In the last few years we’ve heard a lot about the ‘wall of separation’ between church and state. Some of us have been counting our blessings for that wall. Thank you, Mr. Jefferson and Company—and he had a lot of company!
In addition to ‘counting our blessings,’ however, we need to be vigilant about preserving, protecting and defending that wall. We inherited the benefits of a great nation, but we are responsible for its preservation.
What do you suppose Jefferson would be thinking as he watches the latest attempts to dismantle that ‘wall of separation,’ to create an American theocracy where the opinions and beliefs of a narrow brand of religion are imposed on those of us who hold a different view—a broad view? Certainly Jefferson would be paying close attention, listening carefully for the religious code words in the President’s speeches; listening carefully to the candidates for public office who pander to the religious right wing.
Jefferson and the other founders of this nation would be more than a little anxious, but they would be quick to remind us that it’s our job to repair the wall, like the neighbors in Robert Frost’s famous poem who meet once a year to walk the line, to pick up stones that have fallen or been dismantled by the hunters who are after the fox. Listen, again, to the way he said it, keeping Jefferson’s wall of separation of church and state in mind.
MENDING WALL, Robert Frost
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it
And spills the upper boulders in the sun,
And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.
The work of hunters is another thing:
I have come after them and made repair
Where they have left not one stone on a stone,
But they would have the rabbit out of hiding,
To please the yelping dogs. The gaps I mean,
No one has seen them made or herd them made,
But at spring mending-time we find them there.
I let my neighbor know beyond the hill;
And on a day we meet to walk the line
And set the wall between us once again.
We keep the wall between us as we go.
To each the boulders that have fallen to each.
And some are loaves and some so nearly balls
We have to use a spell to make them balance;
“Stay where you are until our backs are turned!”
We wear our fingers rough with handling them.
Oh, just another kind of outdoor game,
One on a side. It comes to little more;
There where it is we do not need the wall:
He is all pine and I am apple orchard.
My apple tress will never get across
And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him.
He only says, “Good fences make good neighbors.”
Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder
If I could put a notion in his head:
“Why do they make good neighbors? Isn’t it
Where there are cows? But here there are no cows.
Before I built a wall I’d ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out
And to whom I was like to give offense.
Something there is that doesn’t love a wall,
That wants it down.” I could say “Elves” to him,
But it’s not elves exactly, and I’d rather
He said it for himself. I see him there,
Bringing a stone grasped firmly by the top
In each hand, like an old-stone savage armed.
He moves in darkness as it seems to me,
Not of woods only and the shade of trees.
He will not go behind his father’s saying,
And he likes having thought of it so well
He says again, “Good fences make good neighbors.”
The round, hard-to-balance stone is religion. Religion has always been an important part of the fabric of life in America. Religion was among the reasons why those folks left their homes, got into the boats, and journeyed to this land to make a new beginning. Religion has been woven into the fabric of America—built into the foundation stones.
At first it was the tough religion of the Puritans—a tough religion for a tough life. Then a new kind of religion emerged, woven delicately into the fabric of the new nation, following the War of Independence, when freedom took on new meanings: a free religion for a free people.
What was the religion of the so-called Founding Fathers, those leaders of the revolution? What did they believe—and certainly their core beliefs were part of the courage it took to break away from England—and how did they weave their core religious beliefs into our Constitution without allowing religion to intrude itself on the citizens of the new country?
They balanced the round stone of religion carefully and skillfully.
As a result of that balance, we now live in the most religiously diverse nation that has ever existed on the face of the earth. Diana Eck wrote about it several years ago in her book, The New Religious America.
The interesting thing about our religious diversity—this very wide spectrum of religions in America—is that it came about as a result of the founders’ fear of religion intruding itself into the government, while at the same time affirming the function of religion in human life – in morality, ethics…or simple acts of kindness and generosity. They were not afraid of religion, they were afraid of narrow religious creeds; they were afraid of religious intolerance.
It was Jefferson’s fear of religious intolerance that prompted him and the others to build the wall into the foundation of America.
Frost said poetically what Jefferson knew: “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall, that wants it down.”
You don’t have to strain yourself to hear the strident voices of evangelical Christians whose agenda is tear down the wall. They make the assertion that ‘this is a Christian nation, founded by Christians.’ They want the laws of the land to reflect their religious views, and their religious views are narrow and punitive, turning God into a tyrant who builds hell fires for the unbelievers’ eternal damnation.
