When the Founding Fathers wrote the Declaration of Independence, and later the United States Constitution, they understood they were embarking on unchartered territory. They moved forward anyway. It’s not surprising they found solid footing and the principles they needed to establish a free nation capable of sustaining self-government in the Bible.
America’s founding principles are rooted in the teachings of the Bible.
Studies have shown the Bible is by far the most often quoted source in all of the writings and speeches of the Founding Era. The Founding Fathers valued the Bible for its wisdom regarding human nature and moral responsibility. They agreed its teachings were essential for nurturing the virtues necessary for self-government. Their views about freedom and liberty, the role of government, and the rights and responsibilities of citizens come from Scripture. In short, they relied on the Bible for guidance.
The Unchanging Principles of Liberty of the Founding Fathers.
The Principles of Liberty the Founders focused on in the formation of our Constitutional Republic are unchanging. They are unchanging because they are based on Scripture. The Founding Fathers understood the importance of biblical teaching and instruction. In their day, the Bible was the most-read book throughout the world. Further, the Enlightenment thinkers who influenced their political philosophies, in addition to their use of logic and reason, were also spiritual. In fact, many were Christians. The Principles of Liberty that underpin our founding documents illustrate the impact the Founders’ biblical upbringing and education had on their ideas for America.
The goal of the Founders was to create a system of self-government that would preserve and protect the freedom and liberty they had fought so hard for into perpetuity. To accomplish this they relied on Christianity and morality as their guiding principles. They understood that without these strong pillars, any government they instituted would fall prey to the same internal and external threats that had been toppling civilizations for millennia. Perhaps, for that reason, more than any other, the documents they drafted and the Constitutional Republic these documents established are supported and affirmed again and again in the Bible.
“It is impossible to rightly govern the world without God and the Bible,” George Washington, 1796.
Eight founding principles whose origin and meaning are found in Scripture.
Our Founding Fathers laid the foundation for our Constitutional Republic upon principles deeply rooted in the word of God. Principles, they believed, would speak to the better part of human nature and preserve and protect American freedom and liberty for all time.
Throughout the history of our Nation, we have striven to come ever closer to those goals. Along the way we’ve stumbled, we’ve fallen short, but despite our human frailties, we’ve also made valiant progress. Faith has been the most vital part of that journey. Generations past stood strong in the face of adversity and were willing to fight and die for their faith. Faith in God to guide them in the right direction, faith in their country and what it stands for, and faith in each other.
Now, more than ever, faith is essential to the future of America. It’s time to remind ourselves who we are and where we come from. More importantly, it’s time to ask ourselves, who are we becoming? If we remove faith and the biblical tenants that our Founders knew were so critical to the establishment, prosperity, and sustainment of a free nation, then we destroy the very foundation upon which we stand.
Without her foundation, America cannot stand. She will fall. And like so many civilizations before her, what rises in her place will not be based on the eternal principles of freedom and liberty upon which she has stood for nearly two and a half centuries. The ideals that set her apart, like the consent and voice of the people, will undoubtedly fall into obscurity because, in the minds of those controlling her destiny, they will no longer matter.
“We have staked the whole future of American civilization, not upon the power of government. Far from it. We have staked the future of all our political institutions upon the capacity of mankind for self-government. Upon the capacity of each and all of us to govern ourselves. To control ourselves. To sustain ourselves according to the 10 Commandments of God, ” James Madison, 1778.
The following sections offer parallels between the Bible and the principles that underpin America’s Constitutional Republic. This list is not all-inclusive. Rather, it is a closer look at some of the founding principles that, although widely acknowledged, have also come under the most scrutiny throughout our Nation’s history.
To Be or Not to Be Enlightened?
Part of the scrutiny of America’s founding regarding its sources of inspiration focuses on the influence of the European Enlightenment that developed during the 18th Century. While the Enlightenment’s impact on America’s founding itself is not disputed, that would be particularly difficult to do, there exist two camps of thought on the results of that influence as it relates to our founding principles.
Those with a more secular view tend to focus on the scientific, logical, and higher reasoning that characterizes the era to the exclusion of any Christian influence that may exist. While Christians tend to focus on aspects of the era that point to a decidedly Christian influence, particularly those based in Scripture. Ironically, both camps would be correct.
Many historians, although they acknowledge that a number of Enlightenment thinkers were indeed Christians, assert that the movement itself was not in fact a religious one. I would tend to agree with that. The Enlightenment was not a religious movement, but rather a break from religious institutions due to internal politics, corruption, and lack of any real social reforms on behalf of the masses. Add to that the Church’s resistance to the scientific advancements being realized at the same time and the fact that Deism sprang from the Enlightenment, and the distancing from religion is understandable.
