Recent discussions about religion in the public square and about rural vs. urban values in conflict have led me to reflect about the generational gap which separates the life experiences of my childhood from those of today’s youngsters, such as: being a grade school student at Effingham’s West Side School in the late 1940s-early 1950s, where there were teacher-led prayers at mid-morning milk break time and school sponsored baccalaureate services on Sunday night prior to my 1961 high school graduation.
As a young adult, I recall a local minister providing the invocation to bless the new school year when I started by teaching career at Effingham High School in ’66. In the late 60s, or early 1970s, I remember Effingham’s huge public debate about whether retail stores which sold things other than food or gasoline would be able to violate the traditional observance of the Sabbath by being open on Sunday. Religion was very secure in America’s public square.
Today’s cultural battles are the outgrowth of two late eighteenth century revolutions which shook the world. Both used words which spoke of liberty, equality and democracy; however, the tones of the two were very dissimilar. In one, traditional religion played a central role as democratic values were strengthened in the civic culture; in the other, traditional religion was belittled and trampled under foot. The latter was famous for its Reign of Terror using the guillotine, thereby causing the streets of Paris to flow with the blood of those executed. The first of the revolutions, of course, occurred in America; the second in France.
Our country was born with a sense of mission and motivation for settlement most often summarized in three words – God, Gold, and Glory, with the strongest motive being the first on the list. Even for those who were motivated almost solely by desire for financial gain (Jamestown settlement,1607) religion was part of the public square. The Pilgrims famous 1620 Mayflower Compact declared their purpose was to promote “the glory of God, and the advancement of the Christian faith.” These thoughts were mirrored by countless other settlers.
Throughout American history, major political figures have described religion in the public square in a variety of ways: “Statesmen, my dear Sir, may plan and speculate for Liberty, but it is Religion and Morality alone, which can establish the Principles upon which Freedom can securely stand”(1776).
“Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, Religion and morality are indispensable supports” (1796).
“What I am suggesting is this: secularists are wrong when they ask believers to leave their religion at the door before entering into the public square. Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, William Jennings Bryan, Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King – indeed, the majority of great reformers in American history – were not only motivated by faith, but repeatedly used religious language to argue for their cause. So to say that men and women should not inject their “personal morality” into public policy debates is a practical absurdity. Our law is by definition a codification of morality, much of it grounded in the Judeo-Christian tradition” (2006 A.D.).
The authors of the quotations were presidents of the United States. The first statement came from John Adams; the second from George Washington; the third from Barack Obama. All agreed that religious views must be part of public square discussions. All reflected the awareness that “Nothing in the Constitution bans religious motivations for political action.”
These presidents spoke in favor of religion in the public square because religion develops a moral consensus, in which society’s members share values along with similar identities. The result is a spirit of cooperation leading to limited conflict among America’s citizens. This moral consensus has always been the basic integrating principle in the society. Its loss causes divisiveness to reign.
What has caused the loss? One thing is the privatization of religious viewpoints, a relatively new phenomenon in American life. Another is changing interpretations of what is meant by “separation of church and State.” A third is the late 1960s development of what social analysts call the “post-Christian” era. (Readers need to explore each of the causes to understand the implications of each.)
The dissolution of moral consensus there has been accompanied by loss of public support for several elements in the Judeo-Christian tradition, especially the bedrock principle of reverence for human life. Many social analysts conclude that the loss of that principle is the core reason for the mindless violence, such as mass shootings, which occur too regularly today.
The Founders of our Republic would have agreed and would have said religion belongs in the public square. They reflected that view when writing the Northwest Ordinance of 1787: "Religion, morality and knowledge being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged."
Schools used the Bible as a primary text until the Civil War Era. The very popular 19th century McGuffey Readers had a significant amount of Biblical content. Until the 1960s, governmental institutions, including the schools, encouraged religion and morality while providing secular knowledge to America’s youth. This was because the wise founders of this country knew there are definite societal benefits for maintaining a strong role for religion America’s civic culture, i.e., in the public square.
Delaine Donaldson is president of the Efingham County Cultural Center and Museum board.