History is one of those things that people either love or hate. There doesn’t seem to be a middle ground.
But while you don’t have to like it, history is one of those things that you ought to know something about, because there are consequences if you don’t. If you’re married, remembering your anniversary is important. (Janis and I were married on St. Patrick’s Day. She thinks I was impatient and couldn’t wait till May or June. Actually, it was so I’d never forget the date. Impatient? Me, a guy? Please!)
As American citizens, there’s a part of our history that we are in the process of forgetting right now which concerns the history of the Christian faith and its role in shaping the founding of this great country. It’s a history that is seldom taught in schools today. In fact, it’s being systematically, relentlessly erased.
Increasingly, followers of Jesus Christ, and in fact people of faith in general, are being made to feel like they are second-class citizens of this country. The moment you mention God or the Bible or faith you are told, “Sorry! You’re disqualified. You’re just an unthinking Neanderthal. Separation of church and state, you know. Thanks for playing.”
It hasn’t always been this way though. When this nation was first founded, most of the values and beliefs of the people who built it from the soil up — who settled our first cities, who founded our first colleges, who fought for our freedom, who created from scratch the remarkable system of government that we enjoy that is the envy of the world — were hewn from the rock of Christianity.
In fact, the ones who were looked on as the unthinking, knuckle-dragging Neanderthals were any who said they didn’t believe in God. In some courts back in early America, your testimony was thrown out if you said you were an atheist because how can you possibly believe the word of someone who is accountable to no one but himself?
But faith in God matters. Many of the Founders of our Country believed this with all their hearts.
Take the Father of our Country himself, George Washington. When he was eleven, his father died, and Washington was denied the opportunity to travel to London to receive a classical education as his older two brothers had. But rather than sulk at what he didn’t have, or act out, at once he set out to read and study on his own as best he could, and in particular he focused not just on becoming an intelligent man, or a wealthy man, but also on becoming a good man. His family was active in the local Anglican church, and Washington would be faithful in supporting his church throughout his life.
At the age of sixteen, he copied out by hand a best-seller of his time: “110 Rules Of Civility and Decent Behavior” written by 16th-century Christian Jesuits. Rule #1 for example reads: “Each action done in company, ought to be with some sign of respect, to those that are present.” Some are dated. Rule #13 — “Kill no vermin, fleas, lice or ticks in the sight of others.” (Don’t you hate it when someone does that in front of you?)
But I think every sixteen year old could use a little manners-training today, and should be required to copy out these rules by hand. Washington did, and it did him no harm. Hundreds who knew him in his adulthood, marveled on what a man of honor and natural dignity he was. Thomas Jefferson said of him, “He was indeed, in every sense of the words, a wise, a good, and a great man.”
He carried in his coat pocket a copy of the book of Psalms which he read from often, reading also frequently from the Book of Common Prayer, a familiar aid for worship that is used to this day. The psalms spoke of a God who acted in history on behalf of his people, an attribute of God known as his providence ( sovereignty would be the word most use today). It became Washington’s favorite way of referring to God in his speeches and writing. And why wouldn’t he speak this way of God when you consider all that he witnessed in his life?
It was to God that Washington and his friends appealed for help in their struggle. The Declaration of Independence began with God. “We hold these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
And the Declaration ends with God. “And for the support of this declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.”
The Manhattan Miracle
A little over a month after these words were released to the nation and the world, Washington and his Continental army witnessed God’s protection first-hand. Once the war began, the British evacuated Boston to establish a more central headquarters in New York City. Washington rushed his troops there to stop them, but he foolishly camped in Brooklyn, backing himself into a corner. After regrouping, then doubling their forces, the British army sailed the bulk of its force to New York City, and before you could chant, “USA! USA!”, the colonial army found itself trapped.
All the British army had to do was sail a few ships into the harbor, position its armies, spring the trap, and the war would be over, before it had scarcely begun. The only thing that was preventing this was a stretch of nasty weather complete with a stiff northeast wind that kept the ships from sailing up the river.
Hopelessly outgunned and outmanned, Washington had only one chance: evacuate his army across the river and live to fight another day. But any attempt to escape would likely be seen by the British who would then launch their attack. Unless the British couldn’t see the Continental army escaping.
