Five decades after America gained independence, French political analyst Alexis de Tocqueville remarked on its exceptional character.
Unlike other nations that were defined by ethnicity, geography, common heritage, social class, or hierarchal structures, America was a nation of immigrants bond together by a shared commitment to the democratic principles of liberty, equality, individualism and laissez faire economics.
Those principles comprise the “America creed,” which, G. K. Chesterton wrote, “is set forth with dogmatic and even theological lucidity in the Declaration of Independence.” There, the theological pegs of our Union are established in four explicit references to the Judeo-Christian God.
A religious foundation
The Declaration of Independence opens by acknowledging “the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God.” It goes on to refer to the “Creator” who endows man with “certain unalienable rights.” It makes an appeal to the “Supreme Judge of the world,” and closes with an expression of trust in the “protection of Divine Providence.”
The last reference is particularly striking, considering the deistic leanings of the Declaration’s main author, Thomas Jefferson. In deism, God is a neither a Protector nor Provider; He is a distant, detached Creator who refrains from interfering in the affairs of men.
Nevertheless, in the dust-up to the Revolutionary War, Jefferson wrote, “We devoutly implore assistance of Almighty God to conduct us happily through this great conflict.” And near the end of that conflict, he warned, “Can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are a gift from God?”
Forty years after Jefferson penned the Declaration, he made note to a friend: “We are not in a world ungoverned by the laws and the power of a Superior Agent. Our efforts are in His hand, and directed by it; and He will give them their effect in His own time.” And this from the man who is considered one of the least religious of the Founders.
Although Jefferson is the patron saint of secular elites for his famous “wall of separation,” it was never his, or any of the Founders’, intention to denude the public square of religious influence. It is quite telling that over 30 years after Jefferson coined that phrase, the keen political observer de Tocqueville remarked: “Religion in America takes no direct part in the government of society, but it must be regarded as the first of their political institutions.”
Even the least religious of the Founders, Ben Franklin, issued this stirring appeal during an arduous debate in the Constitutional Congress:
In the beginning of the Contest with G. Britain, when we were sensible of danger, we had daily prayer in this room for Divine protection.... All of us who were engaged in the struggle must have observed frequent instances of Superintending Providence in our favor...have we now forgotten that powerful Friend? or do we imagine we no longer need His assistance?.... God Governs in the affairs of men [Daniel 4:17]. And if a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without His notice [Matthew 10:29], is it probable that an empire can rise without His aid?
The Founders, and the founding document they authored, gave testimony to the religious, and uniquely Judeo-Christian, character of our nation. Today, numerous religious symbols on edifices in and around our nation’s capital add their voices to that testimony.
Images and representations of the Bible, the crucifix, Moses, and the Ten Commandments exist in engravings and sculptures at the Washington Monument, the Jefferson and Lincoln Memorials, the Capitol building, the Library of Congress, the White House, the World War II Memorial, and the Arlington National Cemetery. At the Supreme Court, the Ten Commandments are displayed in no less than three places: over the East portico, on the Court doors, and over the Chief Justice’s chair. But there is one witness to America’s religious heritage that many people carry in their purses and wallets: the one-dollar bill.
Centered on the back of the dollar bill are not the words, “In man we trust,” “In science we trust,” or “In the state we trust”; but “IN GOD WE TRUST,” flanked on both sides by The Great Seal, an American emblem rich in religious symbolism.
The Great Seal
Professor and senior fellow at the Claremont Institute Thomas G. West notes that the theological significance of The Great Seal has been largely lost because of the common misconception that its symbols are rooted in Freemasonry.
In the spring 2010 issue of the journal The City, Dr. West references a 1782 document written by the Seal’s creator, Charles Thomson, explaining its various symbols.
On the reverse side of the Seal, there is an unfinished pyramid with 13 rows of bricks, representing the 13 original colonies. Engraved on the bottom row are the Roman numerals, MDCCLXXVI, to signify the Declaration of Independence, written in 1776, as the foundation upon which the country is built. The pyramid is unfinished because “America is a work in progress.”
Underneath the pyramid the words, “Novus Ordo Seclorum,” are literally rendered “a new order of the ages.” It is “new,” writes West, because “no nation has ever grounded itself on a principle, discovered by reason, affirmed by God, and shared by all human beings: ‘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 the words of Charles Thomson, the motto signifies “the beginning of the New American Era,” not the beginning of a new world order, as is commonly reported today.
Raised above the pyramid, an omniscient eye, enclosed in a triangle, represents the triune God who is associated with the nation in three ways: 1) as a Protector and Guide—the glory emanating from the eye suggests the pillar of fire guiding the Israelites of Exodus. Similar imagery is on the obverse side of the Sealwith glory radiating from a pillar of cloud surrounding 13 stars; 2) as a Standard to which the incomplete pyramid below points and aspires to conform; and 3) as a Judge—the motto above the eye, “Annuit Coeptis,” translated “He favors our beginnings,” carries the converse implication that if the foundation of our beginnings is abandoned, His favor will turn to judgment.
The Great Seal, created after the Declaration of Independence and before the U.S. Constitution, reflects a religious heritage that the country’s Founders believed integral to the common weal of the nation. Thus, de Tocqueville, whose own country was marked by great tension between faith and freedom, was taken aback by integration of those ideals he found in the social and political life across the sea.
In America, the church was not an arm of the state, nor the state an arm of the church; still, biblical faith was a sort of DNA that informed the colonists’ sense of themselves as a nation, and of the principles of liberty, justice, law, and governance that became institutionalized as uniquely American.
In the formation of the “more perfect union,” no hardened barrier was erected, or intended, to prevent the intrusion of religion into public spaces, Jefferson’s “wall of separation” notwithstanding. To the contrary, an Establishment Clause was crafted to secure the free exercise of religion and to prevent the intrusion of the state into the affairs of the church, specifically prohibiting the legislation of a national religion.
Operating within its biblical sphere of sovereignty, the church provides the moral framework for a just society. It acts as the conscience of the state, reminding Caesar of the high calling of his office, and its limits, and exhorting citizens to the duty owed Caesar. The state, in turn, protects the church by defending, encouraging and supporting religious expression, without preference to any particular sect. The positive benefits of that association have been acknowledged in some surprising precincts of late.
John D. Steinrucken, an avowed secularist and atheist, gives air to the feckless fantasies of secularism. In the recent article “Secularism's Ongoing Debt to Christianity,” Steinrucken bristles over the long history of failures of rationally based ideologies to make good on their utopian promises, or to provide a viable substitute for religion, in general, and Christianity, in particular.
Steinrucken makes the astonishing admission that Christianity is the “guarantor of our political and legal system” because it is “a moral force independent of and transcendent to the political” (emphasis in original). Even more astonishingly, he warns that the country that “loses its religious faith in favor of non-judgmental secularism” will lose “that which holds all else together.”
John Steinrucken would find common ground with our country’s founding fathers and, in particular, George Washington. It was Washington who gave voice to what many of his colleagues and countrymen recognized over two centuries ago: "Religion and liberty must flourish or fall together in America.”
The perseverance of that association, despite the fevered efforts of secularists in recent decades to sever it, has made the United States a beacon of democratic freedom and human rights around the globe.
Regis Nicoll is a freelance writer and a BreakPoint Centurion. His "All Things Examined" column appears on BreakPoint every other Friday. Serving as a men’s ministry leader and worldview teacher in his community, Regis publishes a free weekly commentary to stimulate thought on current issues from a Christian perspective. To be placed on this free e-mail distribution list, e-mail him at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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