The year was 1832, and a cholera epidemic was ravaging the United States.
Doctors of the day were powerless to stop the disease. As its depredations spread, some desperate members of Congress decided that only divine intervention could save the country. They proposed an official day of fasting, humiliation and prayer.
President Andrew Jackson was not impressed. Jackson announced that if Congress were to pass such a resolution, he would not sign it into law.
“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 now enjoys in this country in its complete separation from the political concerns of the General Government,” Jackson wrote in a letter to a religious group.
The proclamation floundered in Congress, and eventually the epidemic ran its course. Outside of historians, few Americans know about Jackson’s comments today – but they should. The incident is a reminder of the role a president can play in safeguarding the separation of church and state.
Since the founding of the American republic, chief executives have stepped up to defend the church-state wall by reminding the American people of the importance of religious liberty for all. By promoting legislation, vetoing bills that would mix religion and government and using the bully pulpit, presidents can be powerful advocates for the Constitution and the values it embodies. (Of course, they can also lay waste to those ideas, and some have done so.)
This month, as the nation marks Presidents Day, it’s a good time to remember a few of the best comments about separation of church and state uttered by chief executives. Some of these will be familiar, others less so. Some were stated by presidents regarded as great by historians, others were less successful.
Whether a titan or a caretaker, presidents have reeled off memorable lines about religious liberty. Church & State is offering 10 here. Rather than list them in chronological order, we’ll give them in a sequence from good statements to truly great ones (admittedly a somewhat subjective process), along with some background.
Bear in mind that not every one of these statements was delivered while the president in question was in office. Also, in some cases, antiquated spellings, punctuation, capitalization and abbreviations have been retained.
John Tyler (1841-45)
“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.”
If John Tyler is remembered for anything today, it’s that he was the first vice president to assume the office of chief executive upon the death of the president. Tyler took office after William Henry Harrison died less than a month after being inaugurated.
Tyler wrote the passage above in 1843 in response to a letter he receive from Joseph Simpson, a Jewish resident of Baltimore. Simpson was upset that a high-ranking military officer planned to appear at a Christian conference.
In his response, Tyler noted that the general was attending the event as a private citizen and not “in his character in General and Chief of the Army. He will necessarily for the time being lay aside his sword and epaulets and appear, it is true, as a distinguished citizen but in no other light than as a citizen.”
In the same letter, Tyler notes that religious freedom extends to all creeds and says a “Mohammedan” would have the right to worship according to the Quran and an East Indian “might erect a shrine to Brahma if it so pleased him.” (Source: William and Mary Historical Magazine, July 1904)
Jimmy Carter (1977-1981)
“I think the government ought to stay out of the prayer business….”
Unlike many U.S. presidents, Jimmy Carter was not a lawyer. But he was uniquely qualified to comment on the role of religion in public life as a devout Southern Baptist and a Sunday school teacher.
On April 6, 1979, Carter was asked about prayer in public schools during a press conference. A reporter noted that U.S. Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) had added an amendment to an education bill that called for “voluntary” prayer in public schools. The reporter wanted to know if Carter thought this was unconstitutional.
Carter’s response is memorable. He went on to stress that no child should be coerced to take part in religious activity in a public school. Carter said he wanted to avoid a situation “where the child would feel constrained to pray.” (Source: Associated Press dispatch, April 7, 1979)
Rutherford B. Hayes (1877-81)
“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 began his term with controversy. He lost the popular vote to Democrat Samuel Tilden, and the election was decided in his favor only after disputed electoral votes in Florida were awarded to Hayes as part of a political deal that ended Reconstruction in the South. His presidency was undistinguished.
Hayes made these comments before being elected president. He was addressing the residents of Lawrence County, Ohio, on July 31, 1875, while preparing to run for governor. The lengthy speech is wide ranging, but a good chunk of it deals with a festering controversy over the role of religion in public institutions. Hayes accused the “sectarian wing of the Democratic Party” of “agitation,” and he pledged to defend the secular nature of “our free schools.” In response, Democrats argued that the controversy wasn’t really about public schools. Rather, they said, they simply wanted to allow Catholic prison inmates to have the ability to meet with priests. (Source: The Life, Public Services and Select Speeches of Rutherford B. Hayes by James Quay Howard, 1876)
James A. Garfield (1881)
“Whatever help the nation can justly afford should be generously given to aid the States in supporting common schools; but it would be unjust to our people and dangerous to our institutions to apply any portion of the revenues of the nation or of the States to the support of sectarian schools. The separation of Church and State in everything relating to taxation should be absolute.”
Prior to being elected president, James Garfield was a lay preacher in the Disciples of Christ denomination. Although never formally ordained, he performed many of the functions of a minister and regularly delivered sermons. Yet Garfield was a strong supporter of separation of church and state, so much so that he resigned as a church elder upon being elected.
