Birthdays and anniversaries, especially as the years accumulate, are accompanied by reciting and reliving the stories of the past. The older I get, the more I look back with appreciation on those occasions where I listened to my grandparents and parents relive defining moments in their lives. Those accounts not only give me a better understanding of our family's story, but my place in that still unfolding story.
And so it is for a nation.
As Americans celebrate the anniversary of our birth as a nation, it is undoubtedly appropriate, if not necessary, to reflect upon those defining moments from our history that not only help us understand and appreciate our nation's unique history, but also help us understand that we are a part of something much bigger than ourselves.
Freedom is the title of America's story. America's freedom was the fuel that churned the American engine of ingenuity and economic advancement and made America the land of opportunity that served as a magnet to attract millions to the shores of the young nation. But one cannot objectively look at our nation's story and not see that from the very beginning faith and religious exercise played a significant role in shaping the freedom that put America on the rapid path to becoming a world leader.
An essential ingredient to the political and social freedoms that the inhabitants of America have enjoyed is not only the individual freedom of religion, but an understanding that the public practice or exercise of religious faith is essential to America's success. Even President Obama noted in a 2006 speech that “secularists are wrong when they ask believers to leave their religion at the door before entering into the public square. Frederick Douglas, Abraham Lincoln, Williams Jennings Bryan, Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King – indeed, the majority of great reformers in American history – were not only motivated by faith, but repeatedly used religious language to argue for their cause ... Our law is by definition a codification of morality, much of it grounded in the Judeo-Christian tradition.” Unfortunately, within just a few years, these words were at odds with his policies as president.
To fully understand just how essential this public practice of religion is, we need look no further than the men who crafted our governing documents and shaped our nation. John Adams, a descendant of Puritan colonists and a signer of the Declaration of Independence, served as America's second president. Speaking to the officers of the Massachusetts Militia on October 11, 1798, he emphasized the essential nature of religion to America's structure of freedom:
“We have no Government armed with Power capable of contending with human Passions unbridled by morality and religion. Avarice, Ambition, Revenge, or Gallantry would break the strongest cords of our Constitution as a Whale goes through a Net. Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious People. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”
This perspective was not unique to Adams. His predecessor, George Washington, spoke of religion as being one of the great pillars that upheld America's fledgling government when he spoke to the young nation in his farewell address in 1796:
“Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports. In vain would that man claim the tribute of patriotism, who should labor to subvert these great pillars of human happiness, these firmest props of the duties of men and citizens. The mere politician, equally with the pious man, ought to respect and to cherish them. A volume could not trace all their connections with private and public felicity ... And let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.”
Far from seeing religion as something to be quarantined within the walls of churches or houses of worship, the prevailing view in America up until the mid-twentieth century was that the public exercise of religious freedom was not only welcome but an essential part of America's success. Over the last half century, secularists have repeatedly turned to the courts in their quest to rid the public square of religion. A series of conflicting rulings have turned the religion clauses of the First Amendment into something that would only confuse our Founding Fathers. This has led many to self-censor or believe that faith is a disqualification from the public square.
However, America's story cannot be adequately told without including the prominent role of religion. Religion, and in particular the Christian faith, has been an essential component of America's greatness, or exceptionalism—to use a term that makes the Left apoplectic. Similarly, America's future, if the nation is to truly recapture its greatness, cannot succeed without a return to true religious freedom, meaning the ability of citizens to take their place in the nation's still unfolding story by freely living and interacting in society guided by their religious faith.
Tony Perkins' Washington Update is written with the aid of FRC senior writers.
Editor's Note: This piece was originally published by the Family Research Council.