On the night of August 29th, 1776, Washington ordered a retreat across the Hudson. Despite the bad weather, Washington had no choice but to try and cross. In terms of the importance to the development of Western Civilization, it can be argued that the evacuation from Brooklyn was every bit as pivotal as Dunkirk would later be.
Author David McCullough, in his best-seller, “1776” writes, “It was about 11:00 when, as if by design, the northeast wind died down.” From then on that night, boats began to cross and recross the Hudson, ferrying soldiers and supplies to the other side. But they couldn’t do it fast enough.
McCullough writes, “Though nearly morning, a large part of the army still waited to embark, and without the curtain of night to conceal them, their escape was doomed. Incredibly, yet again, circumstances — fate, luck, Providence, the hand of God, as would be said so often — intervened. Just at daybreak a heavy fog settled in over the whole of Brooklyn, concealing everything no less than had the night…Even with the sun up, the fog remained as dense as ever, while over on the British side of the river, there was no fog at all.”
9,000 soldiers came across the river that night, and the last one across according to a commander of the final regiment that escaped was George Washington. Disaster was averted, the army lived to fight another day. Coincidence? We’ll never know for sure on this side of heaven, but Washington felt certain about what was happening.
In his first inaugural address as President, Washington said this: “No people can be bound to acknowledge and adore the invisible hand, which conducts the affairs of men more than the people of the United States. Every step, by which they have advanced to [becoming] an independent nation, seems to have been distinguished by some token of providential agency.”
It is often said of our Founders that most of them, including Washington were “deists”. A deist is someone who believes that God created the world, but then more or less left it to run on its own. A deist does not believe in the personal intervention of God in this world or in history. A deist does not talk about a personal God, or having a relationship with God at all. Washington was certainly no deist.
Even for those among our Founders that clearly were deists, like Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, the idea of a distant, uninvolved God was not a mindset they could consistently sustain in light of all that they experienced in those years.
Several years after the war was won, our young nation was about to come apart at the seams because of a weak form of government they had put in place. The Articles of Confederation had to be replaced or the country would fragment. During a critical point in the Constitutional convention of 1787, when delegates’ tempers were starting to flare and it looked like at any moment the whole thing could collapse, wise old Ben Franklin, the deist, stood and called for the council to pray! Here’s what he said to the delegates:
“In the beginning of the contest with Britain, when we were sensible of danger, we had daily prayers in this room for divine protection! Our prayers, sir, were heard; and they were graciously answered. All of us who were engaged in the struggle must have observed frequent instances of a superintending providence in our favor. 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…” All this…from a Deist.
While his motion was more or less tabled — so frayed were the conditions in the room at that moment — his calming words helped the delegates to catch a second wind, and it wasn’t long after, that our nation’s remarkable Constitution was completed, ready to be sent to the states.
Even with Jefferson, the idea of a Deist-God was not a mindset he could consistently sustain in light of all that he had experienced in those years. Jefferson, in his prouder, younger days boasted, “I am a sect by myself, as far as I know.” He went through the New Testament with a pair of scissors and cut out everything in the gospels that he didn’t like.
But even with him, God was never far from his thinking. As he lay dying at the age of 83 (and in a remarkable coincidence of history, both he and John Adams, two of the greatest Founding Fathers, died on July 4, 1826, the 50 thanniversary of Independence Day) in his lucid moments he would read from the Bible. His family heard him praying the Song of Simeon, “Lord, let me your servant depart in peace,” from Luke 2, a part of Scripture that earlier in his life he had cut out of his Bible.
There were two things he wrote of which he was the most proud, the Declaration of Independence of course, awash with God-talk, and the Virginia Statute For Religious Freedom. A portion of it is carved in stone on the walls of the Jefferson Memorial. In the Statute, Jefferson appeals to God and the way he created us as his primary argument for preserving religious freedom (a peculiar argument to make if one is a convinced deist). The statute reads in part:
“Whereas Almighty God hath created the mind free; that all attempts to influence it by temporal punishment or burthens, or by civil incapacitations, tend only to beget habits of hypocrisy and meanness, and are a departure from the plan of the Holy author of our religion, who being Lord both of body and mind, yet chose not to propagate it by coercions on either, as was his Almighty power to do . . .
