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America and Washington State

By Dr. Joseph B. Fuiten, June 30, 2013


Psalm 33:4-22 - "For the word of the Lord is right and true; he is faithful in all he does. The Lord loves righteousness and justice; the earth is full of his unfailing love. By the word of the Lord were the heavens made, their starry host by the breath of his mouth. He gathers the waters of the sea into jars; he puts the deep into storehouses. Let all the earth fear the Lord; let all the people of the world revere him. For he spoke, and it came to be; he commanded, and it stood firm. The Lord foils the plans of the nations; he thwarts the purposes of the peoples. But the plans of the Lord stand firm forever, the purposes of his heart through all generations. Blessed is the nation whose God is the Lord, the people he chose for his inheritance. From heaven the Lord looks down and sees all mankind; from his dwelling place he watches all who live on earth - he who forms the hearts of all, who considers everything they do. No king is saved by the size of his army; no warrior escapes by his great strength. A horse is a vain hope for deliverance; despite all its great strength it cannot save. But the eyes of the Lord are on those who fear him, on those whose hope is in his unfailing love, to deliver them from death and keep them alive in famine. We wait in hope for the Lord; he is our help and our shield. In him our hearts rejoice, for we trust in his holy name. May your unfailing love rest upon us, O Lord, even as we put our hope in you." 


From the earliest days of the Pilgrims, there has been a strong Christian impulse in this land called America.  They came seeking the freedom to worship God without constraint of government or institutions.  Of the 270 Founding Fathers, all but twelve of them would have been Bible-believing people of the type we could agree with.  They began this country against the greatest superpower of their day and against all odds.  Leaders routinely saw in the developments the Supreme Being looking down and guiding in the affairs of this fledgling nation. The Lord, not the size of the army, would determine the outcome of the Revolution. That mentality didn't change very soon.


Several of the state constitutions in the late 1700's required anyone seeking public office to believe in Jesus and heaven and hell, among other biblical ideas and teachings.  The laws passed were based upon biblical values and concepts. People believed that adherence to God's laws were the key to God's blessing in the nation.  They believed a nation is blessed if God is their Lord.  Many leading academics have labeled the American Revolution a quasi-religious event.  Even the idea of religious freedom embodied in the Bill of Rights was a religious idea that people should be free to serve God without interference from state or other institutions.


Of course, it was uneven.  Spiritual history has a way of rising and falling with the early history of America no exception.  There were times of rebellion against God and times of great revival.  Around 1800 there was great apostasy on university campuses around the country.  Alcoholism rates were high.  In the Civil War, Union venereal disease rates ran about 9%.


There were strong spiritual dynamics at play in the founding of our own state.  First, Congress had allocated federal money, $10,000 to be exact, to fund Methodist Missionaries into these territories in order to convert the population to Christianity.


Then, Federal legislation paved the way for the State of Washington to be formed, but along certain lines.  Justice Robert F. Utter and Professor Edward J. Larson in Hastings Constitutional Law Quarterly, Spring 1988 edition, detailed some of the spiritual dynamics.  Their article, "Church and State on the Frontier:  The History of the Establishment Clauses in the Washington State Constitution" gives a very clear history of how this clause came to be.


The Washington Constitutional Convention was restricted by the Federal Enabling Act which required the convention to include a provision for "the establishment and maintenance of a system of public schools, which shall be open to all children...and free from sectarian control."[1]


By looking at the Enabling Act, we get some sense of the meaning of this provision.  US Senator William W. Blair, Chairman of the Senate Education Committee saw a precise meaning in the term sectarian.  "This meaning was apparent in the proposed amendment which, while barring sectarian instruction, would have required the free public school to educate children 'in virtue, morality, and the principles of the Christian religion.'"[2]



Utter summarized the view of Blair:  "Blair clearly did not intend the public school provision of the Enabling Act to prohibit instruction on religious principles.  He believed that this instruction did not constitute promotion of sectarian religion.  Quite to the contrary, he intended that the Act would advance the teaching of Christian principles without advancing sectarianism."[3]  Blair's views are even more important than his decisive influence on the Federal Enabling Act. He also had tremendous influence in Olympia.


