The Religious Foundation of American Politics: Why Religion and Politics Do Mix

Nothing short of a great Civil War of Values rages today throughout North America. Two sides with vastly differing and incompatible worldviews are locked in a bitter conflict that permeates every level of society… the struggle now is for the hearts and minds of the people. It is a war over ideas.
— Dr. James Dobson, psychologist and best selling author

At its most foundational level, this war over ideas is over the place of religion in public life. In recent years, some people have used the concept of “separation of church and state” as a principle to eliminate religious perspectives from public places and public education. These people emphasize that ours is a “pluralistic” society. However, others contend that religion, and specifically the Bible and Christianity, has an important role to play in our political system and public issues. As a result of these two opposing views, there continues to be a debate about the proper place of religion in the public square.

To settle the dispute, something must be known about the foundation upon which our government is built. Knowing how something is designed is crucial to its operation. For example, it would be unwise to pour molasses into the gas tank of a car. Internal combustion engines are not designed to run on molasses. In a similar way, it is imperative to have a proper understanding of how our republican form of government is designed to work. Only then can the freedoms guaranteed by the Constitution of the United States be maintained.

In order to understand the way our government was designed, we must take a look at the ideas that went into the planning of our republic. Woodrow Wilson, our 28th President, reminds us of the need to study our nation’s history:

A nation which does not remember what it was yesterday, does not know what it is today, nor what it is trying to do. We are trying to do a futile thing if we do not know where we came from or what we have been about.

So the issue of “where we came from” must be addressed. The following pages give a very brief overview of the major players who influenced and wrote our constitution. Listen to their words and reflect on their ideas. These are the ideas that shaped our country and paved the way for the United States of America to be the most powerful, productive and free nation in the history of mankind.

The Ideas that Shaped our Government

The following is a brief summary of some of the thoughts and opinions of the men most instrumental in forming our government. They are in the best position to speak about the relative importance of the Christian religion to maintaining a free and independent nation. Can religion be separated from government? Their words give the answer.

(The following quotations are taken from and footnoted in America’s God and Country Encyclopedia of Quotations, Fame Publishing, Coppell, Texas, 1994.)

George Washington (1732–1799), President of the Constitutional Convention and the First President of the United States.

It is impossible to rightly govern . . . without God and the Bible. Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports. . . . Virtue or morality is a necessary spring of popular government.
— Washington’s Farewell Address after his second term in office

Benjamin Franklin (1706–1790), author, scientist and printer, served as diplomat to France and England, Governor of Pennsylvania, founded the University of Pennsylvania, signed the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.

Whoever shall introduce into public affairs the principles of primitive Christianity will change the face of the world. (1778)

A Bible and a newspaper in every house, a good school in every district — all studied and appreciated as they merit — are the principal support of virtue, morality, and civil liberty.

Only a virtuous people are capable of freedom. As nations become corrupt and vicious, they have more need of masters. (1787)

I have lived, Sir, a long time, and the longer I live, the more convincing proofs I see of this truth — that God Governs in the affairs of men. And if a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without His notice, is it probable that an empire can rise without His aid? We have been assured, Sir, in the Sacred Writings, that “except the Lord build the House, they labor in vain that build it.” I firmly believe this; and I also believe that without his concurring aid we shall succeed in this political building no better than the Builders of Babel . . . I therefore beg leave to move — that henceforth prayers imploring the assistance of Heaven, and its blessing on our deliberations, be held in this Assembly every morning before we proceed to business . . . (June 38, 1787, addressing George Washington and the delegates of the Constitutional Convention)

Alexander Hamilton (1757–1804), signer of the Constitution, authored 51 of the 85 Federalist Papers (which influenced the ratification of the Constitution by the states), and was the first Secretary of the Treasury.

For my own part, I sincerely esteem it [the Constitution of the United States] a system which without the finger of God, never could have been suggested and agreed upon by such a diversity of interests. (1787, shortly after the writing of the Constitution) The fundamental source of all your errors, sophisms, and false reasoning, is a total ignorance of the natural right of mankind. Were you once to become acquainted with these . . . you would be convinced, that natural liberty is a gift of the beneficent Creator . . . I have carefully examined the evidences of the Christian religion, and if I was sitting as a juror upon its authenticity I would unhesitatingly give my verdict in its favor. I can prove its truth as clearly as any proposition ever submitted to the mind of man.

Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826), primary author of the Declaration of Independence and our 3rd President.

God who gave us life gave us liberty. And can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that their liberties are the gift of God? That they are not to be violated by with His wrath? Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just; that his justice cannot sleep forever. (1781) [Religion is d]eemed in other countries incompatible with good government and yet proved by our experience to be its best support.

On March 4, 1805, President Thomas Jefferson offered the following National Prayer for Peace:

Almighty God, Who has given us this good land for our heritage; We humbly beseech Thee that we may always prove ourselves a people mindful of Thy favor and glad to do Thy will. Bless our land with honorable ministry, sound learning, and pure manners . . . Endow with Thy spirit of wisdom those to whom in Thy Name we entrust the authority of government, that there may be justice and peace at home and that through obedience to Thy law, we may show forth Thy praise among the nations of the earth. In time of prosperity fill our hearts with thankfulness, and in the day of trouble, suffer not our trust in Thee to fail; all of which we ask through Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen.

James Madison (1751–1836), known as the chief architect of the U.S. Constitution, a member of the United States Congress where he introduced the Bill of Rights, and elected in 1809 as our 4th President .

Religion [is] the basis and Foundation of Government. (1785) Before any man can be considered as a member of Civil Society, he must be considered as a subject of the Governor of the Universe. (1785) We have staked the whole future of the American civilization, not upon the power of government, far from it. We have staked the future . . . upon the capacity of each and all of us to govern ourselves, to control ourselves, to sustain ourselves according to the Ten Commandments of God.

John Adams (1735–1826), signer of the Declaration of Independence, main author of the Constitution of Massachusetts in 1780, Vice-President for 8 years under George Washington, and 2nd President of the United States.

The general principles on which the Fathers achieved independence, were . . . the general Principles of Christianity . . . (1813, in a letter to Thomas Jefferson) Religion and virtue are the only foundations . . . of republicanism and of all free government . . . (1811) We have no government armed with power capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion . . . Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other. (1798)

Samuel Adams (1722–1803), cousin of John Adams, known as the “Father of the American Revolution”, instigated the Boston Tea Party, signed the Declaration of Independence, served as a member of Congress, and was Governor of Massachusetts. On the second day of the congressional session of 1774, he proposed that the meeting be opened with prayer so that . . . “as one man, [we might] bow the knee in prayer to the Almighty, whose advice and assistance [we] hoped to obtain.”

We have this day restored the Sovereign to Whom all men ought to be obedient. He reigns in heaven and from the rising to the setting of the sun, let His kingdom come. (1776, upon the signing of the Declaration of Independence)

John Quincy Adams (1767–1848), son of John Adams, at the age of 14 was appointed by Congress as Ambassador to Russia, a U.S. Senator, U.S. Minister to France and Britain, Secretary of State for President James Monroe and the 6th President of the United States.

The highest glory of the American Revolution was this; it connected in one indissoluble bond the principles of civil government and the principles of Christianity. (July 4, 1821)

From the day of the Declaration . . . they (the American people) were bound by the laws of God, which they all, and by the laws of the Gospel, which they nearly all, acknowledge as the rules of their conduct. Why is it that, next to the birthday of the Savior of the World, your most joyous and most venerated festival returns on this day. It is not that, in the chain of human events, the birthday of the nation is indissoluble linked with the birthday of the Savior? (July 4, 1837, in a speech celebrating the 61st Anniversary of the signing of the Declaration)

John Jay (1745–1829), Governor of the state of New York, president of the American Bible Society (1821) and appointed by George Washington as the first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.

No human society has ever been able to maintain both order and freedom, both cohesiveness and liberty apart from the moral precepts of the Christian Religion allied and accepted by all the classes. Should our Republic ere forget this fundamental precept of governance, men are certain to shed their responsibilities for licentiousness and this great experiment will surely be doomed. Providence has given to our people the choice of their rulers, and it is the duty, as well as the privilege and interest of our Christian nation to select and prefer Christians for their rulers.

