"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion."
Thanks to Bill Hobbs, I learned about Stephen Mansfield who lives in Nashville, Tennessee and writes books as well as conservative/Christian commentary on current events.
Today, Hobbs features a post on Mansfield's new book Ten Tortured Words: How the Founding Fathers Tried to Protect Religion in America and What's Happened Since.
Bill also links to Mansfield's recent op/ed piece in USA TODAY and to Mansfield's webpage/blog.
I am reprinting Mansfield's op/ed here in full and I hope you will find it well worth reading:
The Founders got it right. Religion now rests in a tortured place in society today, thanks largely to unfortunate and misguided rulings of the Supreme Court.
By Stephen Mansfield
"Two days after he wrote the famous words "separation between church and state" in an 1802 letter to Baptists in Connecticut, Thomas Jefferson began attending church — on the floor of the House of Representatives. He would attend the makeshift church in the national Capitol nearly every Sunday morning for the rest of his presidency. Clearly, his understanding of the connection between religion and government is not the one we endure today.
"We should not be surprised. It was Jefferson, after all, who insisted upon the Bible as part of the curriculum at the University of Virginia, Jefferson who approved federal funding for a Catholic priest to serve the Kaskaski Indians, and Jefferson who once said, "I am a Christian in the only sense in which he (Jesus) wished anyone to be." True, he was far from theologically orthodox, he expected most of the young men in his day to end their lives as Unitarians and he angrily despised the clergy of his day. Yet, contrary to the secular dreams of an influential few today, Jefferson envisioned a government that would encourage religion while neither submitting to nor erecting a religious tyranny.
"Even if Jefferson had envisioned a secular state, it would have made little difference in the early history of our nation. It was not his words that carried the force of law — written as they were 14 years after the Constitution was ratified — but rather the 10 words that are undoubtedly the most tortured in our history: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion." These words, the first 10 of our Bill of Rights, make the intentions of the Founding Fathers clear. Having just fought a war of independence against England and her state church, they had no intention of allowing the U.S. Congress the authority to erect a new religious tyranny to dominate their young nation. Instead, they denied Congress the power to create a national church. The states and the individual citizens, of course, were free to be as religious as they wanted to be.
The court oversteps
The result was a marvelous triumph of freedom, a miracle of history, prevailing for more than 150 years. Never had religion so graced a nation without controlling it. Then came the disastrous Everson case of 1947. Breaking with both legal precedent and the clear counsel of our history, the Supreme Court exchanged Jefferson's words for the first 10 words of the First Amendment. The phrase "separation between church and state" — which had appeared in neither the Constitution nor the debates that produced the Bill of Rights — was made the law of the land.
"The First Amendment has erected a wall between church and state," wrote Justice Hugo Black for the majority. "That wall must be kept high and impregnable." Accordingly, the court ruled, no government policy or funds, at any level of government, may encourage religion to any degree.
It was, simply put, bad law: without precedent, unworkable and — given that Black feigned support for his reasoning from the intentions of the founding era — informed by the most astonishing revisionism. Now, the secularist storm troops of the American Civil Liberties Union and its like drive religion from the public square with the mandate of the Everson ruling in hand. Religious symbols are removed from cemeteries, student prayer groups are driven from public facilities, and religious leaders are threatened if they dare speak about political issues from their pulpits. All this comes at a time when America is experiencing a new birth of religious interest, one that could grant a needed infusion of nobility, ethics and wisdom to our national life.
There is hope: Measures are arising in Congress designed to hold Everson's ravages in check. There is also the possibility that the Supreme Court may have opportunity to revisit elements of the case in years to come.
A true freedom of religion
The most important point to remember in this, the 60th anniversary year of the Everson decision, is that our Founding Fathers did in fact make a covenant with us. That covenant guaranteed us that Congress would make no state church but that religion could be free to shape our national life with its ethical and ennobling content. We suffer for lack of that content today, and it is time for us to consider anew the wisdom of our Founders in guaranteeing us the blessings of faith while protecting us from the dark tyrannies of faith that bedeviled the centuries before us. The Founders' plan for religion in our national life was certainly more successful than the confused design the courts have saddled us with today.
It was John Quincy Adams who called to us from an earlier age when he wrote, "Posterity — you will never know how much it has cost my generation to preserve your freedom. I hope you will make good use of it." We may well do so, but only if we return to the religious wisdom of our national fathers."
Stephen Mansfield is a best-selling author. His book Ten Tortured Words: How the Founding Fathers Tried to Protect Religion in America and What's Happened Since was released in June, 2007.