Walls of Our Own Making

This term, the Supreme Court will hear and decide a case that will shape the relationship between church and state for years to come. The case involves Cleveland's school voucher program. Two courts have declared the program unconstitutional because, in their estimation, the program amounts to a "diversion of government aid to religious institutions," and an "endorsement of religious education."   The contemporary assumption in the courts and among legal scholars is that the Constitution requires what has been called a "high wall of separation" between church and state. If a program can, in any way, be characterized as constituting an entanglement between religion and government, it is said to be a violation of the First Amendment's establishment clause.   Well, there are two problems with this reigning orthodoxy. First, the phrase "wall of separation" doesn't appear in the Constitution or even in the proceedings of the Constitutional Convention.   Second, it's a total inversion of nearly all of the Founders' beliefs about the relationship between church and state. While they did not want the federal government to establish a national church, they viewed religion as indispensable to the American experiment.   In his marvelous new book, On Two Wings, author, theologian, and former U.S. ambassador Michael Novak reminds readers that a religion-free public square was the last thing the Founders wanted. They believed that religion, by which they meant biblical religion, is "necessary for the maintenance of republican institutions." Or as Jefferson put it, "no nation has ever yet existed or even been governed without religion. Nor can be."   Why? Because, in the Founders' estimation, virtue was the precondition for liberty. And as James Madison put it, belief in an all-powerful, wise, and good God was the source of virtue.   Thus, unlike many of our present-day elites, the Founders didn't see religion as a threat to liberty. On the contrary, it was irreligion or atheism that was the threat. These would cause "everyday morals" to "slide into decadence" and pave the way for tyranny.   Accordingly, the Founders saw religious belief and practices as something to be encouraged. In my home state of Massachusetts, John Adams argued that religious education is essential to survival of a free republic. His case was so persuasive that the state's constitution included a provision that required the state to pay for religious education if there weren't any private groups able to do it.   Against this historical backdrop, the concerns of contemporary courts seem like a radical departure from the Founders' intentions which, in fact, they are. But it's not because modern judges have discovered something the Founders didn't know about maintaining a free society. It's because their worldview causes them to see personal autonomy and freedom as synonymous -- an idea the Founders explicitly rejected.   In this worldview, biblical religion is the enemy of personal autonomy and, thus, the enemy of freedom. Hence, the relentless drive to rid our public life of religious content. Christians can help their neighbors to understand the true role that biblical faith plays in American life. That starts with understanding that the Founders, far from fearing religious education, saw it as something indispensable to American life.   For more information:   Michael Novak, On Two Wings: Humble Faith and Common Sense at the American Founding (San Francisco: Encounter Books, 2002).


Chuck Colson


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