On the other hand, while you can take the institution of religion out of the equation, what cannot be removed is the spiritual impact of Christianity on the Enlightened minds of the era, of which the Founding Fathers were part.
Spirituality doesn’t require religion, specifically institutionalized religion, to exist. However, Christianity’s focus is spiritual because it requires faith in order to be embraced, practiced, and sustained. While some might argue that Deism itself is not a spiritual but a logical look at the Universe, I would argue that in addition to those things, it is also spiritual in nature. Deism is a perspective on the nature of God after all. In order to have a perspective on God, there first has to be an acknowledgment that God exists. That acknowledgment in and of itself is faith.
Thus, no matter which camp you fall into regarding America’s founding, truly understanding the underlying principles and the Constitutional Republic that resulted, requires being open to all the philosophies that inspired and influenced the Founding Generation, regardless of their origin.
(Note: Source documentation and scriptural passages and commentary are linked to specific texts for further exploration).
1. Reliance on the Providence of God.
The Founding Fathers believed in Divine Providence. Or, the idea that God is both Creator of and Intercessor in the Universe. Contrary to the term often associated with the Founders, they were not deists in their traditional sense. Though they did rely on logic and reasoning as the learned men they were, they were also spiritual. In other words, they could logically accept God as the creator of the Universe and everything in it, while spiritually acknowledging that He is also a benevolent caretaker who intercedes on behalf of His creation.
The concept of divine providence originated during the Middle Ages. St. Thomas Aquinas developed it most fully in his Suma Theologica (1265-1274). According to Aquinas, divine providence is simply, “care exercised by God over the Universe.”
The Founders were familiar with the Suma Theologica and like many educated men of their day, respected Aquinas’ thoughts on this, as well as other precepts he imparted.
The final paragraph of the Declaration acknowledges the Founders’ faith in divine providence in two important ways. First, they state their intent for the colonies to be independent of England with an appeal to God’s authority as their justification. Second, they reaffirm their reliance on God for His guidance, protection, and intervention. Specifically, they recognize their dependence on God, above and before, any earthly body, for a successful outcome. An outcome they pledged the whole of themselves to, including their very lives.
Such an undertaking required tremendous faith. Faith the Founders exhibited in both word and deed as they each, to a man, signed that document.
“We, therefore, the representatives of the United States of America, in General Congress assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the name, and by authority of the good people of these colonies, solemnly publish and declare that these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent states. And for the support of this declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor,” Declaration of Independence, 1776.
The Revolutionary War ended in 1781 with British General George Cornwallis’ surrender to George Washington following the Battle of Yorktown. Reflecting on the success of the Continental Army in a letter to Reverend John Rogers in June of that year, Washington emphasizes that it is to God “be the Glory and the Praise” for their triumph.
“I accept, with much pleasure your kind Congratulations on the happy Event of Peace, with the Establishment of our Liberties and Independence. Glorious indeed has been our Contest: glorious, if we consider the Prize for which we have contended, and glorious in its Issue; but in the midst of our Joys, I hope we shall not forget that, to divine Providence is to be ascribed the Glory and the Praise,” George Washington, 1783.
With the Revolution behind them, their independence secured, and the new nation floundering under the Articles of Confederation, delegates met in Philadelphia to discuss the future of America’s government.
During the summer of 1787, the Constitutional Convention almost fell apart a number of times as the delegates were drafting the new Constitution. During one such debate when the issues seemed frozen in deadlock, Benjamin Franklin stood up and reminded his fellow delegates of God’s aid during the Revolution and then beseeched them to pray again for His guidance and direction in constructing their new government. By the end of that hot Philadelphia summer, the completed and signed United States Constitution was headed to the states for ratification.
“I have so much faith in the general government of the world by Providence, that I can hardly conceive a transaction of such momentous importance to the welfare of millions now existing, and to exist in the posterity of a great nation, should be suffered to pass without being in some degree influenced, guided, and governed by that omnipotent, omnipresent, and beneficent Ruler, in whom all inferior spirits live, and move, and have their being,” Benjamin Franklin, 1788.
Many Scripture Passages Reveal God’s Divine Providence.
“For it was the desire for gain that planned that vessel, and wisdom was the artisan who built it, but it is Your providence, O Father, that steers its course, because You have given it a path in the sea and a safe way through the waves, showing that You can save from every danger, so that even a person who lacks skill may put to sea,” Wisdom 14: 2-4.
“In righteousness shalt, thou be established: thou shalt be far from oppression; for thou shalt not fear; and from terror; for it shall not come near thee. – No weapon that is formed against thee shall prosper; and every tongue that shall rise against thee in judgment thou shalt condemn. This is the heritage of the servants of the LORD, and their righteousness is of Me, saith the Lord,” Isaiah 54: 17.
