Even though our Founders wisely separated church and state in the Constitution, they did not separate God and state. How could they? The Declaration of Independence—our founding document—has four references to deity (Creator, nature’s God, Supreme Judge of the world, Divine Providence) which collectively make clear that our Founders saw God as the mighty author of our existence and the moral authority for our laws.
We have a secular government but a religious society. Our government makes no religious test of civic officials but nevertheless requires moral behavior of them, using moral standards arising from religious traditions, especially the Ten Commandments of Judeo-Christianity which became the basis of English—and hence American—civil law. God and nation are one.
However, the Creator whom we recognize as the fountainhead of American government and society is not the exclusive property of any denomination. The First Amendment prohibits any denomination from becoming the established, official religion of America; likewise it prohibits government from interfering with religious freedom and thereby allows We the People to have full public expression of religion according to one’s conscience.
Moreover, the First Amendment’s clause prohibiting an establishment of religion applied to the federal government, not the states. It clearly says “Congress [not the states] shall make no law…” It was publicly understood and acknowledged that the Constitution was intended to govern the federal government itself, not the people. The states were to be left alone to govern themselves as they saw fit.
Why not the states? Many of them already had establishments of religion. At the time of the War for Independence, Massachusetts had a state church, Puritanism (or Calvinism). Connecticut’s official religion was Congregationalism. Rhode Island’s established church was Baptist. Pennsylvania’s was Quakerism. Maryland’s was Roman Catholicism. Virginia’s was the Anglican Church of England (which, after the war, became the Episcopal Church of America).
In fact, most of the thirteen states at one time had their own official churches/establishments of religion and five of the thirteen had their own at the time the First Amendment was ratified. When James Madison was writing the Constitution, no mention of a guarantee of religious liberty was at first included because he feared that states such as Massachusetts and Virginia, with their strong state churches, would otherwise not accept the Constitution. However, he was persuaded to include the “no religious test” clause of Article VI. The Bill of Rights, Amendment I, which he later supported, provided the final corrective to the situation. The last of the state religions was disestablished in 1833. Thy were disestablished not by the Supreme Court but by the states’ own free will. The states voluntarily gave up their establishments of religion in the name of freedom of conscience.
(To be continued)