“Only a virtuous people are capable of freedom.” Sound familiar? Sound like fundamentalist pastors Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson? Not exactly: They’re the words of our jolly, rotund, wine-drinking, woman-loving Founding Father, Benjamin Franklin, who despite all of his possible shortcomings was also a churchgoing, God-fearing man.
Franklin wrote those words — as appropriate today as they were back then — on April 18, 1787. Two months later, on June 18, he rose in the apparently deadlocked Constitutional Convention and suggested the delegates could use divine guidance, proposing that each day’s deliberations begin with a prayer and that a local clergyman come in to deliver a sermon.
Preaching and praying, whenever and wherever, in almost any circumstance public or private has been a part of America’s culture from the very beginning. It is not alien to our civic culture, it is an integral part of it.
Even Thomas Jefferson, whose invocation about the “separation of church and state” is cited at every opportunity by anti-religionists, made clear he did not propose government divorce itself from spiritual matters. As Jefferson put it in 1798, “No power over the freedom of religion is delegated to the United States by the Constitution.”
Indeed, the same Thomas Jefferson, then our third president, said just four years later — “with solemn reverence” — in his famous letter to the Danbury Baptists, the purpose of the Constitution’s freedom of religion clause was not to interfere with the exercise of religion, but to assure Americans there would be no official, or state-sponsored church, such as the Church of England. The Constitution, he told them was clear, Congress shall “make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”
This isn’t good enough for some so-called civil libertarians, the kind typically involved in the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). They want all expressions of religious belief deleted from civic life and removed from government property. Again, that’s not what Jefferson envisioned at all.
Indeed, in 1802 President Jefferson signed the Enabling Act for Ohio, allowing it to become a state. That act required the Ohio state government to conduct itself in a manner that would “not be repugnant to the Northwest Ordinance,” an earlier law. And what did the Northwest Ordinance say? Namely, that “religion, morality and knowledge — being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education — shall be forever encouraged.”
During his presidency, Jefferson also was chairman of the District of Columbia school board and authored the federal city’s education plan. That education plan used both the Bible and a popular hymnal, Isaac Watts’ “Psalms, Hymns and Spiritual Songs,” as the principal texts for teaching reading.
President Jefferson and many members of the early Congress also attended Christian worship services every Sunday. Where? In the Hall of Congress. The same Congress saw nothing wrong with appropriating taxpayer funds to pay missionaries to preach the Gospel to American Indians. And in the Articles of War signed by Jefferson in 1806 during his second term, he “earnestly recommended to all officers and soldiers diligently to attend divine services.” In sharp contrast, the ACLU today wants to ban Boy Scout troops from military bases because the Boy Scout Oath pledges allegiance to God and country.
America’s Founders clearly understood the difference between spiritual and material well-being. Today’s politicians would do well to rekindle such understanding.
Please understand, “material” is what you eat and wear, drive, spend and pay taxes on. Spiritual is what you feel, perceive, believe, cherish, live by and, for some — die for.
America’s militant agnostic minority has totally distorted the meaning of separation of church and state. It doesn’t mean banning religion and religious values from the public square. It doesn’t mean Howard Stern’s off-color (and frequently off-the-wall) “humor” is protected speech, while the free expression of religion is banned.
It means the United States will establish no official religion, while remaining equally hospitable to all religions — and to people who practice none. Religious principle is not something to fear and loathe and banish from the public square; it is a code of conduct on which we can and should rely to guide our personal and civic behavior.
Pat Boone, veteran entertainer, is national spokesperson for the 60 Plus Association, a leading senior-citizen advocacy organization based in Arlington, Va.