“Unless the Lord builds the house, the builders’ labor is in vain. Unless the Lord watches over the city, the guards stand watch in vain,” Psalm 127:1.
“I am the vine, you are the branches. He who abides in Me, and I in him, bears much fruit; for without Me, you can do nothing,” John 15:5.
2. God’s laws form the basis of all human laws.
The Founders knew that the only reliable basis upon which to found a free government was one that never changes. For that, they turned to, “the laws of nature and of nature’s God” found in the Bible.
The Founding Fathers believed in the existence of God and that He created all things. Moreover, they believed that this fundamental truth underscores all self-evident truths. As part of God’s creation, we are dependent upon Him, and more importantly, responsible to Him. Thus, the laws of nature and of nature’s God that govern the Universe, are the same laws by which mankind must govern itself.
The Founders understood that obedience to God’s laws is precisely what regulates human conduct allowing men to coexist peacefully, and more importantly, to govern justly. First and foremost, God’s laws are unchanging. He reveals them to us through our conscience. Second, they are the universal moral code of mankind. Third, all human laws are based on the laws of God. “Law is directed to the common good, and human law is no exception. The promotion of virtue is necessary for the common good, and human laws are instruments in the promotion of virtue,” St. Thomas Aquinas.
“Suppose a nation in some distant region should take the Bible for their only law book, and every member should regulate his conduct by the precepts there exhibited! Every member would be obliged in conscience, to temperance, frugality, and industry; to justice, kindness, and charity towards his fellow men; and to piety, love, and reverence toward Almighty God. What a Utopia, what a Paradise would this region be,” John Adams, 1756.
“These are the eternal, immutable laws of good and evil, to which the Creator Himself in all his dispensations conforms; and which He has enabled human reason to discover, so far as they are necessary for the conduct of human actions,” William Blackstone, 1765.
“The future and success of America is not in this Constitution, but in the laws of God upon which this Constitution is founded,” James Madison, 1787
The Ten Commandments are the Higher Laws of God.
“The Lord said to Moses, “Come up to me on the mountain and stay here, and I will give you the tablets of stone with the law and commandments I have written for their instruction,” Exodus 24:12.
“The LORD your God commands you this day to follow these decrees and laws; carefully observe them with all your heart and with all your soul,” Deuteronomy 26:16.
Moses reiterates the Commandments as the Israelites are about to enter the Promised Land, “For I command you today to love the LORD your God, to walk in obedience to Him, and to keep His commands, decrees, and laws; then you will live and increase, and the LORD your God will bless you in the land you are entering to possess,” Deuteronomy 30:16.
Generations later, these God-given laws still guide moral principles and behaviors. Their influence can be seen in societal laws, as well. For example, property rights, and punishment for crimes such as theft, murder, and slander.
“The law of the LORD is perfect, converting the soul: the testimony of the LORD is sure, making wise the simple. The statutes of the LORD are right, rejoicing the heart: the commandment of the LORD is pure, enlightening the eyes,” Psalm 19:7-8.
“Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds out of the mouth of God,” Matthew 4:4.
3. Religion and morality form the basis of liberty.
The Founding Fathers believed that without religion, a free government could not last. They understood that to sustain liberty morality was necessary. Religion teaches about the Bible, God’s laws, and morality. It also creates a more moral society, something the Founders considered vital if this new form of government was to succeed.
Moral strength and virtue were not solely the responsibility of the people, they were required of their leaders also. The Founders knew, without reservation, that the Constitutional Republic would not survive under morally weak and corrupt leadership any more than it would under a society of the same.
“Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion, and morality are indispensable supports – And let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion – Reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail to the exclusion of religious principle,” George Washington, 1796
Religion played a huge role in the establishment of many of the colonies that had now become the United States of America. Ensuring religious freedom was a vital prerequisite for ratification of the Constitution.
People escaping religious persecution in their homelands populated many of the first colonial settlements in the New World. Freedom to safely practice one’s religious beliefs and traditions was sacred. The Founding Fathers understood this.
However, far from simply the notion of “freedom of worship,” the Founders had a much broader view of religious freedom. Their writings convey their firm conviction that religious freedom is the right of every citizen to live out their conscience according to the dictates of their faith. In short, they held that the government had no right to tell people what to believe or how to practice their faith.
It is no coincidence that when the Bill of Rights was finally ratified in December of 1791, the 1st Amendment protected American citizens’ religious freedom.
“The Religion then of every man must be left to the conviction and conscience of every man: and it is the right of every man to exercise it as these may dictate,” James Madison, 1785.
“Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other. Morality and virtue are the foundation of our republic and necessary for a society to be free,” John Adams, 1798.
“Only virtuous people are capable of freedom. As nations become corrupt and vicious, they have more need of masters,” Benjamin Franklin, 1787.
“Neither the wisest constitution nor the wisest laws will secure the liberty and happiness of a people whose manners are universally corrupt. He, therefore, is the truest friend to the liberty of his country who tries most to promote its virtue, and who … will not suffer a man to be chosen into any office of power and trust who is not a wise and virtuous man,” Samuel Adams, 1749.
Scripture Teaches that True Freedom and Liberty Come From God.
“Ye have not hearkened unto Me, in proclaiming liberty, everyone to his brother, and every man to his neighbor: behold, I proclaim a liberty for you, saith the Lord,” Jeremiah 34:17.
“Live as people who are free, not using your freedom as a cover-up for evil, but living as servants of God,” 1 Peter 2:16.
“If My people, which are called by My name, shall humble themselves, and pray, and seek My face, and turn from their wicked ways; then will I hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin, and will heal their land,” 2 Chronicles 7:14.
“But the one who looks into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and perseveres, being no hearer who forgets but a doer who acts, he will be blessed in his doing,” James 1:25.
4. All men are created equal.
The European Enlightenment, specifically the writings of John Locke, significantly influenced the Founders’ ideas about equality. He believed in a Creator, God, and that all men are created equal by God. Locke also believed that all individuals are born with God-given natural rights that can never be taken away.
John Locke’s Philosophies had a Significant Impact on the Founders.
John Locke’s philosophies adhered to the Protestant doctrine of “sola Scriptura.” Essentially, everything needed for salvation is contained in the Scriptures. His writings concerning natural rights and the role of government, as well as his views on education and religious freedom, were all based on Christian theological principles. Locke‘s contributions to our founding principles are unquestionable. As Thomas Jefferson was drafting the Declaration of Independence it was to Locke’s writings that he referred to and often quoted verbatim.
When the Founders were drafting and refining the Declaration of Independence, they drew on Locke’s philosophies of equality and natural law in defense and justification for revolution. In this context, the words, “all men are created equal” are referring to humanity in general, but specifically, to the right of the American colonies to throw off the mantle of British control.
When it came time to frame that concept into the Constitution, however, they assigned specific detail to what equality would constitute under the new government. The Bill of Rights ensures that by law in the United States, “all men are equal before God, equal before the law, and equal in their rights.” More importantly, it protects the citizens of the United States from the arbitrary dissolution of their rights by the government at any time or for any reason.
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal,” Declaration of Independence, 1776.
“The ordaining of laws in favor of one part of the nation, to the prejudice and oppression of another, is certainly the most erroneous and mistaken policy. An equal dispensation of protection, rights, privileges, and advantages, is what every part is entitled to, and ought to enjoy,” Benjamin Franklin, 1774.
“No title of nobility shall be granted by the United States,” U.S. Constitution, Art. I, Sec. 9, Paragraph 8.
Scripture is the Foundation for Equality and Natural Law.
“In Christ’s family, there can be no division into Jew and non-Jew, slave and free, male and female. Among us, you are all equal. That is, we are all in a common relationship with Jesus Christ.” Galatians 3:28.
“Hear the causes between your brethren, and judge righteously between every man and his brother, and the stranger that is with him. Ye shall not respect [discriminate against] persons in judgment, but ye shall hear the small as well as the great; ye shall not be afraid of the face of man; for the judgment is God’s: and the cause that is too hard for you, bring it unto Me, and I will hear it,” Deuteronomy 1:16-17.
“So Peter opened his mouth and said: “Truly, I understand that God shows no partiality,” Acts 10:34.
5. All men are endowed with God-given human rights.
Like their beliefs about equality, the prevailing understanding of the Founding Era regarding human rights also came from the Enlightenment. By the time the Declaration was drafted, it was increasingly believed that human rights are the will of God and cannot be abolished or changed by any earthly power.
Essentially, the Founders held that human rights are derived from the law of nature and of nature’s God.
According to Locke, the most basic human law of nature is the preservation of mankind. To that end, he reasoned, individuals have both a right and a duty to preserve their own lives. In addition, he believed that liberty should be far-reaching as long as individual freedom and choice do not interfere with the liberty of others. Finally, in Locke’s view, the purpose of government is to secure and protect these God-given human rights.
The Founders agreed with Locke and further asserted that human rights are “protected through a code of divine law revealed by God.” It was on the basis of this code of divine law that they staked their entire premise for the Declaration. Later, ensuring the protection of our God-given human rights became the foundation for the Constitution and the highest duty of the government it established.
