The Magazine

Up Against the Wall

If only the Supreme Court had Washington's clarity.

Feb 16, 2009, Vol. 14, No. 21 • By KEVIN R. KOSAR
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I now make it my earnest prayer that God would have you, and the State over which you preside, in his holy protection; that he would incline the hearts of the citizens to cultivate a spirit of subordination and obedience to government, to entertain a brotherly affection and love for one another, for their fellow-citizens of the United States at large, and particularly for brethren who have served in the field; and finally that he would most graciously be pleased to dispose us all to do justice, to love mercy, and to demean ourselves with that charity, humility, and pacific temper of mind, which were the characteristics of the Divine Author of our blessed religion, and without an humble imitation of whose example in these things, we can never hope to be a happy nation.

In his first inaugural address, Washington exhorted Congress to devise policy based on the "pure and immutable principles of private morality," rather than local prejudices or partisanship. He proclaimed that God was active in human affairs and beneficent. However, he cautioned that heaven would not smile on "a nation that disregards the eternal rules of order and right." In letters and speeches, Washington urged that it is "our common duty to pay the tribute of gratitude to the greatest and best of Beings," and to "acknowledge our infinite obligations to the Supreme Ruler of the Universe."

According to Ross and Smith, Washington did not view government and religion as adversaries that needed to be separated by a wall. Rather, he perceived a "mutually beneficial relationship" with government protecting and encouraging the free exercise of religion, and religion nurturing the values that sustained Republican self-governance.

"Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity," Washington wrote, "Religion and morality are indispensable supports. .  .  . great Pillars of human happiness, the firmest props of the duties of Men & citizens." In those instances where religion and government were at cross purposes, free exercise should be indulged unless it imperiled the nation's "essential Interests."

The Supreme Court may not be able to start church-state jurisprudence anew, but it can candidly admit its error. The late Chief Justice William Rehnquist put matters succinctly: "Whether due to its lack of historical support or its practical unworkability, the Everson 'wall' has proved all but useless as a guide to sound constitutional adjudication. .  .  . It should be frankly and explicitly abandoned."

Kevin R. Kosar is a writer in Washington.