U.S. one nation uncer God, thankfully


By Roy H. Ryan
Guest Columnist 

Many of the early immigrants who came to the colonies in North America came for religious freedom. Many still do. Thus there was a kind of religious under-girding for the developing nation. 

Most of the founders who developed the Constitution and Bill of Rights believed in a creator God. John Adams, according to his biographer David McCullough was an active church member. Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and Patrick Henry were men firmly committed to the importance of religion in public life. Benjamin Franklin, raised a Presbyterian, was generous to all religious groups especially when they were building "houses of worship.” 

G. K. Chesterton of England was asked, "What is America?" His response: "It is a nation with the soul of a church.” He went on to comment, "American is the only nation in the world that is founded on a creed. That creed is set forth with dogmatic and even theological lucidity in the Declaration of Independence — it clearly states that all men are equal in their claim for justice, and that governments exist to give them justice, and that their authority is for that reason just — it names the creator as the ultimate authority from whom these equal rights are derived.” (Bond, The Man Who Was Chesterton, pp. 125-26.) 

Most of the founders had migrated from England where there was a state-sponsored church. The Church of England became the Anglican Church in America. The Anglican Church was the "established church" in Virginia, the home of Jefferson, Madison and Patrick Henry. Jefferson and Madison believed that the church and state should be separate, but Henry wanted state support for all churches. Jefferson and Madison prevailed and the First Amendment guaranteed "freedom of religion and the free exercise thereof.” 

Jefferson used a phrase in a letter to the Danbury, Conn., Baptist Association 30 years before the Constitutional Convention, in which he referred to "A Wall of Separation Between Church and State.” This reference to "wall" conjures up the image of something quite tangible and solid, which was built once and for all in the beginning of the republic. It seems to assume settled institutions in society clearly separated by an impregnable barrier which has solid foundations in the Constitution. (Meade, The Nation With The Soul Of A Church, pp. 79-80.) 

Madison, in 1832, after surveying the consequences of America of rejecting the long-standing dogma that "religion could not be preserved without the support of Government nor Government supported without established religion," wrote that he had "to admit that it may not be easy, in every possible case, to trace the ‘Line of Separation’ between the rights of religion and the Civil authority with such distinctness as to avoid collisions and doubts on unessential points. The tendency to a usurpation of one side or the other, or to a corrupting coalition or alliance between them, will be best guarded against by an entire abstinence of the Government from interference in any way whatever, beyond the necessity of preserving the public order, and protecting each sect (denomination or religious group) against trespasses on its legal right by others.” (From a letter to Rev. Jasper Adams in Church And State In American History, pp. 77-78) 

The Constitution and the First Amendment laid down as guidelines very general, abstract principles in terms of "no religious test for national office,” no "establishment of religion" and no prohibition of the "free exercise thereof.” 

"The civil authorities have little opportunity to take initiative in religious matters. Acceptance of the idea of a commonwealth with religious pluralism and conflicting ‘ecclesiastical bodies’ (denominations or religious groups), forced the civil authority to assume an attitude of neutrality toward conflicting claims, neither helping nor hindering any religious institution, while protecting the rights of each and all." (Mead) 

This nation has prospered and religious bodies have enjoyed great freedom in proclaiming their beliefs under the principle of "religious freedom" and the "separation of church and state.” 

The Constitution guarantees the right of religious bodies to public expression, just as much as the "no-establishment" clause ensures that none will gain any favored governmental status. The founders of our republic were quite clear on the public place of religion in our society. No group could expect a favored status from the government. All religious bodies are to be on a level playing field. They believed that religious belief made an essential contribution to the formation of a responsible citizenry capable of sustaining a democratic republic. Historically, clergy and religious groups have had a sustained interest in public issues. Religious advocacy groups play an important part in the on-going life of our nation. (The Good Society). 

Religion and politics go hand-in-hand. People of all religious persuasions have a right and an obligation to participate fully in the political process in our democratic society. However, no person or religious group has a right to seek to dominate the political agenda in a pluralistic society. We can be grateful that our government was established on the principle that no religious group will be favored over any other religious group. In other words, government is supposed to be "religion-neutral” Perhaps it would be good if all religious leaders-groups could have someone always around who .would constantly remind us, "You are not God.” 

I am grateful to live in a nation under God — with liberty and justice for all. 

Ryan, a retired United Methodist pastor, lives in Tupelo. He served appointments in the North Mississippi Conference and was on the staff of the General Board of Discipleship for 22 years.