So Help Me God: The Founding Fathers and the First Great Battle Over Church and State

So Help Me God: The Founding Fathers and the First Great Battle Over Church and State

Language: English

Pages: 544

ISBN: 0151011850

Format: PDF / Kindle (mobi) / ePub


Today’s dispute over the line between church and state (or the lack thereof) is neither the first nor the fiercest in our history. In a powerful retelling of the birth of the American body politic, religious historian Forrest Church describes our first great culture war—a tumultuous yet nearly forgotten conflict that raged from George Washington’s presidency to James Monroe’s. On one side of the battle, the proponents of order—Federalists, Congregationalists, New Englanders—believed that the only legitimate ruler of men is God. On the other side, the defenders of liberty—republicans, Baptists, Virginians—cheered the Enlightenment and the French Revolution, and believed that only the separation of church and state would preserve man’s freedom. Would we be a nation under God, or with liberty for all?

In this vigorous history, Forrest Church offers a new vision of our earliest presidents’ beliefs, reshaping assumptions about the debates that still reverberate across our land.

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order of the day, we have everything to fear,” intoned Theodore Dwight’s unreconstructed Connecticut Gazette. “It attacks every institution of wisdom and antiquity and alike dooms to destruction our learning, our laws, and religion.” These were strong, familiar words, but defaming liberty in the land of liberty was becoming an increasingly difficult sell. To the shrill-voiced Jeremiahs, most Americans had long since tuned out. The wolf of chaos, whose name they cried was Jefferson, had failed to

and your counsels will preserve Mr. Adams.” Mr. Adams required no such protection. He thrived on resentment. The fuel that powered his New England engines shut the gentle Virginian’s down. Allergic to controversy and desperate for affection, easily wounded and no less quick to disown all responsibility for any wound he may have caused, Jefferson, far from being “eaten to a honeycomb with ambition,” as Adams described him in 1797, had no stomach for politics and possessed as little desire for its

regain the religious upper hand, the Republican Congress instructed the president to issue a patriotic summons to prayer, invoking God’s aid and favor in prosecuting the war. To absolve himself from responsibility for this infraction against sacred liberty, Madison explained that he was simply doing Congress’s bidding. In his first fast day proclamation, Madison invited the American people to offer “their common vows and adorations to Almighty God, on the solemn occasion produced by the war, in

Thoreau elected the same day to move into his Walden Pond cabin; in 1848, the women gathering at Seneca Falls, New York, opened their groundbreaking Declaration of Rights with the ringing words “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men and women are created equal.” More than a century later, Martin Luther King Jr. would preach from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, “I look forward to the day when this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed.” King then

the integrity of the cornerstone, represented equality, judgment, self-mastery, and rectitude. To this day, we speak of being “square” with each other and “on the level.” By symbolically evoking the Masonic virtues, which could not have been more congenial to his worldview, Washington was emulating, even standing in for, the Grand Architect himself. Tracing their founding to the head builder of Solomon's Temple and drawing meaning from the tools of the ancient masonic guild and craft, the

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