In the comment section of a recent post, I drew some fire for making the following, apparently shocking claim:
We [Americans] see America, from the Pilgrims who signed the Mayflower Compact to the Biblical scholars… who birthed the nation, to the spirit of sacrifice and charity that thrives to this very day, not as a nation of Christians (for that freedom is at the deepest core of our common philosophy) but as a Christian nation.
It seems that there is a growing belief that because our Founders were stalwart advocates for religious liberty, and because some of them had very nuanced and sometimes cynical views about organized religion, the United States was somehow conceived to be a secular nation. This belief is not only untrue, but detrimental to an adequate understanding of the underlying political philosophy of the founding, not least of all because it envisions the government as the nation instead of merely the organization through which the nation conducts its civil affairs, and more importantly because it betrays the singular belief that undergirds the entire American experiment: That the rights of man come not from government but from God.
When the Founders crafted the Constitution of the United States, they were not setting about to create a nation; they were setting about to create a system of government. The people of the United States had successfully waged war against Great Britain, formed alliances with foreign powers, brokered trade, and secured national debt before the current system of government was ever established. The Constitution merely created a system of administrative and judicial structures meant to represent the nation and to conduct the affairs of the people of that nation. This is perhaps best evidenced by the opening words to the document itself: “We the people of the United States… establish this Constitution for the United States of America.” The United States already existed. Its people created the Constitution to “form a more perfect Union… and to secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.”
The birth of the nation occurred in 1776 when the second Continental Congress adopted the Declaration of Independence. It was this document that “dissolved the political bands” which connected the people of America to the people of Great Britain and assumed for them “the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God” entitled them. It was also in this document that the Founders outlined the uniquely American philosophy of the legitimate rights of the governed. “Self-evident” truths, they called them: that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator (not afforded by their government) with certain un-alienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.”
Governments, says the Declaration, are formed to help man secure these rights and derive their power only from the consent of the people themselves. If government should exceed the people’s authority, or encroach upon the rights man received from his Creator (also called, in official documents by the same congress, “Providence,” “Almighty God,” “the Common Father,” “Nature’s God,” “God,” “Supreme Being,” “Holy Ghost,” and, wait for it, “Jesus Christ”), it was “the Right of the People to alter or abolish it.” The Founders then go on to cite, as the moral authority from which their philosophy is derived (rectitude as they called it), the “Supreme Judge” of the world, and call upon “Divine Providence” for their protection in carrying out their God-given rights.
It was hardly a secular origin then for these United States. Instead, a founding document that proposes a theory, really a theology of government, never enacted before. The people of this country are entitled by God to independent statehood. They were created by God with rights that no government can legitimately take away. Their philosophy was deemed morally correct because it has been judged so by God, and God will protect them in the execution of war against those that would subjugated them in violation of that philosophy. This is how the Founders viewed rightful governance, and this is the sort of government that they sought to give life when, a decade later, they drafted the Constitution of the United States.
Of the four claims about God and Americans outlined in the Declaration, it was the idea that man was made by God to be free that was the most radical, and which was so pivotal. The British press mocked it openly. It is, however, at the very heart of the founding ideology. If it is God who made men free, then Liberty is not a pragmatic imperative; it is a moral one. Governments that encroach on that liberty are not only violating the preferences of the governed, they are violating the very intention of God for government. For the Founders, this idea would fundamentally redefine the relationship between government and citizen. Man does not exist to be governed; governments exist to protect man’s freedom. Man does not owe government anything, other than what is necessary to aid that government in securing his basic rights. Likewise, government does not owe man anything other than protection from those who would intrude upon his freedom, be it his fellow citizen, foreign enemies, or the government itself.
It is this idea, above all others, that marked this country as unique among the nations of the world. It is an idea so deeply held by our Founders that many actually feared making references to the rights of man in the Constitution itself. They didn’t think they needed to. They also knew that to do so might one day be interpreted to mean that those rights were not natural at all, but rather were gifts from a benevolent master called the state. When the Bill of Rights was finally added, the Congress selected the language very carefully to make clear that the document was not bestowing rights on the people, but limiting the rights of government: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press, or the right of the people to peaceably assemble…,” “the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed,” “The right of the people to be secure… shall not be violated…” The Constitution doesn’t grant man rights; God does. The Constitution only protects those rights from the government. The idea that the Founders believed government must exist independent of God is thereby false since their own view of the rightful place of government was in the protection of the rights granted to man by his Creator.
The tired argument that the Founders were not Christians but Deists is not only false (there were more overtly Christian men among the Founders than even supposed Deists by orders of magnitude), but more importantly, it is irrelevant. Whatever the nuances of their personal faiths, the Founders were to-a-man theists, believers in God, and in the Christian tradition. While some of them, men like Franklin, Adams, and Jefferson, were skeptical of many of the miraculous claims of the Bible, they were none-the-less scholarly about and reverent toward what they saw as its philosophy, and its God. They may not have been Christians by the standards of the church, but they were certainly Christians by the standards of atheists. They believed in the God of the Bible and believed faith was critical to the workings of a free society. Not only that, but they made clear what they thought about the relationship between God and government in both word and deed. Franklin called for prayer at the Constitutional Convention and suggested spending government revenue on chaplains. Adams declared the Constitution was “made only for a moral and religious people…” and wrote the Massachusetts State Constitution, which required that its governors pledge their Christian faith in order to serve (This was considered a legitimate state law under the original reading of the First and Tenth Amendment). Jefferson spent federal revenue on Bibles, declared that the Bible should be taught in public schools, and approved of the use of federal buildings for church gatherings – including the capital building where he personally attended services during his presidency. Oh, and he wrote the Declaration of Independence.
