The First Amendment and the “Wall of Separation”
I don’t need to tell readers of this blog that the phrase "separation of church and state" does not appear in the Constitution. Unfortunately, many Americans believe that it does. They do not know that the phrase originated with a letter written by Thomas Jefferson in 1802, more than a decade after the First Amendment was ratified. Nor do they recognize how odd it is that the Supreme Court has come to focus almost exclusively on the views of Jefferson, ignoring even the perspective of the Father of the Country, George Washington. Joe and I hope that Under God will help reverse this state of affairs.
In many ways, Washington is among the most qualified to speak to the meaning of the Constitution, including the First Amendment. Washington was the most admired man of his age. Unlike Jefferson, Washington was a key participant in the Constitutional Convention: He served as the Convention's president. Moreover, Washington was the first man to take the presidential oath to "preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States." He served as President when the First Amendment was debated and ratified. Jefferson was instead out of the country during much of this period. Moreover, Washington actually handled church/state issues throughout his long career in public service. Should he force Quakers to fight? Should he employ military chaplains? Should he declare official days of prayer and thanksgiving? What should he do when his soldiers burn the Pope in effigy? Should he support proposals to send publicly supported missionaries to the Indians?
The views that Washington developed differed markedly from Jefferson's separationism. Washington believed that religion was a prerequisite for the virtue and morality that make self-government possible. Thus, both before and after passage of the First Amendment, he encouraged government to accommodate and even to support religion, albeit in ways that were typically non-denominational and tolerant of religious minorities.
Under God does not attempt to exhaustively interpret the First Amendment. Instead, it points out that Jefferson is not the only Founder with a valuable viewpoint as to church-state issues. Washington's views merit study and respect as well. Under God provides a layperson-friendly account of Washington's experience with, and views about, the role of religion in American civic life. It discusses each of the major periods in Washington's life in chronological order: Commander of the Virginia Regiment, Member of the House of Burgesses, Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army, Father of a New Nation (at the Constitutional Convention), and President of the United States. It concludes with a generous Appendix containing a selection of Washington's relevant writings. An Epilogue discusses how Jefferson's separationist perspective came to be disproportionately influential in modern Supreme Court jurisprudence.
I implied at the beginning of this post that I had a few reasons for my long absence from blogging . . . . The other reason just turned 7 months old last week. She is doing very well also! I look forward to posting (at least a little) more often now that my two babies have arrived.