As we celebrate the birth of freedom this July 4th, it’s worth remembering the Godly foundation upon which America was established. Mention the role of faith in public life, and somebody is bound to bring up the faith of the Founders. Like many debates, this one has two extremes. Many secularists (and some conspiracy-minded Christians) claim that the Founders were mostly deists or religious skeptics who wanted to keep religion on the sidelines. (Deism is the view that God created the world and established a moral law, but doesn’t get involved in the day-to-day details on the ground. Strict deists rejected the possibility of miracles and the value of prayer.) They trot out skeptical quotes from Thomas Jefferson and talk about the “Jefferson Bible,” in which Jefferson deleted all references to miracles from the gospels.
In response, some Christians seem intent on proving that almost all the Founders were conservative evangelical Christians. They will cite the many statements by Founders showing their Christian piety or commending the value of Christianity for society. The truth is that the lines separating orthodox Christianity from deism were blurry in 18th-century America. We should resist the temptation to cram them into tidy modern compartments. Many of the Founders, such as Patrick Henry, John Jay, John Witherspoon, and Samuel Adams, were serious Christians, without a whiff of deism on them. Almost all were Protestants, though Charles Carroll, who signed the Declaration of Independence, was a Catholic. None were atheists.
George Washington was an Episcopalian, though he often attended different houses of worship. He believed deeply in God’s providence and in the necessity of religion for morality. In his inaugural address, he said:
“Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, Religion and Morality are indispensable supports….Let it simply be asked, Where is the security for property, for reputation, for life, if the sense of religious obligation desert the oaths, which are the instruments of investigation in Courts of Justice? And let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that National morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.”
We could pile on quote after quote along the same lines from the Founders. Even so-called deists such as Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin supported prayer and religious observance. Others who were Unitarian, such as John Adams, often spoke fondly of Christianity and, in particular, its moral system.
This was but the most crucial of several points of agreement among the American Founders:
- The Church has a proper authority that the state must respect.
- The federal government should neither establish nor prohibit the free exercise of religion.
- Every person should enjoy religious liberty.
- Religion, and especially Christianity, is vital to the survival and prosperity of the American Experiment.
- We know by reason that God and a natural law exist.
- Public displays of respect for God are right and good, and don’t constitute an establishment of religion.
These views allowed the Founders to revere God in public, even officially, while still opposing a federally established church. God’s existence and the basic principles of morality, they believed, were public truths, not sectarian religious doctrines. So when the US Congress adopted “In God We Trust” as our national motto in 1956, they were not imposing religion on the public, but publicly recognizing God—just as the Founders did. The phrase had appeared on our coins as early as the 1850s.
Remember, it was Thomas Jefferson, a deist of sorts, who wrote in the Declaration of Independence, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights….” On this point, the Founders believed, reason and revelation agreed.
Over the course of centuries, Christian thinkers came to understand and defend the dignity of the individual, the voluntary nature of faith, and the universality of sin. On these foundations, some built political institutions that protected human dignity and freedom, including economic freedom, while balancing out the tendency of fallen human beings to consolidate power. These institutions followed slowly but naturally from Christian theology. And they were nowhere enshrined more completely than in the ideals of the American Experiment, even when the Founders and other Americans failed to live up to those ideals. While other cultures adopt the free institutions developed in the Christian West, we shouldn’t forget where and why they developed the first place.
You may think what I am about to say is extreme, but hear it loud and clear: If the American people, the political leaders, the academics, the courts, and Congress continue promoting this present course, we will no longer be celebrating the birth of freedom, but rather witnessing the death of liberty and freedom in our lifetime. The future of freedom is in your hands and rests on your shoulders. I will not step back or be silent! Freedom must not die on our watch.
Remember, if freedom dies, it will be by our own hand because people who claim faith in God remain uninformed, indifferent, and uninvolved. We will have handed freedom over to the destroyer of life and liberty. God forgive us if we do! By prayerfully and boldly uniting together we can celebrate the rebirth of freedom rather than witness the death of it. The future is in our hands. Now is the time to stand up and be counted!
I invite you to join with church leaders and Americans who care deeply and believe the Lord is our hope! Come to a special gathering July 27 at the “Under God INDIVISIBLE” conference. By agreeing together, we can help inspire the necessary spiritual awakening. Go to dfw.undergodindivisible.org to view the speakers and those who will lead in prayer for the next Great Awakening.
Adapted from Indivisible: Restoring Faith, Family, and Freedom Before It’s Too Late (FaithWords).