By Riley Manning
The debate over the place of faith in our nation’s founding documents is as long-held as it is complicated.
On one hand, the Declaration of Independence – first made public 238 years ago today – famously states “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
On the other hand, the U.S. Constitution mentions religion in the Establishment and Free Exercise clauses in the First Amendment, which state that government may not establish a religion and that people should be free to exercise their religion.
The only other place religion is mentioned in the Consitution is in Article VI, Section 3, which bans religious testing for federal and state officials.
“The Constitution avoids religious ‘world building,’ and says the state will not try to create your world or force you into a certain view of the world,” said Dr. James Bowley, chairman of the Religious Studies department at Millsaps College. “While the world it creates is secular, it says that all people can build whatever religious reality they want.”
The absence of God from the Constitution is reiterated in letters and treaties penned by the founding fathers, including George Washington in a 1796 treaty with the Muslim nation of Tripoli, but perhaps most notably by Thomas Jefferson.
In one letter to the Danbury Baptist Association of Connecticut, Jefferson says religion is “solely between Man and his God” and that the powers of government reach “actions only, and not opinions.” In another, to Jewish leader Dr. Jacob De La Motta, Jefferson claims America has been the first to prove to the world that “man can govern himself,” and that “religious freedom is the most effectual anodyne against religious dissension.”
According to Bowley, these statements back up the idea that the power of the Constitution comes from the people, not from God or a god. Hence, “We the People.” He said the real religion in the Constitution, and the ideas behind it, is the sanctity of free will, of the right to rational inquiry.
“But American official practice is schizophrenic, and reflects the ongoing debate,” Bowley said.
Grant Sowell, a pastor and spokesman for the Tea Party’s Tupelo branch, said the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights, and the Constitution all work in tandem, and can’t be interpreted individually.
“The Declaration of Independence laid the foundation for the Constitution,” he said. “They’re tethered together.”
Sowell pointed out that the rights constituting the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights come from God, and for the most part, echo the 10 Commandments.
“The government can’t dictate if we’re to be a better society,” he said. “That comes from honoring God. Our justice system is just a man-made mechanism to enforce those laws.”
In fact, Sowell said, most people read the First Amendment backward. According to Sowell, it’s not so much that religion can’t function to affect government, it’s that government can’t function to affect religion. Furthermore, scripture itself advocates a union of religion and government.
“If you want to talk about separation of church and state, God is the greatest offender of all,” Sowell said. “Look at Daniel, Joseph, David. God chose these men because of their faith, and purposely put them in a position to govern.”
Professor John Wilson, who taught history and political science at Itawamba Community College for 20 years, said the documents are perfect marriages of political theory, philosophy and faith.
“Regardless of the metaphysics of Christianity, the founding fathers certainly bought into the ethical tenants of Christianity,” he said. “I think they would all agree that man is a political animal, so if you’re going to live in society, there have to be rules, and the rule is to treat everyone equally. It’s a simple but sublime idea that’s rare across the world even today.”
At the essence of the documents’ rhetoric, they promote inclusiveness and tolerance by not elevating people based on blood or title, Wilson said. Threats to the American ideal come in the form of exclusivity and intolerance.
“For me, it’s hard to separate the political philosophy of the founding fathers from Christian ethics. The people that founded this nation came because they wanted to be able to think however they want and free to act, within reason, however they want. I think that’s something that God wants for us. As a Christian, I feel the difference between God and the devil is that one wants you to have free agency and the other wants to rob you of it.”
But of course, he said, as society evolves, so does the balancing act of offering citizens the most freedom possible while adhering to the law.