Thomas Jefferson observed in his January 1, 1802 letter to the Danbury Baptists that America was not a church state.
As such, he explained, it was the president’s duty to refrain from displays of religious devotion.
“Believing with you that religion is a matter which lies solely between man & his god, that he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship, that the legitimate powers of government reach actions only, and not opinions, I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof, thus building a wall of separation between church and state,” wrote Jefferson. “[Congress thus inhibited from acts respecting religion, and the Executive authorized only to execute their acts, I have refrained from presenting even occasional performances of devotion presented indeed legally where an Executive is the legal head of a national church, but subject here, as religious exercises only to the voluntary regulations and discipline of each respective sect.] Adhering to this expression of the supreme will of the nation in behalf of the rights of conscience, I shall see with sincere satisfaction the progress of those sentiments which tend to restore to man all his natural rights, convinced he has no natural right in opposition to his social duties.”
Note the phrase: “I have refrained from presenting even occasional performances of devotion presented indeed legally where an Executive is the legal head of a national church…”
Now, note, George W. Bush’s Easter Weekend radio address, in which the Jefferson’s successor as president of the United States, quoted from and repeatedly referenced the Christian Bible. The address was every bit as religious in tone and text as those delivered today by the leaders of theocratic states that identify as having an officially-sanctioned faith.
Sounding more like a pastor than a president, Bush spoke of remembering remember “a sacrifice that transcended the grave and redeemed the world” and “the gift that took away death’s sting and opened the door to eternal life.”
Bush, like every American, has a right to pronounce his religious beliefs.
But when he does so as president — particularly in a nationally broadcast radio address — he goes beyond an expression of faith.
The president speaks not merely for himself but for the country.
That ought to be unsettling both to secularists and to sincere people of faith — especially when Bush declares, with a bias more toward the “Onward Christian Soldiers” camp than the “thou shalt not kill” teachings of the Nazarene’s followers, that “America is blessed with the world’s greatest military…”
Perhaps, in light of that final comment, it is best to close with another quote from our third president.
“I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just,” wrote Jefferson, “(and) that His justice cannot sleep forever.”