Was America Founded on Christian Principles?/Program 3

By: David Barton; ©1992
What is the First Amendment? Do you know that the words “separation of church and state” are not in the First Amendment? Where do they appear? Who wrote them? And what did they mean during the days of our Founding Fathers?



Ankerberg: Welcome to our program. Do you think that the United States was founded on Christian principles? Do you think that our Founding Fathers actually intended that they would be a part of public policy? Did they want religion and morality taught in the public schools? Were they willing to pass laws to insure that religious principles were taught to all of our children? Well, in any discussion of this nature, the phrase, “The separation of church and state” comes up. David Barton, President of WallBuilders Presentations who is an expert on the writings, records, and actions of the Founding Fathers talks about this phrase.
Barton: Separation of church and state.” That’s a phrase we’ve all heard. We’ve heard it many times. And today we’re told that “separation of church and state” means that a person with religious values, religious practices, religious principles, is not to get those values or practices or principles involved in a public arena; that they’re to keep those practices out of educational areas, out of government areas. This is what we’re told about the First Amendment today. But is that what the Founding Fathers intended for the First Amendment? Was that the goal they wanted to accomplish through the First Amendment? We’ll look at that in this program.
Ankerberg: Now, what is the First Amendment? Do you know that the words “separation of church and state” are not in the First Amendment? Well then, where do they appear? Who wrote them? And what did they mean during the days of our Founding Fathers? Well, David Barton answers these questions and takes us back for a fascinating look at history. Listen.
Barton: The phrase “separation of church and state.” Where do we find that phrase? Well, on the bicentennial of the Bill of Rights two-thirds of the nation thought that the phrase “separation of church and state” was found in the First Amendment. And certainly that’s what we’ve heard for years. That’s what the Court has told us for years. But that phrase exists in no founding documents. The First Amendment very simply says, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”
Very obviously the phrase “separation of church and state” does not appear in the First Amendment. But yet we’ve been told that for decades. Well, if the phrase doesn’t appear in the First Amendment, where did it come? Where do we find the phrase? The phrase appeared in a private letter that was written 11 years after the First Amendment.
Now, to understand the meaning of the letter – and it was a letter written by Thomas Jefferson – we need to understand what the Founding Fathers intended for the First Amendment. The Founding Fathers, although they did not use the phrase “separation of church and state,” they did have a concept of separation. They said in the writings of Congress, in the journals of Congress and in their own personal writings that, “We do not want in America what we had in Great Britain. We don’t want the national government making a federal denomination. We’re not going to let the government make us all Catholics or Anglicans or any other denomination. Now, we’re not going to separate Christian principles, but we’re not going to have a national denomination.” So in the records of Congress if you go through and look at the committee that gave us the First Amendment and at the acts on the floor of Congress that led to the First Amendment, you’ll find that that was the entire discussion: that they did not want a single national Christian denomination.
And when they finished the First Amendment, it was a prohibition on the federal government. It said, “Congress cannot make any law to establish a religion” or a single Christian denomination, as they defined “religion” in those days. So the intent was very clear: we will not have one national denomination. Now, the Founding Fathers knew what they had intended to do and so as they were appointed to courts and as they were placed on courts and on the Supreme Court, when they had opportunity to rule, they very clearly expressed what they already knew.
For example, this is a case from 1799. Now, the courts at this time were filled with the same men who had created the documents, who had signed them, and look what this 1799 Supreme Court ruled. It said, “By our form of government the Christian religion is the established religion. But all sects and denominations of Christians are placed on the same equal footing.” And that was the intent of the First Amendment, to make sure that we did not have a national denomination, that no one Christian denomination had an unfair advantage over another.
Ankerberg: Now, in recalling our history over 320 years, the Supreme Court of the United States did not shrink back from saying that the United States was a Christian nation. In fact, the Supreme Court in 1892 in the “Trinity” case documented 87 examples from American history that proved America was founded as a Christian nation. Up until 1962 the Court has argued vigorously for the interpretation of the First Amendment as the Founding Fathers intended. But in 1962 it drastically changed its interpretation. David Barton takes us through the evolution of the Supreme Court’s thought concerning the First Amendment. Listen.
