In his 1802 letter to the Danbury Baptist Association, then-President Thomas Jefferson made it clear that the intent of the founders was to maintain a "wall of separation between church and state." It was for that reason, Jefferson explained, that the First Amendment to the Constitution barred the government of the new nation from engaging in the promotion of a particular religion.
Jefferson and the other founders had no doubts about the need to prevent any mingling of the affairs of church and state. They had seen the damage done to government and religion by the state religions of Europe -- particularly, though not exclusively, King George III's Church of England -- and they wanted to assure that the United States would avoid the patterns of hatred, discrimination and violence that arise when one faith is officially sanctioned. They also recognized the advantages that came with keeping politicians out of pulpits and preachers out of policymaking. Though many of the founders were Christians, they held dramatically different views regarding the practice of religion. And, as George Washington and others made clear, they respected the contributions made to the new Republic by Jews and other non-Christians.
History has proven the concerns of the founders to have been well placed. When Jefferson's wall has been maintained, the American experiment has been at its best: welcoming, tolerant, open to new ideas and respectful of science, reason and progress.
When the wall has been undermined, however, the country has often degenerated into bitterness and dysfunction.
Fights over religion have caused divisions so serious that they have warped not just politics but basic human interactions at the hometown level.
Certainly, that has been the case in recent years in several southern states.
The highest profile fight has been seen in Alabama, where a local judge named Roy Moore began stirring controversy in the late 1990s by ordering the display of the Ten Commandments in his DeKalb County courtroom. Moore argued that the United States was founded on Christian principles such as those contained in the list of Biblical injunctions, and that it thus was appropriate to display them in a prominent location as a set of guiding principles.
But Moore's true intent, which was obvious from the start, was to stir up support among Christian fundamentalists for his political ambitions. He tried to undermine the wall of separation between church and state in order to provoke a high-profile fight that would identify him as a "defender of the faith" against the "threats" posed by secularism that Jefferson, Madison and other founders clearly believed was essential to the success of the Republic.
To be sure, Moore is a sly politician. He parlayed the Ten Commandments controversy into a successful run in 2000 for the state Supreme Court, where as that body's chief justice he ordered the display of the Ten Commandments in front of the court building.
The ensuing fight made national news, and created fierce tensions in Alabama. Moore, who was forced to step down as chief justice, entertained the notion of seeking the presidency as a "Christian" challenger to President Bush in 2004 and is now talking about running for governor of Alabama in 2006.
But, while Moore may be a sly politician, he is a poor reader of the Constitution.
That fact was confirmed Monday by the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled in a 5-4 decision that the Ten Commandments cannot be displayed by government agencies in a manner intended to suggest a church-state connection.
The decision in a case involving the display of framed copies of the Ten Commandments in two Kentucky courthouses saw the high court's majority -- which included Justices David Souter, John Paul Stevens, Sandra Day O'Connor, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer -- signal that the Biblical document cannot be so showcased by a government agency when there is a "predominantly religious purpose" in doing so. A second decision, in a related case from Texas, maintained the flexibility that has traditionally been seen in debates about such matters -- with the court permitting reasonable displays of the Ten Commandments in historical and educational contexts.
Make no mistake, however, about the Supreme Court's clear intent.
The majority's overall message was clear: It is unconstitutional for politicians to use the Ten Commandments, or any other statement of religious principle, as battering ram against the Mr. Jefferson's wall.
John Nichols is the author of Against the Beast: A Documentary History of American Opposition to Empire (Nation Books) and has written extensively about religion and politics.