The passage above comes from a letter Garfield wrote on July 12, 1880, to accept the Republican Party’s nomination for the presidency. During his inaugural address, delivered on March 4, 1881, Garfield discussed the growing Mormon presence in the Utah territory. He called for freedom of conscience but expressed concerns that the Mormons were attempting to create a theocracy, a prospect he clearly found troubling.
Candice Millard, a leading Garfield biographer, believes he had the potential to be a great president. It was not to be. Less than a year after his election, Garfield was shot by Charles Guiteau, a deranged man who believed that Garfield owed him a government job. Unsanitary medical practices of the time led the wound to become infected, and Garfield died on Sept. 19, 1881. (Source: The Republican Campaign Textbook for 1880, Republican Congressional Committee, 1880)
Franklin D. Roosevelt (1933-45)
“The lessons of religious toleration – a toleration which recognizes complete liberty of human thought, liberty of conscience – is one which, by precept and example, must be inculcated in the hearts and minds of all Americans if the institutions of our democracy are to be maintained and perpetuated. We must recognize the fundamental rights of man. There can be no true national life in our democracy unless we give unqualified recognition to freedom of religious worship and freedom of education.”
Among the many things President Franklin D. Roosevelt is notable for is his famous “Four Freedoms” speech. During his 1941 State of the Union address, Roosevelt outlined four freedoms that people everywhere should enjoy – freedom of worship, freedom of speech, freedom from want and freedom from fear.
Roosevelt was a consistent supporter of freedom of conscience. The passage quoted appears in a March 30, 1937, letter Roosevelt wrote to Michael Williams of New York City in recognition of a celebration marking the anniversary of the establishment of religious liberty in Maryland by the Calvert family. (Source: The American Presidency Project, http:// www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=15382)
George Washington (1789-97)
“The citizens of the United States of America have a right to applaud themselves for having given to mankind examples of an enlarged and liberal policy – a policy worthy of imitation. All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship. It is now no more that toleration is spoken of as if it were the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights, for, happily, the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance, requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.”
Our nation’s first president was a strong advocate for religious freedom all of his life. Washington said many memorable things about freedom of conscience during his public career, but few match the rhetorical heights of his Aug. 18, 1790, letter to the members of the Touro Synagogue in Newport, R.I., issued during a period when the president was visiting the state.
Jews were a small minority in the United States, and some were uncertain if their right to worship would be protected in the new nation. When members of the synagogue wrote to Washington, this was by no means clear. The Bill of Rights was still pending in Congress, and state legislatures were deliberating the amendments. Some historians believe Washington’s visit to New England at this time was an effort to rally support for the proposed amendments. His words served as a stirring reminder that all faiths would be respected in the new nation and today stand as a rebuke to the “Christian nation” crowd. (Source: A Documentary History of Religion in America to 1877, edited by Edwin S. Gaustad and Mark Knoll, third edition, 2003)
Ulysses S. Grant (1869-77)
“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. 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.”
Former Civil War general U.S. Grant was president during a time when public education (often called “common schools” back then) began to accelerate in the United States. As more and more states passed mandatory education laws, controversy arose about the role of religion in education and whether tax aid should be extended to private religious institutions.
Grant’s solution was to reserve tax funding for public schools but also to remove sectarian instruction from those institutions, thus opening them up to Americans of all faiths and none. He outlined this vision in a speech before a group of Civil War veterans meeting in Des Moines, Iowa, on Sept. 30, 1875. (Source: New York Tribune, Oct. 1, 1875)
John F. Kennedy (1961-63)
“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 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. I believe in an America that is officially neither Catholic, Protestant nor Jewish – where no public official either requests or accepts instructions on public policy from the Pope, the National Council of Churches or any other ecclesiastical source – where no religious body seeks to impose its will directly or indirectly upon the general populace or the public acts of its officials – and where religious liberty is so indivisible that an act against one church is treated as an act against all.”
Young, charismatic and smart, John F. Kennedy was a natural politician. He seemed destined for high office, but when, as U.S. senator from Massachusetts, he decided to seek the presidency, there was a problem: his religion.
Kennedy was a Roman Catholic during a time when a certain degree of anti-Catholic animus still held sway among the population. No Catholic had sought the highest office in the land on a major party ticket since Democratic New York Gov. Al Smith in 1928. Kennedy knew he had to win over a skeptical Protestant majority.
He did it in part with a masterful speech delivered before the Greater Houston Ministerial Association on Sept. 12, 1960. During the speech, Kennedy vowed support for separation of church and state and made it clear that he had no intention of taking orders from the hierarchy of his own church or any other. He vowed to do what was best for the American people.