Barton: Now, in 1801 the Danbury Baptist Association of Danbury, Connecticut heard a rumor and that rumor said the Congregationalist denomination was about to be made the national denomination in America. It greatly distressed them and it should have. So they fired off a letter to the President of the United States, Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson got that letter with their concerns and he wrote back to them on January 1, 1802, and in his letter he told them that they didn’t have to worry. He said, “You don’t have to worry about this.” He said, “The First Amendment has erected a wall of separation between church and state.” Now, that’s the source of those eight words. This is a letter written 11 years after the First Amendment. It’s a letter written to a private group. But he used those words.
Now, what we have not seen in decades is the remainder of that letter. The Supreme Court currently quotes those eight words but no more. Jefferson went on in that letter to explain that they would never need to fear the establishment of a single denomination. He said, “On the other hand, you’ll never need to fear that that wall will remove Christian principles.” He said, “It won’t.” He said, “The First Amendment means that the government will not get involved with the church unless the church does something that is a direct violation of a basic Christian principle.” He said, “If it comes to basic Christian principles, we’re not going to get involved unless someone,…” and he gave examples. He said, “If someone in the name of Christianity were to advocate human sacrifice,” he said, “the government would get involved. If they were to advocate bigamy or polygamy or licentious, promiscuous sex,” he said, “we would get involved, the government would get involved.” But he said, “In all other religious activities,” he said, “the First Amendment keeps the government from getting involved in church affairs.” And he very clearly explained that the wall of separation was a one-directional wall. It kept the government from running the church, but it never separated Christian principles from government.
Now, we never had national denomination established at that point so Jefferson’s letter fell into disuse until some years later. It was not resurrected again by the Supreme Court until the 1870s, and that’s because in the 1870s, 1880s and 1890s there was a challenge, a religious challenge, based on the First Amendment.
You see, there was a group that was advocating one of the things Jefferson had said shouldn’t be done. They were advocating bigamy and polygamy. And so they filed a suit against the U.S. Government saying, “Our religion says that we can practice bigamy and polygamy.” They said, “The First Amendment of the Constitution says that we are to have our free exercise of religion,” and this group said, “Based on the First Amendment you can’t stop us from exercising our religion.” They said, “Second of all, Jefferson said that there is to be a wall of separation, that the government is not to get involved in church affairs.” This group said, “This is a church affair, you’re not to get involved.”
Well, the 1878 Court, “Reynolds vs. the United States,” went back and resurrected Jefferson’s letter. They printed it in its entirety. They pointed out, they said, “You know, you’re right. Jefferson did say that we’re not to get involved in church affairs.” But they said, “But notice what else Jefferson said. Jefferson also said that Christian principles were not to be separated.” And he said, “Bigamy and polygamy is not a Christian practice; therefore, it is not protected by the First Amendment” and the Supreme Court used Jefferson’s letter for the next three decades to make sure that practice was not allowed in America because it was not a Christian practice. You see, this is Jefferson’s letter on separation that we hear so often now, but we just don’t hear the full letter.
Ankerberg: Now, a lot of people get worried when you say that America was founded as a Christian nation. They get anxious when someone says that our Founding Fathers intended that religion and morality should be taught in all public schools and practiced openly in government. Now, the reason for their worry is that they think the establishment of biblical Christianity as the underlying moral precepts of government poses a real threat to pluralism. But our Founding Fathers were not unaware of this concern. In fact, they stated openly in their writings that the only way they thought pluralism could be preserved in America was to establish the country as a Christian nation. David Barton explains.
