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

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9780151011858: So Help Me God: The Founding Fathers and the First Great Battle Over Church and State

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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About the Author:

FORREST CHURCH is currently serving his thirtieth year as minister of All Souls Church in Manhattan. He earned his doctorate in church history at Harvard and has written or edited twenty-two books, including The Separation of Church and State. He lives in New York.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

1
Out of Many, One

 
Fame stretched her wings and whither her trumpet blew,
 
Great Washington is near. What praise is due?
 
What title shall he have? She paused—and said
 
“Not one—his name alone strikes every title dead.”
 
—a poem inserted in the washington inaugural bible by st. john’s lodge (freemasons) of new york city
 
 
A cannonade from old Ft. George on Manhattan’s Battery saluted the sun as dawn broke on April 30, 1789. Born on the Fourth of July thirteen years before in Philadelphia, this was the day that the United States of America would come of age. Civilians donned their Sunday best. Revolutionary War veterans resurrected their proud old dress uniforms, and young militiamen brushed their new ones. On the stroke of nine, ringing in the first act of a sovereign people, all across the city church bells chimed.
 
           Thousands made the pilgrimage from their homes to waypoints along the parade route down Wall Street, to the heart of lower Manhattan. People bedecked their eaves with bunting and their stoops with flowers. On the avenues leading up to and flanking Federal Hall, open windows overspilled with expectant onlookers. Parents held their children up to catch a glimpse of General Washington as he passed.
            To the accompaniment of rolling drums, the presidential coach, its lone occupant riding with no company but his thoughts, inched down cobblestone streets through the press of humanity crowding lower Manhattan. At the end of the parade route, an honor guard of horse, light infantry, and grenadiers cordoned off a passageway for the president-elect and joint inaugural committee. They disembarked from their carriages to deafening applause, passed through the protective gauntlet, climbed the steps to Federal Hall, and entered the doorway leading to the Senate chamber.
 
           At one in the afternoon, much to the delight of the expectant crowd, the portico doors swung open. Watching with wide eyes amid the crush of spectators was one of Washington’s many namesakes, a six-year-old boy born at the end of the war. Seventy years later, near the end of his long life and distinguished literary career, this boy, Washington Irving, would recall that magical moment when General Washington emerged onto the portico to greet the crowd.
 
 
His entrance on the balcony was hailed by universal shouts. He was evidently moved by this demonstration of public affection. Advancing to the front of the balcony, he laid his hand upon his heart, bowed several times and then retreated to an armchair near the table. The populace appeared to understand that the scene had overcome him and were hushed at once into profound silence.
 
 
           Dressed in a homespun suit, his shoulder-length hair powdered white and swept back in a neatly tied queue, Washington took his place in the center of the balcony under a crimson canopy. Rising to administer the presidential oath was Chancellor Robert Livingston, the highest sitting judge in New York State. The president-elect placed his left hand on an exquisite red vellum Bible as Chancellor Livingston administered the oath of office as prescribed in the Constitution. In response, the father of his country declared, “I do solemnly swear that I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.”
 
           Tradition has it that, before bending his stately frame to kiss the Bible, Washington added a sacred codicil to this secular oath. “I swear,” he avowed, “so help me God.” (I defend this tradition in an appendix.) By all accounts, the nation’s first great ceremony lavished the Almighty with reverence and praise.
 
 
Cast by Providence, the Actor Awaits His Call
 
Postponed more than a month by Congress’s inability to scrape together a quorum, inauguration day was late, and Washington didn’t wait well. His mind couldn’t “bear a vacancy,” James Madison said. The limbo between Election Day and the inauguration invited what Thomas Jefferson called his “gloomy apprehensions.” Colonel David Humphreys bore the brunt of these. Lodged at Mount Vernon to write the general’s authorized biography, the convivial Humphreys served Washington, as he had during Revolutionary days, in the flattering role of official shadow. He would run with the hounds by his side on horseback as happily as he would accompany him to church, though foxhunting was a more certain weekly ritual than worship for Washington during his Mount Vernon years.
 
           Washington had been agonizing over the call to lead. “I feel very much like a man who is condemned to death does when the time of his execution draws nigh,” he sighed. “If my appointment & acceptance be inevitable, I fear I must bid adieu to happiness.” Maybe he shouldn’t accept the office, Washington fretted aloud to Humphreys. What if people mistook his motives? He did, after all, say after the war that he was retiring for good from public service. Would people now take him for a hypocrite? To this monologue, Humphreys offered the response Washington needed to hear. “The very existence of the government will be much endangered, if the person placed at the head of it should not possess the entire confidence of both its friends and adversaries,” the young man assured him. “You ought sometimes, Sir,” Colonel Humphreys reasonably suggested, “to look upon the bright side of the picture; and not always to be pondering the objects you find on the reverse.”
 
           A Virginia gentleman was judged on appearances. The negative print image of a good New England Calvinist, trained not to care a whit for life’s trappings as long as his or her conscience was clear with God, for Washington appearances were everything. Virtue proved itself by deeds apparent to all, not by a contrite heart or spotless soul. This made him no less moral. On the contrary, his attentiveness to outward propriety protected him from moral embarrassment as readily as the dread of guilt in the eyes of God might impel a devout Puritan to resist temptations that could lead to sin. To Washington, virtue and honor coalesced into a single overriding aspiration. “My only ambition,” he told Humphreys, “is to do my duty in this world as well as I am capable of performing it, & to merit the good opinion of all men.”
 
           Practicing virtue to achieve a good name was a hallmark of ancient Stoicism. Succinctly defined as “frugality, simplicity, temperance, fortitude, love of liberty, selflessness, and honor,” Roman virtue demanded fidelity to a fixed set of moral rules as illustrated in the treatises of Seneca and Cicero, which Washington admired in English translation. Cicero’s thoughts on reputation capture Washington’s principal obsession almost perfectly: “We are afraid not only of what we may openly be reproached with, but of what others may think of us in secret. The slightest rumors, the most improbable tale that can be devised to our prejudice, alarms and disconcerts us. We study the countenance, and the looks, of all around us. For nothing is more delicate, so frail, and uncertain, as the public favor.” A Virginia planter himself, Madison understood Washington’s dilemma: “To forsake the honorable retreat to which he had retired and risk the reputation he had so deservedly acquired manifested a zeal for the public interest that could, after so many and illustrious services, scarcely have been expected of him.”
 
           Washington was elected president by acclamation; he received every electoral vote. New Englanders couldn’t help but think of “election” theologically. In the canons of Puritan theology, the saved were God’s “elect.” Viewing himself (if in a very different light) among the chosen as well, Washington, too, would honor his election by striving to prove himself worthy of it. In so doing, his thinking was Roman, not Christian; duty called, not God; and honor, not salvation, would be his reward. Yet his destiny, he was certain, was written in the stars. Washington felt anointed as the protagonist in a divine drama. The entire country, in fact, was cast to play a providential role. “The citizens of America,” he said, were “the actors of a most conspicuous theatre, which seems to be peculiarly designated by Providence for the display of human greatness and felicity.”
 
 
“Strew Your Hero’s Way with Flowers”
 
While waiting for Congress to convene, Washington penned a letter to his nephew George Steptoe Washington full of avuncular advice. In the many letters he wrote to his wards over the years, the only allusion to religion, a brief commendation of reverent appearances, occurs here. Following the glum disclaimer that, contrary to his wishes, duty was about to thrust him back onto the public stage, he offered his namesake “some advisory hints, which, if properly attended to will, I conceive, be found very useful to you in regulating your conduct and giving you respectability not only at present but thro’ every peri...

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