One of the traits, the great Tocqueville writes, that makes the United States distinctive is that here religion and liberty are friends, not at enmity as in France. “Freedom sees religion as the companion of its struggles and triumphs, the cradle of its infancy, and the divine source of its rights.” For this reason, Tocqueville called religion “the first of their political institutions.” Tocqueville wrote such things (and many more like them) both to observe a fact he saw acted out all around him and to offer profound reflections on them. After all, his aim was to grasp the differentiating traits of democracy so as to make it understandable in Continental Europe.
Almost all foreign visitors to America notice this distinctiveness on such festive occasions as Thanksgiving and even the inauguration of a new president. Both events celebrate democracy and religion (most emphatically Judaism and Christianity, which are root religions of liberty through and through).
From at least 1776 until 1828 (the publication of Webster’s Dictionary) “religion” was defined as “the duty we owe to the Creator and the manner of discharging it.” The Framers thought it a self-evident truth. For anyone who knows the meaning of the term “Creator” understands that the creature owes to the Creator something more than gratitude — more like wonder, awe and worship. Not to pay this debt struck them as the rudest ingratitude, at least.
Thus, worship is a duty. It is a duty to God first. It is also a duty of a man to himself: to be man enough to be grateful.
The Framers practiced what they preached. From 1776 onward (and even before), the Congress of the United States mandated a public prayer of Thanksgiving “for the signal blessings of Divine Providence that we have witnessed during the War.” “Signal” stands out as starkly at night as a light from a lighthouse. “Witnessed” signifies it is not merely a matter of “faith” but of common experience and plain observation.
These public and official national acts of prayer (including occasional “National Days of Humiliation, Fasting, and Prayer” for “our manifold sins and transgressions”) are among the most beautiful prayers ever written in this land. They emerged from a congressional mandate upon the president to call Days of Thanksgiving into being by presidential decree. These public prayers were as official as an act of Congress and a presidential decree can possibly be. In fact, a committee of Congress actually wrote the text which they commended to the president, for all the people publicly to take to heart on behalf of the nation as a whole.
Where was the American Civil Liberties Union to stop this at the very beginning? Too bad so many years have set such laws and precedents into our national identity.
I have often thought to myself: If I were an atheist, I would take these laws and precedents as celebrations of liberty of conscience and speech. They would not make me a Jew or a Christian. I could live with the accurate knowledge that specifically Jewish and Christian conceptions gave powerful and original arguments for the practices of religious liberty — and why such practices spring directly from the purposes of the Jewish and Christian God, as well as from human reason. The early documents of Jefferson and Madison on religious liberty (1776 to 1786) testify to both lines of argument.
“Almighty God hath created the mind free,” Jefferson wrote. “All attempts to influence it by temporal punishments or burthens are a departure from the plan of the holy author of our religion.” This freedom in each human person is inalienable before man and before God. God invites every human person into His friendship, and each must make the choice whether to accept that offer or nay. No one else can do this for Him. Since the relation of this offer is between the Creator and each human creature, one by one, no one else dare interfere with it. Not the state, civil society, nor even others in our own families.
These days, our own government is getting in between the conscience of individuals and the Creator to Whom they tender it. Under threat of very heavy fines, it is obliging American citizens to do things they know they are forbidden from doing. For a new and small university such as Ave Maria in Florida, where I now teach, these fines are so severe they may make it impossible for us to survive.
Neither Jefferson nor Madison would have tolerated that.
This day, we must be very grateful for their generosity of mind, their acumen, their foresight and their practice.
One reason that religion (with especial clarity, Judaism and Christianity) is the first institution of democracy is that it keeps alive the fundamental principles of the inviolability of conscience, the dignity of every person, and the common good of all in respecting each other’s differences in “the manner of discharging” our duty to our Creator. As for atheists and agnostics, for Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists and others, too, we give thanks that they also have their ways of honoring personal consciences different from their own.
Religious liberty is the first “article of peace” in the very conception and living practice of pluralistic democracy, as Americans understand and practice it.
Woe to those who undermine the religious liberty of others. In so doing, they also undermine their own. And they befoul something beautiful, for man and for God.
We have reason to give mighty thanks that this violation of conscience by our government has happened as seldom as it has in our national history. This liberty is our most precious gift from our Creator.
Michael Novak, former Washington Times columnist and winner of the Templeton prize for Progress in Religion, is a distinguished visiting professor at Ave Maria University in Naples, Fla.
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