Updated: Jun 14, 2020
Some feel the Christian faith is being pushed out of the public square. Others express fear that the Judeo-Christian values and traditions so central to American culture are no longer welcomed in our civil discourse or celebrations because fewer Americans share them. Opportunists jump on this fear and declare there is a “war on Christianity.” More thoughtful observers wonder if we’re seeing an erosion or redefinition of the First Amendment’s application.
With these questions on my mind, I read Michael I. Meyerson’s book, Endowed by Our Creator: The Birth of Religious Freedom in America (Yale University Press, 2012). There are many insights from the book worth sharing, but for now let me just mention one story that may help us reinterpret the apparent marginalization of Christianity some are decrying.
Meyerson tells a story about the Constitutional Convention in 1787 that I had not read before. For weeks delegates in Philadelphia were making little progress. Large and small states argued over representation in the proposed federal government. Slave and free states argued over how the census would count slaves. Everyone argued over the authority of the new executive. The convention was in gridlock.
It was then that Benjamin Franklin, the elder statesman of the gathering, spoke up. He told about the Continental Congress of 1776 debating the merits of seeking independence from Britain. “When we were in sensible danger,” he said, “we had daily prayers in this room for divine protection! Our prayers, sir, were heard and they were graciously answered.” Franklin went on to say, “I have lived, Sir, a long time. The longer I live, the more convincing proofs I see of this truth--that God governs the affairs of men! And if a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without his notice, is it probable that an empire can not rise without his aid?”
Then Franklin, who was outspoken about his non-Christian beliefs, made a surprising proposal. “Henceforth, prayers imploring the assistance of Heaven--and its blessing on our deliberation--be held in this Assembly every morning before we proceed to business; and that one or more of the Clergy of this city be requested to officiate in that service.”
We like to believe that 18th century America was a more Christian time than our own, and some especially want to view the Founders as devout men of faith eager to discern God’s good and perfect will for their new country. So it might be surprising to learn that after his proposal for daily prayer, Franklin wrote in his notes that, “The convention except for 3 or 4 persons, thought prayers unnecessary.”
The moment is rich with irony. Franklin, a confidently non-Christian man who enjoyed the most carnal of pleasures, proposes to hire a minister to conduct daily prayers. The Constitutional Convention, comprised of many devout Christians men, overwhelmingly reject his suggestion. Why were they opposed? And why did the new Constitution that emerged from the 1787 convention included no religious language or references to God? The framers composed a completely secular document—a fact that caused many clergy at the time to oppose its ratification.
Were the delegates at the Constitutional Convention closeted secularists, or worse—atheists? Were they merely nominal Christians with no real heart for God or prayer? Not at all. Many were devoutly religious men and orthodox in their Christian beliefs, but they were also politicians. Practical concerns pushed prayer out of the gathering.
Alexander Hamilton, for example, was worried how the public would view the move to include prayer weeks after the convention had assembled. He said the sudden invitation of clergy to attend the meetings would be an “embarrassment” to the convention causing the public to (correctly) conclude that the delegates were not unified and making no progress.
It was James Madison, however, who recorded the predominant reason the delegates voted against praying. He said there was a “discord of religious opinion within the convention.” In other words, the delegates realized they would never agree on which Christian prayers to use or which denomination’s clergy to invite because of their own religious diversity, and the last thing they needed was to add religion to the heap of divisive issues they were already facing. Ultimately it was politics, not ideology, that kept faith out of the Constitutional Convention.
I wonder if the same may be happening today. Could the marginalization of Christian expression in the public square be the result of pragmatic politics rather than a full-frontal assault on our faith? By any measure our society has grown incredibly diverse. Many communities include Muslims, Hindus, Jews, Buddhists, Christians, Atheists, and every other worldview imaginable. With this diversity comes the challenge to live, work, educate, and recreate together, and politicians must find a way to fairly represent increasingly diverse constituencies. In this environment it makes political sense to dodge unnecessary controversy by avoiding the sectarian expressions of faith, just as the founders discovered in 1787.
Of course there are some rabid and vocal secularists who do not want to see any religion in the public square. They hold a radical reading of the First Amendment that would permit no public expression of faith of any kind apart from their own. (Don't be fooled—secular humanism is a faith, too.) But the United States remains a country where the anti-religious still find elected office difficult to attain. It’s worth remembering that we live in a time when most Americans, including most politicians, still consider themselves religious.
So, we shouldn't automatically assume that every, or even most, powerful figures in the media or government are anti-religion or anti-Christian. And we should be very slow to throw around the persecution accusation. Like the framers of the Constitution, many of these women and men may actually be people of faith, and their decisions to marginalize Christian expressions may be rooted in the practicality of their vocations rather than malice toward faith.