“The doctrines thus delivered we call the revealed or divine law, and they are to be found only in the Holy Scriptures. These precepts, when revealed, are found by comparison to be really a part of the original law of nature, as they tend in all their consequences to man’s felicity,” William Blackstone, 1753.
“… that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” Declaration of Independence, 1776.
“I say RIGHTS, for such they have, undoubtedly, antecedent to all earthly governments; rights that cannot be repealed or restrained by human laws; rights derived from the Great Legislator of the Universe,” John Adams, 1765.
“The sacred rights of mankind are not to be rummaged for, among old parchments, or musty records. They are written, as with a sunbeam, in the whole volume of human nature, by the hand of the divinity itself; and can never be erased or obscured by mortal power,” Alexander Hamilton, 1775.
“But our rulers can have authority over such natural rights only as we have submitted to them. The rights of conscience we never submitted, we could not submit. We are answerable for them to our God,” Thomas Jefferson, 1781.
“Man has been subjected by his Creator to the moral law, of which his feelings, or conscience as it is sometimes called, are the evidence with which his Creator has furnished him … The moral duties which exist between individual and individual in a state of nature, accompany them into a state of society, their Maker not having released them from those duties on their forming themselves into a nation,” Thomas Jefferson, 1793
Human Rights are Mankind’s Gift Stemming from God’s Moral Law of Love.
So God created mankind in His own image, in the image of God He created them; male and female He created them,” Genesis 1:27
“Whoever sheds man’s blood, by man his blood shall be shed, for in the image of God He made man,” Genesis 9:6.
“Learn to do good; Seek justice, Rebuke the oppressor; Defend the fatherless, Plead for the widow,” Isaiah 1:17.
“Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute. Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and needy,” Proverbs 31: 8-9.
“For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself,” Galatians 5:14.
6. Government authority is by the consent of the governed.
The principle of liberty the Founding Fathers focused on with great care when framing the Constitution was the same one that inspired the Declaration and the Revolutionary War, “The God-given right to govern is vested in the sovereign authority of the whole people.”
The language of the Declaration was buoyed by the Founders’ belief in the natural laws of God. In it, they essentially declared that it was “their right, their duty, to throw off such government [a government that has become tyrannical], and to provide new guards for their future security.” Having won the Revolution and successfully thrown off that government, it now became their duty to establish a government “of, by, and for the people.”
“Consent of the governed” refers to the idea that a government’s legitimacy and moral right to power is justified and lawful only when consented to by the people over which that power is exercised. Where did this idea originate? Like a lot of the political philosophies and ideals of the time, it came from Scripture, as well as the Enlightenment.
The idea that governments should serve the people is consistent with many themes of the Bible, which discuss God’s granting of individual rights, gifts, and talents, and God’s plan that we should all voluntarily use His gifts to serve the common good.
Locke’s ideas about government stemmed from his core belief in natural God-given rights. The duty of all government, in his view, is to protect these rights. People consent, in turn, to invest authority in the government and abide by the laws of society only in so far as the government protects their rights. Failure to protect their rights was just cause for the people to overthrow that government.
In crafting the Constitutional Republic for the United States of America, the Framers tried to balance the need for a centralized government against their fear of the corruption and overreach that all governments are prone to. In short, they wanted to ensure that the government they established protected the people from the “frailties of their rulers.”
To that end, they imbued the Constitution with safeguards like three separate branches, limited and well-defined powers, checks and balances, and protection for the minority against the will of the majority. It was the addition of the Bill of Rights in 1791, specifically the 10th Amendment, however, that ensured the Constitutional Republic of the United States would “rest on the solid basis of the consent of the people,” Alexander Hamilton, 1787.
“The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people,” U.S. Constitution, Bill of Rights, 10th Amendment.
“…governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, ” Declaration of Independence, 1776.
“The United States shall guarantee to every state in this Union a republican form of government,” U.S Constitution, Art. IV, Section 4.
“The fabric of the American empire ought to rest on the solid basis of the consent of the people. The streams of national power ought to flow immediately from that pure, original fountain of all legislative authority,” Alexander Hamilton, 1787.
“We may define a republic to be, or at least may bestow that name on, a government which derives all its powers directly or indirectly from the great body of the people, and is administered by persons holding their offices during pleasure for a limited period, or during good behavior. It is essential to such a government that it be derived from the great body of the society…It is sufficient for such a government that the persons administering it be appointed, either directly or indirectly, by the people,” James Madison, 1788.
“A majority, held in restraint by constitutional checks, and limitations, and always changing easily, with deliberate changes of popular opinions and sentiments, is the only true sovereign of a free people, Whoever rejects it, does, of necessity, fly to anarchy or to despotism. Unanimity is impossible; the rule of a minority, as a permanent arrangement, is wholly inadmissible; so that, rejecting the majority principle, anarchy, or despotism in some form, is all that is left,” Abraham Lincoln, 1861.
