“I pledge allegiance to my Flag and the Republic for which it stands, one Nation, indivisible, with Liberty, Equality, Fraternity, and Justice for all.” – Pledge of Allegiance as originally written by Francis Bellamy, vice president of the Society of Christian Socialists and chief spokesperson for the socialist Nationalist Clubs movement.
The “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity” part of this earliest form of the pledge, never submitted for approval, derives from the slogan adopted by the Third Republic of France. This hendriatris, or tripartite motto, dates back to the Club de Cordeliers in the French Revolution, whose slogan was “liberté, égalité, fraternité ou la mort” (liberty, equality, fraternity or death).
During the French Revolution, several tripartite mottoes floated around the country, almost all of which had both “liberté” and “égalité”, including “liberté, égalité, justice”. An example of a hendriatris even closer to home might be “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”, or perhaps “baseball, hot dogs, and apple pie”.
Besides “liberté, égalité, fraternité”, another ideal of the Third Republic (and succeeding incarnations) since 1905 has been “laïcité”, often translated as “secularism”. Secularism does not necessarily mean anti-religion; in politics, what we would now call political science, secularism simply means exclusion of religion from interference in government affairs.
Laïcité in France before 1905 was only partial and sporadic, though always there since 1789, and only became “official” that year.
It is from the French word laïcité that laicity derives, a word rarely used in English but a valid word nevertheless. That laicity, that separation of church and state, was America’s unique gift to the world, for never before in written history, certainly not in the modern era, had a country existed without an official religion.
There is absolutely no question whatsoever that America was “not in any sense founded on the Christian Religion.” While few were hostile to religion itself, nearly all the major leaders were very hostile toward religion in the hands of government and government as a thrall of religion.
Growing up Episcopalian amongst the deluge of Baptists, Methodists, and Presbyterians who inhabit the American South and living next to a family the husband and wife of which became our Jewish godparents, I really took to heart the separation of church and state upon which our republic was founded and learned to be fiercely resistant to any attempt to have the yoke of someone else’s religion placed around my neck, knowing that such a yoke would not be easy nor its burden light.
As I grew up and began thinking about eventually entering seminary, which I thought about as far back as junior high school and started planning to do in high school, I began to see that imposition of religion on a governmental level was not only unfair to those not of that particular faith but damaging to and corrupting of both government and religion. In fact, the reason I listed the establishment of the Christian Church as the official religion of the Roman Empire as one of the five great tragedies of world history in that class my junior year at Tyner High was because of the way that corrupted Christianity.
I should add here that throughout my time at East Brainerd Elementary School, first through sixth grades, a teacher from outside came into our class once a week for Bible lessons. Part of the reason I didn’t see a conflict at the time was that my teacher in first and second grade at the school was also my Sunday School teacher at St. Martin’s Episcopal. Both, incidentally, were within easy walking distance of our house on Walnut Grove/North Joiner Road.
Now we’ve come to the part of this essay that is its main focus.
First, let’s look at some quotes from some of those Founding Fathers themselves, including our first four POTUSes (POTUS= President of the United States).
If we look back into history for the character of the present sects in Christianity, we shall find few that have not in their turns been persecutors, and complainers of persecution. The primitive Christians thought persecution extremely wrong in the Pagans, but practiced it on one another. The first Protestants of the Church of England blamed persecution in the Roman Catholic Church, but practiced it upon the Puritans. They found it wrong in Bishops, but fell into the practice themselves both here (England) and in New England. -- Benjamin Franklin, letter to the London Packet, 3 June 1772
As to religion, I hold it to be the indispensable duty of government to protect all conscientious protesters thereof, and I know of no other business government has to do therewith. -- Thomas Paine, Common Sense, 1776
Persecution is not an original feature in any religion; but it is always the strongly marked feature of all religions established by law. -- Thomas Paine, The Rights of Man, 1791
All national institutions of churches, whether Jewish, Christian or Turkish, appear to me no other than human inventions, set up to terrify and enslave mankind, and monopolize power and profit. It is necessary to the happiness of man that he be mentally faithful to himself. Infidelity does not consist in believing, or in disbelieving; it consists in professing to believe what he does not believe. -- Thomas Paine, The Age of Reason, Part I, 1794
I am persuaded, you will permit me to observe that the path of true piety is so plain as to require but little political direction. To this consideration we ought to ascribe the absence of any regulation, respecting religion, from the Magna-Charta of our country. -- George Washington, response to Presbyterian clergymen from Massachusetts and New Hampshire protesting the Constitution making no mention of Jesus Christ, 2 November 1789