We were reminded of this kind of thinking when Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson blamed 9/11 on the ACLU, the People For the American Way, NOW, etc.
“God is mad,” Falwell said. “I point the finger in their face and say ‘you helped this happen. To which Robertson responded, “Well, I totally concur…Amen.”
They make the claim that America is ‘a Christian nation, founded on Christian beliefs.’
I have two very different responses to that assertion: the first response is a smile, since the founding fathers were, to a person, Deists; they were as far from the born-again brand of Christianity as you can get. They were, in a sense, Unitarians! I don’t think the Christian Right want America to be a ‘Unitarian nation,’ which Jefferson thought it would be!
Not one of the founding fathers professed a belief in the divinity of Jesus — they were explicit about their belief that Jesus was not divine, but was fully and completely human.
The meaning of the word Deist, which is an anachronism, now, is embodied in our Unitarian Universalist approach to religion. Thus the reason for my initial smile — the evangelical Christians see us as heretics. Fortunately they’re not in charge of the stake where they’d like to light the fire!
After the initial smile, my second response is to cringe. If they had their way, I would be among the first to be silenced, put in chains, or tied to the stake with my poetry books!
That’s why the wall of separation was built — to secure religious tolerance and guarantee individual freedom—the freedom to worship as one chooses; and also to be free from religion, the freedom to stay home!
Franklin, Washington, Jefferson, Adams, Madison, Monroe and others saw the need for the wall of separation. Some of the stones in the wall are like loaves—they’re easy to put and keep in place. But the religion stone is ‘so nearly a ball we have to use a spell to make it balance.’
There’s the rub: keeping the balance. Not trying to remove all references to religion, but to keep it in balance.
We are religiously diverse because we’ve managed to keep the stones in place, so far.
Not long ago it was the Catholic immigrants were systematically rejected, in part because of their religion with its emphasis on obedience to clerical authority, from Pope to Cardinals to Bishops and Priests. The election of John Kennedy in 1960 was a significant moment in the growth of religious tolerance in our nation—keeping the balance.
Other immigrants had to fight off bigotry. Anti-Semitism in America has deep roots, some of those roots were above ground—flagrant—the ‘gentleman’s agreement,’ not to sell land or a house to Jews, including towns in Fairfield County. But most anti-Semitism was underground, living in the bigotry and prejudices expressed in private.
Now there’s an anti-Muslim undercurrent.
In a recent book, The Faiths of the Founding Fathers, David Holmes, Professor of Religious Studies at the College of William and Mary, explores the religious views of the founders.
He introduces the book by referring to the narrow, oppressive views of the Puritans. The connection to the so-called ‘founding fathers’ is important—it was the narrow, oppressive views of the Puritans that prompted the founders to keep religion out of politics, to build that wall.
He says, “None of the founding fathers was an evangelical,” born-again brand of Christian.
He says, “John Adams belonged to the anti-Great Awakening wing of Congregationalism—much of which later became Unitarian.”
He writes, “None of the founding fathers knew anything of the churches that became so large in the United States in the twentieth century—the Pentecostals and the nondenominational evangelicals…But the (six) founders were very familiar with a radical religious outlook called Deism.”
He quotes Thomas Paine: “The religion of Deism is … free from all those invented and torturing articles that shock our reason… The creed (of Deism) is pure and sublimely simple. It believes in God, and there it rests. It honours Reason as the choicest gift of God to man and the faculty by which he is enabled to contemplate the power, wisdom, and goodness of the Creator displayed in the creation…and rejects, as the fabulous inventions of men, all books pretending to revelation.”
He refers to a clergyman who complained, “Deism is what is left of Christianity after casting off everything that is peculiar to it. The Deist is one who denies the Divinity, the Incarnation, and the Atonement of Christ, and the work of the Holy Ghost; who denies the God of Israel, and believes (only) in the God of nature.” That’s precisely what Jefferson did with his Bible—he decided to ‘cast off’ what was offensive to him, and to preserve what he believed to be the moral teaching of Jesus. He complained that ‘Christianity had become a religion about Jesus, rather than the religion of Jesus.’
The clergy who complained about the Deists say the same thing about Unitarians. Professor Holmes says, “…many Deists continued to respect the moral teachings of Jesus without believing in his divine status. But the tendency of Deism was to emphasize ethical endeavors—hence the concern of most Deists for social justice and their profound opposition to all forms of tyranny.”
