By Mary Kate Sheppard and Bethany Ward, Staff Writers–


Separation of church and state: What would the Founding Fathers think?

Harvard University Press writer Andrew Porwancher set out to answer this question as he gave the ninth annual University of Tennessee at Chattanooga Dr. Richard Gruetzemacher Constitution Day Lecture Series, which took place on Tuesday, Sept. 17th at 7:30 in the University Center auditorium. In the lecture, he highlighted the challenges of church and state in modern America through the lens of the Founding Fathers.

Porwancher earned his PhD in History from the University of Cambridge and is now under contract with the Harvard University Press for his book on Alexander Hamilton. He additionally serves as the Wick Cary Associate Professor at the University of Oklahoma and teaches primarily about Constitutional History.

Porwancher is an Alexander Hamilton fanatic (he says the broadway musical is “pretty accurate,”) and he is also the youngest professor in history to speak at the UTC Constitution Day Lecture.

The UC auditorium was filled with UTC students, faculty and staff, and many community members, including students from surrounding high schools. Instantly, Porwancher hooked the audience’s attention by telling us that he was going to tell three stories: one about a famous trial, one about a famous address, and one about a giant block of cheese…

Porwancher’s lecture detailed his perspective on the ways that the Founding Fathers (Alexander Hamilton, George Washington, James Madison, and Thomas Jefferson, specifically) might approach some of the modern challenges of church and state that we confront in modern America.

He began his captivating and entertaining lecture by telling of Alexander Hamiliton’s famous trial when the Founding Father demanded that people be viewed equally through the eyes of the law, despite their religious background. In the midst of telling the story, Porwancher reminded us of his favoritism towards Hamilton by flashing the Alexander Hamiliton socks he was wearing.

The second story was about George Washington’s farewell address to the public. The address, which was originally written by James Madison, was sent back and forth between Washington and Hamilton. In the end, George Washinton that church and state could not rightfully exist without the other. In Washington’s Farewell Address from 1796, he stated “national morality [cannot] be maintained without religious principle.”

Then, Porwancher continued to his last story, which was about the giant wheel of cheese. A 200 pound, 17 inch wide wheel of cheese was delivered to President Thomas Jefferson’s doorstep with the words ‘Rebellion to Tyrants is Obedience to God’ cut into its crust. 

Jefferson had an “anxiety about religious authority” and believed the Bible was “defective, repulsive, and degrading,” Porchwacher said.

More copies were printed of Washington’s Farewell Address than were of Declaration of Independence until Thomas Jefferson wrote a letter to the Danbury Baptist church in 1802 that forever altered the course of modern day culture, Porwancher noted. Jefferson stated that there shouldn’t be laws respecting or restricting religion, thus building a wall of separation between church and state. The Supreme Court later raises the Danbury letter to Constitutional doctrine.

Alternatively, James Madison had a middle ground perspective, stating that “religion… of every man must be left to the conviction and conscience of every man; and it is the right of every man to exercise it.”

Judge Jackson, who took part in the West Virginia v. Barnette (1943) case, would have agreed with Madison, stating that “If there is any fixed star in our Constitutional constellation it is that no official, high or petty, should subscribe what should be orthodox in politics, nationalism, or religion.” Washington and Hamilton would have certainly agreed with that belief that religion should never be forced.     

These cases throughout history teach us that “each of these founders, in their own way, cherished religious freedom,” Porwancher explained.

“Yes they disagreed on the contours of the relationship between church and state,” he continued. “But we must not let the depth of that disagreement obscure for us that there was much more that they agreed on…the establishment clause plainly prohibits the creation of a singular state sanction American church.”

After Porwancher completed his lecture, the floor was open for an open forum question and answer. Several people participated in the Q&A, asking questions about what the Founding Fathers’ would have thought about hot topics like gay marriage, religion as a defense in court, government support for “religious” cults, and even vaccinations.

One of the members in attendance was Ms. Nancy, a middle school history teacher. Ms. Nancy is a UTC alum and studied history and english while at Chattanooga. This year was her third year attending the Constitution Day Lecture. 

Commenting on the lecture, she stated that “all the lectures have been fantastic” and that she “enjoyed the lecture very much.”

When asked about her favorite part of the lecture, she simply laughed and said, “The whole thing! I loved how he incorporated the Danbury letter, talking about how people misuse it and mistake it for the Constitution.”

“I loved his humor and enthusiasm,” Ms. Nancy said, “Plus, I loved his Alexander Hamilton socks. I meant to ask him where he got those.”

Ms. Nancy’s main takeaway from the lecture was that she felt that she needed to rethink her idea of separation of church and state, especially now that she knows how the Founding Fathers viewed religion and government. Leaving the lecture, she felt challenged to examine her ideas and enlightened to tell others about the lessons she learned.

Porwancher offered his genuine conviction that the vast majority of Americans cherish religious freedom as one of our national principles. “It has always been in the American DNA. It is enshrined in our founding documents.”

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