We should begin by setting conscience free. When all men of all religions ... shall enjoy equal liberty, property, and an equal chance for honors and power ... we may expect that improvements will be made in the human character and the state of society. -- John Adams, letter to Dr. Price, 8 April 1785
The government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian Religion. -- John Adams, from the Treaty of Tripoli, 1797, passed by the U.S. Senate unanimously
The impious presumption of legislators and rulers, civil as well as ecclesiastical, who, being themselves but fallible and uninspired men, have assumed dominion over the faith of others, setting up their own opinions and modes of thinking as the only true and infallible, and as such endeavoring to impose them on others, hath established and maintained false religions over the greatest part of the world and through all time: That to compel a man to furnish contributions of money for the propagation of opinions which he disbelieves and abhors, is sinful and tyrannical... -- Thomas Jefferson, debate in the Virginia General Assembly on the Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom, 1779
Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between man and his God, that he owes account to none other for is faith or his worship, that the legislative powers of government reach actions only, and 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 and State. -- Thomas Jefferson, in a letter to the Danbury Baptist Association, 1 January 1802
Christianity neither is, nor ever was, a part of the common law. -- Thomas Jefferson, letter to Dr. Thomas Cooper, 10 February 1814
In every country and in every age, the priest has been hostile to liberty. He is always in alliance with the despot, abetting his abuses in return for protection to his own. It is error alone that needs the support of government. Truth can stand by itself. -- Thomas Jefferson, letter to Horatio G. Spafford, 17 March 1814
During almost fifteen centuries has the legal establishment of Christianity been on trial. What has been its fruits? More or less, in all places, pride and indolence in the clergy; ignorance and servility in the laity; in both, superstition, bigotry and persecution. -- James Madison, Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments to the Virginia General Assembly, 20 June 1785
What influence in fact have Christian ecclesiastical establishments had on civil society? In many instances they have been upholding the thrones of political tyranny. In no instance have they been seen as the guardians of the liberties of the people. Rulers who wished to subvert the public liberty have found in the clergy convenient auxiliaries. A just government, instituted to secure and perpetuate liberty, does not need the clergy. -- James Madison, Memorial and Remonstrance, 20 June 1785
Who does not see that the same authority which can establish Christianity, in exclusion of all other Religions, may establish with the same ease any particular sect of Christians, in exclusion of all other Sects? That the same authority which can force a citizen to contribute three pence only of his property for the support of any one establishment, may force him to conform to any other establishment in all cases whatsoever? -- James Madison, Memorial and Remonstrance, 20 June 1785
Congress should not establish a religion and enforce the legal observation of it by law, nor compel men to worship God in any manner contrary to their conscience, or that one sect might obtain a pre-eminence, or two combined together, and establish a religion to which they would compel others to conform. -- James Madison, speech in Congress, 15 August 1789
The appropriation of funds of the United States for the use and support of religious societies, [is] contrary to the article of the Constitution which declares that 'Congress shall make no law respecting a religious establishment'. -- James Madison, vetoing a bill granting federal land in Mississippi Territory for a Baptist church, 2 March 1811
(This was about two weeks after Madison had vetoed a similar bill granting federal land to an Episcopal church in Alexandria, District of Columbia, on 21 February 1811)
Having always regarded the practical distinction between Religion and Civil Government as essential to the purity of both, and as guaranteed by the Constitution of the United States, I could not have otherwise discharged my duty on the occasion which presented itself. – James Madison, in a letter to Baptist churches in North Carolina, 3 June 1811
The civil Government, though 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, and the devotion of the people, have been manifestly increased by the total separation of the church from the State. -- James Madison, in a letter to Robert Walsh, 2 March 1819
Every new and successful example, therefore, of a perfect separation between the ecclesiastical and civil matters, is of importance; and I have no doubt that every new example will succeed, as every past one has done, in showing that religion and government will both exist in greater purity, the less they are mixed together. -- James Madison, letter to Edward Livingston, 10 July 1822
Later 19th century POTUSes
Now let’s check out what some of the later POTUSes in the 19th century, both pre- and anti-bellum, had to say.
It is most interesting that both Grant and Garfield proposed that the federal government tax churches, presumably their property not strictly for religious services.