The Biblical Model of Just Government is One in Which the Ruler is Liable to God.
“Judges and officers shalt thou make thee in all thy gates, which the LORD thy God giveth thee, throughout thy tribes: and they shall judge the people with just judgment,” Deuteronomy 16:18.
“Take you wise men, and understanding, and known among your tribes, and I will make them rulers over you,” Deuteronomy 1:13.
“The God of Israel spoke, the Rock of Israel said to me: ‘When one rules over people in righteousness, when he rules in the fear of God,” 2 Samuel 23:3.
“Be strong and courageous, because you will lead these people to inherit the land I swore to their forefathers to give them. Be strong and very courageous. Be careful to obey all the law My servant Moses gave you; do not turn from it to the right or to the left, that you may be successful wherever you go. Do not let this Book of the Law depart from your mouth; meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do everything written in it. Then you will be prosperous and successful,” Joshua 1:6-8.
7. Separation of church and state.
This is probably one of the most often misunderstood ideas that came forward from the Founding Generation. The notion of ‘separation of church and state,’ though often cited as being part of the Constitution, does not appear in the document at all. In fact, it doesn’t appear in any founding document.
As previously demonstrated, the Founders absolutely believed that religion and morality were vital to the success of the Republic. They were men of faith and understood how important faith is to mankind’s prosperity and happiness. What they did not want as part of the new nation, however, was the establishment of a national religion.
The terminology actually comes from an 1802 letter Thomas Jefferson wrote to the Danbury Baptists Association. In it, he is responding to their fears regarding their state constitution’s lack of specific phrasing concerning religious freedom. He assures them “with sovereign reverence that act of the whole American people which declared that their legislature should ʺmake no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,ʺ thus building a wall of separation between Church & State.” In other words, the protection of the 1st Amendment’s Establishment and Free Exercise Clauses extends to the whole of the American people.
Which is precisely what the Founders meant for it to do. The 1st Amendment is not, in fact, an admonishment regarding religious interference in government, but rather a law to protect religion, and therefore the people, from government interference in matters of faith. The Founders had no intention of creating a society that forced all citizens to adopt one religion. They did, however, value the importance of religion and felt strongly that a person’s faith should not be intruded upon by the government and that religious doctrine should not be written into governance.
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof,” First Amendment, U.S. Constitution.
“Because finally, ‘the equal right of every citizen to the free exercise of his Religion according to the dictates of conscience’ is held by the same tenure with all our other rights,” James Madison, 1785.
“That religion, or the duty which we owe to our CREATOR, and the manner of discharging it, can be directed only by reason and conviction, not by force or violence; and therefore, all men are equally entitled to the free exercise of religion, according to the dictates of conscience; and that it is the mutual duty of all to practice Christian forbearance, love, and charity; towards each other,” George Mason, 1776.
“Religion is a matter which lies solely between man and his God, [and] he owes account to none other for his faith or his worship,” Thomas Jefferson, 1802.
The Biblical Basis for Institutional Separation is Found in the New Testament.
In the Old Testament, especially regarding Israel, God’s people and the state were one. Most systems of government at the time were theocratic. However, in the New Testament, Jesus distinguishes between the two in both structure and purpose.
“He said to them, “Then give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s,” Luke 20: 20-26.
“Jesus said, “My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, My servants would fight to prevent My arrest by the Jewish leaders. But now My kingdom is from another place,” John 8:36.
“When the Son of Man comes in His glory, and all the angels with Him, He will sit on His glorious throne. All the nations will be gathered before Him, and He will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats,” Matthew 25: 31-32.
“Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God,” Romans 13:1.
The biblical meaning of separation of church and state does not infer a total disenfranchisement of the church from the state. On the contrary, scripture is clear on this as well. “Righteousness exalts a nation, but sin condemns any people,” Proverbs 14:34. The principles Jesus taught us that build righteousness in individuals are the same principles that when multiplied build righteous nations.
8. Teaching the next generation the laws of liberty.
With respect to the Founding Fathers’ original intent regarding education, an accurate accounting requires that the religious and moral underpinning of the American Republic be taken into consideration. In addition, it is also necessary to examine their ideas regarding the teaching of genuine facts, moral character, and civic virtue.
The Founding Fathers understood the critical role of education in a free society. They understood how important universal education, specifically on the principles of liberty and the Republic, is to America’s future. Not only that, but they also knew that without a basic understanding of the Constitution, individual liberties would be placed at risk as well.
