They could have come up with something completely different.
They had the power to shape things in a radically different way.
They could have built a system that guaranteed that their own personal views would be given special status.
Instead, they crafted the first sixteen words of the first amendment to the United States Constitution, words that would forever define the place of religion in this great American experiment.
Only sixteen words, but words both powerful and wise.
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion,
or prohibiting the free exercise thereof
It's part of what Americans call the Bill of Rights. This first part of the first amendment is comprised of two different sections.
The first part, sometimes called the establishment clause, prevents the government from setting up an official American religion. It also prevents the government from favoring any particular faith group over any other faith group - or over people who have no faith at all. This provision in the first amendment keeps government from supporting or propping up a particular religion or religion in general.
The second part of the amendment is sometimes called the free exercise clause. It prohibits the government from limiting the free expression of faith. This part of the founding documents allows Americans to worship as they choose - or not to worship at all. This clause of the first amendment legally and officially guarantees the open sharing of faith. Government is never to prohibit that free expression.
Sixteen simple words.
Do you ever wonder why the government won't declare that your particular faith is the "right" one? Do you ever wonder why the government won't proclaim that your religion is the official religion of our nation? Do you ever wonder why the government won't give your church money to do its work? Do you ever wonder why religious groups other than yours (especially groups that you don't care for) aren't limited in what they can do? Do you ever wonder why the government doesn't provide people with specific prayers to pray?
Well, the answer to all of those questions is . . . the founders. They could have done something completely different, but this is the way they wanted it to be. According to the first amendment, the government simply cannot favor one religion over another, or favor religion over no religion.
If that bothers you, blame the founders.
And do you ever wonder why you are absolutely free to gather with your friends for worship? Do you wonder why you can have Bible studies in your home? Do you wonder why you can talk about your faith out loud and in public? Do you wonder why you can share your faith freely and openly? Do you ever wonder why you are free to try to convince other people to embrace your religious views?
Well, the answer to all of those questions is . . . the founders. They could have done something completely different, but this is the way that wanted it to be. According to the first amendment, the government simply cannot prohibit the free expression of religion - your religion or the religion of someone else.
If that pleases you, thank the founders.
The founders, of course, knew that there were other options. In fact, they had already experienced some of those other options. From their past experience, they knew exactly what would happen if government got entangled with religion - either to help it along or to keep it under control.
Knowing what they knew, and having experienced what they had experienced, the founders chose a different path.
And the path they chose is a wonderful and distinctive part of the American story. It might, in fact, be the very best part of the American story.
The founders knew that the best thing for faith was for the government to leave it alone. The founders knew that people of faith could share their beliefs most powerfully and effectively without the help of the government. The founders also knew that it would be wrong for the government to inhibit the sharing of faith.
The founders knew that it was best to build a wall between church and state.
The founders were wise.
As a result of their wisdom, even today Americans live under the liberating power of these simple sixteen words.
Sometimes we tend to complain about the way things are. Sometimes we are inclined to be upset that we don't receive official help to spread our faith. Sometimes we can't understand why other groups seem to have the same rights and opportunities that we have.
Instead of complaining and being upset, we should praise God for the visionary wisdom of those who built the house that we live in.
The founders got it right.
The best that government can do for religion is simply to make sure that there is a level playing field, and then leave it alone.
When that happens, the truth will rise to the top.