I could not do otherwise without transcending the limits prescribed by the Constitution for the President and without feeling that I might in some degree disturb the security which religion nowadays enjoys in this country in its complete separation from the political concerns of the General Government. - Andrew Jackson, refusing to proclaim a national day of fasting and prayer in 1832
We admit of no government by divine right, believing that so far as power is concerned the Beneficent Creator has made no distinction amongst men; that all are upon an equality, and that the only legitimate right to govern is an express grant of power from the governed. -- William Henry Harrison, inaugural address, 4 March 1841
The United States have adventured upon a great and noble experiment, which is believed to have been hazarded in the absence of all previous precedent — that of total separation of Church and State. No religious establishment by law exists among us. The conscience is left free from all restraint and each is permitted to worship his Maker after his own judgment. -- John Tyler, letter to Joseph Simpson, a prominent Jewish leader in Baltimore complaining of Gen. Winfield Scott addressing a missionary society, 10 July 1843
Thank God, under our Constitution there was no connection between Church and State, and that in my action as President of the United States I recognized no distinction of creeds in my appointments office. -- James K. Polk, diary entry of his response to a Presbyterian minister opposing Catholic army chaplains, 1846
I am tolerant of all creeds. Yet if any sect suffered itself to be used for political objects I would meet it by political opposition. In my view church and state should be separate, not only in form, but fact. Religion and politics should not be mingled. -- Millard Fillmore, address during Presidential campaign, 1856
The United States government must not undertake to run the Churches. When an individual, in the Church or out of it, becomes dangerous to the public interest he must be checked. --Abraham Lincoln, letter to Maj. Gen. Samuel R. Curtis, 2 January 1863
Let us all labor to add all needful guarantees for the more perfect security of free thought, free speech, and free press, pure morals, unfettered religious sentiments, and of equal rights and privileges to all men, irrespective of nationality, color, or religion. Encourage free schools, and resolve that not one dollar of money shall be appropriated to the support of any sectarian school. Resolve that neither the state nor nation, or both combined, shall support institutions of learning other than those sufficient to afford every child growing up in the land the opportunity of a good common school education, unmixed with sectarian, pagan, or atheistical tenets. Leave the matter of religion to the family altar, the church, and the private schools, supported entirely by private contributions. Keep the church and state forever separated. -- Ulysses S Grant, address to the Army of the Tennessee, Des Moines, Iowa, 25 September 1875
I would also call your attention to the importance of correcting an evil that, if permitted to continue, will probably lead to great trouble in our land before the close of the nineteenth century. It is the acquisition of vast amounts of untaxed church property.... I would suggest the taxation of all property equally, whether church or corporation. -- Ulysses S. Grant, message to Congress, 7 December 1875
We all agree that neither the Government nor political parties ought to interfere with religious sects. It is equally true that religious sects ought not to interfere with the Government or with political parties. We believe that the cause of good government and the cause of religion suffer by all such interference. -- Rutherford B. Hayes, speech in Marion, Ohio, 31 July 1875
The divorce between Church and State ought to be absolute. It ought to be so absolute that no Church property anywhere, in any state or in the nation, should be exempt from equal taxation; for if you exempt the property of any church organization, to that extent you impose a tax upon the whole community. -- James A. Garfield, speech in Congress, 1874
In my judgment, while it is the duty of Congress to respect to the uttermost the conscientious convictions and religious scruples of every citizen … not any ecclesiastical organization can be safely permitted to usurp in the smallest degree the functions and powers of the national government.-- James A Garfield, inaugural address, 4 March 1881
The public schools shall be free from sectarian influences and, above all, free from any attitude of hostility to the adherents of any particular creed. – Theodore Roosevelt, speech on “American Common Schools” in Boston, 30 November 1893
20th century POTUSesNow we arrive in the 20th century.
I hold that in this country there must be complete severance of Church and State; that public moneys shall not be used for the purpose of advancing any particular creed; and therefore that the public schools shall be non-sectarian and no public moneys appropriated for sectarian schools -- Theodore Roosevelt, New York public address, 12 October 1915
The fundamental precept of liberty is toleration. We cannot permit any inquisition either from within or from without the law or apply any religious test to the holding of office. The mind of America must be forever free. -- Calvin Coolidge, inaugural address, 4 March 1925
I come of Quaker stock. My ancestors were persecuted for their beliefs. Here they sought and found religious freedom. By blood and conviction I stand for religious tolerance both in act and in spirit. -- Herbert C. Hoover, New Day, 1928
We have gone a long way toward civilization and religious tolerance, and we have a good example in this country. Here the many Protestant denominations, the Catholic Church and the Greek Orthodox Church do not seek to destroy one another in physical violence just because they do not interpret every verse of the Bible in exactly the same way. Here we now have the freedom of all religions, and I hope that never again will we have a repetition of religious bigotry, as we have had in certain periods of our own history. There is no room for that kind of foolishness here. -- Harry Truman, Mr. Citizen, 1960