Be it enacted by the General Assembly, that no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever, nor shall be enforced, restrained, molested, or burthened in his body or goods, nor shall otherwise suffer on account of his religious opinions or belief; but that all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinion in matters of religion…”
But What About The Separation Of Church And State?
It was Jefferson who first coined the phrase we hear bantered about so often today: Separation of church and state. But what did he mean by it?
Today we are told by many politicians, pundits, and the media that separation of church and state means: You Christians, be quiet! Just stay inside your church buildings! Your opinions mean nothing, especially if they come from your religion!
But this isn’t what the Founding Fathers intended at all. They were concerned with the government telling people how they ought to worship and practice their faith or with government taking tax dollars to fund one denomination over another. God himself does not force faith on a person, how then can a government do so? (And every true follower of Jesus Christ can whisper a prayer of thanks that we live in a country like this, where religious liberty is guaranteed. So far.)
What were the Founding Fathers not concerned about? They were not concerned with people of faith going out in public, and teaching their morals, doctrines and beliefs to others. They weren’t offended by the thought of prayers being offered in public schools, or the Bible being taught in public schools as a textbook. In fact they wanted it to happen. Our Founding Fathers wanted witnesses at court hearings saying the words, “So help me God.” And they wanted federal property to be available to religious groups should they desire to rent the space. They would have no problem with a manger scene on display at Christmas in front of city hall. They wanted faith to be unleashed.
Their thinking was strategic. It was their belief that faith, by-in-large, makes us into better human beings. A person who believes in God, and believes that one day he or she will stand before their Creator and give an account for their life, has an internal circuit breaker which puts a check on selfish and evil behavior.
Why did this matter? Because in a democracy where people are free to do what they want, who do you want more of: selfish people or generous people? Self-controlled people or violent people? Peaceful people or angry people? People who respect property or thieves?
Our Founding Fathers argued: Only if we remain a moral people will we remain a free people. And what is going to produce more moral people? The Founding Fathers unashamedly, publicly said: faith in God.
In his Farewell Address to the nation, Washington said these famous words: “Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports…And let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion.”
John Adams, our second president, put it a little less delicately, “Without religion, this world would be something not fit to be mentioned in polite company.”
Publicly, our Founding Fathers pointed people to embrace faith in God. Privately they would say (and many of them did say it in their writings and journals): embrace faith in the God of the Bible, the religion of Jesus Christ. George Washington did not speak publicly the name of Jesus Christ much at all — he was very guarded in his language, respectful of the fact that he was leading a nation of many different faiths. But he did say to a group of Delaware Indian chiefs on one occasion these words: “You would do well to learn our arts and our ways of life and above all the religion of Jesus Christ. These will make you a greater and happier people than you are.”
Alexis de Tocqueville, the great French historian, traveled to the United States to learn why the American Revolution ended in the birth of liberty while the French Revolution ended in the horrors of the guillotine and tyranny. He concluded as one of his primary lessons that in America, Christianity was allowed to flourish, while in France it was despised and repressed. He wrote in his classic book “Democracy In America”, “Liberty cannot be established without morality, nor morality without faith…Despotism may govern without faith, but liberty cannot.”
As a Christian pastor who has been striving to follow Jesus Christ for most of his years on this planet, I have learned that those who worship and walk with Jesus usually end up exactly as the Founding Father’s hoped — not perfect, only Jesus was that — but certainly a lot further along the road to virtue, freedom and happiness than they would have been without him. And I am absolutely convinced that what our nation needs now, and what you need now if you’re reading this, is to bow your knees and surrender your life to the one being in this universe who loves you more than anyone else, and who stands ready to give you forgiveness for all your past failures, power to live a new life in the present, and hope for the future that outlasts even death. Don’t take my word for it. Take our Founding Fathers’ word.
Bear Clifton is a pastor, writer and screenwriter. His latest book is, “Living Under The Cross: A 40-Day Devotional Journey”. His blogs and devotionals can be enjoyed at his ministry website: trainyourselfministry.com and his writing website: blclifton.com. Bear is also the author of “Train Yourself To Be Godly: A 40 Day Journey Toward Sexual Wholeness”, “Ben-Hur: The Odyssey”, and “A Sparrow Could Fall”, all available through Amazon.