Barton: For three decades the Supreme Court used it to make sure Christian principles were included in public affairs. Now, Jefferson’s letter fell into disuse again in the 1890s after this group removed its challenges. The next time Jefferson’s letter appears in the U.S. Supreme Court is in 1947 in a case called “Everson vs. Board of Education.” In that particular case in 1947 the Supreme Court said very simply, “The First Amendment had erected a wall between church and state. That wall must be kept high and impregnable. We could not approve the slightest breach.”
Now, in that decision for the first time in the history of the U.S. Supreme Court the Court quoted only eight words from Jefferson’s letter. They didn’t give the context; they didn’t give the full meaning. They didn’t even give the fact that for three decades they had used that letter to keep Christian principles in public affairs.
And this case challenged the Christian principle in public schools. There was funding going on for Christian activities in public schools and the Court in 1947 said, “Now, the First Amendment has given us a wall here, very strict. We must adhere to it.” But even then, in 1947, the Court said, “But that doesn’t mean we have to take Christian principles out of school.” So the Supreme Court, even though they used Jefferson’s letter, allowed Christian principles to remain in schools.
Now, in the next 15 years something unusual happened with that phrase of Jefferson. It appeared in case after case after case after case. The Supreme Court talked about that phrase every opportunity they had. One would think they were following the policy laid out by Dr. William James. It was Dr. James who had explained that there’s nothing so absurd that if you repeat it often enough, people will believe it. For the next 15 years all we heard from the Court was “separation of church and state.” They would say, “The Founding Fathers wanted separation of church and state,” but they wouldn’t give you any Founding Fathers. They wouldn’t make any quotes, they would just give you this umbrella that this is what the Founding Fathers wanted. They talked about it so much that in one case in 1958, called “Baer vs. Kolmorgen” one of the judges had had it with hearing “separation.” He wrote a stinging dissent. He said, “If this Court doesn’t stop talking about separation,” he said, “somebody’s going to start thinking it’s part of the Constitution.” He said, “Enough’s enough. Let’s quit this.” That was in 1958.
Well, the Court continued to talk, and it was in 1962 in a case called “Ingle vs. Vitale” the first time that the Court ever actually applied the misuse of the phrase “separation of church and state.” They said, “Under separation of church and state we can’t have prayer in schools anymore.” That was a practice that had gone on for 320 years, but they had so distorted the meaning that by 1962 they reapplied it.
And so that’s the evolution of the First Amendment. That’s how we’ve come from where the Founding Fathers wanted us to where we are today, to where that now “separation of church and state” means you keep all religious practices out of public affairs. That’s completely contrary to the intent of the Founding Fathers.
Ankerberg: Now, maybe you’re a Mormon, a Buddhist, a Hindu, a Muslim, or an agnostic and you’re listening to this discussion and you’re probably saying, “But Ankerberg, get real! The Founding Fathers couldn’t have thought that by establishing Christianity and teaching it in the schools that they would be allowing Americans like me to practice my religion. They would be violating my First Amendment rights!” Now, what’s so very interesting about this is that our Founding Fathers did consider such questions and had developed an answer. Listen.
Barton: Does being a Christian nation really threaten pluralism? Interestingly, the Founding Fathers discussed that and they felt that it enhanced it. As a matter of fact, it was Patrick Henry that made a very clear statement. Patrick Henry said, “It cannot be emphasized too often or too strongly that this great nation was founded not by religionists but by Christians; not on religions but on the Gospel of Jesus Christ.”
Now, that statement in itself is enough to make many people nervous today. They’ll think, “Oh, we’ll lose all this pluralism we have.” But look what Patrick Henry pointed out. He said, “It is for this very reason that people of other faiths have been afforded asylum, prosperity and freedom of worship here.”
Now, that statement by Henry was the reflection of historical studies. You see, in nations that claimed to be strongly biblical Christian nations, not just having the name of Christianity but if they applied biblical principles, other religions were welcome there; there was the free exchange of thought. They did not believe that you had to coerce someone into being a Christian, that you could just present the material and they would by their mental assent accept that.
