How long are we going to keep this experiment, this America? We are "testing whether this nation can long endure," Lincoln said at Gettysburg. We're still testing. Does the new century mark our last? Is America a meteor that blazed across the heavens and is now exhausted? Or rather is our present moral fog a transient time of trial, those hours cold and dark before the ramparts' new gleaming? Are we near our end or at a beginning?
In answer to these questions, I want to do something relatively rare these days. I want to give a sense of the religious energy behind the American founding. For a hundred years scholars have stressed the role of the Enlightenment and John Locke in particular. But there are also first principles that come to us from Judaism and Christianity, especially from Judaism. The religious principles in the founding were and are important to many citizens, and they are probably indispensable to the moral health of the Republic, as Washington taught us in his Farewell Address: "Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports." Washington said "indispensable." Reason and faith are the two wings by which the American eagle took flight.
A Common Faith
When our founders talked religiously about politics they borrowed mostly from the Jewish Testament, not the Christian. Scholars often mistakenly refer to the God of the founders as a deist god. But the founders talked about God in terms that are radically Jewish: Creator, Judge, and Providence. These were the names they most commonly used for him, notably in the Declaration of Independence. For the most part, these are not names that could have come from the Greeks or Romans but only from the Jewish Testament. Perhaps the founders avoided Christian language to avert divisiveness, since different colonies were founded under different Christian inspirations. All found common language in the language of the Jewish Testament.
Religious principles appear to be indispensable to the health of the Republic. Reason and faith are the two wings by which the American eagle took flight.
If I stress the religious elements of the story, it is because for the past century scholars have paid too much attention to Jefferson in these matters and ignored the other top one hundred founders, most of whom were profoundly religious men. The crucial point is that all the Founding Fathers—Jefferson included—shared in common a belief that a people cannot maintain liberty without religion. They understood the power of religion to their cause yet worried that in the eyes of God they would be found wanting. Here is John Adams in 1776: "I sometimes tremble to think that although we are engaged in the best cause that ever employed the human heart, yet the prospect of success is doubtful, not for want of power or of wisdom but of virtue."
The founding generation had no munitions factory this side of the ocean, and yet they were facing the most powerful army and the largest navy in the world.
Besides, their unity was fragile. The people of Virginia did not like the people of Massachusetts. The people of Massachusetts did not think highly of the people of Georgia. If they were to stick together with people they didn't particularly like, the Americans needed virtues of tolerance, civic spirit, and a love of the common good.
Further, because the new nation couldn't compete in armed power, the colonists depended on high moral qualities in their leaders and on devotion in the people. In order to win, for instance, Washington had to avoid frontal combat and to rely on the moral endurance of his countrymen year after year. To this end, Washington issued an order that any soldier who used profane language would be drummed out of the army. He impressed upon his men that they were fighting for a cause that demanded a special moral appeal, and he wanted no citizen to be shocked by the language and behavior of his troops. The men had to show day by day that they fought under a special moral covenant.
Founded in Prayer
In the first days of September 1774, from every region, members of the First Continental Congress were riding dustily toward Philadelphia, where they hoped to remind King George III of the rights due to them as Englishmen. As these delegates were gathering, news arrived that the king's troops were shelling Charlestown and Boston, and rumors flew that the city was being sacked, robbery and murder being committed. Those rumors later turned out not to be true, but that's the news they heard. Thus, as they gathered, the delegates were confronted with impending war. No wonder their first act as a Continental Congress was to request a session of prayer.
The crucial point is that all the Founding Fathers—Jefferson included—shared in common a belief that a people cannot maintain liberty without religion.
Mr. Jay of New York and Mr. Rutledge of South Carolina immediately spoke against this motion because (they said) Americans are so divided in religious sentiments—some Episcopalians, some Quakers, some Anabaptists, some Presbyterians, and some Congregationalists—that all could not join in the same act of prayer. Sam Adams rose to say that he could hear a prayer from any gentleman of piety and virtue, as long as he was a patriot. Adams moved that a Reverend Duché be asked to read prayers before Congress on the next morning. The motion carried.
