Whether we are engaged in a national war or at a local high school football game, we pray for victory and hope to prevail, even though we know that there are an equal number of prayers on the other side, that both cannot win, and that our victory would devastate our opponent. Some of us are so sure of our righteousness that we are bold enough to pray outright for the devastation of our enemies. Others take it upon themselves to correct God’s mistakes and “cleanse” the world of all who do not share their passions or beliefs.
No matter how great and grave the differences between us may appear, below and above all is the eternal fact of brotherhood. If we believe there is one God, if we believe He is the Father of us all, then no child of God can be said to be outside the pale of human kinship and no individual can be considered less human than any other.
For de Tocqueville, this spiritual base and the desire for religious freedom was the “point of departure” for the entire American experience. “It must never be forgotten that religion gave birth to Anglo-American society,” he said.
The Founding Fathers were deeply religious. Thomas Jefferson, who some say was among the least devout, had 190 religious books in his library. The Declaration of Independence he drafted speaks of inalienable rights endowed to man by our Creator.
On the backside of the Great Seal of the United States, which Jefferson also helped design along with Franklin and Adams, is a pyramid with an eye and the words “Annuit Coeptis.” Those words translated from the Latin mean – “He has favored our undertakings.”
He, of course, is God. The phrase refers to the Founding Fathers’ belief that God favored our nation and provided for our success during America’s struggle for freedom. During the Revolutionary War, prayer was held daily in the halls of the Continental Congress. To this day, that tradition continues. Every session of Congress opens with a prayer.
George Washington in his first inaugural address – the first inaugural address of a freely elected leader of a democratic nation in the history of the world – made clear his devotion to a higher power and his belief that God controlled America’s destiny.
“No people can be bound to acknowledge and adore the Invisible Hand which conducts the affairs of men more than those of the United States,” he said. “Every step by which they have advanced to the character of an independent nation seems to have been distinguished by some token of providential agency.”
To de Tocqueville the significance of this relation was as much practical as it was spiritual. He saw the faith of our fathers and the institutionalization of their beliefs in our democracy as part of the genius of America, tempering and balancing the values of ambition and enterprise.
“It must be acknowledged that equality, which brings great benefits to the world, nevertheless suggests to men some very dangerous propensities,” he said. “It tends to isolate them from each other, to concentrate every man’s attention upon himself; and it lays open the soul to an inordinate love of material gratification. The greatest advantage of religion is to inspire diametrically contrary principles.”
“The taste for well-being is the prominent and indelible feature of democratic times,” he continued. “The chief concern of religion is to purify, to regulate, and to restrain the excessive and exclusive taste for well-being which men feel at periods of equality.”
George Washington clearly agreed. “Of all the dispositions and habits, which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports,” he wrote. “Reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.”
Every President since Washington has come from a similar place of faith. In the words of President Harry Truman, “The American people stand firm in the faith which has inspired this Nation from the beginning. We believe that all men have a right to equal justice under law and equal opportunity to share the common good. We believe that all men have a right to freedom of thought and expression. We believe that all men are created equal because they are created in the image of God. From this faith we will not be moved.”
Even Calvin Coolidge, known for saying little, had something to say on this subject. He said, “Our doctrine of equality and liberty and humanity comes from our belief in the brotherhood of man through the fatherhood of God. We do not need more national development, we need more spiritual development. We do not need more intellectual power, we need more spiritual power. We do not need more knowledge, we need more character. We do not need more law, we need more religion. We do not need more of the things that are seen, we need more of the things that are unseen.”
Whether or not you believe America came from God, it is clear the values that shaped our democracy were founded on religious principles and, in particular, the Christian way of life. While it has become less fashionable to talk about the role of religion in public life, its influence is constant and undeniable.
The number of religions practiced in the United States now embraces all the known religions of the world, but these differing paths to the same end only serve to reinforce the same fundamental fact. America is still one nation, under God.
In times like these, it is worth remembering where we began. In the words of John Adams, “Our constitution was designed only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate for the government of any other.”