Now, as early as the early 1800s we had lawsuits which were apparently challenging the fact that we’re a Christian nation. Other religious groups in the nation – and we had many religions at the time – they came and challenged the Christian precepts. And the courts were always quick to point out, they said, “Now wait a minute.” They said, “We’re a religious nation; we’re a Christian nation.” They said, “We don’t tell you how to believe, when to believe, where to believe, what to believe or if to believe. The very reason that you have the freedom to practice your religion here is because we’re a Christian nation.”
And that is true. If you look at nations all over the world, there are religious nations all across the world: the Mid East, the Far East, the Near East. All those nations that are religious nations, they don’t have tolerance; they don’t have pluralism there. They are very strict in their religious beliefs and allow no one else entrance there. Not so in a Christian nation. A Christian nation encourages others to come; allows others to come.
But interestingly enough, in having arrived to a nation today where we say we’re pluralistic and that Christianity should be equal with all other religions, we’ve actually excluded Christianity. In the “Roberts vs. Madigan” court case the Court ordered the removal of three Christian books out of a library in Colorado but allowed the books on Buddhism to stay; allowed the books on Indian-American religions to stay; but excluded all Christian materials. And that’s because we’re a pluralistic nation. You see, pluralism excludes Christianity. But Christianity is by itself inclusive of others, for it believes that you can win the war in the mind, you don’t have to force opinions on others. You can do that.
Now, the Founding Fathers did believe there had to be a standard of behavior, a standard by which you measured rights and wrongs. And that is true for any nation. Every nation has to adopt a standard of behavior for rights and wrongs, and this is where the Founding Fathers chose the Christian standard of behavior. They chose things like the Ten Commandments that said stealing is wrong, murder is wrong, perjury is wrong. They chose biblical precepts that said, for example, rape is wrong and that fornication is wrong. They chose that standard and that’s what they used in civil society.
But never once did they legislate opinions that we would call denominational or religious opinions. Never once did they say that you had to attend this church or you had to go to church at all or that you had to believe this when you got in church or that we should have this one denomination administering this section. Not at all. They believed in the basic biblical principles, but they would not allow, and they fought against, the establishment of any one denominational belief in preference to all others.
So a Christian nation is tolerant of other beliefs and that’s the one thing that has to be communicated today – a Christian nation, by its very nature, is a pluralistic nation. So if you’re from a different religion other than Christianity, what provisions are there for you? If you don’t want your children being taught Christian principles in school, what could you do? What would the Founding Fathers have done with that? The Founding Fathers addressed that issue because there were many other religions in America at that time. See, what they had then was educational choice. They would allow you to start your own schools with your own beliefs and they would allow you to exert tax dollars in that direction. They really didn’t care, just so long as students were educated. And so, educational choice solved much of that dilemma.
But in the system we have today, where we have state-funded, state-mandated compulsory education public schools, it’s very difficult to do that. Had we educational choice today as they had then, it would be a much simpler issue. You could select your choice of schools that taught the religious values that you embraced, that you chose, that you wanted your children to know. And that’s what the Founding Fathers did.
Now, there’s something else that has to be kept in mind here. We will never reach the point in this nation, and we should not, where that all religions are equal. And we try to do that today. Even in 1962, when the Court struck down voluntary prayer, it pointed out that 3 percent of the nation did not believe in God and we shouldn’t go around offending that 3 percent of the nation who don’t believe in God. Now, the difficulty with that is, in this form of government, whether we call it a republic or a democracy or democrat or republic, numbers are important. What we’re to always make sure in this form of government is that the majority does not lose.
Now, when you have 3 percent being protected at the cost of 97 percent, that’s complete reversal of government purpose. Can you imagine a vote on the U.S. Senate that went 97 to 3 and the 3 won? That’s exactly what happened with the removal of the acknowledgement of God in 1962. See, Thomas Jefferson was very clear about it. He said, “In this form of government not everyone will be happy. You can’t make everyone happy.” He said, “Someone’s rights will always be violated.” The important thing was to make sure that it was the smaller group that got violated and not the majority.