“In the understanding of the typical Deist, a rational ‘supreme Architect’—one of a variety of terms Deists used for the deity—created the earth and human life. This omnipotent and unchangeable creator then withdrew to let events take their course on earth without further interference.”
“Just as a ticking watch presupposes a watchmaker, so Deists thought that the rational, mechanistic harmony of nature revealed a deity.”
Paine declared, “The word of God is the creation we behold.”
“Deists dismissed the doctrines of the Trinity, the incarnation (the assertion that God took human nature and form in the person of Jesus), the virgin birth, and the resurrection.
Holmes says, “Paine and other Deists found the bible a pastiche of magic, superstition, irrationality, pre-scientific thinking and bloodthirsty ethics…they dismissed the miracles recorded in the Bible.
Deists used a variety of terms for God: the Creator; Grand Architect; Nature’s God. “The Declaration of Independence displays precisely this kind of wording and sense of a distant deity.
Emerson’s Divinity School Address, 1838, is the best summary I know of the ideas of the Deists and the transition from using the terms Deist to the word Unitarian.
Holmes explores the religious views of the six he refers to as ‘the Founding Fathers,’ (Franklin, Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison and Monroe.) They were all Deists, though not of the same stripe, which is why he titled his book ‘the Faiths’ of the Founding Fathers. Like the rest of us, they had their unique, individual belief system, but they were what one would describe today as Unitarian.
Another book that explores the religious ideas of the founders is American Gospel, by Jon Meacham, managing editor of Newsweek. Meacham’s book includes an appendix that quotes fr-m selected documents that indicate the founder’s religious ideas and beliefs, including Jefferson’s Virginia Statue for Religious Freedom; Madison’s statement in opposition to the state support of teachers of the Christian religion; Washington’s letter to the Hebrew Congregation at Newport, RI (the first Jewish congregation) and frm his farewell address; the treaty of Tripoli; Jefferson’s correspondence with the Danbury, Ct Baptist Association and others.
The Danbury Baptist Association wrote to Jefferson:
“Sir, Among the many million in America and Europe who rejoice in your election to office, we embrace the first opportunity which we have enjoyed in our collective capacity since your inauguration…our sentiments are uniformly on the side of religious liberty—that religion is at all times and places a matter between God and individuals—that no man ought to suffer in name, person, or effects on account of his religious opinions—that the legitimate power of civil government extends no further than to punish the man who works ill to his neighbor.”
Jefferson replied, in part: “Gentlemen: The affectionate sentiments of esteem and approbation which you are so good as to express towards me on behalf of the Danbury Baptist association, give me the highest satisfaction…”
“Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate owners of government reach actions only, & not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should ‘make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,’ thus building a wall of separation between Church & State.”
This was the first time the phrase ‘wall of separation’ was used. It would later be popularized in 1947 when Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black quoted Jefferson’s phrase in a Court ruling that affirmed the separation of church and state.
Meacham says: “Properly understood, the God of public religion is not the God of Abraham or God the Father of the Holy Trinity. The Founding Fathers had ample opportunity to use Christian imagery and language in the Declaration of Independence and Constitution, but did not. At the same time, they were not absolute secularists. They wanted God in American public life, but, given the memory of religious warfare that could engulf and destroy whole governments, they saw the wisdom of distinguishing between private and public religion. In churches and in homes, anyone could believe and practice what he wished. In the public business of the nation, however, it was important to the Founders to speak of God in a way that was unifying, not divisive. ‘Nature’s God’ was the path they chose, and it has served the nation admirably. Despite generations of subsequent efforts to amend the Constitution to include Jesus or to declare that America is a ‘Christian nation,’ no president across three centuries has made an even remotely serious attempt to do so.” pp. 22 – 23
One of the documents he includes is the Treaty of Peace with Tripoli of Barbary: Article II. “As the government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian Religion,–as it has in itself no character of enmity against the laws, religion or tranquility of (Muslims),–and as the said States never have entered into any war or act of hostility against any (Muslim) nation, it is declared by the parties that no pretext arising frm religious opinions shall ever produce an interruption of the harmony existing between the two countries.”
Another is Washington’s letter to the Hebrew congregation at Newport:
“The citizens of the United States of America have a right to applaud themselves for having given to mankind examples of an enlarged and liberal polity: a policy worthy of imitation. All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship…For, happily, the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry not sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens…May the children of the stock of Abraham who dwell in this land continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other inhabitants;–while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree and there shall be none to make him afraid.”
