This article is from Volume 3 (October 2004), which can be downloaded here.
The topic of separation of church and state has long been a point of some confusion for me. I will endeavor to show throughout this article that morality and religion are not in conflict with politics and government. Furthermore, government in its various capacities has the distinct responsibility to uphold moral behavior and ensure that morality is supported as a standard throughout the society over which it is empowered to govern. Finally government without morality will diminish in its influence until those who should rightly subject themselves to it will ultimately ignore it.
All that I have read about the history of America as a nation and the words and lives of those whom we call Founding Fathers would lead me to believe that America has more of God in it than perhaps any other single influence. I suppose for me the difference between church and God is the key to my understanding. That is, a church represents one organized approach to worship of God and carries with it an ideology and theology somewhat distinct from other churches. God, however, is universal to all churches and is the object to which we as individuals, communities and as a nation look for moral guidance. There is no apparent disharmony between morality and religion and the operation of the state. The possible conflict is specific to the influence of a single dominant ideology over a government institution.
From this perspective the wording of our national documents and constitution are better understood and not at variance with current political policy. The Declaration of Independence mentions the “Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God”. It further states that the truths which we hold to be self-evident about equality and rights are “endowed by [our] Creator”. These references to God in one of the charter documents of our great country indicate that despite differences in religious affiliation, all the signers of those significant documents agreed that the rights they stood up for were indeed God given, and in some measure, God protected. It further declares that “whenever any form of Government becomes destructive of these ends it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.” In the closing of the Declaration of Independence Thomas Jefferson again calls on the protection of “divine Providence”.
In the very act of declaring our independence we established our belief in and reliance upon a Higher Power. This shows that the Founding Fathers not only believed in God, but considered him to be the surest foundation and hope for success in the enterprise of building a new nation. It is worth noting that in the Declaration of Independence there is no wording that reads, “We the Catholics”, or “We the Jews”. While these religious groups existed and members of them were influential in the drafting of these documents, they all rallied behind the common and powerful influence of God, not church. The separation of church and state was established at the same time that God was woven into our national character.
Already we have heard some insinuation of the role of government in upholding morality, to the end that it can insure Happiness to its constituents. This idea requires a more careful consideration, seeing that in the enforcement of morality some citizens will find conflict. To address this point I first look to George Washington, the first President of this nation. In his first inaugural address delivered in 1789 he states that “there is no truth more thoroughly established, than that there exists in the economy and course of nature, an indissoluble union between virtue and happiness, – between duty and advantage, – between the genuine maxims of an honest and magnanimous policy, and the solid rewards of public prosperity and felicity: – Since we ought to be no less persuaded that the propitious smiles of Heaven, can never be expected on a nation that disregards the eternal rules of order and right, which Heaven itself has ordained…” This bold statement makes clear that he sought knowledge from God in establishing public policy that would ensure Heaven’s blessings on the American people. He cites honesty, duty and virtue as being connected with public wellness.
Seven years later in 1796 he delivered his farewell address, which I recommend to the entire nation to read in full. I will reproduce one paragraph in full here: “Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports. In vain would that man claim the tribute of patriotism, who should labor to subvert these great pillars of human happiness, these firmest props of the duties of men and citizens. The mere politician, equally with the pious man, ought to respect and to cherish them. A volume could not trace all their connections with private and public felicity. Let it simply be asked: Where is the security for property, for reputation, for life, if the sense of religious obligation desert the oaths which are the instruments of investigation in courts of justice? And let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.”
It should be noted that the further from God that a government is, to that same degree it is weakened in its influence over the members of its society. The ability of a government to influence its citizens is proportional to the moral foundation, and hence perceived moral security, which that government affords to them.
Belief in God and adherence to its associated morality are not in conflict with government, but rather represent its greatest support. In vain would we hope to strengthen a community, state or nation without a belief in a higher power and a basis for morality. Government has its rightful place in upholding those morals and policies that the voice of the people have caused it to establish. Public policy that finds its roots in “duty”, “honesty” and “virtue” will do more to insure public security and happiness than any other single thing. Without a firm moral base, government will diminish in it influence over its constituents. This lessening influence is the result of an eroding foundation and a loss of confidence in the ability of government to secure the inalienable rights extended to each individual under its jurisdiction. While church and state must necessarily remain separate, God, morality and government must necessarily remain joined.