But the way we can get around not wanting our children to be taught Christian principles or whatever if you’re of a different religion is very simply through educational choice. You have other schools at your disposal where you can teach the values that you want your children to receive, and in the same way those that want Christian values can have them taught. But we’ve been opposed on that because of the structure of education today. And it’s too bad that we have left that application of the Founding Fathers – educational choice.
Ankerberg: Now, what evidence exists that our Founding Fathers intended for basic Christian principles to be a part of the government and society and that the separation of church and state did not mean removing Christian principles from government? David Barton cites a number of court cases that clearly show they did not want Christian principles to be removed. Listen.
Barton: What evidences are there that the Founding Fathers intended for basic Christian principles to be part of society, and that separation of church and state did not mean removing Christian principles from society? Well, there are numbers of court cases that went for a century and a half that showed that we were never to remove Christian principles from society.
Now, there was a case in 1844 that made the U.S. Supreme Court that is fairly interesting considering the cases we see today. In 1844 there was a school in Philadelphia that said, “We are going to teach our students morality, but we are not going to teach Christian principles at this school. We will not teach the Bible here at this school, but we will teach morality.” Now, this case made the Court because this school was receiving government funds. And you see, they pointed out in court, they said, “Now wait a minute. If you don’t want to teach the Bible and Christianity, that’s fine. You’ve just got to go be a private school.” They said, “But if you’re going to receive the government funds, if you’re going to be a government public school, you’ve got to teach the Bible and Christianity in your school.” Now, this is a Supreme Court case.
Now, two years later the Court very clearly explained why Christian principles were to be the basis of society. The Court says “Christianity has reference to the principles of right and wrong. It’s the foundation of those morals and manners on which our society is formed.” It’s our basis. You remove this and it will fall. They said, “That’s where we get our rights and wrongs. And if you don’t have rights and wrongs,” the Court said, “where do you get your morals and manners? And if you don’t have rights, wrongs, morals and manners, how do you run a nation?” The Court said, “If we take these basic precepts away, these rights and wrongs that we get from the Bible, these Judeo-Christian principles,” they said, “all we can expect in America is the dark and murky night of pagan immorality because we will have lost our rights and our wrongs, our morals and our manners.”
And then in 1952 the Court continued to stay in that very same vein. In a case called “Zorach v. Clauson” the Court said this, it said, “When the state encourages religious instruction or cooperates with religious authorities by adjusting the schedule of public school events to meet denominational or sectarian needs, it follows the best of our traditions.” The Court said, “We find no constitutional requirement which makes it necessary for government to be hostile to religion and to throw its weight against efforts to widen the effective scope of religious influence.” And the Court concluded and said, “That would be preferring those who believed in no religion over those who do.” They said that can’t happen in America. We can’t have policies that favor those who believe in no religion over those who do.
And this was in 1952. And yet our policies now do that. Our policies now say, “No, we cannot have prayer in a public arena because that would offend those who don’t like prayer.” So now we prefer those who believe in no religion over those who do. Because you see, it’s a very simple problem: you will either have prayer or you won’t have prayer. One group will win, the other group won’t. Right now the group that’s winning is those that believe in no religion. And as long ago as 1952, just a few decades ago, we said that will never happen in America.
Ankerberg: Now, take a moment and think of the implications of all that you’ve heard today. I’ve asked David Barton to summarize the evidence he has given. Listen.
Barton: Does separation of church and state really mean that a person cannot take their religious values and principles and activities into public affairs? Under current definition it does. But that’s the wrong definition. That completely violates the intent of the Founding Fathers. It violates all Supreme Court decisions prior to 1962. It violates the writings of the Founding Fathers. It even violates the intent of Thomas Jefferson who gave us the phrase, “separation of church and state.” Everything historically that exists proves that the current application we have of “separation of church and state” is totally wrong.


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