The Founding Fathers:
Cannon Fodder in a Cultural War
By Walt Pontynen and Karen Scott
Currently a cultural war is waging in the American Public Square over the proper relationship between church and state. The contenders, with a sense of urgency, insist the nation’s destiny is at stake. Each asserts their agendas represent the values and ideals held by those who established the United States. In this battle both sides utilize the Founding Fathers as the shock troops and early documents as their heavy artillery. The warring combatants are known as Accommodationists and Separationists.
The Accommodationists insist this nation must get back to God. Their agenda calls for prayer in the public schools, the posting of the Ten Commandments in various public places and government funding of various religious programs, provided such funding is available to all religions. Those sharing this view believe that public support of religion presents no constitutional problems.
The other side, the Separationists, oppose any public funding of religion. Their point of view asserts that the First Amendment to the Constitution provides for the separation of church and state; therefore, government sponsorship of any religious program is unconstitutional.
Founders and Founding Documents
Both sides appeal to various statements and documents relating to the legal beginnings of our nation. Frequent references are made to the “Founding” – a term used to relate to both the events and the time of the nation’s establishment. The implication of the term is that there was only one Founding and it occurred in a very narrow window of time. Another term frequently used by both contenders is the “Founding Fathers.” Along with this term is the accompanying assumption that within the Founding’s narrow window of time there was an elite group of revered, like-thinking individuals known as the “Founding Fathers.”
In reality the terms mentioned above are very ambiguous. The statements, documents and individuals relied upon express a significant difference in political thought as well as covering a vast expanse of time – a period of time whose beginning includes the founding of Jamestown (1607), the Mayflower Compact (1620) and the early National Period of the United States (the early 1800s). Adding to this ambiguity is the difficulty in determining just who the Founding Fathers were.
Some may attempt to limit the term as applying only to the fifty-five men who wrote the Constitution in 1787. Others would include the thousands of men who served in the colonial legislatures, the Continental Congress, the various ratifying conventions and the members of the First Congress. The term could also include the pro-war clergy and political theorists such as Thomas Paine, author of Common Sense, which stoked the fires of the American Revolution.
The reality is that there are many foundings – one for each colony with each founding having its own nuances, each having its own “Founding Fathers,” each having its own distinct reason for existence. Examples are Jamestown, an economic investment by its proprietors; Plymouth, a refuge for religious dissidents; Massachusetts Bay, a place where church and state would together attempt to create a perfect Church of England; Rhode Island, founded on the principle of freedom of conscience for all.
In colonial America there was no unanimity in the area of church-state relationships. Nine of the colonies had established churches. Four colonies, Delaware, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Rhode Island, never had a colonial establishment of religion. Every colony developed its own unique policy regarding church-state relationships. Therefore, statements from the colonial period regarding church-state relationships must be considered in the historical context of each colony.
The Puritan Founding Contrasted With Rhode Island’s Founding
Accommodationists, in their efforts to gain support for government assistance for religion, cite statements originating from Puritan New England, a virtual theocracy. These statements are clearly representative of what might be referred to as the Puritan Founding of New England in 1630.
Liberty of conscience is for those who truly fear the Lord. A fundamental task of the state is the establishment of pure religion.
- John Cotton (1584-1652), Puritan Clergyman
The Puritan Founding was based on what would today be termed “one nation under God.” One was required to attend church on Sunday and observe it in a certain way. Swearing or infractions against the colony’s other religious laws resulted in the transgressor being placed in the stocks, fined, whipped or worse.
In Massachusetts Bay Colony, if Baptists were discovered practicing or promoting their religion they were also subject to jail, fines or whippings. Quakers were not permitted to live in the colony. Four Quakers, including a woman, were hung for returning to the colony after being banished for proselytizing.
The question must be asked: Do the statements and actions cited by Accommodationists to condone government support for religion represent the thinking of the majority of the American people who lived during the early National Period when the Constitution and the Bill of Rights were adopted?
