The term “public theology” sounds like an oxymoron to many people. Faith is a private thing, they say, not something to be shared in the public square. “After all,” they add, “the Constitution provides for a separation of church and state.”
But nothing could be further from the truth. It’s a serious misreading of our history and the intents of the Founding Fathers.
“The ‘wall of separation between church and state’ is a metaphor based on bad history,” Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist wrote in a court opinion in 1985. “ … It should be frankly and explicitly abandoned.”
The term never appears in the Constitution or Bill of Rights. The first sentence of the First Amendment simply says, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, nor prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”
The phrase “wall of separation between Church & State” didn’t appear until 1801 — 10 years after the states ratified the Bill of Rights — when President Thomas Jefferson used it in a letter to the Danbury Baptist Association of Connecticut. Even then, he explained that its purpose was to preserve “rights of conscience,” not to strip God from government.
The men who gave us the First Amendment intended to prevent the establishment of a national church, not impose a radical separation of church and state. In fact, the day after Congress adopted the First Amendment, it sent a message to President George Washington, asking him to declare a day of thanksgiving to show America’s appreciation to God for the opportunity to create its new government in peace and tranquility. The nation observed the holiday on Nov. 26, 1789.
A careful reading of the First Amendment shows us that the concern that motivated our Founding Fathers was to protect the conscience from governmental encroachments. Twenty iterations of the language for the First Amendment ensued in the congressional debate before the final version was sent to the House on Sept. 24, 1789. Not once in any of those 20 attempts to write the First Amendment did the phrase “separation of church and state” appear. The word “conscience,” although it does not appear in the final form, occurs in 12 of these iterations.
Clearly, the drafters of the First Amendment wanted to protect conscience from government, not protect government from religion. This is where public theology comes in, calling for the application of religious principles to every area of life, including politics.
Washington called religion and morality “indispensable pillars” of America’s political happiness. In his farewell address, he noted, “experience has taught us that morality is impossible for a people unless it is brought to us through religious teaching.”
John Adams, our second president, noted in 1798, “We have no government armed with power capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion. Avarice, ambition, revenge, or gallantry, would break the strongest cords of our Constitution as a whale goes through a net. Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”
Many of the Founding Fathers saw our form of government as a fragile gift that could easily be lost. At the end of the Constitutional Convention in 1787, a woman asked Benjamin Franklin, “What kind of government have you given us?” He famously replied, “A republic, if you can keep it.”
Far from wanting a separation of church and state if that meant the separation of God and government, Founding Fathers like Washington and Adams believed that Judeo-Christian principles provided an essential framework for preserving our liberties.
Peter Lillback is the author of “Wall of Misconception” and president of Westminster Theological Seminary. He wrote this for The Philadelphia Inquirer.