5 People Who Bravely Fought Christian Takeover of America
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The “no Christian nation” language in the treaty is strong evidence that early American leaders did not view the country that way. It helps handily debunk the Religious Right’s assertions that the United States was founded to be a “Christian nation.”
3. Gulian C. Verplanck: The year was 1832, and a cholera epidemic was ravaging the countryside. Doctors at the time where helpless, as there was no reliable treatment against the dreaded disease. As bodies piled up, Congress decided to appeal for divine intervention, and a day of fasting, humiliation and prayer was proposed.
President Andrew Jackson was skeptical. Asked if he would issue such a proclamation, Jackson said no. Advising people to pray, Jackson asserted, fell outside of his job description.
“I could not do otherwise without transcending the limits prescribed by the Constitution for the president; and without feeling that I might in some degree disturb the security which religion now enjoys in this country in its complete separation from the political concerns of the General Government," Jackson wrote in a letter to a religious group.
But Congress would not give up. Prodded by Sen. Henry Clay, the Senate passed the proclamation anyway. It looked like it would sail through the House of Representatives as well, until an unprepossessing man with the unlikely name of Gulian C. Verplanck stepped up to the speaker's podium on July 9.
In measured tones, Verplanck explained exactly why government-sponsored prayer is offensive.
"[I]t seems to me clear that whenever Congress or any other political body in this country meddles in affairs of religion, they must run counter more or less to the spirit of our free institutions, securing equal religious rights," Verplanck asserted. "In this land, where every man’s faith is protected, and no man’s faith is preferred, even a resolution or a proclamation for a fast from the civil authority may offend the consciences or wound the feelings of some or the other of our citizens.”
Verplanck’s colleagues were swayed by his powerful rhetoric: The proclamation died in the House.
So Verplanck was some kind of radical secularist, right? Not quite. Before serving in Congress, he was a professor at the General Theological Seminary in New York City.
4. Ulysses S. Grant: U.S. Grant is best known for being a hard fighting (and hard drinking) Civil War general and later a scandal-plagued president. His advocacy of church-state separation is less well known.
Grant had his share of problems during his presidency, but on the issue of church-state separation he showed true leadership. Sadly, this tends to get overlooked today.
During Grant’s presidency, the concept of tax-supported public education began to slowly spread across the nation. More and more states were adopting laws establishing public schools and even mandating attendance. But there was a problem: People could not agree on what role religion should play in the schools.
In 1844, there were riots in Philadelphia between Catholics and Protestants over what version of the Bible would be read in schools. Tensions simmered for years. Protestants insisted that since they were the majority in the country, the schools should reflect their theology. Catholics fumed that their rights were being violated and proposed that the federal government give them money to start their own schools that would inculcate Catholicism.
Grant had a better idea: No tax money for religious schools and no religious worship in the public schools. Keeping public schools secular, Grant proposed, would be in the best interests of the nation.
On Sept. 30, 1875, Grant addressed a gathering of former Union soldiers. He could have played it safe and offered some reminisces about the war. Instead, he decided to address the school issue.