Washington’s Farewell Address:
“Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports. In vain would that man claim the tribute of patriotism, who should labor to subvert these great pillars of human happiness, these firmest props of the duties of men and citizens.”
Washington was a Deist—he talked about ‘Nature’s God’ being at work in all of Life, and not separate frm Humankind. God wound the clock and left the room to let it run.
Madison spoke out against a proposal in Virginia to use state funds to pay ‘teachers of the Christian religion.’ Madison thought it was ‘dangerous’ to do so. He wrote to the Virginia General Assembly a statement he called ‘A Memorial and Remonstrance,’ saying, in part, that the “Bill establishing a provision for Teachers of the Christian Religion.” … if finally armed with the sanctions of a law, will be a dangerous abuse of power. (We, as ‘faithful members of a free State’) remonstrate against it…because ‘Religion must be left to the conviction and conscience of every man; and it is the right of every man to exercise it as these may dictate…it is an inalienable right, because the opinions of men, depending only on the evidence contemplated by their own minds, cannot follow the dictates of other men…the will of the majority (must not be allowed to) trespass on the rights of the minority.”
“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?”
Most of the founders were charged with heresy. An amusing anecdote is told about Lincoln attending a sermon delivered by his opponent in the race for Congress, Reverend Peter Cartwright, a Methodist evangelist. At a dramatic moment in his performance, Cartwright said, ‘All who do not wish to go to hell will stand.’ Only Lincoln kept his seat. ‘May I inquire of you, Mr. Lincoln, where you are going?’ the minister asked, glowering. ‘I am going to Congress,’ was the dry reply.” Meacham, p. 13
It’s important to remember that the founders of our nation were not opposed to religion – they were opposed to having religion imposed. Ben Franklin said, “I think the system of morals and teaching (of Jesus) as he left them to us is the best the world ever saw, or is likely to see; but I think it has received various corrupting changes, and I have…some doubts as to his divinity.”
God was in the mortar the founders mixed to bind the stones in the foundation of the nation they knew they were building.
They saw this nation as an experiment with the potential to inspire freedom and democracy in others, not to impose it on them, but to be exemplary.
The standards and ideals of this nation are religious in the broadest sense, summarized in those lines fr-m the prophet Micah: “What does the Lord require of thee but to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with thy God?”
We have survived as a nation by keeping the wall of separation in good repair. The preservation of liberty puts significant demands on those of us who enjoy its benefits.
There is a religious element built in to each one of us. It is felt in the tendency to care about those who are suffering; to reach out to those who are oppressed or in pain. It is an intuition of that in us which feels diminished by any act of unkindness, and feels enhanced by the presence of compassion.
In my brief lifetime—in the last 65 years—much progress has been made in this long, human evolution of which each of us is a part.
In 1940 there was blatant racism, sexism, anti-Semitism and oppression of gays, lesbians and others. The racism, sexism, anti-Semitism and homophobia that is alive and well in our time is more subtle—I’m not suggesting we’ve reached the promised land. I’m only saying that we’ve taken major steps toward becoming a ‘kinder, gentler people.’
I acknowledge that we have a long way to go. But we can take heart, encouraged by the progress we’ve made so far.
We need to preserve, protect and defend our freedoms, and most of those freedoms thrive under the umbrella of religious toleration.
Thank God for that wall of separation. Thank God for the care, the vision, and the wisdom the founders of this great nation.
Thank God for those who have dared to speak up and speak out against oppression in all its ugly forms and disguises.
Thank God for the ethical, moral teachings of Jesus, and of Moses, and Mohammed, the Buddha and Confucius, and Lao Tse; for the wisdom of Socrates, the genius of Shakespeare, the poetry of Frost, Whitman and all the others…for the musical genius of Mozart and Company who inspire us…for the architecture of Frank Lloyd Wright and all the others…for the Rembrandts and Picassos…for the women who marched and who are marching today to preserve the rights that have been won and need to be protected. Thank God for America – for freedom to think, to speak, to worship or to stay away frm any and all religion.
And thank God for this wonderful, paradoxical religious home of ours—for those who came before, who cut a path through the wilderness and built this free pulpit, in this sanctuary as part of our Unitarian Universalist house of faith.
May we find ways to work together to preserve, protect and defend this free religious faith and to live out our hope to help make the world a better place. It all boils down to that. It’s simple, but it’s the most profound task we have.