Today is Presidents’ Day. On this day, we often recommend that you spend some time reading some of the great statements on church-state separation uttered by chief executives like Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, or John F. Kennedy’s famous 1960 speech on religious liberty. They are certainly worth your time today.
But let’s spend a few minutes looking at another president, one whose support of church-state separation is sometimes overlooked: Ulysses S. Grant.
Grant was a brilliant general but a less successful president. Most historians criticize his two-term administration for being corrupt and scandal-wracked. The consensus on Grant tends to be that he meant well but allowed himself to be manipulated by people who had only their own interests at heart. (Not all historians feel this way. Jean Edward Smith of Marshall University argues that Grant has been underrated as a president.)
Despite his faults, there was one area where Grant did shine: separation of church and state. During his tenure, the idea of public education for the masses began catching on in the United States. Schools were built, and states began passing the first mandatory attendance laws.
But there was a problem: Since most Americans belonged to Protestant denominations, many people saw no problem in merging church and school. School days often began with Protestant prayers and readings from the King James Version of the Bible.
This didn’t sit well with Roman Catholics. To solve the problem, the church’s leadership suggested that the government give them tax money to operate their own private school system.
Grant had a better idea. He called for removing Protestant worship from public schools. He proposed making public schools legally non-sectarian and thus welcoming to all families. He also opposed any tax funding of religious schools.
It was visionary idea, but it may have been too far ahead of its time. In late 19th century America, many people chafed at the idea of education divorced from faith. And leaders of the Catholic Church continued to press for public funding of their schools.
Grant promoted his idea in several forums. In 1875, he delivered a speech to some Civil War veterans and used the occasion to call for non-sectarian education in “common” schools (as public schools were often called then) and church-state separation.
“Resolve that neither the state nor nation, nor both combined, shall support institutions of learning other than those sufficient to afford to every child growing up in the land the opportunity of a good common school education, unmixed with sectarian, pagan, or atheistical dogmas,” Grant said. “Leave the matter of religion to the family altar, the church, and the private school, supported entirely by private contributions. Keep the church and state forever separate. With these safeguards, I believe the battles which created the Army of the Tennessee will not have been fought in vain.”
A few months later, Grant, in his annual message to Congress, proposed a constitutional amendment that would require all public schools to be secular. Although the amendment as Grant envisioned it never emerged, his view did eventually take hold. In fact, some Western states adopted constitutions explicitly stating that public education must be non-sectarian. Around the same time, state courts began striking down mandatory religious exercises in public schools – a course of action endorsed by the U.S. Supreme Court much later in 1962 and ’63.
It took about 100 years, but the system of non-sectarian public schools that Grant dreamed of as the best vehicle to ensure inter-faith peace came fully to pass.
Grant’s record on religious liberty isn’t perfect. In 1862, while commanding Union armies in Tennessee, Mississippi and Kentucky, he issued a general order banning Jews from these states. Grant was angry over black-market trading that he believed was helping the South. For some reason, he was convinced that Jews were behind it.
President Abraham Lincoln quickly rescinded the order. Years later, Grant claimed it had been drafted by a subordinate and that he signed it without reading it. The real story is more complicated, and there was a paper trail connecting Grant to the order. He tried to repair the damage in other ways. In 1874, he became the first U.S. president to attend the dedication of a synagogue. Most historians believe the action was part of an ongoing effort by Grant to make amends for the order.
Grant had his faults. But it’s hard to deny that he also had a vision of church-state separation and public education that, had it been adopted during his presidency, might have spared the nation no small amount of heartache.
Our public schools certainly face many challenges, but overt efforts to turn them into centers for religious proselytizing tend to collapse. They now welcome children of all faiths as well as those of no faith.
The Supreme Court made that possible – with a little help from U.S. Grant.