Thus it happened that the first act of Congress on September 7, 1774, was an official prayer, pronounced by an Episcopalian clergyman dressed in his pontificals. And what did he read? He read a Jewish prayer, Psalm 35 in The Book of Common Prayer:
Plead my cause, O Lord, with them that strive with me. Fight against them that fight against me. Take hold of buckler and shield, and rise up for my help. Say to my soul, "I am your salvation." Let those be ashamed and dishonored who seek my life. Let those be turned back and humiliated who devise evil against me.
Before the Reverend Duché knelt Washington, Henry, Randolph, Rutledge, Lee, and Jay. By their side, heads bowed, were the Puritan patriots, who could imagine at that moment their own homes being bombarded by the fleet or overrun by the king's troops. Over these bowed heads the Reverend Duché uttered what all testified was an eloquent prayer for America, for Congress, for the province of Massachusetts Bay, and especially for the town of Boston. The emotion in the room was palpable, and John Adams wrote to Abigail that night that he had never heard a better prayer or one so well pronounced: "I never saw a greater effect upon an audience. It seemed as if heaven had ordained that that Psalm be read on that morning. It was enough to melt a stone. I saw tears gush into the eyes of the old, grave pacific Quakers of Philadelphia."
In this fashion, right at its beginning, this nation formed a covenant with God that is repeated in the Declaration: "with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence." The founders pledged their fidelity to the will of God and asked God to protect their liberty. They would continue to enact this covenant in the years to come in many later acts of Congress.
A God of Action
On the night before the battle of Long Island, the Americans received intelligence that the British were attacking the next morning and that Washington would be trapped with his whole army. Washington saw that there was only one way out—by boat. During the night, the Americans gathered as many boats as they could. There weren't enough. Morning came, and more than half the troops were still on shore. A huge fog rolled in and covered them until noon. They escaped, and when the British closed the trap, there was no one there. The Americans interpreted that fog as an act of Providence.
In the preaching of the time, Americans learned as follows: Providence does not mean that God works magically. Rather, from all time every detail of the tapestry is known to the one who weaves it. To the Eternal God, there is neither time nor sequence, but every detail of the tapestry is visible to him as if in one simultaneous moment, each thing acting independently and freely but cohering as a whole. Thus, the rival general on the morning of the great battle comes down with dysentery and can't concentrate. Such events were construed as God's will—not circumstance or chance. In the Jewish and Christian understanding, Providence acts by contingent and indirect actions—events are not foreseen, because God doesn't "foresee" anything. He's not before and after, he's present to all things at one time. And like a great novelist, he sees the details of what he does and how they all hook together, without forcing anybody's liberty, without manipulating anything.
The early Americans who believed that the lifting of the fog on Long Island was an act of God were not deists. Their God was not a "watchmaker God" who winds the universe up and lets it go. Their God cared about contingent affairs, loved particular nations, was interested in particular peoples and particular circumstances. Their God was the God of Judaism, the God of Providence. Not a swallow falls in the field but this God knows of it. His action is in the details.
True Liberty: Reflection and Choice
When Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence he mentioned God twice. Before Congress would sign it, members insisted on two more references to God. Thus, these four names: the Author "of nature and nature's laws"; the Creator who endowed in us our rights; the Judge to whom we appeal in witness that our motives spring not out of seditiousness, but from a dear love of liberty and a deep sense of our own proper dignity; and Providence, a trust in divine Providence.
The fundamental meaning of the Jewish, and later the Christian, Bible is that the axis of the universe is what happens in the interior of the human being. Every story in the Bible is a story of what happens in the arena of the human will. In one chapter King David is faithful to his Lord and in the next, not. And the suspense of every chapter is, What will humans choose next? Liberty is the reason God made the universe. He wanted one creature capable of recognizing that he had made all things, that the creation is good, and that he had extended his hand in friendship. He wanted at least one creature to be able—not as a slave but as a free woman or man—to choose to reciprocate his proffered friendship.
The members of Congress on July 2, 1776, were about to make themselves liable to the charge of treason and to humiliate their children into the nth generation for being the descendants of traitors. They appealed to an objective world, and beyond the eyes of an objective world they appealed to the Supreme Judge for the rectitude of their intentions. They needed that reference to their Judge in the Declaration. And they wanted that reference to Providence, to declare that God is on the side of Liberty, and that those who trust in liberty will therefore prevail. Whatever the odds, Providence will see to it that they prevail.
When Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence he mentioned God twice. Yet before Congress would sign it, members insisted on two more references to God.
Let me recall from one of the old American hymns words that reflect exactly this biblical vision. This world didn't just "happen"—it was created for a purpose, and that purpose is liberty.
Our fathers' God! To Thee,
Author of liberty,
To Thee we sing.
Long may our land be bright
With freedom's holy light;
Protect us by Thy might,
Great God our king.
At the beginning of The Federalist, in the second paragraph, the author says this generation of Americans is called upon to decide for all time whether governments can be formed "through reflection and choice" or must "forever be formed through accident and force." That's what the Americans were called upon to decide: whether a government may be formed through reflection and choice.
They then faced the question, How do you institutionalize such a decision? By calling a constitutional convention and then having the agreed-upon text ratified in a manner that permits the whole people to participate in the decision. Can there be enough votes for something like that? Can people put aside their regional prejudices? Can they put aside their personal ambitions? Can they think about what's good for posterity?
Remember the ambitions of that moment. For example, many New Yorkers wanted New York to be a separate nation. It would have its own secretary of state, its own commander in chief, its own secretary of the treasury; distinguished families in New York would become ambassadors to the Court of St. James and to Paris and so forth. Such a dream might seem very attractive to some leading families, but would it be good for the country? If New York were to vote to become an independent nation, there could be no union between New England and the South. Reflection and choice, then, were the hinges of liberty. What Americans meant by liberty are those acts that are made from reflection and choice—the acts that we commit ourselves to when we have rationally reflected on the alternatives, when we understand the consequences. That's freedom.
Freedom is not doing what you want to do; freedom is doing what, after reflection, you know you ought to do. That's why early American thought has been summed up thus: "Confirm thy soul in self-control, Thy liberty in law." Freedom springs from self-government, after reflection and by calm deliberate choice.
But to have reflection and choice, you need people with enough virtue to have command of their passions. You need people, that is, with the habits that allow them to reflect, to take time to be dispassionate, to see consequences clearly, and then to make a choice based on commitment. None of us act that way all the time. But we do aspire to have at least sufficient virtue to live responsibly. For how can a people unable to govern their passions in their private lives possibly be able to practice self-government in their public lives? It doesn't compute. In short, freedom in a republic is not feasible without virtue.
George Washington said in his Farewell Address that most people are not going to have virtue or good habits in the long run without religion. And what he meant by that can be recited very simply. As Jews and Christians understand it, religion is not just a cold law; it is a relationship with a Person—a Person who knows even your secret thoughts. So religion adds a personal motive to the idea of virtue. In addition to that, this Judge sees you even when you're alone, even with the doors closed. This is a Judge who knows whether or not you paint the bottom of the chair. Republics depend on virtue that holds up under such tests. The founding generation often used the example of the well-known doctor in Massachusetts who, having been involved in an adultery, turned out also to be a British spy. A Republic cannot be made up of people who think they can do in secret what they wouldn't do in public.
This is why the founders thought that we must not believe that virtue can be maintained in the long run without religion. Our sons are going to forget about the Revolution, the founders expected; they're going to forget the suffering we went through. They're going to forget the frozen feet at Valley Forge, the gangrene and the hunger, the lack of pay and the despair. They're going to forget all that, and their grandchildren will tire of hearing it. There's a moral entropy in human affairs, such that even if a generation succeeds in reaching a very high moral level, it's almost impossible for the next generation and the one after it to maintain that level. A republic, therefore, has to fight moral entropy. That's why there will have to be a series of moral awakenings. The founders didn't see how that would happen without religious inspiration, beyond a merely utilitarian impulse.
So, to repeat, there are three principles in this fundamental logic: No republic without liberty; no liberty without virtue; no virtue without religion. Now doesn't that sound old-fashioned? These days, it hardly sounds tenable. Yet our founders may have been right. Is not our present circumstance dangerous to the Republic?
Freedom is always the most precarious regime. Even a single generation can throw it all away. Every generation must reflect and choose. As Dr. Joseph Warren, later killed at Bunker Hill, told the men of Massachusetts at Lexington: "Our country is in danger now, but not to be despaired of. On you depend the fortunes of America. You are to decide the important questions upon which rest the happiness and the liberty of millions not yet born. Act worthy of yourselves."