By Aubrey Hastings
Student Life Editor
One of the nation’s leading historians of America’s Revolutionary and early national experience, Dr. Richard Beeman is no stranger to Washington College. Dr. Beeman is a Senior Fellow of the C.V. Starr Center and the winner of the 2010 George Washington Book Prize. The C.V. Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience recently presented Beeman and his special series: “Inventing a Nation: A Special Series on the American Founding.”
Dr. Beeman has taught at the University of Pennsylvania for 43 years, and he is a member of the scholarly advisory board of the American Revolution Center and the Board of Trustees of the National Constitution Center. This former editor of American Quarterly has also written six books. Because of his elaborate career, Dr. Beeman has been endowed with several awards from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Rockfeller Foundation, the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton, and the Huntington Library.
This series, like all of Beeman’s lectures, strives to best bridge gaps between the past and present. In the lecture entitled “The Founders, Religion, and Separation of Church and State,” Beeman caused the Constitutional Convention of June 28, 1787 to come alive. He spoke of the individual Founding Fathers as if they were old personal friends and how they must have felt going into such a crucial moment for history. The “combustible mixture of politics and religion,” as Beeman referred to it, has been prevalent throughout history and is relevant very much so today. He emphasized this point by bringing into consideration the implications of “In God we trust” on our money – a debate that is alive and well today.
“From the very beginning of the formation of the colonies, religion and state matters have gone hand in hand,” said Beeman. “Never has a subject so divided us and yet still ultimately unite us. Religious toleration became the rule, not the exception in America. Increasing religious diversity made separation of church and state not only the most just thing to do, but the most practical thing to do.”
Being the animated, enthusiastic, and articulate historian he is, Beeman explained that the phrase separation of church and state is not technically written in any official documentation, but came from a personal letter written by Thomas Jefferson to the Danbury Baptists in 1802, assuring them of their right to worship freely. The phrase stuck throughout American history and has been instrumental in understanding the First Amendment.
Interpreting the First Amendment stating, “Government shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibit the free exercise thereof,” has been the issue for years. “In 1962, it was decided by the Supreme Court that prayer in public schools violated the establishment clause by promoting Christian principles. As much as school boards have tried to get around this issue, the Supreme Court has held firm to its decision. The question of how high the wall should be is the issue still in America today.”
Religion and politics are forever intertwined subjects and Dr. Beeman agrees. Americans often disagree greatly on how the Constitution should be interpreted and with each generation interpretations are changing, but the role of religion in public life remains prominent and steady in our highly religious nation.