God of our [Founding] Fathers

Two years ago I read and summarized the Supreme Court's decision on the Pledge of Allegiance case (Elk Grove v. Newdow), in which liberal and conservative justices alike justified their positions by unleashing armadas of quotations from the Founding Fathers – often the same Founding Fathers. At the time, I entertained the fantasy of writing a book that would make sense of all the apparent contradictions in the Founders' views of religion in public life and demolish the all the out-of-context quotes on both sides.

Well, I can take that assignment off my list, because somebody has done it already: Newsweek editor Jon Meacham's American Gospel: God, the Founding Fathers, and the Making of a Nation is the book I wanted to write.

The War of Quotations

In his dissent in Newdow, the late Chief Justice William Rehnquist wrote:

The phrase “under God” in the Pledge seems, as a historical matter, to sum up the attitude of the Nation’s leaders, and to manifest itself in many of our public observances. Examples of patriotic invocations of God and official acknowledgments of religion’s role in our Nation’s history abound.

The Chief Justice goes on to list several, including President Washington's Thanksgiving Proclamation, which begins “Whereas it is the duty of all Nations to acknowledge the problems of Almighty God, to obey His will, to be grateful for his benefits, and humbly to implore his protection and favor ...” He notes that Lincoln included the phrase “this nation, under God” in the Gettysburg Address. And he demonstrates that God also appears in the speeches of Franklin Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Dwight Eisenhower, and John Kennedy.

In a case about public displays of the Ten Commandments (McCreary County v ACLU), Justice Scalia made a similar list, focusing on the Founders and the early Republic. He quotes the Northwest Territory Ordinance of 1789: “Religion, morality, and knowledge, being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged.” Washington's Farewell Address says: “reason and experience both forbid us to expect that National morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.” In 1798 President John Adams wrote: “we have no government armed with power capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion. … Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. ... It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”

He quotes Jefferson's Second Inaugural Address: “I shall need, too, the favor of that Being in whose hands we are, who led our fathers, 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 to whose goodness I ask you to join in supplications with me that He will so enlighten the minds of your servants, guide their councils, and prosper their measures that whatsoever they do shall result in your good, and shall secure to you the peace, friendship, and approbation of all nations.”

Scalia concludes:

These actions of our First President and Congress and the Marshall Court were not idiosyncratic; they reflected the beliefs of the period. Those who wrote the Constitution believed that morality was essential to the well-being of society and that encouragement of religion was the best way to foster morality.

Justice Souter, writing the majority opinion in McCreary, strikes back by noting that President Jefferson refused to issue Thanksgiving proclamations because he believed they were unconstitutional. In a letter to John Adams, James Madison wrote that the “tendency to a usurpation on one side, or the other, or to a corrupting coalition or alliance between them, will be best guarded against by an entire abstinence of the Government from interference [in religion].”

The American Atheists' brief on behalf of Newdow also quotes Madison: “Notwithstanding the general progress made within the two last centuries in favour of this branch of liberty, & the full establishment of it, in some parts of our Country, there remains in others a strong bias towards the old error, that without some sort of alliance or coalition between Govt. & Religion neither can be duly supported. Such indeed is the tendency to such a coalition, and such its corrupting influence on both the parties, that the danger cannot be too carefully guarded agst. ... And I have no doubt that every new example, will succeed, as every past one has done, in shewing that religion & Govt. will both exist in greater purity, the less they are mixed together.”

Another frequently quoted example is from the Treaty of Tripoli that the Washington and Adams administrations negotiated and the Senate ratified unanimously in 1797: “As the government of the United States is not in any sense founded on the Christian Religion ...”

So the battle swirls. The Declaration of Independence attributes our rights to the Creator. The Constitution never mentions God, and only mentions religion when it bans religious tests for holding federal office. At the time the Bill of rights was written, six states had some form of established church. By 1834, none. So did the Founders intend to protect the established churches of their own states? (In his Newdow dissent, Justice Thomas holds that they did.) Or was the Bill of Rights part of a disestablishment movement that didn't fully succeed until the next generation?

In short, the religious statements, writings, and deeds of the Founders can be mined today by both liberals and conservatives. Why is that? Did the Founders think and say a lot of contradictory stuff about religion? Or did they have a coherent point of view that agrees in some ways with today's conservatives and in other ways with today's liberals?

Meacham believes that (although they did represent diverse religious viewpoints) the Founders eventually came to consensus about the basic principles that relate religion to government. Although they sometimes clashed on specific issues, the framework in which they discussed those issues held up, and has held up ever since.

Diversity of Personal Belief

Before describing that consensus, a few words should be said about the diversity of the Founders' personal beliefs. Religious conservatives sometimes imagine the Founders as more-or-less like themselves, and portray the current state of American religion as a fall from some colonial Eden. In fact the Founders came from a number of denominations (many of which had been at each other's throats in England) and had a variety of personal beliefs. Some of them would be welcome in conservative Christian churches today and some would not. I'm sure Jerry Falwell would be happy to have fellow Virginian Patrick Henry in his congregation. Thomas Jefferson, not so much. Jefferson believed, for example, that the doctrine of the trinity was not just false, but incoherent. “Ideas must be distinct before reason can act upon them, and no man ever had a distinct idea of the trinity. It is the mere Abracadabra of the mountebanks calling themselves priests of Jesus.” It's hard to imagine Jerry sitting still for that.

Some of the Founders seem to have intentionally clouded their public statements about religion. Ben Franklin, for example, can be presented as an atheist, a Deist, or a devout Christian depending on which of his writings you choose to quote. At least one recent book, Benjamin Franklin Unmasked by Louis Menand, claims that Franklin engineered this vague and contradictory image for himself. Meacham refers to “the elusive, shape-shifting Franklin.” And John Adams (who served with Franklin as American representatives in Paris) wrote: “The Catholics thought him almost a Catholic. The Church of England claimed him as one of them. The Presbyterians thought him half a Presbyterian, and the Friends believed him a wet Quaker.”

