God and America: Allies or Enemies?

According to the First Amendment scholar Michael Malbin, “We all know that religion was an important part of the Founding Fathers’ scheme of government. Far from wanting a purely secular nation, their aim was to channel religion, to transform it, to preserve the useful parts while putting the dangerous parts under the control of civil law.” Mr. Malbin correctly adds: “The idea was to retain a vital religious life, because religion was thought to be important to teaching virtue, and virtue was considered essential to good citizenship.”

Indeed he is right; yet many contemporary government leaders and scholars maintain that the Founding Fathers intended the First Amendment to erect an impenetrable wall of separation between Church and State: they contend that our forefathers wanted to protect society and the government from the influence of religion and from efforts by religious leaders and groups to express in the public arena their views on social, moral, political and legal problems.

Even so, the fact remains that many of our Founding Fathers and, in particular, several who signed our Declaration of Independence were religious men and believers; moreover, it is clear from the statements of many of this nation’s presidents that America, its institutions and its laws, were based on a moral and religious foundation.

President George Washington, for example, said, “I am sure that there was never a people who had more reason to acknowledge a divine interposition in their affairs than those of the United States, and I should be pained to believe that they had forgotten that Agency, which was so manifested during our Revolution, or that they failed to consider the omnipotence of that God Who is alone able to protect.” Announcing his support for the new Constitution, Washington declared: “If I could have entertained the slightest apprehension that the Constitution framed in the Convention, where I had the honor to preside, might possibly endanger the religious rights of any ecclesiastical Society, certainly I would never have placed my signature to it.”

President Abraham Lincoln also discerned the nexus between Judaic-Christian values and both the founding and greatness of this nation. That is why he warned his fellow countrymen not to scorn or repudiate the moral and religious foundation of America. Said Lincoln: “We have been the recipients of the choicest bounties of heaven; we have grown in numbers, wealth and power, as no other nation has ever grown.” Yet, observed Lincoln, “we have forgotten God. We have forgotten the gracious hand which preserved us in peace and multiplied and enriched and strengthened us; and we have vainly imagined, in the deceitfulness of our hearts, that all these blessings were produced by some superior wisdom and virtue of our own.” Lincoln declared: “Intoxicated with unbroken success, we have become too self-sufficient to feel the necessity of redeeming and preserving grace, too proud to pray to the God that made us.”

Clearly, the Founding Fathers intended the First Amendment not to safeguard society or the state from the influence but, rather, to preserve and protect religious liberty from encroachments by the state. They believed that a society’s public morality depends upon a religious foundation, and that the beneficial influence of religion on private and public morality is indispensable to the maintenance of good government and the survival of self- government. Consequently, they wanted government to preserve, protect and foster the religious impulse and enterprise.

The Founding Fathers did not intend governmental “neutrality” towards religion: A neutrality which is modern times has become simply a cloak to hide governmental indifference and hostility towards religion. Rather, they wanted government to be the champion and defender of religion and religious freedom.

The First Amendment scholar O. Carroll Arnold rightly observes: “One would never dream of asserting that government is neutral toward freedom of speech or the press, and it is (or at least should be) equally non-neutral toward religion and religious freedom.”

  • Haven Bradford Gow

    Mr. Gow was a Wilbur Foundation Literary Fellow when he wrote this article.

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