We are all familiar with the famous line the Supreme Court misused in Everson v. Board of Education in 1947 to begin a drive to eradicate religion from public life. The statement on the wall of separation between Church and State comes from Jefferson's letter to the Danbury Baptists and is nowhere in the Constitution.
The Baptists, a dissenting group in England, were against having a state church (an established church) and wrote Jefferson: "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 wrote back to demonstrate that he also did not support a Federally Established Church (even though several states at the time had established churches). Jefferson wrote, "...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."
Of course, this did not mean that the public square had to be sterilized of all religious references nor that the government must take a stance that God cannot be referenced in any way nor can the government support religion as a general concept. Because different states had established different churches, they did not want the Federal Government choosing one of them over the others and the Baptists wanted no state or the Federal Government to establish any church.
Well, this has led to huge debates over the centuries and the Supreme Court has referenced Jefferson's letter more than two dozen times to get the outcome they wanted. Justice Antonin Scalia noted in Lee v. Weissman that the phrase is used as a bulldozer to eradicate religion from public life.
Shouldn't we ask why Jefferson's phrase in a mere letter to some small constituency should become so dispositive in our understanding of the first amendment? After all, its language simply says, "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof;". Does that sound like a mandate for eradication from public life to you? What did our other founders think about this subject?
This wonderful book by Tara Ross and Joseph C. Smith Jr. looks at what George Washington said and did about religion. He was a uniquely powerful figure in his time and is mightily revered even today. One of his most admired qualities was his judgment. He was a man who was careful in all his actions. He was dignified and careful in the way he fulfilled his responsibilities and duties. So much so, that he did not step into this debate directly. However, we can examine his life and how he acted in his public life to see if we can understand his thoughts and beliefs on the role of religion in public life.
The authors have divided this examination of Washington's public life and words into two sections. Part One has six chapters that cover his actions as commander of the Virginia Regiment, Member of the House of Burgesses, Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army, Father of a New Nation (1784-1789), President prior to the first amendment (1789-1791), and President after the first amendment (1792-1797). In their conclusion to Part One, the authors note, "Washington viewed America as unique. Its citizens may enjoy the benefits of public religion, while individuals are left free to hold their own religious beliefs." Note that as late as March 3, 1797 Washington wrote to the Clergy of Different Denominations near Philadelphia, "Believing as I do, that Religion and Morality are the essential pillars of Civil society, I view, with unspeakable pleasure, that the harmony and brotherly love which characterizes the Clergy of different denominations, as well in this, as in other parts of the United States; exhibiting to the world a new and interesting spectacle, at once the pride of our Country and the surest basis of our universal Harmony." Note that it was in having all religions together in the public square with each exhibiting true tolerance to all others that Washington praised, not having each citizen check his religion at the gate to the public square!
They admit we cannot know what views Washington would hold on the issues of our day, but that he obviously saw the benefits of religion as real while avoiding discord as much as possible. There is also an epilogue called "Whence Jefferson's Wall?" and note that early Americans would likely be surprised that the roles of Jefferson and Washington are reversed in our time from their relative esteem at the founding. They would have given much more weight to Washington's views. Maybe we should at least take a look at them.
Part Two is 128 pages of documentary evidence of Washington's writings referencing religion as part of his public correspondence. They are divided into five chapters covering the same periods Part One. There are also extensive notes and an index.
An excellent book that I commend to each and every person.
Reviewed by Craig Matteson, Ann Arbor, MI