Personal beliefs aside, were the Founders of one mind about the relationship between church and state? Not always. Prior to the writing of the Constitution, for example, Patrick Henry wanted Virginia to pay “teachers of the Christian religion” with public money. Jefferson and Madison fought him on this and won. In 1774 the Continental Congress argued about whether to start its sessions with prayer. Future Chief Justice John Jay opposed an opening prayer on the grounds that the delegates' religious views were too diverse for them to pray together. Sam Adams favored a prayer, believing that a skillful clergyman could bridge their differences and lead a prayer acceptable to all. Adams won.

Public Religion

Meacham sees the resolution of the Continental Congress' prayer debate as a key step in the development of what he (following Franklin) calls public religion. American public religion represents a compromise between two views of government the Founders wanted to avoid: (1) a government explicitly based on the beliefs of a particular religious sect, looking to an established priesthood to bless and justify its actions; and (2) a government based on nothing more than individuals and factions wrangling over their private interests.

From the Declaration of Independence onward, the Founders presented a vision of historic scope, and used religious language to express it. The Founders' America has a purpose higher than individual interest. And so, the Declaration finds individual rights not in the barrel of a gun, but in our legacy from the Creator.

At the same time, the Founders avoided using religious language in an exclusive or sectarian way. The Declaration makes no reference to Jesus, for example, in spite of the fact that the Congressmen themselves claimed to be Christians of one sect or another. The God of the Declaration is referenced in purely functional terms. “Creator” is not just a synonym for the first person of the Christian trinity, but refers to who-or-whatever created the world. “Nature's God,” “the Supreme Judge of the world,” and “Divine Providence” likewise, refer to roles that a specific god would fill in more-or-less any religion of the day. A Jew – New York had a synagogue as early as 1730, and its rabbi was among the officially recognized clergy present at Washington's inauguration – would have had no trouble relating the language of the Declaration to concepts in his own religion.

Another Jefferson composition, Virginia's statute on religious freedom, also exemplifies this artful use of religious language. It begins: “Whereas Almighty God hath created the mind free ...” But the statute, according to Jefferson, was “meant to comprehend, within the mantle of its protection, the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and the Mahometan, the Hindoo, and the infidel of every denomination.”

Meacham summarizes:

[The Founders] wanted God in American public life, but, given the memory of religious warfare that could engulf and destroy whole governments, they saw the wisdom of distinguishing between private and public religion. In churches and in homes, anyone could believe and practice what he wished. In the public business of the nation, however, it was important to the Founders to speak of God in a way that was unifying, not divisive.

Meacham spends most of his book showing how this usage has served the country well, from Washington adding “so help me God” to his presidential oath to FDR reading a D-Day prayer over the radio to John Kennedy reminding the country that “God's work must truly be our own.” In each case, the specific theology was left to the individual imagination, and yet a unifying message of higher purpose was captured.

Of all the opinions in Newdow, Justice O'Connor's comes closest to Meacham's point of view:

Given the values that the Establishment Clause was meant to serve, however, I believe that government can, in a discrete category of cases, acknowledge or refer to the divine without offending the Constitution. This category of “ceremonial deism” most clearly encompasses such things as the national motto (“In God We Trust”), religious references in traditional patriotic songs such as the Star-Spangled Banner, and the words with which the Marshal of this Court opens each of its sessions (“God save the United States and this honorable Court”).

Solving the Quotation Paradox

Today, liberals and conservatives alike can quote the Founders to advantage, because conservatives can quote the Founders' public statements, while liberals can quote the Founders' behind-the-scene expressions of inclusive intent. The apparent contradiction is largely anachronistic: Language that was inclusive in the 18th century can be divisive in the 21st. The diversity of religious views in America has increased tremendously since the founding, and continues to increase. What public statements and ceremonies the Founders would support today is open to interpretation.

Meacham's reconstruction of the Founders' concept of public religion points to a way out of our current dilemma, but it is not an easy way. Public religion does not give us a checklist, a simple set of rules for judging the religious content of government activities. Rather, it calls on us to examine our motives: Are we trying to express our country's unity behind a purpose higher than any individual or factional interest? Or are we defining the nation according to our own religious views, and classing those who disagree as something less than full citizens?

Again, O'Connor seems to have gotten the balance right. In Newdow she recalls her words in Lynch v. Donnelly:

Endorsement, I have explained, “sends a message to nonadherents that they are outsiders, not full members of the political community, and an accompanying message to adherents that they are insiders, favored members of the political community.”

Going Forward

If the Founders' tradition of public religion is to go forward, I believe we face three hard challenges:
(1) In this era of 9/11, of Abu Ghraib, of clashing civilizations, of waterboarding, of terrorism, of enemy combatants, of WMD, and of a war whose only constant is the claim that it is not about oil – does America still a higher purpose? Or are we just a particularly successful gang of individuals, bound by nothing more than the desire to save our own skins and maintain our disproportionate share of the world's wealth?
(2) If we do have a higher purpose, can we express that purpose in any common language, symbols, ceremonies, or images? How can we affirm it, celebrate it, and pass it on to our descendants?
(3) And if other Americans try – sincerely, if imperfectly – to express that purpose, can we hear them? Can we listen with a generous and open heart? Or are we compelled to put the harshest, most sectarian interpretation on any words other than our own?
I can only hope that American society is still equal to challenges like these. If not, God help us.

Doug Muder
29 September 2006
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