It was once sufficient for provocateurs to limit themselves to the claim that America is based upon "Judeo-Christian principles." And while the vagueness of such a statement would seem to render it as inert as it is extraneous to the subject of civil government in a constitutional republic, it no longer satiates the intolerant to limit themselves so. And so we are burdened to hear the pedantic cry "Christian Nation"--a phrase as divisive as it is oxymoronic! It is therefore worth asking what these founding principles they once spoke of truly teach us, so that we can move forward without sectarian trifling.
The first Bill of Rights to extol religious freedom was the English Bill of Rights of 1689, but such a model was imperfect for a society as plural as Colonial America (what with its condemnation of the "papists" and all). In the Virginia Declaration of Rights (1776), the case was made more diplomatically:
' That religion, or the duty which we owe to our Creator and the manner of discharging it, can be directed by reason and conviction, not by force or violence; and therefore, all men are equally entitled to the free exercise of religion, according to the dictates of conscience; and that it is the mutual duty of all to practice Christian forbearance, love, and charity towards each other. '
In addition to reinforcing the liberal notion that belief itself was not a duty owed to society, it also reinforced the mutual duties UNIVERSAL TO EVERY SOUND RELIGION; while reminding any WAYWARD members of the majority, of their unquestionable duty to FORBEAR any whose world view they might disagree with--to turn the other cheek, as it were!
Admittedly, this civil liberty took longer to take a firm hold in the New England states than in the southern and central regions. Thus it came about that the marginalized sects were keen supporters of those who championed the universalization of this liberty. Most conspicuously, some New England Baptists presented president Thomas Jefferson with a "Mammoth Loaf" of cheese for his efforts. However, this was neither a plot of the religious fringe of the day, nor of secularists. For it was widely understood that the well-being of religion, as well as government, was served by the two being separate. As James Madison wrote in a letter to Robert Walsh (March 2, 1819):
' It was the Universal opinion of the Century preceding the last, that Civil Govt could not stand without the prop of a Religious establishment, & that the Xn religion itself, would perish if not supported by a legal provision for its Clergy. The experience of Virginia conspicuously corroborates the disproof of both opinions. The Civil Govt, tho' bereft of everything like an associated hierarchy, possesses the requisite stability and performs its functions with complete success, Whilst the number, the industry, and the morality of the Priesthood, & the devotion of the people have been manifestly increased by the total separation of the Church from the State. '
And while it might seem obvious, given all this, that theology ought to have no place within the civil government of America, there is an anecdote from James Madison's 'Detached Memoranda' which should prove enlightening to those who wish to lord their own theology over others:
' an experiment was made on the reverence entertained for the name & sanctity of the Saviour, by proposing to insert the words "Jesus Christ" after the words "our lord" in the preamble, the object of which, would have been, to imply a restriction of the liberty defined in the Bill, to those professing his religion only. The amendment was discussed, and rejected... The opponents of the amendment having turned the feeling as well as judgment of the House agst it, by successfully contending that the better proof of reverence for that holy name wd be not to profane it by making it a topic of legisl. discussion, & particularly by making his religion the means of abridging the natural and equal rights of all men, in defiance of his own declaration that his Kingdom was not of this world '