DEEDS NOT WORDS: WHAT THE FOUNDERS REALLY DID ON RELIGIOUS FREEDOMBy Bob Morrison Senior Fellow for Policy Studies
We constantly hear about separation of church and state, even about a "wall of separation." In this FRC publication, Senior Fellow Robert Morrison provides historical context for the Founders' great words. Taking as his theme George Washington's personal motto--Deeds not Words--Morrison documents in five "dispatches" from the early Republic, actual events and the Founders' role in them. Their words, of course, are vitally important, but in their deeds we see the context in which those great words were written.
Dispatch No. 1. Growing up in Virginia, His Excellency General Washington probably had never seen a celebration like "Pope's Day." But it was standard practice in New England. When he took command of the new Continental Army in 1775, Washington laid siege to the British then still in Boston. He got word that some in his camp planned to celebrate this day with revelry and cap it off by setting alight effigies of the Pope stuffed with live cats. The screaming of the cats was intended to convey the screaming of the Popes in hell.
Washington was appalled. He knew that delicate negotiations were then under way with the French Catholics in Quebec. He knew Congress was receiving secret funds from the Catholic monarchs of France. And he knew that Maryland and Pennsylvania militias "teemed with" Catholic recruits.
Washington issued a stern general order banning Pope's Day in his army, calling it childish and ridiculous and deploring the lack of common sense the revelers would show. Not only did Washington put an end to Pope's Day in the army, he ended it in America. His firm stance against religious bigotry proved another reason why he has been called "the indispensable man."
Dispatch No. 2. James Madison had to be persuaded to campaign for election to the First Congress. Is it constitutional for a candidate to go to a church and ask for the support of the members of its congregation?
That's precisely what James Madison did. This dispatch relates the story of James Madison and his opponent, James Monroe, attending a worship service at Hebron Lutheran Church in Orange, Virginia, in January, 1789. Madison referred to the Lutherans as "that nest of Dutchmen (Germans)" who tended to vote together as a bloc. Madison debated Monroe in the snowy churchyard for three hours that Sunday afternoon.
He was elected to the House of Representatives and there he superintended the entire process of amending the newly ratified Constitution with a Bill of Rights. Is it likely Madison would have made unconstitutional the very kind of activity in which he had engaged to be elected to Congress? Consider this event when you hear critics complain about the FRCAction Values Voter Summit.
Dispatch No. 3. George Washington knew that every step he took was on "untrodden ground." As he went to New York City on April 30, 1789, for his inauguration as first President of the United States, Washington carefully planned his every action. He knew he was setting precedents. Today, some are unsure about what is called "American Exceptionalism." President Obama was asked about this at his first European Summit. He replied that he did believe in American Exceptionalism, just as the Greeks believe in Greek Exceptionalism and the Brits believe in British Exceptionalism. In short, everybody's exceptional, just like Lake Wobegon.
But Washington said in his Inaugural Address that Providence had protected America through the Revolution. An all-wise and benevolent deity had guided us through the framing and ratification of the Constitution. More than all this, President Washington said God had put into Americans' hands the "sacred fire of liberty" and the success of republican government. Even if Washington never used the term American Exceptionalism, it would be hard to imagine a more striking expression of the idea than that given by our first President. Following his address--delivered before a cloud of witnesses in Lower Manhattan--Washington added four words to the Oath of Office prescribed in the Constitution: So Help Me God. Washington's words have been intoned by every one of his successors. Then, President Washington bowed and kissed the Bible. Deeds not words.
Dispatch No. 4. When President Washington first took a tour of New England in 1790, he took pains to skirt around Rhode Island. "Little Rhody" had thus far declined to ratify the Constitution. Derided as "Rogue Island," the political leaders of the Ocean State finally gave in. Eager to embrace this lost sheep, Washington set sail in August 1790 from the temporary capital of New York. He landed in Newport. There, he was greeted by the city fathers and received a delegation from the historic Truro Congregation. This Jewish group greeted the new President and was gratified that he used some of their own words in his reply to their welcoming address.
Jews are not guests in America, the President said, but fully equal citizens. This was the first time in human history--as Professor Harry Jaffa has pointed out--that any national leader addressed the Jews as his equals.
It is now no more that toleration is spoken of as if it were the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights, for, happily, the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.
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 [Micah 4:4] and there shall be none to make him afraid.
From George Washington's Letter to the Jews of Newport, Rhode Island, emphasis added
For 220 years, Americans have noted these stirring words. No wonder the Founders thought we were exceptional; they even said we were Novus Ordo Seclorum-the New Order of the Ages.
Washington's Letter to the Hebrew Congregation--which he delivered in person--takes on new meaning at a time when Americans are told by Feisal Rauf that it would be "dangerous" for our national security if we don't let him build a mosque at Ground Zero. Is he allowing us to sit unafraid under our own vine and fig tree? When Islamist groups issue death threats and fatwas, are they demeaning themselves as good citizens? And when they urge their adherents not to cooperate with legitimate anti-terrorist activities of the FBI, are they giving the government their effectual support?
Dispatch No. 5. President Jefferson was celebrating his first New Year, January 1, 1802, in the still-uncompleted White House. He answered the door himself when the Baptist lay preacher, Elder John Leland arrived with his famous cheese. Leland had been a great ally of Jefferson and Madison in the struggle for the Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom (1786). That document is rightly considered the Magna Carta of religious freedom.
Returning to his native Massachusetts, Elder John was delighted by the 1800 election that gave the presidency to his former Virginia neighbor and friend, Thomas Jefferson. To mark the occasion, Elder John persuaded the ladies of his Cheshire, Massachusetts, congregation to make a 17-inch high, 1,235-pound round cheese. Leland had taken pains not to "tax" any Federalist farmers' cows in the making of the cheese. Only Jeffersonian farmers were asked to contribute.
All along the wagon route to Washington, Elder John missed no opportunity to preach the Gospel to vast crowds. Federalist editors, knowing of Mr. Jefferson's belief that there were yet wooly mammoths grazing on the Great Plains, jibed that Elder John was guiding a "Mammoth Cheese" to the Executive Mansion. (Good scientist that he was, Mr. Jefferson would soon test his own theory by sending Lewis & Clark to bring back evidence of mammoths and other prized species. But first, he would purchase all of the Louisiana territory. He didn't get his mammoths, but we got a continent.)
After greeting Elder John at the White House door, President Jefferson let him set up the Mammoth Cheese in the East Room. That's where the ever-resourceful Abigail Adams had recently hung her washing. Two days later, President Jefferson, Secretary of State James Madison, and a large portion of the government of the United States, attended a worship service in the U.S. House of Representatives. There, to the horror of many "high church" Federalists, the Evangelical Elder John preached a vibrant biblical sermon.
It was in the midst of these events that President Jefferson wrote his famous Letter to the Danbury (Conn.) Baptists. In that letter, he used the phrase "wall of separation." It is that phrase--honestly misunderstood or deliberately misconstrued--that has fueled so much of the anti-religious fervor of secular elites, activist judges, and atheizers. But one thing ought to be clear from Thomas Jefferson's actions in those days: Preaching the Word of God and speaking of Jesus Christ on federal property cannot be banned.
In guiding us through these episodes from our past, Bob Morrison cuts through confusion. Thomas Jefferson made a point of keeping copies of every letter he wrote--the better to prevent any "twistification,"(his made-up word) of his own words. Let's not let secularists, judicial activists, and atheizers mystify or twistify us.