The election was close, but Kennedy came out on top; historians still debate to what extent this speech turned the tide, but one thing is clear: It wasn’t mere words. As president, Kennedy proved that his talk in Houston wasn’t an empty promise. He opposed tax aid for private religious schools, supported the Supreme Court’s rulings striking down mandatory prayer and Bible reading in public schools and backed international population-control programs that emphasized the use of birth control – against the wishes of the Catholic bishops.
Kennedy’s strong record in support of separation of church and state has been compared favorably to Thomas Jefferson’s. (Source: John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum)
James Madison (1809-17)
“It was the universal opinion of the Century preceding the last, that Civil Govt. could not stand without the prop of a Religious establishment, & that the [Christian] religion itself, would perish if not supported by a legal provision for its Clergy. The experience of Virginia conspicuously corroborates the disproof of both opinions. The Civil Govt. tho’ bereft of every thing 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 & the devotion of the people have been manifestly increased by the total separation of the Church from the State.”
James Madison knew a few things about separation of church and state. After all, he was a primary author of the First Amendment and is considered the “Father of the Constitution.”
The passage above comes from a letter Madison penned to a friend, Robert Walsh, on March 2, 1819, two years after Madison left the White House. Walsh had written to Madison to say that he was seeking to rebut claims about the United States that he had heard were circulating abroad. He specifically sought information from Madison about the status of religion in Virginia in the wake of the Revolution. Madison, who along with Jefferson led the fight to end the established church in that state, was well qualified to comment.
In his letter to Walsh, Madison discussed at length the state of religious groups in Virginia. He noted that several of the churches that had belonged to the officially established Anglican Church had “gone to ruin” or were “dilapidated” because residents had taken advantage of their religious liberty to join other churches. But he pointed out that there was no lack of interest in religion among Virginians and portrayed a robust faith scene in the Old Dominion, a state of affairs he attributed to the separation of church and state.
During his long career and into his retirement, Madison spoke frequently about the right of conscience, religious liberty and separation of church and state. In a document known as “The Detached Memoranda,” which scholars believe was written between 1817 and 1832, Madison observed, “Strongly guarded as is the separation between Religion & Govt. in the Constitution of the United States the danger of encroachment by Ecclesiastical Bodies, may be illustrated by precedents already furnished in their short history.” (Source: James Madison on Religious Liberty, edited by Robert S. Alley, 1985)
Thomas Jefferson (1801-09)
“Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between man and his God, that he owes account to none other for his 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’s famous metaphor of a wall of separation between church and state has rung down through the ages and influenced law and public policy for more than 200 years.
Over the years, Religious Right activists and pseudo-historians have spread much misinformation about this passage in an attempt to debunk it or minimize its importance. These efforts fail once the true history of it is known.
Jefferson wrote the passage in a letter to the Danbury, Conn., Baptist Association on Jan. 1, 1802. The Baptists had written to Jefferson precisely because they knew him to be a champion of freedom of conscience and religious liberty. Baptists in Connecticut at the time were still subjected to a powerful combination of church and state, with the church in question being Congregationalism. Distraught over this state of affairs, the Baptists wrote to say that they looked forward to the day when Jefferson’s vision of religious liberty for all would encompass them too.
Jefferson asked his attorney general and postmaster general to read his proposed reply and give feedback. He made it clear that he viewed the letter as an opportunity to state his views on religious freedom. Jefferson likely knew the letter would find its way to the press (which it quickly did) and be widely reprinted. The real story of the letter cuts against claims that Jefferson merely dashed off his reply as a courtesy. In fact, he viewed the letter as an opportunity to make a major policy statement, and he put significant thought into the reply. In the days before mass media, letters to constituents were often used for this purpose.
Jefferson’s eloquent passage about the church-state wall is still being cited today, but it has many detractors. Former Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist attacked the metaphor in a 1985 Supreme Court ruling (before Rehnquist was chief justice), calling it “a metaphor based on bad history” that is “useless.”
Thankfully, many other judges and politicians have felt differently, and Jefferson’s words still give hope to people today who are living under the heel of religious oppression. (Source: Library of Congress)
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Not every president has been a champion of church-state separation, of course. Woodrow Wilson was prone to discourse on his belief that the United States was founded as a “Christian nation.” Dwight D. Eisenhower ushered in the period of “civil religion” by promoting “In God We Trust” as the national motto and supporting the insertion of “under God” into the Pledge of Allegiance. Ronald Reagan pushed for a School Prayer Amendment to the Constitution throughout his presidency.
But those presidents who have supported a distance between religion and government have left a legacy of words and deeds that still inspire many today.