Since its 1947 decision in Everson v. Board of Education (with an opinion written by Justice Hugo Black), the Supreme Court has further considered and limited the active role that religion or religiou
Compose an essay of at least 2000 words but no more than 3000 words (not including your references list) in which you discuss in depth the following topic, making sure to offer your critical thinking opinions (opinions plus reasons and evidence) of relevant ideas from the Weeks 1-4 readings wherever possible:
Faith and the American Founding:
Illustrating Religion’s Influence
ow 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. Is America a meteor that blazed across the
heavens and is now exhausted? Or rather is our pres
ent 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 tell six
brief stories to illustrate the religious principles of the
American founding. For a hundred years scholars have
stressed the principles that come from the Enlighten
ment and from John Locke in particular. But there are
also first principles that come to us from Judaism and
Christianity, especially from Judaism. Indeed, it is
important to recognize that most of what our Founders
talked about (when they talked politically) came from
the Jewish Testament, not the Christian. The Protes
tant Christians who led the way in establishing the
principles of this country were uncommonly attached
to the Jewish Testament.
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, Law
giver, Governor, Judge, and Providence. These were
the names they most commonly used for Him, nota
bly 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 Tes
tament. Perhaps the Founders avoided Christian lan
guage because they didn’t want to divide one another,
since different colonies were founded under different
Christian inspirations. In any case, all found common
language in the language of the Jewish Testament. It is
important for citizens today whose main inspiration is
the Enlightenment and Reason to grasp the religious
elements in the founding, which have been understat
ed for a hundred years.
For these principles are important to many fellow
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.”
Reason and faith are the two wings by which the
American eagle took flight.
If I stress the second wing, the Jewish especially, it
is because scholars have paid too much attention to Jef
ferson in these matters and ignored the other one hun
dred top Founders. For instance, we’ve ignored John
Witherspoon, the president of Princeton, “the most
influential professor in the history of America,” who
taught one President (Madison stayed an extra year at
Princeton to study with him), a Vice President, three
Supreme Court justices including the chief justice, 12
members of the Continental Congress, five delegates
to the Constitutional Convention, 14 members of the
State Conventions (that ratified the Constitution). Dur
ing the revolution, many of his pupils were in positions
of command in the American forces. We’ve ignored Dr.
Benjamin Rush of Pennsylvania, John Wilson of Penn
sylvania, and a host of others.
I want to quote from some of the Founders to
give you a taste of the religious energy behind the
Here is my first little story, an anecdote recorded by
a minister of the time:
President Jefferson was on his way to church on
a Sunday morning with his large red prayer book
under his arm when a friend querying him after
their mutual good morning said which way are
you walking Mr. Jefferson. To which he replied to
Church Sir. You going to church Mr. J. You do not
believe a word in it. Sir said Mr. J. No nation has
ever yet existed or been governed without religion.
Nor can be. The Christian religion is the best reli
gion that has ever been given to man and I as chief
Magistrate of this nation am bound to give it the
sanction of my example.
Good morning Sir.
Note what Jefferson is saying. He didn’t say he
believed in the Christian God; he evaded that point.
But Jefferson did agree with what all his colleagues in
the founding thought, that a people cannot maintain
liberty without religion. 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 fac
tory 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. Reflecting on this point, President
Witherspoon, who had just arrived from Scotland in
1768 and was not at first in favor of it, gave a famous
sermon in April 1776 supporting independence two
months before July 4. His text was read in all 500 Pres
byterian churches in the colonies and widely repro
duced. Witherspoon argued that although hostilities
had been going on for two years, the king still did not
understand that he could easily have divided the colo
nies and ended the hostilities. That the king didn’t do
so showed that he was not close enough to know how
to govern the Americans.
If they were to stick together with people they didn’t
particularly like, the Americans needed virtues of tol
erance, 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, Washing
ton 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 must show day-by-day
that they fought under a special moral covenant.
Now think of our predicament today. How many
people in America today understand the four key words
that once formed a great mosaic over the American
, we “hold these truths”;
ceived in liberty”;
“liberty under law”; and
“appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the
rectitude of our intentions.” On the face of things, our
Founders were committing treason. In the eyes of the
world, they were seditious. They appealed to an objec
tive world, and beyond the eyes of an objective world,
they appealed to the Supreme Judge for the rectitude
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