As Ted Olsen's recent CT web log notes, some recent remarks by Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry on the abortion question have raised once again the question of whether a Christian politician may act on his professed faith-based principles to "legislate morality" for Americans who don't share these beliefs. (Interestingly, this question was raised most famously in modern American politics during the campaign of another Roman Catholic presidential hopeful—John Fitzgerald Kennedy.)

Reading Ted's piece put me in mind of a Christian History newsletter written a couple of years ago by former CH managing editor (and current senior editor) Elesha Coffman. Cautioning us to think twice before assuming we know what "separation of church and state" meant to the founders, Elesha used a few choice excerpts from a CH article by American church historian Harry Stout to illustrate how different their world was from ours. Here is that newsletter:

Debates like those swirling around school vouchers and the Pledge of Allegiance inevitably spark arguments about the religion of America's chief architects. If we could just tease out what the framers of the Constitution believed and intended, the refrain goes, we could settle all of these nagging church-state questions. Several people think they've already found sufficient evidence to close the major cases.

Of the many problems with this line of thinking, perhaps the greatest is that 2002 [or 2004!] is not 1789. As the following excerpts from Yale historian Harry S. Stout's article in CH issue 50: Christianity and the American Revolution should show, even one of the most-studied stretches of this country's own past is a wildly foreign country.

• [In 1775,] there are no presidents or vice-presidents, no Supreme Court justices or public defenders to call on. … In many colonies, including Massachusetts, there are not even elected governors or councilors—they have all been appointed by the British crown and are answerable to it.

• Over the span of the colonial era, American ministers delivered approximately 8 million sermons, each lasting one to one-and-a-half hours. The average 70-year-old colonial churchgoer would have listened to some 7,000 sermons in his or her lifetime, totaling nearly 10,000 hours of concentrated listening. This is the number of classroom hours it would take to receive ten separate undergraduate degrees in a modern university, without ever repeating the same course!

• Events were perceived not from the mundane, human vantage point but from God's. The vast majority of colonists were Reformed or Calvinist, to whom things were not as they might appear at ground level: all events, no matter how secular or seemingly random, were parts of a larger pattern of meaning, part of God's providential design. The outlines of this pattern were contained in Scripture and interpreted by discerning pastors.

• [Today] taxation and representation are political and constitutional issues, having nothing to do with religion. But to eighteenth-century ears, attuned to lifetimes of preaching, the issues were inevitably religious as well.

• When understood in its own times, the American Revolution was first and foremost a religious event.

Partisans and scholars disagree regarding the extent to which what was true for the "average" colonist was also true for such towering figures as George Washington, James Madison, and Thomas Jefferson. On some subjects—notably the infallibility of Scripture and the role and significance of divine providence—these leaders seem to have been significantly out of step with a large majority of their contemporaries.

Still, it is inconceivable that these men had more in common with anyone today than with nearly everyone in their own day. The clues to the founders' religious feelings, and thus to their probable opinions on current events, are embedded too deep in historical sediment to be easily accessed or applied.

To purchase CH issue 50, visit the CH store: