connecticut, and New Hampshire. The Anglican Church was established in Maryland, Virginia, North and South Carolina, and Georgia. In all thirteen, there was some kind of establishment by law; if not on the state level, it occurred on the level of the town. In fact, some sort of official establishment of religion remained on the books in all states from their founding until about the mid-1800’s. For most states, therefore, religious establishment had a long history—over two centuries, from the time of their original charters in the early 1600s to the mid-19th century.

But what about the First Amendment? How does that fit in? America was founded from the bottom up, not from the top down. Local or state government was first, both in time and in the hearts of the colonists. What they didn’t want established was a national church, one that could dictate, against the rights of the states, an official religion of the nation.

A second, more complex point. At the time of the American Revolution, our secondary founders—the founders of our nation as a nation—were a mix of devout Christians (Protestants, for the most part) and equally devout Deists. They were divided about the nature of God and revelation; they were united about the content of morality.

The Deists rejected Christian revelation, and asserted instead that nature revealed everything about God that we could or needed to know. George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, James Madison, John Adams, and Thomas Jefferson were all Deists. (Jefferson’s Deism was so thin that he was under continual suspicion of being an atheist.)

But in rejecting Christianity, Deists continued to hold to its general moral tenets, and praised Jesus as a great moral teacher. Thus, they had common moral ground with Christians. On this common moral ground, both Christians and Deists thought they could build common political ground, while keeping the larger religious questions from becoming national political questions. They wanted to avoid the kind of national religious conflicts that had caused such trouble in Europe, but did not want to erase religion from public life by some alleged “wall of separation.” Both Christians and Deists believed that religion was necessary for public order, and that without it, there would be social chaos.

And now the third point, one that really mixes things up. To be all too quick, the Deists were part of the larger secularizing movement in Europe, that began in England and the Netherlands in the mid 1600s, and famously flourished in France in the 1700s—the movement that had Comte as one of its later secular flowers. While secularists started from the same moral ground, it soon became clear that their devotion to a secular order—a novus ordo seclorum—demanded a new and different morality from Christianity. Deists became radical Secularists, bent on destroying Christianity as an obstacle to true enlightenment. Europe experienced the widening of this moral divide between Christians and Secularists in the 18th and 19th century. The French Revolution was a stunning example to both Europeans and Americans as to how wide this divide really was.

Americans, lagging a bit behind, began experiencing the first cracks in the late 19th century, and ever widening fissures during all of the 20th century. Today, in America we are caught in that very struggle that bubbled up in the French Revolution between Christians and radical Secularists. The common moral ground has dropped out, and hence we are torn, as a nation, between those who hold to the moral world of Christianity and those who hold to the moral world of Secularism.

And that is why we are divided about sexuality, marriage, abortion, euthanasia, genetic research, and on and on. We no longer have, as we did at the founding, common moral ground. Without that common moral ground, the notion of a separation of church and state, understood as some kind of cosmic wall keeping religion from entering the public square, simply means the victory of Secularism as the new established national religion.

A solution might be had in recovering the original meaning of the First Amendment, not just in theory, but in practice, so that Christians will be legally protected in, rather than excluded from, our Public Square.