Category Archives: Founders Beliefs

Is our misunderstanding of the 1st amendment, the one dealing with freedom of speech, contributing to school shootings?

(I wrote this following the recent school shooting in Florida. It was published in the Longmont Times-call on February 25, 2018 under the title, “Addressing gun violence with a better understanding of freedom of religion.”)

In the aftermath of the latest school shooting, there will undoubtedly be lots of discussion about the second amendment, the one that has to do with our right to bear arms. But though finding reasonable ways to keep guns out the hands of those inclined to violence may be helpful, it doesn’t solve the root cause of the problem. Ultimately the root problem is not having too many guns or having easy access to them; it is our failure to help people like Nicholas Cruz to find more constructive ways to deal with their internal struggles.

I believe that our misunderstanding and subsequent misapplication of the first amendment contributes to this failure. This amendment reads in part, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech.” The original intent of this amendment was to prevent Congress from establishing a national religion while preserving the rights of citizens to express their own views about God freely – to have the freedom of religion. This amendment has been interpreted in recent decades however as an imperative to keep religion totally separate from government – to keep government free from religion – by removing all references to God, the Bible, and religion from our public venues.

I believe that our efforts to interpret and apply the first amendment in this fashion has done more harm than good. For one thing, it inadvertently communicates to those who may know little about God that He doesn’t exist, or if He does that He doesn’t care about our troubles, or that it doesn’t matter what we believe about Him. In an environment like this where expressions of faith are discouraged rather than applauded, people like Cruz who may be struggling with a myriad of internal conflicts are left with the notion that they have few alternatives for dealing with their inner turmoil other than to express their anger or frustration in destructive ways.

The Bible and its expression through the Christian faith has much to offer in this respect. It teaches that we are all broken people who pretty much can’t fix ourselves. It reminds us that God did something to remedy this and that when His Son Jesus was crucified, He provided a path to both personal and spiritual redemption. It promises that we can find true peace and joy by having a personal relationship with Jesus and that even in our darkest moments He will always love us and remain with us. It also communicates that there are significant consequences, some of them eternal, for those who refuse to acknowledge their need for Him or who give into their inclination towards violence or evil.

I don’t know if Cruz ever heard this message or if he did, how he responded to it. But if encouraging expressions of faith like this in our public places could have motivated him or others like him to consider making a different and better choice in dealing with their inner turmoil, wouldn’t it be worth it even if some may have been offended by hearing that message?

Maybe it’s time to change our understanding and application of the first amendment so that there are more opportunities for people to hear about the redemptive work of Jesus, even if it results in increased expressions of faith in our public spaces.

Lack of moral compass can send us adrift

I wrote this in response to an article published in the Boulder Daily Camera on August 1, 2015 titled, “Founders’ Religious Beliefs.” My published response can be found at this link:

Daily Camera: Lack of moral compass can send us adrift

The article I was responding to can be found at this link:

Spencer Nelson: Founders’ religious beliefs

Spencer Nelson’s guest opinion August 1 titled “Founders’ Religious Beliefs” though well-written seems to be a bit misleading regarding what our founding fathers actually believed about God. Though many of our nation’s founders may have been influenced by Deism, trying to put them all in the same boat regarding their beliefs about God, Jesus or Christianity is a bit disingenuous. George Washington for example seems to have been a devoted member of the Anglican church but was very private with regards to his personal faith. Although he frequently used “Providence” in lieu of “God” when referring to God in his communications, it seems that he did believe in God’s personal involvement in the affairs of man and that humans were not passive actors when it came to discerning and following His will. His infrequent references to the name of Jesus in private correspondence may have more to do with the conventions of his day and the traditions of his faith rather than his personal beliefs about Jesus.

Regarding Thomas Jefferson’s statement that a “wall of separation exists between church and state,” this phrase shows up in a letter Jefferson wrote to the Danbury, Connecticut Baptists in 1802. The purpose of this letter was to reassure Baptists that “the legitimate powers of government reach actions only and not opinions.” The 2nd amendment which says that the government may “make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof” created according to Jefferson a “wall of separation between church and state” that was meant to keep the government from intruding into religion, matters that lie solely “between a Man and his God.” It wasn’t until the middle of last century that this phrase was reinterpreted as a mandate to keep the church from affecting the state rather than as a promise to protect the church by the state and in some cases, from it.

Nelson credited John Adams with a statement that “The government of the United States of America is not in any sense founded on the Christian religion.” The origin of this statement does not appear to be from John Adams himself, however, but is found in translations of a treaty between the Barbary Pirates and the United States in 1797 that was originally written in Arabic. The purpose of this statement was not to describe the founding principles of our nation but was to reassure the Muslim state that secular laws and not Christian views would be used to interpret and enforce the treaty. This phrase was controversial even in its day and was dropped in a later version of the treaty between the two parties ratified by Congress in 1805 that superseded and effectively nullified what was written and approved earlier.

Nelson said that the founders of our nation “were resolute that ours be a secular government devoid of religious influence of any kind.” But in his farewell address delivered in 1796, George Washington said, “Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, Religion and Morality are indispensable supports… Let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion … Reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.”        George Washington recognized the important part religious views play in making moral decisions; that good governments must be moral but that morality cannot exist in the absence of religious principles. It seems to me that religious views serve as a moral compass for a nation, one that if absent can leave a nation rudderless and send it adrift. If this is true, then the question is not should religious views affect our political decisions but rather which ones do we need to take into consideration.

Benjamin Franklin who Nelson says “did not adhere to Christianity at all or [if so] did so only lightly” thought that the moral teachings of Jesus are “the best the world has ever seen.” If this is so, then maybe the teachings of Jesus ought to be play a bigger part in the process we use for making moral decisions today, not less.