JACKSON, Tenn. – Sept. 15, 2003– According to a recent USAToday /Gallup Poll, 77 percent of Americans objected to the order to remove Judge Roy Moore’s massive Ten Commandments monument from the Alabama judicial building. The overwhelming support for Judge Moore sent pundits everywhere scrambling to answer the question: how do we make sense of God in public life?
On one side of the question stands a group who believe that America was established to be a Christian nation, chosen by God like Old Testament Israel, as the divine representative on earth. On the other side are those such as the American Civil Liberties Union and Americans United for the Separation of Church and State who want to sanitize even the memory of the Almighty from public life. Who is right? Could both be wrong?
Those who point to America as a Christian nation may sometimes be guilty of overstating their claims. Over-eager believers may imply that all of America’s founders were faithful, Bible-believing men who intended the United States to be a distinctly Christian country. While it is true that many who signed the Constitution were men of such conviction, by no means were all. Advocates of this view rarely mention the fact that some of the founders on occasion seemed to question their faith. For example, Thomas Jefferson nonchalantly wrote, “It does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods or no god.” Both Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin doubted the divinity of Jesus and that the Bible is the special revelation of God.
Advocates for the second position, however, have an even harder time explaining how a secular America is so rich in appeals to God by the founders of her government. And the list of those appeals is long. For instance, the Declaration of Independence rooted human rights in the authority of the Creator. In Federalist no.37, James Madison remarked that it was impossible not to perceive the “finger of the Almighty hand” at work in the Revolution and in the deliberations of the Constitutional Convention. Even Benjamin Franklin – at a moment of crisis in that same great assembly– called for a clergy-led time of prayer every morning and reminded his colleagues that “unless the Lord build the house, they labor in vain that build it.”
The founders of the republic may not all have been thoroughgoing Christians, but they definitely were not secularists. They believed that the American experiment depended on the favor of Divine Providence, and they knew that both democracy and justice could not be sustained apart from a distinctly religious morality. As George Washington observed, “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?” The real world depends on Transcendence.
These words from the country’s first president are also etched in stone on the monument that once stood in the now vacant rotunda of the judicial building in Montgomery, Ala. They are words which Judge Roy Moore asks the citizens of the United States to consider. Whether or not one agrees with the way he pressed the issue does not excuse us from having to answer the question. Are certain laws true for all people in all times in all places? Is murder always wrong? Is child abuse evil? If the answers to those questions are yes, then one has to come up with a reason why. And if that reason does not include an ultimate or transcendent source, then the law may be discarded as nothing more than a human invention; it is a “law” with a wink. The Declaration of Independence appropriately concludes that the “laws of nature” can only be explained by “nature’s God.”
The founders held that all men are created equal but that all beliefs are not. They refused to favor one version of Christianity by establishing a state church, but did not blush at the divine basis of moral law. They supported robust public debate on issues, and thus gave room for every person to worship as he or she pleased. But they accomplished this without demanding that the secular state avoid all references to God. They sought a church free from government interference, not a government free from religious truth.
Editor's note: This column was written upon request of and originally appeared in the Memphis Commercial Appeal.
By Gregory Alan Thornbury, Ph.D.
Dir. of the Carl F.H. Henry Center for Christian Leadership