At Work & Public Square

The Role of Religion in America’s Founding

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As we prepare to celebrate the 239th anniversary of the signing of Declaration of Independence, far too many Americans have bought into the idea that the American founding was a product of the Enlightenment and a strictly secular development.

This should not be a surprise. Most history books in today’s schools have removed anything about religion from the story of America’s founding.

But is it true?

In a recent lecture, Dr. Daniel Dreisbach, professor in the Department of Justice, Law & Criminology at American University, and whose areas of expertise include constitutional law and religion and society, makes the argument that the founders believed religion played an important role in their bold experiment in republican self-government.

Dreisbach’s thesis suggests that while the Enlightenment influenced the founders, there still was a consensus that religion was vital, if not indispensable to the formation and continuation of the new republic.

This is not to say that all the founders were people of faith. Some were not.

It also does not mean that they agreed on the nature of faith and religion.

That being said, Dreisbach contends that none of the founders would have publicly disagreed with what he calls the “consensus view,” stated above.

The challenge confronting the founders was how to combine personal responsibility and social order in a system of self-government.

Dreisbach puts it this way:

Authoritarian rulers use the whip and rod to compel people to behave as they desire, but this is unacceptable for a free, self-governing people. In response to this challenge, the founders looked to religion, morality and civic virtue to provide the internal moral compass that would promote citizens to behave in a controlled, disciplined manner and, thereby, promote social discipline and civil polity in which free, self-governing citizens could enjoy life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

This could easily be considered the founding generation’s syllogism:

  • Virtue and morality are necessary for free, republican government;
  • Religion is necessary for virtue and morality;
  • Therefore, religion is necessary for republican government.

We must understand that the culture in 1776 was very different in respect to religion. Most of the colonists identified themselves as Christians. Barry Kosmin and Seymour Lachman, in their book One Nation Under God: Religion in Contemporary American Society, suggest that 98 percent of the colonists were Protestants, with the remaining 1.9 percent being Roman Catholics. So when colonists said religion, they meant Christianity.

Our founders believed religious liberty was a desirable precondition for an effective republican government because it nurtured a vibrant religious culture leading to “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

Religious Liberty Chart

Dreisbach’s lecture was replete with numerous quotes from many of the founders, supporting the fact that our republic was surely not founded on a strictly secular ethic. The founders’ view of religion played an indispensable, if informal, role in their model for republican self-government.

We have come a long way since 1776.  Os Guinness in his book, Renaissance: The Power of the Gospel However Dark the Times, writes:

For at this juncture, the West has cut itself off from its own Jewish and Christian roots – the faith, the ideas, the ethics and the way of life that made it the West. It now stands deeply divided, uncertain of its post-Christian identity, and with its dominance waning in the global era.

Guinness states the obvious: It is clear that Western culture here in the US has moved away from its historic Christian roots. John Adams, writing to the Massachusetts Militia in October 1798 states:

Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.

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