We were the first country to found itself without an official cult, without an official protector god. In fact, that is the only new thing in the Constitution. Everything else had been around—federalism, bicameralism, tripartite branches, the independent judiciary. All those things had been around in theory and in practice. The only thing that was brand-new was the separation of church and state. Jefferson and Madison both said that this would free religion; it would protect religion. That turned out to be the case. In fact, the religiosity of America is astounding among the developed nations. It took off precisely after the Constitution was adopted.
There is a myth on the right that we started out as a very religious country and have been getting less and less religious ever since, which is the exact opposite of the truth. We were never less religious than in the 1770s, when only 17 percent of the people were churchgoers. The Second Great Awakening took off at the beginning of the 19th century, when the Methodists all of a sudden exploded, when there were more Methodist pastors than post officials.
So the country became more and more religious, and there was not the contamination of religion by politics that occurred in other countries and there was not the anticlericalism that was the result of that contamination.
So the separation of church and state did two things. It unleashed evangelical feelings and it tempered them. It tempered them with reason and rationality.
For instance, in the 18th century, it was almost impossible to launch an abolitionist movement, because slavery is approved in both the Jewish scripture and the Christian scripture. There is no word of criticism of slavery, and there is approval of it, in most cases. Actually, it's mandated in some parts of the Jewish scripture. So whenever you attacked slavery in the 18th century, you got the answer, "You're attacking the Bible. You're attacking God. If it's good enough for God, it's good enough for us."
It was Anthony Benezet and John Woolman and Quakers like that, who were undoubtedly very pious men, who said, "Wait a minute. You don't have to take everything in the Bible literally. There are certain things that are time-bound. There are certain things that are culturally conditioned, certain things that are not meant on the same level as the more important revelations." So, although every northern state had slavery at the beginning of the century, only one had it by the end, and the principal motive power in that was the Quaker abolitionist movement.
They were able to look at the Bible in ways that Augustine had pioneered in the fourth century, when he said that you don't have to take the apocalyptic predictions literally. He said, for instance, that we know that God did not create the world in six days, even though the Bible seems to say that. How do we know? He said, because we have read the Greek astronomers. We know the earth is round. When it's day on one side, it's night on the other. So there is no such thing as an absolute first day, second day, third day. He said this is symbolic language, and we have to try to get at what God is trying to teach us symbolically.
That kind of reasoned faith is something that the great evangelical outbursts have tried to smother. We are seeing it happen right now with Darwin, for instance. We see it when people assert a kind of religious sanction for things rather than reason about them. A good example of that is abortion. We are told that abortion is a religious issue. But it isn't. There is nothing in the Ten Commandments or all of Jewish scripture about abortion. There is nothing in the Sermon on the Mount or in all of the New Testament about abortion. There is nothing in the early creeds and confessions and counsels of the church.
The pope himself has said that it's a matter of natural law. What is the arbiter of natural law? Natural reason, not religion, not revelation, not church authority.
John Henry Newman said the pope's jurisdiction is revelation, not natural law. He has no jurisdiction over natural law.
So how do you decide a matter of natural law? You go to philosophers, embryologists, neurophysicists, other people who are reasoning on the matter, and you try to sort out what the issues are. For instance, we are often told that it's a matter of protecting life, human life. Ejaculated semen is human life. The ovulating woman's ovum is human life. You don't save those. You don't save every ejaculation. Even when they are joined, half of them fail to embed themselves in the womb. So that's a human life that goes away.
My hair is human life. It's growing; it's human. It's not canine. It's not foliage. We don't have to save it all.
So the question is not life, human life. The question is personhood. When does a fetus become a person? On that we can differ, because there are arguments on both sides.
In the past Augustine said, "I have no idea what the status of a fetus is, because it's not in scripture." Thomas Aquinas tried to argue from Aristotle's successive animations that the fetus begins as vegetable life, then becomes animal life, and only at the end becomes human life, when God infuses a soul. The idea that life begins at conception was not something that the medieval church believed. They went with Aquinas.
So all of the business about denying communion to a Catholic for allowing women to decide this very difficult matter is a misuse of religion. It's trying to intrude religion into the area of human reason, which is always dangerous to religion itself. We find that in war. Religious fanaticism tends to take over in wartime.
Lincoln didn't get carried away by religion, although his religion deepened during the war, as everything about him did—his prose, his thought, his humanity. What is interesting is that his religion was very close to that of the blacks. He became quite friendly with Frederick Douglass toward the end. The only time he ever referred to Jesus as the savior was in a meeting with blacks. What informs his second inaugural address is that feeling that the black religion has that the "whole people" has sinned, the "whole people" must be saved; we are all going to reach the Promised Land; we are all going to ride the Ark.
When he said in the second inaugural that we have all sinned and God is punishing us all, that was a very black theological point, opposed to the Calvinist individualism, that we go out and get saved on our own, and then only get accepted into the church.
So this struggle back and forth between reason and religion is something that comes in waves, in wartime, in times of great unrest, when there is a fear of rapid change. The two extremes have to temper each other, and they do in our best moments, in our Lincolns and our Benezets and our Dr. Kings and other of the great religious leaders in America.