They believed this because they were men of reason and logic, but also because they were men of faith. It was precisely their ability to use reason and logic that aided them during the writing of the Declaration and framing of the Constitution. At the same time, it was their belief in the inalienable rights of the people that compelled them to build the foundation for the new nation upon the unchanging laws of nature and nature’s God.
In their view, instilling in the next generation the virtues we believe in as a society is the main goal of public education. In his Thoughts on Government (1776), John Adams wrote that “Wisdom and knowledge, as well as virtue, diffused generally among the body of the people, being necessary for the preservation of their rights and liberties.”
That diffusion of knowledge included high-quality history and civic instruction. Principally, to create informed citizens, but also to prepare future generations for full participation in the American Republic the Constitution established.
In 1765, John Adams wrote A Dissertation on the Canon and the Feudal Law in response to the Stamp Act. In it, he explains his views on education, or rather the danger inherent in, “the lack of education within the general populace.” Adams held that withholding knowledge, “would deny them [citizens] a basic understanding of their rights; natural or civil, thus they would be compelled to accept any wrongs committed by the king or others with similar power.”
His Dissertation was basically an argument that education and knowledge are fundamental in a free, or any, society in keeping leaders in check. It was an argument he and his fellow Founders would expand upon as the Republic was taking shape.
“They [the Puritan colonists who first settled in America] made an early provision by law that every town consisting of so many families should be always furnished with a grammar school. They made it a crime for such a town to be destitute of a grammar schoolmaster for a few months and subjected it to a heavy penalty. So that the education of all ranks of people was made the care and expense of the public, in a manner that I believe has been unknown to any other people, ancient or modern. The consequences of these establishments we see and feel every day,” John Adams, 1765.
In 1818, Thomas Jefferson was appointed to the commission to plan the site for a new university in Virginia. He took that opportunity to do more than just survey the potential location. In addition, he recommended a course of study that reflected his views regarding the role of public education.
“To give to every citizen the information he needs…to understand his duties to his neighbors and country…to know his rights…” Thomas Jefferson, 1818.
From the beginning, generations of Americans were taught about the Founding Era and the principles that shaped their nation. In his Democracy in America (1830s), Alexis de Tocqueville writes, “It cannot be doubted that in the United States, the instruction of the people powerfully contributes to the support of the democratic republic; and such must always be the case.”
“No free government, nor the blessings of liberty, can be preserved to any people, but by a frequent recurrence to fundamental principles,” George Mason, 1776 (Virginia Declaration of Rights).
“It is universally admitted that a well-instructed people alone can be permanently a free people,” James Madison, 1810.
In 1838, as a young lawyer, Abraham Lincoln delivered an address to the Young Men’s Lyceum of Springfield, IL. The speech came in the wake of the mob violence that had begun to take place throughout the new territories of the United States in response to the rising tension between pro-and-anti-slavery factions.
In the address, Lincoln warned against the danger inherent in “the growing disposition to substitute the wild and furious passions, in lieu of the sober judgment of the Courts.” To counter this growing threat, he expounded on the importance of education in fortifying and maintaining the rule of law set forth and established by the founding generation in the Constitution. “Their’s was the task (and nobly they performed it)” he explained, “to possess themselves, and through themselves, us, of this goodly land; and to uprear upon its hills and its valleys, a political edifice of liberty and equal rights.” How to accomplish that, in Lincoln’s view, was pretty straightforward.
“Let the Constitution be taught in schools, in seminaries, and in colleges, let it be written in primers, in spelling books, and in almanacs, let it be preached from the pulpit, proclaimed in legislative halls, and enforced in courts of justice. And, in short, let it become the political religion of the nation, “Abraham Lincoln, 1838.
The Bible is Clear on the Importance of Instructing Future Generations.
“Only be on your guard and diligently watch yourselves, so that you don’t forget the things your eyes have seen and so that they don’t slip from your mind as long as you live. Teach them to your children and your grandchildren,” Deuteronomy 4:9.
“And thou shalt teach them diligently unto thy children, and shalt talk of them when thou sittest in thine house, and when thou walkest by the way, and when thou liest down, and when thou risest up.” Deuteronomy 6:7.
“Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it,” Proverbs 22:6.
The Bible is also very clear on the danger that arises when teaching the word of God is forsaken. “That whole generation was also gathered to their ancestors. After them, another generation rose up who did not know the Lord or the works He had done for Israel. The Israelites did what was evil in the Lord’s sight. They worshiped the Baals and abandoned the Lord, the God of their fathers, who had brought them out of Egypt. They went after other gods from the surrounding peoples and bowed down to them. They infuriated the Lord, for they abandoned Him and worshiped Baal and the Ashtoreths,” Judges 2:10-13.
