Bible scholars tell us that religious leaders in the Holy Land around the time of Christ were criticized for building "a hedge about the law," meaning a set of strict rules and observances designed to keep people from accidentally straying over the line. The apparent motive was to make the everyday law more restrictive than the actual scriptural commandments so that people would be stopped well short of actually breaking them.
The trouble was, that led to mechanical observance of ritual and strangling requirements that drained religious observance of its meaning.
We're in a somewhat similar situation in the United States. The "law" as it is cited in the Bill of Rights reads simply: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof..."
The Founders had recently freed themselves of British rule and didn't want to repeat the excesses of its state-supported official church. That system meant the Church of England received government financial support and used its power to persecute those who didn't agree with it -- such as the Pilgrims and others seeking to obey their consciences.
My belief is that the Founders were more interested in trying to encourage free worship and a government built on religious openness than they were in trying to divorce it from a Supreme Being.
The trouble is, we've built a hedge about the law -- going far beyond the simple prohibition of state-sanctioned and financially supported churches that was originally intended. Virtually every semblance of religious fervor is being bleached out of our system because judges have ruled they could lead, even if in convoluted and improbable ways, toward an official religion.
One clue to the Founders' real intent is how the nation operated when they were still alive. Another clue is what they did and said. And that is especially true for George Washington, our first president and a man to whom we owe more debt than perhaps any other.
Washington made it clear how he felt in his first inaugural address (1789): "No People can be bound to acknowledge and adore the invisible hand, which conducts the Affairs of men more than the People of the United States. Every step, by which they have advanced to the character of an independent nation, seems to have been distinguished by some token of providential agency."
He was even more pointed in his farewell address (1796) and in essence warned us about what is happening today: "....Reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle."
And when we study the language used by Washington in an earlier circular to the states (1783), it's hard to imagine that he ever intended to totally separate church and state, words that aren't even found anywhere in the Constitution or its amendments:
"I now make it my earnest prayer, that God would have you, and the State over which you preside, in his holy protection, that he would incline the hearts of the Citizens to cultivate a spirit of subordination and obedience to Govern-ment, to entertain a brotherly affection and love for one another, for their fellow Citizens of the United States at large, and particularly for their brethren who have served in the Field, and finally, that he would most graciously be pleased to dispose us all, to do Justice, to love mercy, and to demean [comport] ourselves with that Charity, humility and pacific temper of mind, which were the Characteristicks of the Divine Author of our blessed Religion, and without an humble imitation of whose example in these things, we can never hope to be a happy Nation."
Washington clearly understood where our national happiness comes from and the need for our laws to be based on Divine underpinnings.
As has been aptly said by others: in a society where anything goes, everything does.