God and the Founders

America's first fight was over faith. As the Founding Fathers gathered for the inaugural session of the Continental Congress on Tuesday, September 6, 1774, at Carpenters' Hall in Philadelphia, Thomas Cushing, a lawyer from Boston, moved that the delegates begin with a prayer. Both John Jay of New York and John Rutledge, a rich lawyer-planter from South Carolina, objected. Their reasoning, John Adams wrote his wife, Abigail, was that "because we were so divided in religious sentiments"--the Congress included Episcopalians, Congregationalists, Presbyterians, and others--"we could not join in the same act of worship." The objection had the power to set a secular tone in public life at the outset of the American political experience.

Things could have gone either way. Samuel Adams of Boston spoke up. "Mr. S. Adams arose and said he was no bigot, and could hear a prayer from a gentleman of piety and virtue who was at the same time a friend to his country," wrote John Adams. "He was a stranger in Philadelphia, but had heard that Mr. Duche (Dushay they pronounce it) deserved that character, and therefore he moved that Mr. Duche, an Episcopal clergyman, might be desired to read prayers to the Congress tomorrow morning." Then, in a declarative nine-word sentence, John Adams recorded the birth of what Benjamin Franklin called America's public religion: "The motion was seconded and passed in the affirmative."

The next morning the Reverend Duche appeared, dressed in clerical garb. As it happened, the psalm assigned to be read that day by Episcopalians was the 35th. The delegates had heard rumors--later proved to be unfounded--that the British were storming Boston; everything seemed to be hanging in the balance. In the hall, with the Continental Army under attack from the world's mightiest empire, the priest read from the psalm: " 'Plead my cause, O Lord, with them that strive with me: fight against them that fight against me.'"

Fight against them that fight against me: John Adams was at once stunned and moved. "I never saw a greater effect upon an audience," he told Abigail. "It seemed as if Heaven had ordained that Psalm to be read on that morning." Adams long tingled from the moment--the close quarters of the room, the mental vision in every delegate's head of the patriots supposedly facing fire to the north, and, with Duche's words, the summoning of divine blessing and guidance on what they believed to be the cause of freedom.

As it was in the beginning, so it has been since: an American acknowledgment of God in the public sphere, with men of good will struggling to be reverent yet tolerant and ecumenical. That the Founding Fathers debated whether to open the American saga with prayer is wonderfully fitting, for their conflicts are our conflicts, their dilemmas our dilemmas. Largely faithful, they knew religious wars had long been a destructive force in the lives of nations, and they had no wish to repeat the mistakes of the world they were rebelling against. And yet they bowed their heads.

More than two centuries on, as millions of Americans observe Passover and commemorate Easter next week, the role of faith in public life is a subject of particularly pitched debate. From stem cells and science to the Supreme Court, from foreign policy and the 2008 presidential campaign to evangelical "Justice Sundays," the question of God and politics generates much heat but little light. Some Americans think the country has strayed too far from God; others fear that religious zealots (from the White House to the school board) are waging holy war on American liberty; and many, if not most, seem to believe that we are a nation hopelessly divided between believers and secularists.

History suggests, though, that there is hope, for we have been fighting these battles from our earliest days and yet the American experiment endures.

However dominant in terms of numbers, Christianity is only a thread in the American tapestry--it is not the whole tapestry. The God who is spoken of and called on and prayed to in the public sphere is an essential character in the American drama, but He is not specifically God the Father or the God of Abraham. The right's contention that we are a "Christian nation" that has fallen from pure origins and can achieve redemption by some kind of return to Christian values is based on wishful thinking, not convincing historical argument. Writing to the Hebrew Congregation in Newport, Rhode Island, in 1790, George Washington assured his Jewish countrymen that the American government "gives to bigotry no sanction." In a treaty with the Muslim nation of Tripoli initiated by Washington, completed by John Adams, and ratified by the Senate in 1797, we declared "the Government of the United States is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion. ... " The Founders also knew the nation would grow ever more diverse; in Virginia, Thomas Jefferson's bill for religious freedom was "meant to comprehend, within the mantle of its protection, the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and the Mahometan, the Hindoo and infidel of every denomination." And thank God--or, if you choose, thank the Founders--that it did indeed.

