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By Msgr. Charles Pope • February 18, 2018
We live in a secular age. Religious utterances by government officials are greeted with surprise or even indignation by some. While the primary role of civil leaders is not a religious one, insisting that never express religious sentiment is a form of extremism rooted in exaggerated conception of the idea of the separation of Church and State. In fact, “separation of Church and State” appears nowhere in the United States Constitution.
On Presidents’ Day we do well to look to history to clarify that these extreme, modern concerns were not shared by Washington, Lincoln, and many other leaders.
Religion and the First Amendment
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
While the First Amendment prohibits Congress from passing a law respecting an establishment of religion (the “Establishment Clause”), but it also specifies that it shall pass no law prohibiting the free exercise of religion (the “Free Exercise Clause”). This second pillar, protecting the free exercise of religion, has been eroding over the years, with the definition of “exercise” ever-narrowing. Increasingly, the claim is made that religious bodies (especially the Catholic Church, it seems) are seen to have no right to attempt any influence in the legislative process. This, of course, would limit our ability to freely exercise our faith, a major tenet of which is that we should evangelize, be a light to the world, and testify to the truth. More and more, secularists are proposing that the only acceptable place for religious expression of any kind is within the four walls of a church building.
Many argue that America’s founding fathers wanted it this way, that they wanted a “wall of separation” because most of them were either irreligious or deists. It is interesting to note that despite this most of them spoke freely of God, including appeals to Him and His will in their remarks. This is true even of Thomas Jefferson (who famously referred to a “wall of separation between Church and State” in a letter). Of the five inscriptions on the walls of the Jefferson Memorial, culled from his writings, three refer God and one to the Creator. Most of the founding fathers (who purportedly wanted this dramatic separation of Church and State) were involved in drafting the Constitution.
Many people love to point out that God is never mentioned in the Constitution. Oh, but He is! The final line of the Constitution reads as follows:
Done in Convention by the Unanimous Consent of the States present the Seventeenth Day of September in the Year of our Lord one thousand seven hundred and Eighty-seven and of the Independence of the United States of America the Twelfth. In Witness whereof, We have hereunto subscribed our Names
“In the year of our Lord …” where did that come from? I guess the drafters of the Constitution never got the memo that God is not to be mentioned in government documents or at government functions. The Lord referenced here is none other than Jesus Christ, for the year corresponds to the number of years since His birth.
The first signature on the Constitution is that of George Washington. Apparently he also never got the memo about keeping God and religion out of all things governmental because he mentioned God frequently in his writings and speeches. Below are just three examples. The first speaks of our obligation to give thanks to God; it is a decree declaring a Day of Thanksgiving in the United States on November 26, 1789. The second is from a speech to an assembly of Delaware Indian Chiefs in 1779 (it would be considered highly politically incorrect today). The third is from his last speech to the U.S. Legislature.
Whereas it is the duty of all nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey His will, to be grateful for His benefits, and humbly to implore His protection and favor; and Whereas both Houses of Congress have, by their joint committee, requested me to “recommend to the people of the United States a day of public thanksgiving and prayer, to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many and signal favors of Almighty God, especially by affording them an opportunity peaceably to establish a form of government for their safety and happiness:” Now, therefore, I do recommend and assign Thursday, the 26th day of November next, to be devoted by the people of these States to the service of that great and glorious Being who is the beneficent author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be; that we may then all unite in rendering unto Him our sincere and humble thanks for His kind care and protection of the people of this country previous to their becoming a nation; for the signal and manifold mercies and the favorable interpositions of His providence in the course and conclusion of the late war; for the great degree of tranquility, union, and plenty which we have since enjoyed; for the peaceable and rational manner in which we have been enabled to establish constitutions of government for our safety and happiness, and particularly the national one now lately instituted for the civil and religious liberty with which we are blessed, and the means we have of acquiring and diffusing useful knowledge; and, in general, for all the great and various favors which He has been pleased to confer upon us. And also that we may then unite in most humbly offering our prayers and supplications to the great Lord and Ruler of Nations and beseech Him to pardon our national and other transgressions; to enable us all, whether in public or private stations, to perform our several and relative duties properly and punctually; to render our National Government a blessing to all the people by constantly being a Government of wise, just, and constitutional laws, discreetly and faithfully executed and obeyed; to protect and guide all sovereigns and nations (especially such as have shown kindness to us), and to bless them with good governments, peace, and concord; to promote the knowledge and practice of true religion and virtue, and the increase of science among them and us; and, generally to grant unto all mankind such a degree of temporal prosperity as He alone knows to be best. Given under my hand, at the city of New York, the 3d day of October, A.D. 1789 George Washington, President.
You do well to wish to learn our arts and ways of life, and above all, the religion of Jesus Christ. These will make you a greater and happier people than you are(Speech to the Delaware Indian Chiefs on May 12, 1779).
I now make it my earnest prayer that God would … most graciously be pleased to dispose us all to do justice, to love mercy, and to demean ourselves with that charity, humility, and pacific temper of the mind which were the characteristics of the Divine Author of our blessed religion (Last Official Address of George Washington to the Legislature of the United States).
Abraham Lincoln also often referred to God and faith:
On Faith as among the civic virtues – Intelligence, patriotism, Christianity, and a firm reliance on Him, who has never yet forsaken this favored land, are still competent to adjust, in the best way, all our present difficulty (First Inaugural Address, March 4, 1861).
On Divine Providence – In the very responsible position in which I happen to be placed, being a humble instrument in the hands of our Heavenly Father, as I am, and as we all are, to work out his great purposes, I have desired that all my works and acts may be according to his will, and that it might be so, I have sought his aid—but if after endeavoring to do my best in the light which he affords me, I find my efforts fail, I must believe that for some purpose unknown to me, He wills it otherwise. If I had had my way, this war would never have been commenced; If I had been allowed my way this war would have been ended before this, but we find it still continues; and we must believe that He permits it for some wise purpose of his own, mysterious and unknown to us; and though with our limited understandings we may not be able to comprehend it, yet we cannot but believe, that he who made the world still governs it (Letter to Eliza Gurney, October 26, 1862).
On Religious Liberty – But I must add that the U.S. government must not, as by this order, undertake to run the churches. When an individual, in a church or out of it, becomes dangerous to the public interest, he must be checked; but let the churches, as such take care of themselves. It will not do for the U.S. to appoint Trustees, Supervisors, or other agents for the churches (Letter to Samuel Curtis, January 2, 1863).
On the Justice of God – Fondly do we hope—fervently do we pray—that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue, until all the wealth piled by the bond-man’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash, shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord, are true and righteous altogether” (Second Inaugural Address, March 4, 1865).
These are just a few samples showing that the aversion to any religious reference is relatively new and is a disposition largely unknown to our founding fathers as well as to those of Lincoln’s era. These quotes do not “prove” that Presidents Washington and Lincoln were perfect Christians or that they were never critical of any aspects of religion, but they do indicate that they both understood the importance of religious faith to our country and were quite comfortable articulating both the need for faith and its benefits.
Extremism – Recent attempts to completely ban any religious expression, any spoken appreciation for religion, or any encouragement of its practice, would surely seem extreme to these men—extreme and far removed from the embrace our country has historically extended to faith.
Washington and Lincoln did not hesitate to invoke God, ask His blessings, and exhort their fellow citizens to prayer. Let us pray for our country and for all of our leaders. Happy Presidents’ Day!