What Makes America Great?

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The current occupant of the Oval Office got there on the promise to “Make America Great Again.” And while Lady Liberty lost some of her luster from the rearguard position of the last Administration, her greatness endures and is the reason America has an immigration problem—scratch that, crisis.

Foundations
Five decades after America gained independence, the French author Alexis de Tocqueville remarked on our nation’s exceptional character. Unlike other nations that were defined by ethnicity, geography, common heritage, social class, or hierarchal structures, America was a nation of immigrants bound together by a shared commitment to the republican principles of individual liberty, equality, personal responsibility, and laissez-faire economics.

These principles comprise the “American creed,” which G.K. Chesterton wrote “is set forth with dogmatic and even theological lucidity in the Declaration of Independence.” There, the theological pegs of our Union are established in four explicit references to the Judeo-Christian God.

The Declaration of Independence opens by acknowledging “the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God.” It goes on to refer to the “Creator” who endows man with “certain unalienable rights.” It makes an appeal to the “Supreme Judge of the world,” and closes with an expression of trust in the “protection of Divine Providence.”

 

The last reference is particularly striking, considering the deistic leanings of the Declaration’s main author, Thomas Jefferson. In deism, God is neither a Protector nor Provider; he is a distant, detached Creator who refrains from interfering in the affairs of men.

Nevertheless, in the dust-up to the Revolutionary War, Jefferson wrote, “We devoutly implore assistance of Almighty God to conduct us happily through this great conflict.” And near the end of that conflict, he warned, “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 a gift from God?”

Forty years after Jefferson penned the Declaration, he made note to a friend: “We are not in a world ungoverned by the laws and the power of a Superior Agent. Our efforts are in His hand, and directed by it; and He will give them their effect in His own time.” And this from the man who is considered one of the least religious of the Founders.

Although Jefferson is the patron saint of secular elites for his famous “wall of separation,” it was never his, or any of the Founders’, intention to denude the public square of religious influence. It is quite telling that over thirty years after Jefferson coined that phrase, the keen political observer, de Tocqueville, remarked: “religion in America takes no direct part in the government of society, but it must be regarded as the first of their political institutions.”

Even the least religious of the Founders, Ben Franklin, issued this stirring appeal during an arduous debate in the Constitutional Congress:

In the beginning of the Contest with G. Britain, when we were sensible of danger, we had daily prayer in this room for Divine protection… All of us who were engaged in the struggle must have observed frequent instances of Superintending Providence in our favor … have we now forgotten that powerful Friend? or do we imagine we no longer need His assistance?… God Governs in the affairs of men (Daniel 4:17). And if a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without His notice (Matthew 10:29), is it probable that an empire can rise without His aid?

The Founders, and the founding document they authored, give testimony to the religious, and uniquely Judeo-Christian, underpinning of our nation. Today, numerous religious symbols on edifices in and around our nation’s capital add their voices to that testimony.

Images and representations of the Bible, the crucifix, and Moses and the Ten Commandments exist in engravings and sculptures at the Washington Monument, the Jefferson and Lincoln Memorials, the Capitol building, the Library of Congress, the White House, the World War II Memorial, and the Arlington National Cemetery. At the Supreme Court, the Ten Commandments are displayed in no less than three places: over the East portico, on the Court doors, and over the Chief Justice’s chair. And there is one witness to America’s religious heritage that many people carry in their purses and wallets: the one dollar bill.

Centered on the back of the dollar bill are not the words, “In man we trust,” “In science we trust,” or “In the state we trust.” Instead, we read the words, “IN GOD WE TRUST,” flanked on both sides by The Great Seal, an American emblem rich in religious symbolism.

The Great Seal
Thomas G. West, senior fellow of the Claremont Institute, has noted that the theological significance of The Great Seal has been largely lost because of the common misconception that its symbols are rooted in Freemasonry. A 1782 document written by the Seal’s creator, Charles Thomson, explains its various symbols.

On the reverse side of the Seal there is an unfinished pyramid with 13 rows of bricks, representing the 13 original colonies. Engraved on the bottom row are the Roman numerals, MDCCLXXVI, to signify the Declaration of Independence, written in 1776, as the foundation upon which the country is built. The pyramid is unfinished because “America is a work in progress.”

Underneath the pyramid the words “Novus Ordo Seclorum” are literally rendered as “a new order of the ages.” In the words of Charles Thomson, the motto signifies “the beginning of the New American Era,” not the beginning of a new world order, as is commonly reported today.

Raised above the pyramid, an omniscient eye, enclosed in a triangle, represents the triune God who is associated with the nation in three ways: 1) As a protector and guide. The glory emanating from the eye suggests the pillar of fire guiding the Israelites of Exodus. Similar imagery is on the obverse side of the Seal with glory radiating from a pillar of cloud surrounding 13 stars. 2) As the standard to which the incomplete pyramid below points and aspires to conform. 3) As a judge. The motto above the eye, “Annuit Coeptis,” translated as “He favors our beginnings,” carries the converse implication that if the foundation of our beginnings is abandoned, his favor will turn to judgment.

The Great Seal, created after the Declaration of Independence and before the U.S. Constitution, reflects a religious heritage that the country’s Founders believed integral to the common weal of the nation. Thus, de Tocqueville, whose own country was marked by great tension between faith and freedom, was taken aback by the integration of the ideals he found in the social and political life across the sea.

In America, the Church was not an arm of the State, nor the State an arm of the Church; still, biblical faith was a sort of DNA that informed the colonists’ sense of themselves as a nation, and of the principles of liberty, justice, law, and governance that became institutionalized as uniquely American.

In the formation of the “more perfect union,” no hardened barrier was erected, or intended, to prevent the introduction of religion into public spaces, Jefferson’s “wall of separation” notwithstanding. To the contrary, an Establishment Clause was crafted to secure the free exercise of religion and to prevent the intrusion of the State into the affairs of the Church, specifically prohibiting the legislation of a national religion.

Operating within its biblical sphere of sovereignty, the Church provides the moral framework for a just society. It acts as the conscience of the State, reminding Caesar of the high calling of his office, and its limits; and exhorting citizens to the duty owed Caesar. The State, in turn, protects the Church by defending, encouraging, and supporting religious expression, without preference to any particular sect. The positive benefits of this association have been acknowledged in some surprising precincts of late.

John D. Steinrucken, an avowed secularist and atheist, gives air to the feckless fantasies of secularism. In The American Thinker, Steinrucken bristles over the long history of failures of rationally-based ideologies to make good on their utopian promises, or to provide a viable substitute for religion in general and Christianity, in particular.

Steinrucken makes the astonishing admission that Christianity is the “guarantor of our political and legal system” because it is “a moral force independent of and transcendent to the political.” (Emphasis in original.) Even more astonishingly, he warns that the country that “loses its religious faith in favor of non-judgmental secularism” will lose “that which holds all else together.”

John Steinrucken would find common ground with our country’s founding fathers and, in particular, George Washington. It was Washington who gave voice to what many of his colleagues and countrymen recognized over two centuries ago: “Religion and liberty must flourish or fall together in America.”

The perseverance of that association, despite the fevered efforts of secularists in recent decades to sever it, has made the United States a model for democratic freedom and human rights around the globe—a nation among nations that is great indeed.

Regis Nicoll

By

Regis Nicoll is a retired nuclear engineer and a fellow of the Colson Center who writes commentary on faith and culture. His new book is titled Why There Is a God: And Why It Matters.

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