Patrick Henry (1736–1799), helped write the Constitution of Virginia, member of the Continental Congress, and five-time Governor of the State of Virginia.

It cannot be emphasized too strongly or too often that this great nation was founded, not be religionists, but by Christians; not on religions, but on the Gospel of Jesus Christ. For this very reason peoples of other faiths have been afforded asylum, prosperity, and freedom of worship here.

The following comments were made by men of the next generation after our founding fathers. They represent a reflected look at the ideas that shaped our country:

Daniel Webster (1782–1853), U.S. Congressman, U.S. Senator, and Secretary of State for three different Presidents:

[O]ur ancestors established their system of government on morality and religious sentiment. Moral habits, they believed, cannot safely be trusted on any other foundation than religious principle, nor any government be secure which is not supported by moral habits.

Alexis de Tocqueville (1805–1859), in the 1830s was commissioned by the French government to travel throughout the United States in order to discover the secret of the astounding success of this experiment in democracy. The French were puzzled at the conditions of unparalleled freedom and social tranquility that prevailed in America. In fact, nowhere on earth was there so little social discord. Tocqueville reported:

Upon my arrival in the United States the religious aspect of the country was the first thing that struck my attention; and the longer I stayed there, the more I perceived the great political consequences resulting from this new state of things. In France I had almost always seen the spirit of religion and the spirit of freedom marching in opposite directions. But in America I found they were intimately united and that they reigned in common over the same country. Religion in America . . . must be regarded as the foremost of the political institutions of that country; for if it does not impart a taste for freedom, it facilitates the use of it.

I do not know whether all Americans have a sincere faith in their religion — for who can know the human heart?-but I am certain that they hold it to be indispensable for the maintenance of republican institutions . . . {America} is the place where the Christian religion has kept the greatest power over men’s souls; and nothing better demonstrates how useful and natural it is to man, since the country where it now has the widest sway is both the most enlightened and the freest.

de Tocqueville had this to say of those who attack faith in God in the name of pluralism:

When such men as these attack religious beliefs, they obey the dictates of their passions, not their interests. Despotism may be able to do without faith, but freedom cannot. Religion is much more needed in the republic . . . and in democratic republics most of all. How could society escape destruction if, when political ties are relaxed, moral ties are not tightened?

Conclusion: The Need for a Christian Foundation of Politics

In 1854, the House Committee on the Judiciary gave the following report:

At the time of the adoption of the Constitution and the amendments, the universal sentiment was that Christianity should be encouraged, not any one sect [denomination]. Any attempt to level and discard all religion would have been viewed with universal indignation . . . It [Christianity] must be considered as the foundation on which the whole structure rests . . . [Christianity] . . . was the religion of the founders of the republic, and they expected it to remain the religion of their descendants. There is a great and very prevalent error on this subject in the opinion that those who organized this Government did not legislate on religion.

“The political life and spirit of this country were based on religious convictions. America’s view of the individual was grounded on the principle, clearly expressed by the Founding Fathers, that man was a symbol of his Creator, and therefore possessed certain unalienable rights which no temporal authority had the right to violate. That this conviction helped shape our laws and sustained American man and women in their struggle to discipline themselves and conquer a continent even the most atheistic historian would defend. And this raises a question which cannot be avoided: If religion was so important in the building of the Republic, how could it be irrelevant to the maintenance of the Republic? And if it is irrelevant for the unbelievers, what will they put in its place.”
— James Reston, “‘Faith of Our Fathers, Living Still’?” The New York Times, April 2, 1969, p. 46.

Will and Ariel Durant, in their massive work, The Story of Civilization, conclude:

Moreover, we shall find it no easy task to mold a natural ethic strong enough to maintain moral restraint and social order without the support of supernatural consolation, hopes and fears . . . There is not a significant example in history, before our time, of a society successfully maintaining a moral life without the aid of religion.

“The greatest question of our time is not communism versus individualism, not Europe versus America, not even the East versus the West, it is whether man can live without God.”
— Will Durant, cited in Charles Colson, Kingdoms in Conflict (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1987), p. 225.

“If religion was so important in the building of the Republic, how could it be irrelevant to the maintenance of the Republic?”