Understanding the past may help us move forward. When the subject is faith in the public square, secularists reflexively point to the Jeffersonian "wall of separation between church and state" as though the conversation should end there; many conservative Christians defend their forays into the political arena by citing the Founders, as though Washington, Adams, Jefferson, and Franklin were cheerful Christian soldiers. Yet to claim that religion has only recently become a political force in the United States is uninformed and unhistorical; in practice, the "wall" of separation is not a very tall one. Equally wrongheaded is the tendency of conservative believers to portray the Founding Fathers as apostles in knee britches.

The great good news about America--the American gospel, if you will--is that religion shapes the life of the nation without strangling it. Driven by a sense of providence and an acute appreciation of the fallibility of humankind, the Founders made a nation in which faith should not be singled out for special help or particular harm. The balance between the promise of the Declaration of Independence, with its evocation of divine origins and destiny, and the practicalities of the Constitution, with its checks on extremism, remains the most brilliant of American successes.

The Founding Fathers and presidents down the ages have believed in a God who brought forth the heavens and the earth, and who gave humankind the liberty to believe in Him or not, to love Him or not, to obey Him or not. God had created man with free will, for love coerced is no love at all, only submission. That is why the religious should be on the front lines of defending freedom of religion.

Our finest hours--the Revolutionary War, abolition, the expansion of the rights of women, hot and cold wars against terror and tyranny, Martin Luther King Jr.'s battle against Jim Crow--can partly be traced to religious ideas about liberty, justice, and charity. Yet theology and scripture have also been used to justify our worst hours--from enslaving people based on the color of their skin to treating women as second-class citizens.

Still, Jefferson's declaration of independence grounded America's most fundamental human rights in the divine, as the gift of "Nature's God." The most unconventional of believers, Jefferson was no conservative Christian; he once went through the Gospels with a razor to excise the parts he found implausible. ("I am of a sect by myself, as far as I know," he remarked.) And yet he believed that "the God who gave us life gave us liberty at the same time," and to Jefferson, the "Creator" invested the individual with rights no human power could ever take away. The Founders, however, resolutely refused to evoke sectarian--specifically Christian--imagery: the God of the Declaration is largely the God of Deism, an Enlightenment-era vision of the divine in which the Lord is a Creator figure who works in the world through providence. The Founding Fathers rejected an attempt to rewrite the Preamble of the Constitution to say the nation was dependent on God, and from the Lincoln administration forward presidents and Congresses refused to support a "Christian Amendment" that would have acknowledged Jesus to be the "Ruler among the nations."

At the same time, the early American leaders were not absolute secularists. They wanted God in American public life, but in a way that was unifying, not divisive. They were politicians and philosophers, sages and warriors, churchmen and doubters. While Jefferson edited the Gospels, Franklin rendered the Lord's Prayer into the 18th-century vernacular, but his piety had its limits: he recalled falling asleep in a Quaker meeting house on his first day in Philadelphia. All were devoted to liberty, but most kept slaves. All were devoted to virtue, but many led complex--the religious would say sinful--private lives.

The Founders understood that theocracy was tyranny, but they did not feel they could--or should--try to banish religion from public life altogether. Washington improvised "So help me, God" at the conclusion of the first presidential oath and kissed the Bible on which he had sworn it. Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, he privately told his cabinet, because he had struck a deal with "my Maker" that he would free the slaves if the Union forces triumphed at Antietam. The only public statement Franklin D. Roosevelt made on D-Day 1944 was to read a prayer he had written drawing on the 1928 Episcopal Book of Common Prayer. John Kennedy said that "on earth, God's work must truly be our own," and Ronald Reagan was not afraid to say that he saw the world as a struggle between light and dark, calling the Soviet empire "the focus of evil in the modern world." George W. Bush credits Billy Graham with saving him from a life of drift and drink, and once said that Christ was his favorite philosopher.

Sectarian language, however, can be risky. In a sermon preached on the day George Washington left Philadelphia to take command of the Continental Army, an Episcopal priest said: "Religion and liberty must flourish or fall together in America. We pray that both may be perpetual." The battle to preserve faith and freedom has been a long one, and rages still: keeping religion and politics in proper balance requires eternal vigilance.

Our best chance of summoning what Lincoln called "the better angels of our nature" may lie in recovering the true sense and spirit of the Founding era and its leaders, for they emerged from a time of trial with a moral creed which, while imperfect, averted the worst experiences of other nations. In that history lies our hope.