Of course Jefferson also, in a letter to the Danbury Baptists, first coined the popular phrase, “Separation of Church and State,” which has been used for so long to inform a reading of the ‘Establishment Clause’ which seeks to excise all religious expression from public institutions. So how could he approve of the innumerable expressions of faith by himself and the government under his watch? It is important here to bear in mind the context of Jefferson’s thinking.
The Danbury Baptists were concerned that the First Amendment’s very existence might one day be taken to imply that it was the government who gave men religious freedom, not God, and therefore imply government could also take that freedom away (a possibility Alexander Hamilton had also raised in Federalist No. 84). The Baptists feared that this left open the possibility that at some point in the future the government might claim for itself the power to enforce religious edicts through civil coercion. This fear was not without historical precedent.
The original European settlers of what would become the United States of the Revolution were almost exclusively British. They were also immensely religious. That’s why they were here. After a millennia of state-religion mandated by Rome, Henry VIII had rejected the authority of the Pope in Britain and created a state-religion of his own. The Church of England made the king not only the ultimate political power in the land, but the ultimate religious authority as well. A violation of Henry’s religious positions was a violation of the law, and a violation of the law was heresy. The punishment was severe: Beheading, hanging, burning at the stake… Terrible things happen when civil and religious authority are mingled together.
The problem for Henry, and for Rome, was that a Reformation was also taking place. Men like Martin Luther and William Tyndale (who Henry had strangled and burned) had begun translating the Bible into common languages, giving the people the opportunity to explore God for themselves. What they discovered surprised them. In the Book of Exodus, God establishes a civil leader for his people in Moses. He also establishes a religious leader in Aaron. Then he does something really interesting: He commands that they remain separate forever. If the king tries to supersede the religious authority of the priesthood, God will destroy him, as he does in 2 Chronicles, cursing a king named Uzziah for conducting a religious rite in the temple. Of course, God was God of the state, as well as the religion. He gave guidance to Moses just as surely as he did to Aaron. He just precluded the civil leader from also being the religious leader. Undoubtedly, God understood that without that distinction, all kings would be like Henry VIII. Separation of church and state, then, is actually a Biblical principle.
When Jefferson’s own American forefathers, the Pilgrims, took sanctuary from religious persecution in this new world, they sought to be true to the Biblical teachings that their former rulers had violated. In America, as in Israel thousands of years before, government and religious authority would be forever separated, though just as in Israel, God would be God of both. God and religion, after all, are not the same thing. One is the Supreme Being over all, and the other is the institution by which he is taught and worshiped. Jefferson understood this distinction, which is why he could assure the Danbury Baptists that there was a “wall of separation between church and state,” ensuring that the government would never dictate or enforce religious decrees, while at the same time he also recognized God though the government, and based the legitimacy of both on him.
There is far more to say on this subject than could possibly be explored in one sitting: The fact that the opening lines of the most important state law concerning religious freedom discuss how God made the mind free though it was within his Almighty power not to as Lord of both and Author of our religion (Jefferson). There is Washington’s Presidential warning that no man can call himself a patriot and oppose religion, since it is intrinsically linked to free government. There is Congress authorizing an official translation of the Bible and Thanksgiving Proclamations calling upon Jesus Christ to forgive of our national sins. For nearly two centuries government was separated from religious authority by Jefferson’s wall, but there was simply no separation of the government and God. The Bible was read in schools, there were prayers at most public functions, churches continued to meet in federal buildings, and America’s rich Christian heritage was taught and celebrated, not denied, suppressed, and scorned. To be sure, there were always Americans of diverse faiths, but as the nation was settled by Christians, founded on the principles of Christianity, and peopled by an overwhelming majority of Christian citizens, it didn’t seem a terrible thing to consider her a Christian Nation. It was not until 1947, when the Supreme Court heard a case called Everson vs Board of Education, that the modern understanding of America as a secular nation was first introduced. In a stunning act of judicial activism, the court declared that Jefferson, in his Danbury Letter, in contradiction to earlier court rulings on the subject and to everything Jefferson himself had ever written including the Declaration and the actual letter itself, must have intended that the government be legally bound to secularism. This effectively turned two centuries of American history on its head. In the sixty years since, generations of Americans have been fed a radical reinterpretation of the Founders’ intent. Government, we are now taught, must protect the people from public expressions of, or support for, religion. God must be stripped from the public square, which is in large part why the true history of our founding has been so stripped from our schools. In this newly interpreted separation, the chief concern of our Founders seems to have been preventing anyone from encountering religion at all. That they often argued publicly that the republic could not survive without religion is ignored entirely, as is their own reliance on God for their authority to create the government in the first place. Like so many other issues in post-New Deal America, if the courts disagree with the Founders, they simply re-invent them, avoiding the sticky democratic practices of debate and legislation all together.
Since God no longer exists in government, and his history there is no longer taught, is it any wonder that millions upon millions of Americans believe, in utter opposition to the founding philosophy, that our rights come from the government? Where else would they come from? And should it be any surprise if those same Americans desire that the government give them other things as well? After all, if our rights are not by the grace of God but by the grace of government, then whoever controls the government has the ultimate authority over man. Government by definition can do no wrong. This is precisely the kind of thinking our Founders literally warred against. It is also precisely why Americans of all faiths should be proud to own America’s Christian Heritage, and why without it, America is lost.
“God who gave us life gave us liberty. And can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are the Gift of God? That they are not to be violated but with His wrath? Indeed, I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just; that His justice cannot sleep forever.” – Thomas Jefferson, “Deist”
“Whatever we once were, we are no longer a Christian Nation…” - Barack Obama, “Christian”