Congress Shall Make No Law Respecting An Establishment Of Religion. What Does That Mean?

BOR“[Our] principles [are] founded on the immovable basis of equal right and reason.” – Thomas Jefferson

There has been much written about the Founding Fathers and their religious views. In spite of the actual historicity, most believers still think they were all devout Christians. Truth is, most of them were Deists and only minimally religious. Many were actively opposed to organized religion. Even if it can be clearly demonstrated that some of the Founding Fathers were religious to an extreme, it speaks nothing about the prevailing lack of religiosity of the Founding Fathers as a group. This is reflected in the collective writings of these men; documents that we know as the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, including the Bill of Rights.

Their Creator…

The Declaration of Independence does refer to a “Creator,” and “Providence.”  The first thing one notices is that the words are “their Creator,” and “The” Creator. This can speak to a variety of dieties, or DNA for that matter. However, the words are there and are at the center of the argument by the religious right that the United States was conceived as a Christian Nation. However, these were general terms used at the time mostly by Deists, which include Jefferson as its primary author. The rest of the contributors (Franklin, Adams, Sherman, Livingston, etc.) had a varied spread of religious views, but still permitted the document to have the Deist flavor that Jefferson warranted. In fact, even after review by the entirety of Congress, it still remained largely intact. The Continental Congress accepted the Declaration’s Deist perspective without comment.

The fact that “God” was not mentioned in the Constitution, nor the precursor to it – a document known as the Articles of Confederation were written – is a strong statement in favor of the documents used to structure our government moving away from a religious basis and toward the more secular. It is clear that the Founding Fathers, regardless of their individual religious, didn’t want to the new government to have a religious foundation. In fact, the body of the Declaration was very clear about the rejection the British monarchy which traditionally relied on divine favor as a source of authority.

Even if the Founding Fathers were all devout Christians (which they weren’t), the facts alone surrounding the desire not to have another monarchy or government that relied on divine intervention or rule is enough to tear apart any argument that the United States Government is based upon a Christian heritage. It seems very apparent that the individual beliefs of the founders played no role in their political philosophy. This is nowhere more apparent than the First Amendment, that says congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.

Freedom From Religion…

One of the aspects of the First Amendment that believers most commonly misinterpret is their belief that it only means Congress cannot establish a state religion or church. Consequently, they think this also means that Congress can do anything else it wishes with regard to religion. However, the word “respecting” has a definite legal meaning under Constitutional Law. In Article IV, the Constitution reads:

“The Congress shall have power to dispose of and make all needful Rules and Regulations respecting the Territory or other Property belonging to the United States.”  – Section 3BT

The context is clear. Respecting carries the same meaning as “concerning” or “about.” Because of this, Congress cannot pass any law which concerns a religious establishment. Simply put, Congress cannot do anything about religion. To those who state that the Establishment Clause only to Congress, and that state, county and other local municipalities may do what they wish, decisions of the U.S. Supreme Court state that all clauses of the Constitution that limit Congress also limit other jurisdictions.

The Bill of Rights…

James Madison was the principal author of the Bill of Rights, and was very adamant about limiting the power of government over individuals. He addressed the topic of the appointment of Chaplains to Congress and whether or not it was constitutional with regard to the principles of religious freedom.

He concluded that it was not, as the Constitution forbade anything that could be construed as an establishment of a national religion. Clearly, the appointing of Chaplains falls under the establishment of religious worship for citizens, to be performed by members of the clergy – paid salaries from tax revenue.

It was not the intention of the Founding Fathers to establish a Congressional Chaplaincy, the fact that the author of the establishment clause wrote so vehemently against it belies the belief that one can find it appropriate that nativity scenes, Ten Commandment monuments and other religious iconography should be permitted on town-hall lawns, courthouse steps or anywhere else, for that matter.

Final Thoughts…

What believers fail to understand is that the principle of separation of church and state is in their own best interests. Government involvement in religion means that someone, somewhere is getting their freedoms infringed upon and given the nature of doctrinal interpretations, it will likely and eventually come back to haunt those who want to Theocratize the United States Government. History shows that there has been no theocratic government that has not been brutal, oppressive and war-torn. Why any American would want this is frankly beyond me.

Enhanced by Zemanta

  7 comments for “Congress Shall Make No Law Respecting An Establishment Of Religion. What Does That Mean?

  1. John Madden
    May 11, 2012 at 1:26 pm

    A succinct and pointed explanation of something I have been trying to explain to people for years. Now all I have to do is forward them this link. Thanks!

  2. May 11, 2012 at 1:41 pm

    When, in the New Hampshire debates, Ron Paul said that the meaning of the First Amendment was “Nothing to do with separation of church and state but rather that Congress should never prohibit your expression of your Christian Faith in a public place” (, he left out all other faiths, philosophies without faith, and the use of such “expression” as coercion, e.g. by members of the Congress themselves—along with the precise constitutional meaning of “respecting”, the background of the amendment in Jefferson’s correspondence with The Danbury Baptists, and subsequent elucidation by the Supreme Court.

    I continue to hear from RP-apologists insisting that there are no primary sources for RP ever espousing this radical attitude–along with so many of his well-documented radical attitudes.

  3. JeffT
    May 11, 2012 at 2:15 pm

    Yes, yes, yes! Unfortunately reason, logic, and verifiable historical facts hold little weight to people whose world view is faith based. Also, when your pastor confidently stands before you week after week and repeats the same lies, who’re you gonna believe?

  4. May 11, 2012 at 7:49 pm

    Excellent points. Thank you. It’s nice to see an atheist talk about religion without constantly telling us how wrong they all are.

  5. May 12, 2012 at 3:34 pm

    These people can’t imagine that it would be possible for a US Theocracy could possibly be based upon anything other than their version of Christianity. Because they are convinced they are RIGHT nothing else is possible.

  6. Ernie
    May 24, 2012 at 6:58 am

    The last paragraph touches on a few questions that I often think of regarding some Americans desire for a state sponsored religion, with so many different versions of Christianity prevalent in the US, how does the theist know that the official version will reflect their own? Wouldn’t it suck if it didn’t? Wouldn’t it be better that it doesn’t?

  7. J.R.
    November 1, 2012 at 4:58 pm

    Thomas Jefferson considered himself to be a Christian as noted in his personal Bible. George Washington, also pronounced a Diest in today’s universities, prayed to his Father, as noted in many diaries of the day. Diests do not pray for hours because they do not believe that God takes a personal interest in his creation. The Diest thing, refered to above, started as a humanist movement in the late 19th century. Before that, the founding faithers were always known to be Christian, as discussed by Daniel Webster and many who came later.

    Don’t be fooled by the lies of the “educated”. They always try to steer the mind away from God, and ultimately put “humanism” in His place.

Leave a Reply