By John Pierce
MACON, Ga. — “Most countries construct myths of their origins … and speak of those myths in divine hues,” said Franklin T. Lambert, professor of history at Purdue University, during an April 18 lecture at Mercer University.
The United States is no different, said Lambert, who focused his concluding presentation during the annual Walter B. and Kay W. Shurden Lectures on Religious Liberty and Separation of Church and State on the Constitutional Convention of 1787.
The four-month gathering in Philadelphia that produced the U.S. Constitution has been called “the miracle of 1787,” Lambert noted. But that may have been overstated.
“Historical fact is always a bit different from the myths,” said Lambert. He acknowledged that the gathered delegates were “principled, yes, but protecting private interests” as well.
The religious orientation of the delegates has been misrepresented at times, he said. Nearly everyone in the hall was a professing Christian — with the possible exception of Benjamin Franklin who denied the divinity of Jesus.
“They were neither Bible-thumping evangelicals or Deists,” he said, as they are sometimes portrayed.
The physically diminutive James Madison played a very strong role, said Lambert, in raising the question, “How do you balance power and liberty?” — and in answering it: By the separation of powers that led to three branches of government.
The “nominal Anglican” who had been at the forefront of the religious liberty battle in Virginia was also the most vocal proponent of a federal commitment to the separation of church and state. Madison was “even more consistent and insistent than Jefferson.”
Aware that dissenting groups like Baptists, Methodists and Presbyterians were growing faster than the Anglican Church, and with a commitment to religious freedom, the delegates embraced the “radical” notion of church-state separation while personally believing that God’s law is the highest law and that morality flowed from Christian teachings.
Recordings of the lengthy discussions and debates reveal very few references to religion, said Lambert. And the rare mention of “God” was used more in vain to express dismay with another delegate’s opinion than to honor the Creator.
Likewise, delegates rejected the idea of imposing a religious test for officeholders — which some states embraced. South Carolina, for example, required an affirmation of belief in Jesus Christ, said Lambert.
The convention was held in secrecy with no room given for amendments. The final draft — containing “no mention of God at all” — was sent to the states for an up-or-down vote on ratification.
And while the phrase “separation of church and state” does not appear in the Constitution, Lambert said the delegates clearly embraced that concept. Yet some state convention delegates wanted a more explicit commitment to religious liberty.
So Madison sent a signal to the state conventions: if they would ratify the draft, he’d personally see that a Bill of Rights was added that guaranteed religious freedom.
“In Madison’s view, separation of church and state worked for the benefit of the spread of the gospel,” said Lambert.
While not everyone agreed with Madison and Jefferson, the Constitution was ratified — miraculously or not.
Lambert said there is a lot of concern today about America as a divided nation.
“We’ve always been divided,” said Lambert. “…I worry when we’re not divided.”
However, he added that the value of dissenting opinions suffer when not expressed with the right spirit — a concern within the American political climate today.
-The Shurden Lectures were established through a gift to the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty (bjconline.org) that coordinates the annual series.