“The God who gave us life, gave us liberty at the same time,” Thomas Jefferson once wrote. “The hand of force may destroy, but cannot disjoin them.” Among the American Founders, there was a profound sense that faith and freedom were deeply intertwined.
Nowadays, we are often told that religion is divisive and ought to kept away from politics for the sake of liberty. Religion somehow is opposed to liberty, and so liberty requires a diminution of religion in the public square.
The view long consistent with our historical practice, though, is that of America’s Founders, who advanced religious liberty so as to strengthen religious faith and its influence on American self-government. All had a natural right to worship God as they chose, according to the dictates of their consciences. At the same time, the Founders upheld religion and morality–to paraphrase Washington’s Farewell Address–as indispensable supports of good habits, the firmest props of the duties of citizens, and the great pillars of human happiness.
Religious liberty neither settles nor dismisses the claims of reason and revelation to teach the most important things for human beings to know. But it does create a practical solution–after thousands of years of failed attempts–at the level of politics and political morality. It established a form of government that is sanctioned by human nature and open to moral reasoning, the legitimacy of which does not depend on the truth of any particular religious denomination.
This solution is possible because the American Founders recognized general moral precepts that are understandable by human reason and no less agreeable to faith in the form of a general revelation of creation. This morality common to both natural reason and divine revelation, usually termed natural law, is the philosophical ground of the American Founding.
We can see this agreement of reason and revelation in the Declaration of Independence. The liberties recognized in it are deduced from a higher law to which all human laws are answerable and by which they are limited. This higher law can be understood by man’s practical reason–the truths of the Declaration are held to be “self-evident”–but also by the revealed word of God. There are four references to God in the document: to “the Laws of Nature and Nature’s God”; to all men being “created equal” and “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights”; to “the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions”; and to “the protection of divine Providence.” The first term suggests a deity that is knowable by human reason, but the others–God as creator, as judge, and as providence–are more biblical, and add (and were assuredly intended to add) a theological context to the document.
From the perspective of religious faith, the basic principles of the Founding, at the level of political principles, were understood to be in essential agreement with the core precepts of the Bible. That this is the case can be seen throughout the many church sermons published from the founding era. While we have never been and should not try to become a nation defined by a particular or official religious denomination, we must never forget that, as the Supreme Court said in 1952 (and reiterated in 1963, and again in 1984), “We are a religious people whose institutions presuppose a Supreme Being.”
The health and strength of liberty depend on the principles, standards, and morals shared by nearly all religions. What the “separation of church and state” does is liberate America’s religions–in respect to their moral forms and teachings–to exercise unprecedented influence over private and public opinion by shaping citizens’ mores, cultivating their virtues, and in general, providing a pure and independent source of moral reasoning and authority. This is what Alexis de Tocqueville meant when he observed that even though religion “never mixes directly in the government of society,” it nevertheless determines the “habits of the heart” and is “the first of their political institutions.”
As we gather with our families to celebrate Christmas and Hanukkah, let us remember that our greatest blessing as Americans is the freedom to pursue our eternal duties to God and of religion to pursue freely its divine mission among men on earth.
As George Washington wrote to the Hebrew Congregation at Newport in 1790, so all of us at The Heritage Foundation proclaim to our friends and fellow citizens: “May the father of all mercies scatter light, and not darkness, upon our paths, and make us all in our several vocations useful here, and in His own due time and way everlastingly happy.”
Matthew Spalding, Ph.D., is Vice President of American Studies and Director, B. Kenneth Simon Center for Principles and Politics
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