America’s Historical Amnesia
From 1776 until 1947, there was little argument that Christianity was the primary worldview that shaped America’s values and national vision. Not all Americans were Christians, of course. But the truths and first principles of Christianity were America’s first principles. And they found their way into our laws, public policy, and public discourse.
Our Founders and national leaders consistently invoked the Almighty as the guiding Source of America’s blessings and the chief Cornerstone of our liberty and moral rightness.
Over the years I have argued numerous cases of religious liberty in courtrooms around the nation. Frequently, particularly in appellate cases involving the so-called separation of church and state, I have cited the wealth of historical data about the religious practices of our Founding Fathers. Thomas Jefferson, for example, authorized prayer at the graduation ceremonies at the University of Virginia, the college he founded. President James Madison issued proclamations for prayer and acknowledgement of God’s sovereignty over America. President John Adams, a primary moving force for American freedom and a signer and coauthor of the Declaration of Independence, looked back to the War of Independence in a letter to Thomas Jefferson dated June 28, 1813, and wondered at that “army of fine young Fellows” who spilled their blood and risked their lives to birth a nation. What did they have in common?
According to Adams, they all shared the general principles “of Christianity, in which all those Sects were united.”1
Unfortunately, 134 years after Adams penned his letter, the U.S. Supreme Court latched onto another letter, this one from then President Thomas Jefferson to the Danbury Baptist Association. Jefferson’s letter used the phrase separation of church and state merely to suggest that the church had nothing to fear from the designs of the state. Jefferson in no way suggested that government rid itself of Christian influence.
Nevertheless, in its 1947 decision in the case of Everson v. Board of Education, the majority of the court, led by Chief Justice Hugo Black, wrenched the “separation of church and state” concept from Jefferson’s letter and pasted it, so to speak, into the First Amendment religion clauses. Try as they might and criticize it as they have, our courts (including several Supreme Court justices) have been unable to rid our legal landscape of the “wall of separation” erected by that single Supreme Court decision. As a result, legal groups like the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) have championed case after case in an effort to strip all acknowledgments of Christianity from our public spaces.
- Lester J. Cooper, ed., The Adams-Jefferson Letters—The Complete Correspondence Between Thomas Jefferson and Abigail and John Adams (London: University of North Carolina Press, 1959), 339–340.