And I should like to assure you, my Islamic friends, that under the American Constitution, under American tradition, and in American hearts, this Center, this place of worship, is just as welcome as could be a similar edifice of any other religion. Indeed, America would fight with her whole strength for your right to have here your own church and worship according to your own conscience. This concept is indeed a part of America, and without that concept we would be something else than what we are. -- Dwight Eisenhower, speech at opening of Islamic Center of Washington, D.C., 28 June 1957
It is my firm belief that there should be separation of church and state in the United States—that is, that both church and state should be free to operate, without interference from each other in their respective areas of jurisdiction. We live in a liberal, democratic society which embraces wide varieties of belief and disbelief. There is no doubt in my mind that the pluralism which has developed under our Constitution, providing as it does a framework within which diverse opinions can exist side by side and by their interaction enrich the whole, is the most ideal system yet devised by man. I cannot conceive of a set of circumstances which would lead me to a different conclusion. -- John F. Kennedy, letter to Glenn L. Archer, 23 February 1959
Whatever one’s religion in his private life may be, for the officeholder, nothing takes precedence over his oath to uphold the Constitution and all its parts — including the First Amendment and the strict separation of church and state. -- John F. Kennedy, interview, Look, 3 March 3 1959
I believe in an America where the separation of Church and State is absolute--where no Catholic prelate would tell the President (should he be a Catholic) how to act, and no Protestant minister would tell his parishioners for whom to vote--where no church or church school is granted any public funds or political preference--and where no man is denied public office merely because his religion differs from the President who might appoint him or the people who might elect him. -- John F. Kennedy, speech to Greater Houston Ministerial Association, 12 September 1960
We do not want an official state church. If ninety-nine percent of the population were Catholics, I would still be opposed to it. I do not want civil power combined with religious power. I want to make it clear that I am committed as a matter of deep personal conviction to separation. -- John F Kennedy, interview on “Face the Nation,” CBS-TV, 30 October 1960
As you know, the separation of church and state is not subject to discussion or alteration. Under our Constitution no church or religion can be supported by the U.S. Government. We maintain freedom of religion so that an American can either worship in the church of his choice or choose to go to no church at all. -- Richard Nixon, telegram to E.S. James of Baptist Standard, 21 October 1960
Last year I was on Pat Robertson's show, and we discussed our basic Christian faith—for instance, separation of church and state. It's contrary to my beliefs to try to exalt Christianity as having some sort of preferential status in the United States. That violates the Constitution. I'm not in favor of mandatory prayer in school or of using public funds to finance religious education. -- Jimmy Carter, interview in Christianity Today, 2 March 1998
I believe in the separation of church and state and would not use my authority to violate this principle in any way. -- Jimmy Carter, letter to Jack V. Harwell, 11 August 1977
We establish no religion in this country. We command no worship. We mandate no belief, nor will we ever. Church and state are and must remain separate. -- Ronald Reagan, speech in Valley Stream, New York, 26 October 1984
From two major SCOTUS decisions
Lastly, here’re quotes from the majority opinions in two of the most pivotal cases in American jurisprudence regarding church and state separation.
There is no such source and cause of strife, quarrel, fights, malignant opposition, persecution, and war, and all evil in the state, as religion. Let it once enter into our civil affairs, our government would soon be destroyed. Let it once enter our common schools, they would be destroyed ... Those who made our Constitution saw this, and used the most apt and comprehensive language in it to prevent such a catastrophe. -- Supreme Court of Wisconsin, majority opinion, Weiss v. District Board (aka Edgerton Bible case), 18 March 1890
The First Amendment has erected a wall between church and state. That wall must be kept high and impregnable. We could not approve the slightest breach. -- Hugo Black, majority opinion, Everson v. Board of Education, 10 February 1947
The laicity, the secularism, of our Founding Fathers and their Constitution has always been one of the guiding principles of my political and religious existence, no matter whether I was in a liberal phase or a conservative phase of political philosophy or holding strong belief, passive belief, nonbelief, disbelief, unbelief, or anti-belief in religious thought.
I have only to look at the world around me to see the consequences of letting even a stray footstep cross that threshold from either side. There is no such thing as a harmless amount of religion in government. The phrase “a little bit of theocracy” is like saying “a little bit of pregnancy”. Theocracy is the corruption of religion into ideology and the decay of government into totalitarianism.
All experience of humanity has shown, and most graphically since mid-20th century, that no matter how much theocratists adhere to democratic processes in the beginning and deny that their ideology even is theocracy, their end is the same authoritarian rule as if it were established by an iron heel.
The word “theocracy”, incidentally, was coined by first century Jewish historian and former anti-Roman rebel Titus Flavius Josephus specifically to describe the government under which the Jews of his time suffered. It was precisely that form of misgovernment and abuse of spiritual authority against which the Galilean prophet Jesus of Nazareth rose. I always find it astounding that any person calling themselves Christian would advocate the very thing he hated most.