“The Wall of Separation”


Although the Remonstrance was a private pamphlet, never enacted into law, it was the principal authority, more than 160 years later, for the dissenting opinion of Justice Rutledge in a 1947 decision of the Supreme Court, in which a 5-to-4 majority upheld reimbursing parents with public funds for costs of busing their children to parochial schools. Since then the constitutionality of providing textbooks for parochial schools out of public funds has been upheld, and now the Supreme Court has seen fit to permit the public display of a crèche, a symbol sacred to Christianity. The majority found that the “wall of separation” between church and state is hardly an accurate description of the relationship that in fact exists. The Constitution, so held Chief Justice Burger, does not require a complete separation of church and state; contrariwise, “it affirmatively mandates accommodation, not merely tolerance, of all religions, and forbids hostility toward any. ” Justice Brennan, speaking for the three other dissenters, found that the crèche was not merely a traditional symbol of Christmas like Santa Claus or reindeer but was a symbol of “an event that lies at the heart of Christian faith” and, as such, was “insulting to those who insist for religious or personal reasons that the story of Christ is in no sense a part of ‘history’ nor an unavoidable element of our national ‘heritage.’”

So contradictory is the historical evidence on whether the First Amendment intended to erect a “wall of separation” between church and state, and if so, just what that meant, that it might be instructive to see just what the Founding Fathers of Revolutionary and constitutional days thought about the subject. Unlike the seventeenth-century Puritans, who agreed that there should be a “consociation” of church and state, quite the opposite of a wall of separation, the Founding Fathers ran the gamut in their beliefs from rationalists or Deists like Thomas Paine and Benjamin Franklin to supporters of orthodox piety exemplified by John Adams and John Jay.

LET US REMEMBER that in 1774 the First Continental Congress opened sessions with a prayer. The preacher chosen happened to be the Reverend Jacob Duché, an Anglican clergyman who later turned Tory. But Duché’s defection did not deter succeeding Congresses from regularly employing chaplains, except during the administration of Thomas Jefferson. There does not seem to be any record of James Madison ever objecting to a chaplain when he himself sat in Congress or to a chaplain opening Congress with prayer during his own administration.

The issue had once been raised at a critical moment and behind closed doors at the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia. As a result of intensified debate over the suffrage for the lower house, Benjamin Franklin, a man whose fame does not rest upon his religiosity, urged that a clergyman be invited in to offer prayers at the beginning of each session to allay the prevailing discord. Alexander Hamilton rejoined that the convention could be counted on to transact the business entrusted to its care “without the necessity of calling in foreign aid!” And no chaplain ever entered the barred doors of the convention.

Now just what are we to make of a government that exempts church property from taxes, that started a revolution with daily invocation to God by an ordained clergyman, and that included God in the Declaration of Independence while being scrupulously careful to keep God out of the Constitution! What are we to make of a government that has established a tradition by which each incoming President must take an oath of office on the Bible—and what of the first President’s inaugural address, reputedly written by James Madison, which offers “fervent supplications to that Almighty Being who rules over the universe” and asks for His benediction on the people of the United States? That same government has regularly employed chaplains in its armed services, has declared Thanksgiving Day a national holiday, has put God into the pledge of allegiance—and imprints IN GOD WE TRUST on the back of every dollar bill.


Finally, it should be pointed out that some of our learned Founding Fathers, notably Dr. Benjamin Rush, advocated that education be conducted in the Christian way. As for Alexander Hamilton, in his later years the embittered politician proposed the creation of a Christian Constitutional Society (it died aborning)—a notion utterly abhorrent to his chief political foes, Jefferson and Madison.

UNITED THOUGH the Founding Fathers stood on the issue of religious toleration, they were divided, if not confused, on whether the federal government was to be viewed as strictly neutral in matters of religion or whether it would encourage systems of morality and ethics drawn from the Judeo-Christian tradition.

And at the same time that the issue of the Christmas symbol is disposed of by a court choked with a backlog of cases, we hear the renewed call for prayer in the schools, a call widely trumpeted by public figures and fundamental religionists alike. In the wake of the Supreme Court’s acceptance of Pawtucket’s crèche, will this further probing of the First Amendment again intensify divisiveness in the nation?