Students should be free to choose when it comes to matters of faith

Sunday, July 16, 2000

Current fights over efforts in Colorado and Georgia to post the motto “In God We Trust” in public-school classrooms are the latest chapters in a long history of conflict over the place of religion in American public life.

The motto first appeared on U.S. coins in 1864, an action urged by many Protestant groups in the wake of the suffering and division caused by the Civil War.

Nearly 100 years later — during the anti-communist fervor of the Cold War — Congress established “In God We Trust” as a national motto.

Although the Supreme Court hasn't ruled on the constitutionality of the motto, several lower courts have decided that its use on coins is a patriotic exercise that doesn't amount to an establishment of religion by the state.

This debate about the necessity for government proclamations of faith in God dates back to the earliest days of colonial America.

Even before they reached the shores of New England in 1630, the Puritans stood on the deck of the Arbella and listened as Governor John Winthrop set forth a vision of a new society called by God to be “a City upon a Hill.”

Winthrop declared that Massachusetts Bay would be founded on divine law and civil magistrates would be responsible for enforcing that law. The blessings of God would sustain the colony only if the inhabitants kept their covenant with God. Failure to uphold the covenant would result in adversity and destroy the hope of building a “new Israel.”

The Puritan vision of their society as divinely blessed has profoundly influenced American self-understanding throughout our history. Much like the Puritans, many Americans continue to view the United States as that chosen city on a hill. And many continue to believe that only by re-affirming our identity as a nation “under God” will America survive and prosper.

Current movements to post the Ten Commandments and “In God We Trust” in public schools (and to bring back teacher-led prayer) are contemporary echoes of the Puritan conviction that the welfare of the nation is linked to public and official acknowledgment of dependence on God.

The first dissenter to challenge Winthrop's vision was that intrepid Puritan minister named Roger Williams, who arrived in New England only one year after the Arbella landed in Boston Harbor.

In his very different reading of the Gospels, Williams concluded that government involvement in religion is contrary to divine will and inevitably leads to defilement of the true church.

This means that Williams viewed any attempt by civil authorities to prescribe prayers or to invoke God as a blasphemous corruption of faith. (No doubt placing God's name on money would have been particularly offensive to him.)

“The garden of the church,” he argued, must be kept separate from the “wilderness of the world.”

According to Williams, the proper role of government is to protect the right of every person to choose in matters of faith —what he called “soul liberty.”

Williams was well aware that full liberty of conscience means that many will choose what he would view as the “wrong” faith or no faith at all. But he believed that society must accept such a risk, because that is what God requires.

Thus the Puritans' demand for religious liberty for themselves became, as Roger Williams understood it, a requirement of religious liberty for all.

Today, the efforts to post “In God We Trust” in public schools suggest that many religious Americans still respond to Winthrop's vision. This may be because they fear that public schools are becoming sterile, secular places where religion is often treated with hostility.

But even in schools where that is true, using the engine of government to “return God” to the classroom will lead only to more conflict and litigation.

Roger Williams' vision offers a better solution. Our schools should be like the Rhode Island he founded — “havens for the cause of conscience,” where no religion is established by government and every student is free to choose in matters of faith.