Director, Commonwealth Policy Center

September 17 marks the 228th anniversary of the signing of the U.S. Constitution. It’s the longest surviving constitution among nations today, perhaps because it protects basic human rights, secures individual liberty and provides checks and balances from an overreaching federal government that would infringe on freedom. It’s something to celebrate, but most Americans don’t know what it says.

According to a September 16 survey by the Annenberg Public Policy Center, less than one-third of Americans could name the three branches of government. The same number couldn’t even name one. One-third believe that owning a home is protected by the Bill of Rights and 12 percent believe that owning a pet is a constitutional guarantee. Such numbers indicate our civic understanding has gone to the dogs.

We have become a people more confident that we are informed. That is why so many are quick to charge Rowan Clerk Kim Davis with violating the “separation of church and state”  and “imposing her religion” by not issuing marriage licenses to homosexual couples. Before I’m accused of barking up the wrong tree by bringing Davis into the mix, consider what the First Amendment to the Constitution says.

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” It’s clearly a restriction on Congress. It prevents the federal government from establishing a national church, not a county clerk from appealing to her “free exercise thereof.” Interestingly, the First Amendment didn’t restrict states from establishing churches, which several did at the time those words were penned. Massachusetts was the last state with an official religion until Congregationalism was disestablished in 1833.

The First Amendment doesn’t contain the phrase “separation of church and state.” It actually came from a letter Thomas Jefferson wrote to a group of Connecticut Baptists who were concerned about the state entangling itself in religious affairs. Jefferson assured them that there was a wall of separation between the two. In fact Jefferson, who penned the Declaration about a Creator endowing us with rights, once proposed financially supporting a Catholic missionary with federal funds. So what gives?

Of course, the founders realized the roles of church and state are separate and shouldn’t be conflated. Government isn’t responsible for evangelizing or overseeing the spiritual development of its citizens. Nor should it subsidize churches or punish people for failing spiritual obligations. Government is not Sunday School. But when Sunday lessons don’t take hold and crimes are perpetrated against others, the state steps in.

The genius of the U.S. Constitution is that it presupposes a higher law and source of rights above government without imposing a national religion or coercing individual belief. Indeed, Article VI forbids religious tests for federal officeholders (although states had religious tests—eight states still have laws on that books, although unenforceable, restricting atheists form holding office). However, the Constitution never required laws to be secular in origin or officeholders to check their most deeply held religious values in at the door. What else would inform their conscience and behavior?

Implicit recognition of God and higher law deftly made their way into our civil law without being overbearing or tyrannical. When the Constitutional Convention was on the verge of breaking down on June 28, 1787 a frail Benjamin Franklin arose and implored his fellow delegates to pray, just as they had done in the beginning of the Revolution.  “Our prayers, Sir, were heard, and they were graciously answered… .  And have we now forgotten that powerful friend? I have lived, Sir, a long time, and the longer I live, the more convincing proofs I see of this truth that God governs in the affairs of men. And if a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without his notice, is it probable that an empire can rise without his aid? We have been assured, Sir, in the sacred writings, that "except the Lord build the House they labour in vain that build it." I firmly believe this; and I also believe that without his concurring aid we shall succeed in this political building no better than the Builders of Babel… .”

That a fiercely independent people who separated from the world’s greatest power after a long and costly war could come together and create such a magnificent document birthing a new federal government is incredible. That they refused to establish an official religion without divorcing God from government is a miracle.

This column appeared in the September 18, 2015 edition of the Lexington Herald-Leader.