The First Amendment
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Confusing the civil and sacred

Civil religion is often confused with other religious expressions

By Bruce T. Murray
Author, Religious Liberty in America: The First Amendment in Historical and Contemporary Perspective

Several members of the Texas State Board of Education proposed adjusting curriculum guidelines to highlight the role of Christianity in American society.

The mayor of Lancaster, California, declared that his desert town was “growing a Christian community.”


In his Farewell Address to the nation, George Washington said, “Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports.”

Although these three statements might all seem to be in accord, the “odd man out” is George Washington. The first American president was not advocating an establishment of religion – or anything respecting that end – but rather he was discussing the concept of political virtue, or “republican virtue” — the idea that a society cannot function solely on the construct of its laws; but the good character of its people is necessary to make it work. A good constitution alone is not sufficient.

Washington was convinced, as were many of his contemporaries, that religion was essential to the maintenance of morality. But nowhere in his Farewell Address does Washington denote a specific religion or denomination. Washington understood his role as a unifying figure. Injecting specific religious language into his speech would compromise his message and neutrality. Sectarian strife always loomed near in 18th century America, and wiser leaders found words to avoid it.

Rather than declaring America a “Christian nation,” which at that time would have meant a “Protestant nation,” Washington’s meaning leans toward “civil religion” – the idea that the nation has a special mission, sanctioned by God, and the nation’s institutions should be preserved with the same reverence one would apply to one’s faith.

“Can it be that Providence has not connected the permanent felicity of a nation with its virtue?” Washington asks. “It is substantially true that virtue or morality is a necessary spring of popular government. The rule, indeed, extends with more or less force to every species of free government. Who that is a sincere friend to it can look with indifference upon attempts to shake the foundation of the fabric?”

Washington’s successors took up the theme of civil religion and carried it right up to modern times. Echoes of Washington’s language can be heard in the rhetoric of John F. Kennedy, Ronald Reagan and Barack Obama. All of these presidents liberally applied the themes of civil religion.

Still, those who advocate a “Christian nation” often appropriate the words of the Founding Fathers to support their position, when, in fact, the Founders meant something quite different.

The Founders' philosophy – and how it is applied today – are further examined in the University of Massachusetts Press book, Religious Liberty in America: The First Amendment in Historical and Contemporary Perspective by Bruce T. Murray.

“It seems necessary, then, that the history and current concerns regarding religious freedom in America be clearly understood prior to weighing in on the contentious contemporary debates. This is precisely the task of Bruce T. Murray's Religious Liberty in America; one that he accomplishes with impartiality and insight.”
Brandon M. Crowe, Ph.D., School of Historical, Philosophical and Religious Studies, Arizona State University
(from Reviews in Religion & Theology, History and Sociology of Religion, Wiley-Blackwell Publishing, Vol. 17, Issue 2, 2010)

Religious Liberty in America is available at libraries throughout the United States, and it may be purchased from the University of Massachusetts Press.

Read about the author here.

News updates on the Texas State Board of Education

Board takes on ‘separation of church and state’

At its May 21 meeting, the Texas State Board of Education approved the following amendment to its high school government course requirements: “Examine the reasons the Founding Fathers protected religious freedom in America and guaranteed its free exercise by saying that ‘Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,’ and compare and contrast this to the phrase “separation of church and state.”

How Christian were the Founders?

Seven of the 15 members of the Texas State Board of Education usually vote in concert on issues regarding religion. At stake are both cultural values and a $22 billion education fund that is used, in part, to buy or distribute 48 million textbooks annually. “Textbooks are mostly the product of the liberal establishment, and they’re written with the idea that our religion and our liberty are in conflict,” said board member Imet Don McLeroy. “But Christianity has had a deep impact on our system. The men who wrote the Constitution were Christians who knew the Bible. Our idea of individual rights comes from the Bible. The Western development of the free-market system owes a lot to biblical principles.”
Update: Texas board endorses conservative-backed curriculum.

Thomas Jefferson not removed from Texas curriculum

The influential American thinker is covered in fifth and eighth grade curriculum standards, but the Texas State Board of Education removed his name from a list of European Enlightenment philosophers that included John Locke, Thomas Hobbes, Voltaire, Charles de Montesquieu and Jean Jacques Rousseau. “The only individual mentioned more times in the curriculum standards than Thomas Jefferson is George Washington,” said Gail Lowe, chairwoman of the 15-member board. “We expect students at the elementary level, in middle school and in high school to study the Founding Fathers and to be well versed in their contributions to our country. That includes Thomas Jefferson and his legacy.”

American History – Left and Right

"Conservatives on the Texas school board claim that these changes will simply provide 'balance' to the dominant liberal paradigm. But their red-meat rhetoric says otherwise. ... Instead, they want their side to win. And that's the real back story of the tragicomedy that's unfolding in Texas. It's easy for coastal liberals to scoff at the unlettered rubes of the Lone Star State, who are obviously revising history to fit their present-day predilections. But that's what we all do, all the time, and then we foist these ideas on our kids." Los Angeles Times column by Jonathan Zimmerman

Culture wars in Texas education

The Texas State Board of Education recently conducted hearings on the content of textbooks and curriculum in state schools. Some members of the board want to adjust American history textbooks to highlight the role of Christianity. The University of Massachusetts Press book, Religious Liberty in America: The First Amendment in Historical and Contemporary Perspective by Bruce T. Murray, contains a chapter on religion and public education. Update: Texas board endorses conservative-backed curriculum.

Historians criticize proposed revisions to the Texas social studies curriculum

Washington Post, March 18, 2010

Webcast of Texas State Board of Education proceedings

News updates on Lancaster prayer issue

Lancaster sued over prayer at council meetings

A local resident and the chief executive of the Jewish Defense League have joined to sue the city of Lancaster over its policy of beginning city council meetings with religious invocations – which the plaintiffs say are overly sectarian in nature.

Lancaster voters approve prayers at meetings

By a vote of more than 3-1, voters in this desert city placed their stamp of approval on the City Council's practice of opening its meetings with prayer. The American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California may sue the city if prayers single out Christianity over other religions. The Antelope Valley Press reported in February that 11 of 14 prayers over one stretch invoked the name of Jesus Christ.

Lancaster voters to consider prayer measure

A ballot measure asks voters whether the city should continue its policy of randomly selecting clergy from different faiths to deliver an invocation at council meetings, "without restricting the content based on their beliefs, including references to Jesus Christ." The city has received complaints for opening council meetings with invocations given in "the name of Jesus," or containing other explicitly sectarian religious references.

Mayor says town is ‘growing a Christian community’

Lancaster Mayor R. Rex Parris drew criticism after saying in his annual State of the City address that the high desert town was “growing a Christian community.” Said Parris, “We're growing a Christian community, and don't let anybody shy away from that. I need [Lancaster residents] standing up and saying we're a Christian community, and we're proud of that.”