The motto of the United States Army Chaplain Corps is Pro Deo et Patria, Latin which means “For God and Country.” As the Army is the oldest branch of the U.S. military, that motto is significant, for the spirit and the meaning of that phrase is not only a part of the U.S. Army—it is foundational to our nation itself. As we celebrate Independence Day on July 4, 2020, we must remember the central backdrop of religion in the minds of our Founders and in the historical documents of our nation.
For example, in the Declaration of Independence, after affirming the principle of equality based on the “Laws of Nature and Nature’s God,” the document continues, “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, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” In that same declaration, the signers stated that they were “appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world” for the moral right to be free. In the only book he ever published, Notes on the State of Virginia, Thomas Jefferson called on God to intervene in “the ordinary, orderly workings of the world.” God and religion are replete in the notes, letters, and other documents of a young America and its Founders.
It is virtually impossible to celebrate Independence Day without religious references. One cannot really talk about this national holiday without talking about God and religion—if you are looking at what was written and discussed in 1776 and the following years as the Revolutionary War went on—because it is chock-full of it.
We hear a lot of talk about the separation of Church and State—yet that phrase does not exist anywhere in the Constitution. It is a part of the conversation about the Constitution—but it is NOT in the Constitution. Whether or not it should be in the Constitution has long been a matter of debate. But, in fact, it is not.
We do talk a lot about the Establishment Clause, and that is in the Constitution, in the First Amendment: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion . . . .” It is a good Amendment, and I am personally glad we have it. But there is no part of that which mentions the separation of Church and State either. I also realize there is much discussion as to the particulars of exactly how the Fourteenth Amendment impacts the First Amendment, where the cultural conflicts of recent decades have largely pitted a growing secularization of America against its more traditional Christian culture.
Note that the Establishment Clause limited only the federal government, not the State governments. The language reads, “Congress shall make no law . . . ,” not “Massachusetts or Pennsylvania or Georgia shall make no law.” In fact, even following the adoption of the First Amendment, a number of States continued to have “established” churches. Massachusetts was the last State to disestablish its State church, and that occurred decades after the First Amendment had been ratified. This is not to say that I am making the case that we should have official “state religions”; rather, I am simply pointing out an obvious contextual fact from our nation’s history. In fact, in my view, the principle of separating the State governments from any particular religion is a valuable and important principle.
In light of all this, here are two observations: First, I think the Framers of the Constitution (and the discussion about this has been taking place throughout our history), when they talked about religion and church, probably didn’t have much of an intentional concept beyond the Judeo-Christian tradition. I am not saying we should not include other faith groups in our protections of religious freedom—we should because we are a very diverse nation when it comes to religion and the ACLJ fights for protecting religious freedom every day. That is a moral and democratic principle which is sacrosanct. However, when they wrote of church—or religion in general—they were mainly thinking about Jews and various Christian groups because that was the historical context out of which they wrote. There was actual debate at the Constitutional Convention about the new government supporting churches financially as “nursing fathers.”
Secondly, when our Founders wrote and spoke of these things, they could not have been aware of the rampant revisionism that would exist over 200 years later. There are many discussions today—and actual cases before our courts at every level—that depart from the intent of the Framers of the Constitution. The purpose of the First Amendment was to keep the federal government from enacting laws that would benefit any one particular religious group over any other religious group. They were keenly aware of a history—and not a good one—of national governments and monarchs, and “state churches,” that had persecuted and prosecuted them. They wanted to make sure that did not happen in this new country of the United States of America.
Based on the context of the First Amendment, its purpose was to protect people of faith from the newly created federal government—not to protect the government from faith or people of faith. Yet, it seems that is exactly what some lawsuits brought by proponents of secularization have tried to do—to somehow protect the government from religion, not protect religion from government abuses.
The original intent was to protect people of faith from the government. That’s laid out in Thomas Jefferson’s letter to the Danbury, Connecticut Baptists, where the concept of a wall of separation between Church and State is actually laid out. In fact, with our Founders, there seems to be a deep respect for faith and religion, one sometimes woefully lacking in some corners of our political culture today. The early Americans were not about trying to eliminate faith from the political and cultural landscape. They did not have this knee-jerk negative reaction to religion that you so often see in today’s world.
Look at the Hebrew Bible and the Old and New Testaments of Christianity: they speak of things that should impact our national life, not only historically, but always. For example, Jesus talked about love for enemies, and scripture speaks about treating others as we wish to be treated. The Hebrew prophet Micah spoke of the obligation to “do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God.” These very principles undergird so many of our national and international laws.
Much of the good that has been done socially is because of the corporate stance of Christians, Jews, and other religious people. Religion has impacted and influenced our nation, and that is a good thing. It led to the end of slavery. It led to Civil Rights, to the end of child labor, and to the equal rights for women. Whenever there has been a call for a deepened sense of the equality of all people, the Church has been at the forefront—not only promoting justice and equality in the Church but also in the nation and in the community. So, if we talk about the separation of Church and State, I do not want it to be separated from these kinds of issues.
It is possible, as a collective group of people, to seek the will of God and to seek God’s direction and blessing without claiming that we have some special status before God that other people do not have or that we are trying to deprive non-religious people of their rights. It is very appropriate to claim (and not to apologize for) a deep reliance on God to guide us and to help us be a better nation. Language like that is in our founding documents. There is a reason that our nation, from its beginning, has had so much God-talk in its history and official documents.
Many of us get a little frustrated or even angry when our society wants to exclude God from every corner and every public square in our country. Often people’s knee-jerk reaction is that somehow we have to protect our system of government from God; when, in fact, our system of government exists because of the mercies and guidance of God.
On this 4th of July holiday, we must remember three things:
First, we do not need to mix religion and the state willy-nilly. That is dangerous, and we do not want to do that. As Christ reminded people, there are certain things owed to God, and certain things owed to “Caesar,” or the government.
Second, on the other hand, we do not need to apologize for Godly principles and explicit references to God that are part of the foundation of our nation. Nor do we need to rewrite history and pretend they don’t exist. That is rampant revisionism—an attempt to rewrite history.
Third, and this is a call to all of us, we need to continue as people of faith to be agents of change in our common life, to hold the nation accountable—not only as citizens, but as citizens who are also people of faith. May God help us to do that.
It is a cliché that has been caricatured and misunderstood by people who do not appreciate its value, meaning, and impact. From the perspective of people of faith, as citizens of this great country, our prayer this Independence Day is that God will continue to bless the United States of America.
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