Note - I write a column for the Shelbyville, Kentucky newspaper, the Sentinel-News, every other Friday. On June 3rd, the Sentinel began publication of a series of columns about belief and unbelief, written by myself and a member of our community, who is an atheist. I thought it would be an interesting conversation and I appreciate the Sentinel-News and my co-author for participating. For the privacy of the other person I am not including their name in the columns as I publish them each week on this site. Even though the person has publicly agreed to have them published in the Sentinel-News, I am not assuming they want their columns or name published on this site.
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances—the First Amendment to the United States Constitution
On October 28, 312, competing Roman emperors Constantine I and Maxentius faced each other in what was to become one of the most significant battles in history, the Battle of the Milvian Bridge. The night before the battle, Constantine purportedly experienced a vision in which he was told by God: in this sign conquer. The sign was the Chi Rho symbol, taken from the first two letters of the name Christ, in Greek. Constantine had the symbol inscribed on the shields of his soldiers and, after winning the battle and uniting the divided Empire under his rule, began the process of Christianizing the Roman Empire. In doing so, Constantine set into motion the tangling of church and state in a way that remains powerfully felt throughout Western society.
The history of Europe is replete with historical events that further entangled the relationship of church and state, such as the Peace of Augsburg, in 1555, which instituted the principle of cuius regio, eius religio (in the Prince's land, the Prince's religion), effectively allowing a region’s ruler to determine the religion of the inhabitants. As the United States takes many of its governmental philosophies from Europe, where church and state are so heavily intertwined, it is a rather amazing historical fact that, as a nation, we cultivated a governance that not only allowed for, but encouraged, the separating of church and state.
When speaking of the First Amendment, we should note that the freedom of religion – or from religion – was not a part of the original Constitution but came to us through an amendment. Take note also that the phrase separation of church and state does not exist in the Constitution; those words come from a letter written in 1802 by Thomas Jefferson to the Danbury Baptist Association in Danbury, Connecticut, where Jefferson writes, believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between Man & his God, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, & not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should "make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof," thus building a wall of separation between Church & State.
It is easy to imagine that, after completing the phrasing of the First Amendment, the authors sat back and declared that ought to settle it! But as we know, it has done nothing of the sort. While our nation has sought to build into its governance a system that would prevent the difficulties that have plagued Europe, with state churches and the interference of the church in government affairs (and government in church affairs) the history of the United States is one that is inextricably bound to a vibrant history of religious beliefs and practices, many of which spill over into the civic life of our nation.
Americans, historically, are a profoundly religious people, and that sense of religiosity has so pervaded who we are that it is hardly surprising that we developed civil expressions of that faith. It is a uniquely American development that we have what amounts to a civil religion without having a state church. Prayers of invocation and benediction, as well as other religious symbolism, have for years been a routine part of many civil ceremonies, and the acknowledging of our religious heritage, it should be noted, is not the same as a governmental endorsement of religion. The Supreme Court, acknowledging such, upheld the practice of offering invocations at government meetings in a 2014 ruling (which also granted the opportunity for atheists to offer readings, such as the one given by Ms. Allewalt before the Shelbyville City Council meeting on July 17, 2014). While the Supreme Court’s ruling clarified the permissibility of prayer at civic functions, it did not, however, fully answer the question of what amounts to the establishment or prohibition of religion, and that is a vexing question that will never be adequately answered.
We can, however, make a few affirmations with some sense of certainty, I believe. We can say that, in spite of what many would claim to the contrary, America is not a Christian nation, at least not in the sense that our government has made an official declaration to such an end. That does not in any way denigrate or minimize the religious convictions of millions of Americans. It is simply more correct, I believe, to say that we are a nation of many religious people and that both our founding and our subsequent history were profoundly influenced by faith, and to argue against the religious heritage and history of our nation is to ignore some very basic facts and truths about American history. The Christian faith, in particular, has been such a part of the fabric of our nation’s history that it has become the presumptive national religion, leading to the oft-repeated claim that America is a Christian nation.
We can also affirm that religion belongs in the public square, in spite of the mistaken belief of some that the separation of church and state means that religion is to be relegated solely to the realm of one’s private life or confined to the interior of a place of worship. The heart of our democracy is the freedom of every perspective to be represented in the public square, including religion. Nevertheless, people of faith must tread carefully when it comes to the relationship of church and state. It does faith no favors to be state-supported, as it would only rob faith of its self-perpetuating vitality. Religion in America has prospered because it functions as a free-market enterprise: It either sinks or swims on its own merits and not because any of its expressions enjoy the status of a state church.