Editor’s Note: This piece was originally published in July 2014.
A Gallup poll indicates that some 90 percent of Americans believe in God. That’s remarkable for a country as diverse as ours. Yet given the central role of faith in America’s development, it’s not particularly surprising. Any country where churches serve as polling places, where presidents lead prayer breakfasts, where legislative business opens with a chaplain’s prayer, where the chief magistrates enter the courtroom to the refrain, “God save the United States and this Honorable Court,” where currency is emblazoned with the phrase “In God We Trust,” is not as secular as we think. As we celebrate Independence Day, that’s a characteristic that should make Americans proud. No matter what the secularists say, faith has always played an important role in America: Our ancestors were people of intense faith, who came to this continent to build a society shaped by that faith.
Historian Isaac Kramnick notes that many of the Founders believed “religion was a crucial support of government.” As John Adams concluded, “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people.” In designing our government, the Founders envisioned church and state coexisting in America’s public square, and they erected heavy bulwarks to safeguard religion from government: Article VI of the Constitution makes clear that “no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under the United States.” So, the government cannot demand that a person confess—or renounce—a certain faith in order to serve in the public sector. More important, the First Amendment declares that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” America’s government is prohibited from creating or banning a religion.
In designing our government, the Founders envisioned church and state coexisting in America’s public square, and they erected heavy bulwarks to safeguard religion from government.
In other words, the Constitution set up a system designed to shield religion from government—not the other way around. Contrary to revisionist thinking, the Constitution says nothing about a “wall of separation” preventing people of faith from influencing their government. That phrase is lifted out of a letter from Thomas Jefferson to the Baptist Association of Danbury, which wrote the new president with concerns that “what religious privileges we enjoy … we enjoy as favors granted, and not as inalienable rights; and these favors we receive at the expense of such degrading acknowledgments, as are inconsistent with the rights of freemen.”
In response, Jefferson wrote, “I contemplate with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should ‘make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,’ thus building a wall of separation between Church and State.” He signed off by reciprocating “your kind prayers for the protection and blessing of the common father and creator of man, and tender you for yourselves and your religious association, assurances of my high respect and esteem.”
Jefferson’s point was to emphasize the rights of religious groups like the Danbury Baptists, who were being marginalized, if not persecuted, by local governments. Of the many things we can glean from this episode, three of the most important are: 1) people of faith were trying to influence their government, and Jefferson had no problem with it, 2) Jefferson sided with the religious group rather than the government, and 3) Jefferson closed his letter with a prayer.
The secularists won’t be confused by the facts, and so the argument about Jefferson’s meaning will go on. Perhaps this tension is good. At the very least, Americans have come to a consensus that we don’t want religion to control government (like the Islamic Republic of Iran) and we don’t want government to control religion (like the People’s Republic of China). But surely this doesn’t mean that we want government to be impervious to the influences of faith. Consider our history.
Sparrows and Nations
Twenty years before the Declaration of Independence, Gen. George Washington asked that a minister be assigned to his regiment.
It was Ben Franklin’s idea that Congress convene with a prayer. In 1775, he declared, “Henceforth prayers imploring the assistance of Heaven, and its blessings on our deliberations, be held in this assembly every morning before we proceed to business, and that one or more of the clergy of this city be requested to officiate in that service.
Jefferson, like some of the other Founders, may have been a deist, but his masterpiece announcing the nation’s birth invokes “the laws of nature and of nature’s God” and declares that all people are “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.”
Reminding us that the more things change, the more they stay the same, Franklin, a decade after America declared its independence, lamented that his countrymen had drifted away from God. “In the beginning of the contest with Great Britain, when we were sensible of danger, we had daily prayer in this room for the divine protection … All of us who were engaged in the struggle must have observed frequent instances of a superintending providence in our favor … And have we now forgotten that powerful friend? Or do we imagine that we no longer need his assistance?”
Franklin drove home his point with a powerful reference from scripture: “The longer I live the more convincing proofs I see of this truth—that God governs in the affairs of men. And if a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without his notice, is it probable that an empire can rise without his aid?”
In a prayer sent to the nascent nation’s governors, Washington wrote, “God, we make our earnest prayer that Thou wilt keep the United States in thy holy protection … that Thou wilt most graciously be pleased to dispose us all to do justice, to love mercy, and to demean ourselves with that charity, humility, and pacific temper of mind which were the characteristics of the Divine Author of our blessed religion.”
Adams closed his inaugural address by asking God to “continue His blessing upon this nation and its government.”
Jefferson called on the Almighty to “lead our councils to what is best.” In his second inaugural, he invoked the one “who led our forefathers, as Israel of old, from their native land, and planted them in a country flowing with all the necessaries and comforts of life; who has covered our infancy with his providence, and our riper years with his wisdom and power.”
And then there’s Lincoln, whose poetry-like prose was infused with references to God. When asked if he felt that God was on his side, Lincoln responded with words of wisdom and humility that should guide each of us, no matter our vocation: “My concern,” he explained, “is not whether God is on our side, but whether we are on God’s side.”
That’s a good way for a president to approach his job.
“Fervently do we pray,” Lincoln said after taking the oath of office a second time, “that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said, ‘the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether’ … With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in.”
As the late Richard John Neuhaus observed, “Lincoln’s second inaugural address, with its profound reflection on the mysteries of providence, is in some ways worthy of St. Augustine.”
But the role of faith in America is anything but ancient history: During World War II, when FDR and Churchill rendezvoused in the North Atlantic, they led a choir of sailors in singing three especially apt hymns: “Onward, Christian Soldiers”, “O God Our Help In Ages Past” and “Eternal Father Strong to Save.” At the height of the Cold War, President Kennedy declared, “Here on earth, God’s work must truly be our own.” When 9/11 awoke America to a new kind of war, President Bush went to the National Cathedral to reassure Americans, “The Lord of life holds all who die and all who mourn.” And President Obama openly speaks of how thankful he is, “especially in moments of trial or doubt,” for “God’s guiding hand.”
The bigger point is this: In America, faith is not quarantined from the public square.
The point here isn’t the reality of each man’s faith, or the sincerity of it, or the orthodoxy of it. The bigger point is this: In America, faith is not quarantined from the public square; neither are people of faith. In fact, God has always called His people into the public square.
Joseph served as Egypt’s prime minister. Moses was called into the public square to argue that God’s people had a right to assemble and to worship. Acting as heaven’s ambassador, Moses outlined God’s reasonable demands: “Let my people go, so that they may hold a festival to me in the desert.” Queen Esther used her political position to rescue her people from a holocaust. Paul shared the Good News at city-council meetings in Athens, with “high-ranking military officers and the prominent men” of Caesarea, and even with officials of mighty Rome.
God calls us to be in the world, which means we need to stay engaged in the public square.
Bigger than Big Government
“I do not know whether all Americans have a sincere faith in religion—for who can search the human heart?” Alexis de Tocqueville observed in Democracy in America, his timeless commentary on the people and government of the United States. “But I am certain that they hold it to be indispensable to the maintenance of republican institutions.”
What was true in the 19th century remains true in the 21st. It is not a particular faith that unites us as Americans so much as our respect for faith. That’s an important distinction. Respect for faith helps support our free society. It’s a constraining, even humbling, reminder that there is something bigger and more powerful than the individual or the government. We don’t have to worship on the same days or in the same ways to recognize this truth.
In such a setting Christ’s followers are free to enter into public debate. We’re free to worship and witness. And we’re free — at work, home, and play — to exhibit our hope for a Christ-redeemed, eternal future. For that, there’s enormous encouragement to pray, “God bless America.”