In contrast to the Accommodationists and their reliance on the Puritan Founding, Separationists cite another founding that occurred almost simultaneously – the establishment of Rhode Island in 1636 by Roger Williams. In this founding the church-state relationship was one of complete separation. The Separationists assert this was the model followed by the Founders of the nation’s federal government. They are also quick to point out that on the state level all remaining religious establishments were abolished by 1833.
Separationists argue that although the Puritan Founding was based upon a church-state alliance, the national founding followed the Rhode Island model. Therefore, the statements and documents of Roger Williams and Rhode Island should be considered the most influential when searching for the intent of the Founding Fathers.
But who is to decide who truly fears the Lord? The magistrate has no power to enforce religious demands. The laws of the First Table of the Ten Commandments are not regulations for a civil society or a political order. They belong to the realm of religion, not politics.
- Roger Williams (1603-1683), Founder of Rhode Island
The question must again be asked: Do these statements relied upon by Separationists represent the thinking of the majority of the American people who lived during the early National Period when the Constitution and the Bill of Rights were adopted?
Points to Consider
The period from 1775 through 1791 was a time of great transition: the colonial status was ended; a government whose power came from the people was established; a bill of rights limiting the power of this government was enacted. This was revolutionary. One of the revolutionary aspects of this period was the development of the concept of church-state separation: the national government broke a long established precedent by not creating an established church and the individual states were in the midst of abolishing their religious establishments. This was accomplished by 1833. No state entering the union since 1789 has had an established church.
During this period of transition that ended religious establishments, considerable debate concerning the church-state relationship occurred. Today, great care must be used in relying upon a statement of a Founding Father regarding the issue of church-state separation. Use of these statements can be abused resulting in an incorrect picture of the thinking of that time. For instance, some Accommodationists are currently and unashamedly using a Founding Father’s speech advocating a religious establishment incorrectly. The statements relied upon, while advocating a broad religious establishment, were made in support of a minority position, which was decisively defeated.
…we cannot afford the despair and inevitable degeneracy of no establishment at all! Therefore we shall propose Christianity itself as the established Religion of this Commonwealth…
- Patrick Henry, a reconstruction of his speech to the Virginia Legislature (1784)
On the other hand, some Separationists unashamedly promote the idea that the Establishment Clause trumps the Free Exercise Clause and use the Establishment Clause to inhibit the practice of religion. However, others assert that the Establishment Clause was enacted to protect the free exercise of religion. It is argued that the purpose of not having a religious establishment is to protect the free exercise of all.
Who does not see that the same authority which can establish Christianity, in exclusion of all other religions, may establish with the same ease any particular sect of Christians, in exclusion of all other sects?
- James Madison, Memorial and Remonstrance to the Virginia Legislature (1785)
When relying on a Founding Father’s statement to support a position, a number of questions must be asked. For example, does the statement being relied upon represent the majority thinking of the time? Does a statement or a custom originating in the middle 1600s regarding church-state relations in theocratic Massachusetts Bay Colony indicate the majority thinking of those who in the last part of the 18th century founded this nation without an established church?
Other questions need to be raised: What validity do statements or documents have that were made prior to the Revolution unless the nation embraced their philosophy in its permanent organic document? Should statements and documents made during the Revolutionary and Confederation Periods that became part of the nation’s core carry more weight than those that are not reflected in the nation’s founding documents?
The Revolutionary Period was not just a revolution against England; it was also a time of transition during which many customs and attitudes underwent fundamental changes. For a statement or document from a Founding Father or from the Founding to have validity in today’s church-state debate, the statement or document must philosophically be compatible with the church-state model that emerged during the Constitutional Period.
Statements and documents made prior to or even during this transitory time must be considered in the framework of the customs and the historical context of the time in which they were made. They may or may not have been the policies carried forward into the framework of the new nation. For the arguments of both the Accommodationists and the Separationists to have any validity, they must affirmatively answer the seminal question: Is this what the Founders and the nation adopted when the Constitution was ratified in 1788 and the Bill of Rights enacted in 1791?
Interpretive honesty requires that all documents and statements be looked at in the context in which they were made. This requires an examination of the political, social and religious milieu in which the maker lived and which prompted the making of the statement or document.