Scripture reveals, in plain terminology, God’s views on children, especially in regard to protecting and nurturing them. In Matthew 18:3-6, Jesus tells His disciples, “Unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” With these words, Christ reveals God’s desire for all mankind to possess a child-like faith.
He then warns them exactly how His Father views those who would harm or dilute the spiritual growth of children, “If anyone causes one of these little ones – those who believe in me – to stumble, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea.”
America’s founding principles cannot be accurately defined or understood without the Bible.
Stepping back and examining the principles of America’s foundation has been an eye-opening and thought-provoking experience. Shortly into my examination, I realized that defining and understanding these principles is impossible without the Bible. The unchanging word of God is the only foundation upon which to build a government charged with upholding the freedom and liberty of all its citizens. That is precisely why the Founding Fathers chose to base our Republic upon its eternal footing.
This experience elevated my understanding of the Founding Era in ways I’d not anticipated. First, it clarified the care and circumspection with which the Founding Fathers set about establishing a system of self-government that had the best chance of sustaining and perpetuating the freedom and liberty their generation had fought so hard for.
Second, it revealed the accuracy of their logic and reasoning, but also their conviction and faith. That they had the foresight to turn not only to the most enlightened thinkers of their time but more importantly to the wisdom of Scripture and the laws of God says a lot about the men they were, but perhaps more significantly, the men they aspired to be.
Finally, it reinforced in my heart and mind the debt of gratitude and respect they, as well as succeeding generations, deserve for their sacrifices and contributions to this great Nation.
The preservation of our history and our continued faith in the principles that founded our Republic are just as critical now as they were when they were first established. Through the years they have been questioned, challenged, and tested. They have prevailed in the face of those challenges again and again. The reason for their continued existence and relevance is not because they are perfect, but rather because they are based upon ideals that are.
Ideals that John Adams expressed in a letter to his friend Thomas Jefferson in 1813, “Now I will avow, that I then believe, and now believe, that those general Principles of Christianity, are as eternal and immutable, as the Existence and Attributes of God; and that those Principles of Liberty, are as unalterable as human Nature and our terrestrial, mundane System.”
When considering the challenges we have faced in the past, and are facing now, I am reminded of the words of one of my favorite leaders of all time. Abraham Lincoln, the 16th President of the United States, served our country during one of its darkest hours and brought us through one of its greatest challenges.
We emerged battered and bloody, but our Republic still stood. To me, that is a testament that the ideals that founded this Nation are righteous and good. That the men who founded this nation, though human and prone to the same weaknesses we all are, truly did have the noblest intentions at heart. Most importantly, I’ve come away with the conviction that it is up to each of us, the recipients of the freedom and liberty that has been passed to us, not to become the generation that allows, “government of the people, by the people, and for the people to perish from the earth,” Abraham Lincoln, 1863.
“With Malice Toward None, With Charity for All.“
On March 4, 1865, hardly one month before his assassination, President Abraham Lincoln gave his Second Inaugural Address under the newly completed dome of the United States Capitol. Like many of his speeches, it was short, to the point, and compelling.
In it, he relayed his continued faith in the Almighty to see the country safely through this “mighty scourge of war.” While holding firm to his conviction that preserving the Union is the task that has been placed upon him, he passes no judgment on those seeking to dissolve it. Rather, he defers to God’s will and judgment and asks only for patience and forbearance to continue.
The last paragraph of his speech reveals, in both its brevity and sincerity, Lincoln’s enduring faith in God and in the better nature of mankind, “With malice toward none with charity for all with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right let us strive on to finish the work we are in to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan ~ to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”
I return to this time in our history a lot. The Civil War was the greatest challenge the United States had faced up to that time. The challenge was from within and tested every principle of liberty and equality the Founding Fathers had infused in the Declaration and the Constitution. “Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure,” Abraham Lincoln, Gettysburg Address, 1863.
The Nation did survive and Lincoln’s words became the battle cry for future generations fighting for the same equal and God-given rights the Founders had fought for and then had built the American Republic on. That is the legacy and the responsibility they left us with. That each generation’s diligence in upholding these sacred principles and willingness to sacrifice on their behalf would bring us ever closer to attaining them.
That America still stands and still remains a beacon of liberty is proof that the ideals of the Founding Generation are timeless. More than that, it is a reminder that we can never take our freedoms for granted. For they only remain secure if “we the people” of this generation fulfill our duty to preserve and protect them for the generation to come.
Author’s Note: I am grateful to all the historians and writers whose work inspired and continues to inspire me. That we continue to uphold the Christian values and principles suffused in the fabric of our Nation so that we may pass those values on to future generations, as is our duty and their right to receive, is my fervent prayer. May God provide us with the wisdom, humility, and courage to do so.