Those attending the Family Research Council’s most recent Values Voter Summit heard a lot about religious liberty — and with good reason. In ways both large and small, that cornerstone of freedom has found itself under attack at home and abroad. All Americans should be concerned about its well-being.
Religious liberty is as characteristic of America as our democratic political system and our free-market economy. Nowhere in the world is there more religious diversity, with all manner of faiths existing in relative harmony in the same neighborhoods, and with different houses of worship sharing the same streets in many cases.
History is filled with wars based on religious differences. Yet in the United States, these problems, with rare exceptions, are a distant memory.
Faith has always played a major role in American history. From our Founding Fathers to politicians today, acknowledgment of God in public speeches is commonplace in American discourse. In a letter to his wife on the day the Declaration of Independence was approved by the Continental Congress, John Adams wrote that the Fourth of July “ought to be commemorated as the day of deliverance by solemn acts of devotion to God Almighty.”
But while the United States was founded by men with the deep and abiding belief in a Christian God, they took great care to ensure that any and all religions would be respected and protected by the Constitution.
Today, however, the Founders’ attitude toward religion is widely misunderstood. A major source of confusion is the phrase “separation of church and state,” used by President Thomas Jefferson in an 1802 letter to the Danbury Baptist Association of Connecticut.
Many have interpreted this phrase to mean that religion should be entirely personal, kept out of schools and other public institutions. However, as Heritage scholar Jennifer Marshall has argued, this interpretation is incorrect: “Jefferson wanted to protect states’ freedom of religion from federal government control and religious groups’ freedom to tend to their internal matters of faith and practice without government interference generally.”
America’s Founding Fathers did not want the government to impose a government-sponsored church on all Americans. Neither did they seek to confine religion to a separate, private sphere of life.
On the contrary, they believed that religion had a vital and enduring role to play in the public affairs of the new American Republic. To cite Marshall again: “The Founders argued that virtue derived from religion is indispensable to limited government. In fact, the American Founders considered religious engagement in shaping the public morality essential to ordered liberty and the success of their experiment in self-government.”
We Americans are rightly proud of our tradition of political and economic liberty. Is an individual’s freedom to choose, though, a sufficient guarantee of a good society? Our Founders did not think so. Social critic Irving Kristol observed, “It is religion that restrains the self-seeking hedonistic impulse so easily engendered by a successful market economy.”
One of the clearest expressions of the Founders’ attitude toward religion — endorsed by most Americans today — came from our second president, John Adams. “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people,” Adams declared in 1798. “It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”
Only a moral and religious people could acquire and retain such traits of character as honesty, kindness, thoughtfulness, respect for law, fairness, self-discipline and self-reliance — virtues the Founders rightly deemed necessary for self-rule.
Faith has always been an integral part of American society. Indeed, Alexis de Tocqueville went so far as to call religion “the first of America’s political institutions,” because although it “never mixes directly in the government of society,” it nevertheless determines the “habits of the heart” of all Americans.
Whether you choose to worship or not, or however you choose to worship, everyone benefits from the interweaving of faith into our societal fabric. To eliminate it from public discourse would deny our history — and remove a crucial component of the American spirit.
Ed Feulner is founder of the Heritage Foundation (heritage.org).