A significant majority of delegates to the Washington Constitutional Convention were Republicans.  More significantly, they were Blair Republicans.  The Washington territorial delegations to the Republican National conventions in 1876, 1880, and 1884 had backed Blair for President.  Even in 1892 they backed Blair over incumbent Republican Benjamin Harrison.  The delegation "also supported his well-known and long-standing views on religious establishment and common schools."[4]


Far from opposing generic Christian principles in education, the Enabling Act had a more immediate target.  With the arrival of huge numbers of immigrants, particularly Irish Catholics who were protective of their traditions and objected to the heavily Protestant flavor of the public schools, a contest of wills began.  Blair, and the majority in Congress, did not wish to see Catholic schools to benefit from public funding.  Since Catholic schools were clearly sectarian, they could be prevented with restrictions on sectarian control or influence.


At both the Federal and State Convention level, there was general agreement that prayer and Bible reading in the schools were acceptable, but teaching the particular values of one sect of Christianity was improper.


At the Constitutional Convention, there were attempts to change the word "sectarian" to "religious".  M. M. Godman commented that he "didn't see how anything could exclude religious 'influence'... Control was all that the constitution could prohibit."[5]


The various votes, including the "sectarian" clause, showed that the convention believed in "the common school movement, which maintained that public schools should present wholesome, nonsectarian religious influence by teaching about general religious principles."[6]  This idea permeated the 1889 annual report of the Superintendent of Public Instruction.  SPI supported religious principles taught in the public schools.  In his individual report, San Juan County superintendent E. C. Gillette said "The public school may well be considered...not only the pillar of the state, but the means whereby we are enabled to minister to our spiritual needs."[7]


The historical record is plain enough that the Constitution does not envision the present disastrous state of hostility to religious and Christian values in public education and public life generally.  The shift has not taken place democratically in most cases.  Rather by legal redefinitions the "robed masters" have done this with the public dutifully following. 


This digression into Washington State and US history is only meant to illustrate that government started out wanting to promote Christian values and morality within the citizens of our state.  That has now changed.  Virtue or morality cannot now be taught or upheld because that would require defining the morality.  Now it is all about the freedom of the individual to do whatever they want without anyone having anything to say about it.  That is a complete reversal of how Washingtonians saw it just over 100 years ago.  The handwriting was on the legal wall over a decade ago when US Supreme Court Justice Kennedy wrote "an emerging awareness that liberty gives substantial protection to adult persons in deciding how to conduct their private lives in matters pertaining to sex..."  That idea inevitably led to the DOMA decision last week and the general demise of desiring Christian values to be expressed in our laws and public institutions.


In fact, America and Washington State did sustain "liberty" like that as long as the Christian base remained intact.  However, as Christian numbers have declined so has the ability to sustain that kind of liberty.  But the potency of Christians has fallen even more dramatically than the raw numbers.  Churchgoers are still a significant majority, even in this state.  However, discipleship is so low now that far too many church-going people do not think or act like Christians.  Too many have been secularized or have apostatized from the faith of our fathers.  I think Jesus said something about "If the salt has lost its savor....."


This is our home, such as it now is.  It is our job to be salt and light, to live our lives before people that they can see our good works and glorify our Father in heaven.  


[1] Enabling Act, ch. 180, section 4, 25 Stat.676-77 (1889), cited in the Hastings article mentioned, page 458.  Hereafter, the original source will be cited without reference to the article in Hastings.

[2]Utter and Larson, quoting from S. 86, 50th Cong. 1st Sess (1888).  2.

[3] Utter and Larson, p. 461-62.

[4] Id. 468-69.

[5] Spokane Falls Review, August 11, 1889, at 2, col 6.

[6] Utter and Larson, p. 477.

[7] Report of the Superintendent of Public Instruction of the Territory of Washington (1889)

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Dr. Joseph B. Fuiten is the senior pastor of Cedar Park Church in Bothell, Washington, and he is the former president of Washington Evangelicals for Responsible Government and the Positive Christian Agenda. Currently, Pastor Fuiten is a founding member of the Family Policy Institute of Washington, an associate organization of Focus on the Family.