Events of recent months have conspired to bring religious issues to the forefront of debate. From the running battle about abortion to the rise of the "religious right," from prayer in the schools to pornography and sex education, topics involving faith and values are daily sources of angry comment.
Integral to such disputes is a common teaching about our history and our political institutions: the idea that the religious traditions of the West are hostile or irrelevant to the practices of freedom and that biblical precept has no proper function in the conduct of the state. While many jurists and academics accept this, a lot of other people don't, which is the cause of all the fighting.
Such notions are most famously embodied in a string of federal court decisions since the 1960s, decreeing a "wall of separation" between religious doctrines and the civil order. According to the federal judges, the First Amendment ban against an "establishment of religion" prohibits all official backing for religious value or observance -- prayer or Bible reading in the public schools, posting of the Ten Commandments and Christmas manger scenes in tax-supported settings.
Behind these court decisions looms a larger, more pervasive thesis: That Western freedom generally is a secular invention, and that the American revolution and constitutional founding in particular were based on skeptical-irreligious doctrine, as was the contemporaneous revolt in France. On this reading, the opening clauses of the First Amendment capped a long, heroic struggle to banish religion from the public square. This concept or something like it seems well-nigh universal in modern thinking.
As may be shown in some detail, such teachings are far from the reality of our founding. An enormous trove of documents, official acts and biographical data from the settlement of the country to the constitutional era shows the history related by the courts to be a fiction, and not a very good one. Nor are the usual academic treatments of the subject a great deal better.
In brief, a more accurate version of our past would read approximately as follows: America was settled by devout, believing Christians who came here to set up church and civil government according to their view of Scripture. The institutions established in Plymouth, Massachusetts Bay, Connecticut and Rhode Island (and also, to a large extent, Virginia) reflected the "covenantal" theology of the epoch. These included constitutionalism, government by compact, annual elections, federal doctrine and a great deal more. All these were put in place, at the very outset, by people who believed that church and civil government, and human society in general, were strictly subordinate to God, and that all aspects of the political order should reflect this.
By the early part of the 18th century, it is true, the zeal of the initial settlers had abated. However, any tendencies toward skepticism and irreligion were sharply countered by the series of revivalist "awakenings" that occurred throughout the colonies, rejecting rationalist, watered-down theology. (In the 1750s, for example, then-Calvinist Yale launched a campaign to ensure that professors there taught only orthodox religion, and the Connecticut Legislature made it a crime to deny the Trinity.) Religious fervor was fanned by the rapid expansion of the Baptists, continued arrivals of Scotch-Irish Presbyterians and the growth of Methodism in the South, all in the period just before the revolution.
America in the latter part of the 18th century thus continued to be a religious country led by people who professed belief in God and Scripture, who thought freedom must be grounded in religion and expressed these views as a matter of course in official practice, including tax-supported prayer, days of fasting and countless other methods.
Among the Founding Fathers, the number of openly professing Christians is a remarkable, if much-neglected, feature. …