In 1774, British officials forced whips down the throats of Baptist ministers. Royal governors required evangelicals to pay taxes to support a government-imposed set of beliefs opposed to their own. All of that led 22-year-old James Madison to condemn the "diabolic, hell-conceived principle of persecution" and pray for a change. Two years later, his prayers and those of a million others were answered: On July 4 the United States became an independent nation, and Americans were free to worship God and proclaim his glory as they saw fit.
What's strange as we approach Independence Day this year is that some people think the Revolutionary War was fought to make America safe for atheism.
Recently, I talked about Christian poverty-fighting at a conference funded by the state of Iowa, and summarized Christian critiques of contemporary culture in a class at the University of Texas. Each time, an agitated listener told me I was violating "the separation of church and state."
Some people even think that those words about separation, which Thomas Jefferson stuck into one of his letters, are part of the Constitution. Few people know what the First Amendment actually says-"Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof"-and what those words mean.
Let's take a closer look at those words, because they were not decided on easily. Madison early in the amendment process proposed this: "The civil rights of none shall be abridged on account of religious belief or worship, nor shall any national religion be established, nor shall the full and equal rights of conscience be in any manner, or any pretext, abridged."
That wording was challenged by congressmen who wanted assurance that state and local aid to religion would not be banned. Madison eased their fears by noting that the prohibition was only on national "establishment"-the federal government's requiring everyone to support financially a particular denomination. States and communities could do what they wanted.
Madison also assured members that the amendment's language would not cut off even the federal government from support of Christianity generally, but would just keep the feds from placing on a pedestal one particular sect "to which they would compel others to conform." The amendment was essentially telling Congress to keep its nose out of religious matters, so that people would be free to pursue their interests through both private action and state legislation.
The House of Representatives eventually went for a proposal introduced by Representative Samuel Livermore of New Hampshire, where residents paid town taxes to support churches: Congress was to make "no laws touching religion, or infringing the rights of conscience." Restrictions on laws touching religion were to apply to Congress only; Livermore wanted to ensure that Congress would not interfere with local and state denominational support.
When the Senate got its hands on the proposed amendment, it made sure that state and local folks could do whatever they wanted, and even proposed that the federal government could financially support churches and church schools, as long as it would "make no law establishing articles of faith or a mode of worship or prohibiting the free exercise of religion."
The final compromise wording was what is now familiar to us, and bears repeating: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." "Respecting" means "concerning" rather than honoring; "establishment" meant requiring allegiance or giving financial support to one particular denomination's articles of faith or mode of worship. There's no way that the amendment should be taken as a gag rule on Christians.
It certainly wasn't taken that way at first. Supreme Court Justice Joseph Story wrote in 1833 that the First Amendment allowed "Christianity ... to receive encouragement from the state, so far as was not incompatible with the private rights of conscience, and the freedom of religious worship."
It's now two centuries since George Washington left the presidency, in 1797; he declared in his farewell address that "of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports." He and every other early president (with the notable exception of Jefferson) saw the First Amendment as opposing denominational bias but protecting and even promoting biblical assertiveness.
We need that understanding today. Washington, Madison, and others did not anticipate that Constitution-twisters would throw out the historical evidence and attempt to impose atheism. They would have been shocked and amused at attempts to censor talk of God in public schools and other public places under local and state control. The First Amendment was designed to keep the federal government from raining on religious parades.