On the rare occasions I’ve thought at all about former U.S. President James A. Garfield, I have first recalled the startling fact of his assassination in 1881, just months into his first term. He was shot on July 2 but didn’t ultimately die until September 19.
I had certainly never thought of him as a zealous advocate of American church-state separation — at least not until the other day (when I saw this embedded illustration below). Indeed, he was a popular lay Christian preacher in a 19th-century movement to restore the faith’s New Testament-focused doctrines, and the dutiful son of a devoutly Christian mother who greatly influenced Garfield after his father died when he was a boy.
“His whole life was religiously influenced by the seed which was planted by his mother’s hand while he lived with her in the little log cabin in the wilderness,” a classmate once wrote of him, according to an article in Inboundchurch.org, a website whose tagline is, “Jesus said to the waves, ‘Be quiet!’ And the winds died.”
Garfield’s Christian devotion and commitment was still pronounced when he attended Williams College in western Massachusetts (1854-56), where he “frequently accepted invitations to preach for small congregations affiliated with the Restoration Movement.”
“I tell you, my dear brother, the cause in which we are engaged must take the world,” he wrote in a letter to a Christian friend back in his home state of Ohio. “It fills my soul when I reflect upon the light, joy and love of the Ancient Gospel and its adaptation to the wants of the human race.”
Yet, still, this passage below flowed from his pen decades later in his 1880 letter accepting the Republican Party’s nomination for the U.S. presidency, according to the secular group Americans United for Separation of Church and State (AU) in an article on its website:
“Whatever help the nation can justly afford should be generously given to aid the States in supporting common schools; but it would be unjust to our people and dangerous to our institutions to apply any portion of the revenues of the nation or of the States to the support of sectarian schools. The separation of Church and State in everything relating to taxation should be absolute.”
His inaugural address helped clarify the reason such a devout Christian would harbor such a secular viewpoint, besides the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution, which prohibits American government from promoting and supporting — establishing — any religion.
AU notes that Garfield, in his inaugural speech, “discussed the growing Mormon presence in the Utah territory. He called for freedom of conscience but expressed concerns that the Mormons were attempting to create a theocracy, a prospect he clearly found troubling.”
Even Christian supremacists become defensive and immediately embrace the notion of church-state separation when their primacy is threatened by alleged heretics.
Of course, Garfield may have been a constitutional originalist to some degree, but it’s also clear he viewed polygamist, heretical Mormons as a religious threat to the still-new republic.
America today is different in that the Christian majority is rapidly eroding in an increasingly ethnically and religiously diverse populace, along with the faith’s long privileged status in the nation. Concurrently, secularism and atheism are spiking.
So instead of invoking church-state separation to keep alien faiths and “militant secularism” (Attorney General Bill Barr’s phrase) out of the machinery of governance, conservative evangelical U.S. Christians today are trying to insinuate their faith ever-deeper into the nation’s fabric by entering into the halls of power and influencing public policy from within. That’s how we got “In God We Trust” banners on the walls of many American schools in the last several years, as Christian state legislators enacted laws allowing it, with U.S. Supreme Court acquiescence.
That said, I totally agree with Garfield’s stance on taxation and religion: the former should never benefit the latter.
And although all U.S. presidents, as far as they’ve revealed, have been Christian, many if not most shared Garfield’s wariness of church-state intermingling, despite the bald-faced religious “Trojan Horse” of the deep evangelical presence in the Trump administration and faith-pandering Trumpian “conservativism” in general.
Even famously evangelical former President Jimmy Carter (1977-1981), a devout Southern Baptist and Sunday School teacher, was wary of religious encroachment in the tax-funded public square.
“I think the government ought to stay out of the prayer business,” he once said, according to AU.
When uber-conservative North Carolina Sen. Jesse Helms in 1979 tried to slip an amendment calling for “voluntary” prayer in an education bill, President Carter, when asked by an Associated Press reporter about its constitutionality, replied that he was concerned about situations where children “would feel constrained to pray.”
Exactly. The “voluntary” prayer Sen. Helms was trying to sneak into law was the kind where a school district organizes a prayer for a school event and students can “choose” whether they want to participate or not.
The problem as always, is that Christian students have generally been the majority in U.S. schools, so children not wanting to participate in Christian prayers would be effectively isolated and discriminatively marginalized among their peers.
Former President Ulysses S. Grant (1869-77), was unqualified in most views he held, including his defense of church-state separation. In a speech to Civil War veterans in Iowa in 1875, he said, according to History.com:
“Resolve that neither the state nor nation, nor both combined, shall support institutions of learning other than those sufficient to afford to every child growing up in the land the opportunity of a good common school education, unmixed with sectarian, pagan, or atheistical dogmas. Leave the matter of religion to the family altar, the church, and the private school, supported entirely by private contributions. Keep the church and state forever separate.”
Ironically, President Garfield’s assassin — Charles J. Guiteau, a one-time preacher — believed, in a “flash” of inspiration in bed one night, that God wanted him to murder the president. He even claimed at his trial, where he pled not guilty by reason of insanity, that the assassination had been “God’s act and not mine.”
Unfortunately, no state can keep itself separate from that kind of religion. So we should focus on the other kind.
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