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CBN.com Scott Ross [reporting]: George Washington wouldn’t kneel to pray and wasn’t known to take communion. Thomas Jefferson cut passages of scripture he didn’t like from his Bible. Yes, our founding fathers had their foibles. No patron saints in the group. No early American apostles. However, men of faith they were, and what they wanted was very clear: a sovereign God as the bedrock of the new American democracy...
Jon Meacham: A belief in a Creator God; a belief that will be judged in another life; a God who is attentive to history, who weights prayers, who intervenes in history. I think that is what the Founding Fathers wanted.
Ross [reporting]: Jon Meacham is Managing Editor of Newsweek magazine and a noted historian. He recently authored a book called American Gospel and a companion article in Newsweek, which examines the spiritual foundation of the early American republic.
Ross: Jon, American Gospel… That’s a minefield.
Meacham: Yes, it is.
Ross: Why are you interested in this?
Meacham: I began to think in the past eight years or so that the country seems to be divided, not only along traditional political lines, but more increasingly sectarian religious ones. Issues almost immediately take on a religious cast now in a way that I don’t think is particularly healthy. So I wanted to go back to the founding and see how they wrestled with these issues. I found it to be incredibly resonant and I think relevant.
Ross [reporting]: Meacham sees the rancor over religion in public life as a basic misunderstanding of what the founders originally intended.
Meacham: A strong view at the founding was that religion was, as George Washington said, an essential support for morality. He didn’t know of any example in history where you could separate the two. I think that there is a good case to be made that religious people make a case for the moral life in compelling and convincing terms.
Ross: Does or should private religion affect public performance and morality?
Meacham: It will. It’s like the air we breathe. It’s like oxygen. It’s a compound. There is no question that private religious values shape the way we live and the way the country is governed.
Ross: That phrase "the separation of church and state"... Many people presuppose that is in the Constitution. It’s not. Where did that phrase originate?
Meacham: In American terms, it was popularized in a letter that Thomas Jefferson wrote to Danbury Baptist Association on New Year’s Day in 1802. He said in this country we enjoy a wall of separation between church and state in order to protect one from another -- which is an important idea. I could make a more compelling argument about keeping church and state separate on theological grounds. That was Roger Williams' argument -- that the garden of the church should not be corrupted by the wilderness of the world. What did Jesus say to Pilate? "My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight..." [John 18:36 NIV]
Ross [reporting]: Meacham maintains that the founders meant any separation between church and state to be easily negotiated because liberty protects one from another.
Meacham: There’s no wall between church and state, and if there is a wall, it’s a mighty short one -- one that you can skip right over quite easily. I would argue that liberty is at the core of not only the Christian project but the American experiment. If you don’t have the ability to choose to follow as opposed to being forced to follow, then it’s not what God wanted or what the founders wanted. The great good news of the country is that we are free to believe or not believe. We are a religious nation; a nation full of religious people. It’s not a matter of coercion or force, and that is a precious legacy from the founders that we have to protect and preserve.
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