Holding onto the Truths
Anisa Abd el Fattah
There is something eerie about being middle aged, or older in America today. If you are 50, or near, or around, or past 50, you have likely witnessed some of the greatest legal, and ideological challenges to freedom and liberty never thought possible in this country, and that alone makes you feel strange. You wonder, each time the anti-god movement in America cuts another notch in its belt, having successfully removed or challenged another public pronouncement of faith in God, and His laws, “what happened?” At some point you start to feel as if destiny is tugging at your coattail and asking, “Well, what do you think about all of this and what are you going to do?” There is never an answer. Who dreamed that we would be the generation faced with these questions that touch the very heart and soul of our society, and most treasured institutions? Who ever imagined that there would come a time in America that we would we prevented from pronouncing or demonstrating our faith in God?
Remember when we used to very orderly walk to fall out shelters, or take the position beneath our desks in the classroom, preparing for an atomic attack by the Soviet Union? Those survival exercises gave the pledge of allegiance special meaning to many of us, since under those desks and in those shelters, we asked ourselves, even as children, questions about freedom and liberty, which for some of us, also led to questions about God. The love affair between God and state still existed then, and as young Americans, we got the message, and not only in church, that God is an essential ingredient in the American recipe for freedom and liberty and prosperity. We knew, even at those tender ages, that without God, those shelters, and desks could not save us.
Our understanding of the relationship between God and government had been shaped by the writings of our Founders, and other great American men and women who spoke to us through history books, social studies and geography lessons, and even music through which we relived the American Revolution regularly, and followed its progress with Lewis and Clark, Daniel Boone and other notables from sea to shining sea almost daily. How could anyone imagine that our Founders crafted the Constitution of the United States seeking to sever the relationship between God and the republic, when every public pronouncement that issued from the mouths of the great statesmen and women, and activists both before and following the Revolution, appealed to the Divine for blessings, guidance, and protection? The Revolution’s religious doctrine had raised the blood of this nation to boiling more than a few times, and as it boiled in righteous indignation, freedom spread, and as it cooled and conformed to the unenlightened relativity of secularism, it seemed that freedom diminished, not only in the United States, but throughout the world.
One example of the religious patriotism that is so deeply engrained in this nation’s identity, resulting arguably from the traditional union between God, the state and the religious psyche of the early American people, is former President Abraham Lincoln’s use of the “Battle Hymn of the Republic” to rally northern citizens to the fight against the confederacy in the war of the states. Whether or not one sympathizes with the North or the South to a greater or lesser degree than Lincoln, according to most American historians, Lincoln’s artful use of the lyrics of this hymn, stirred the Union soldiers to victory. That hymn, sung solemnly, on occasion even in our lifetime, can still bring tears to the eyes of the most hardened men, since it very poignantly presents in real terms the aching heart of the idealized moral, and Puritan republic, saying, “As he (Jesus) died to make men happy, let us die to make men free, God’s truth is marching on!” Even the revolutionary war, where the famous “A Charge to Keep” conveyed the message of the revolutionary heart that song did not did not become as famous as the Battle Hymn, because at the time of the Revolution the country was neither as large, or as diverse as it had become by the time of the civil war.
There is an historic irony that exists in respect to the civil war and Washington’s Farewell speech. In the speech, Washington cautioned the nation, not only against separating the republic from its moral and religious tradition, but there are equally strong warnings against allowing the country to split into geographic factions, or interests, such as North, South, East and West that were obviously ignored. Washington argued that such attempts to divide the nation should be deemed suspect, since he believed that national unity was the strongest virtue of a nation of differing people, who share a common dream, and virtue. He wrote,” Your union ought to be regarded as a main prop of your liberty, and the love of the one ought to endear to you the preservation of the other.”
George Washington recognized the threat that separation from God and morality posed to the new republic, and he also understood that party politics, and attempts to advance and establish special interests, over the common interests of the nation would splinter the nation, and pose a threat to what he called the “sacred union.” The feared consequence of such division in Washington’s view, is that such mischief, ” distracts the public councils and enfeebles the public administration. It agitates the community with ill-founded jealousies and false alarms, kindles the animosity of one party, or faction against another, and foments occasional riots and insurrections.” One of the suspected motives for, and possible outcomes of a successful attempt to divide the nation, according to Washington, might be ” to open the door to foreign influence and corruption, which finds a facilitated access to the government itself through the channels of party passions.” Washington wrote:” Thus the policy and the will of one country are subjected to the policy and will of another.” He was more than a little concerned that such tactics as these, as well as attempts to change the authentic understanding of the Constitution might actually be attempts to destroy the country, and this led to his now famous dissertation on the danger of passionate foreign attachments that could cause US interests to be overshadowed by the interests of foreign nations, or peoples.
One would not have to stretch ones imagination too far to believe that Washington seriously believed that along with attempts to use party strife and special interests to divide the republic, people might also attempt to abandon our religiously inspired morality, and to perhaps even discontinue religion all together as a public political expression. There is no indication, that either Washington or any of the other Founders felt that religion should be extracted from either the national identity, or the public arena, or that there should be the radical type of separation between church and state that prohibits the demonstration, or remembrance of our moral tradition, and the God of the Bible that inspired that tradition. President Washington, who was appointed twice by the other Founders at the country’s inception, dedicated a sizeable amount of his speech teaching about interpretations of the Constitution that are not based upon historical observation or experience, precedent, or amendment. His view on this topic, as well as his concerns were obviously shared by another of the Founders, Alexander Hamilton, who rewrote President Washington’s farewell speech prior to its publication. Hamilton reportedly made the address more to the President’s liking than even his own original script. In the Farewell Address, published in the American Daily Advertiser, September 19, 1796, Washington talked at length about the state and its relationship with religion and morality, allowing us to understand how important this issue might be to the future of our nation. He wrote:
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 along with the pious man should respect and cherish them. A volume could not trace all their connections with private and public felicity. Let it be asked, ” Where is the security for property, for reputation, for life, if the sense of religious obligation desert the oaths which are the instruments of investigation in courts of justice? 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 principal.
Washington seemed to believe that religion and state not only shared common interests, but that government could not function effectively, or to the general interest of the American people, or the world, should the country loose its moral and religious bearing. Reading the farewell address, it seems reasonable to assume that President Washington believed the nation should be tethered to some sort of generally accepted religious ideal that could convey a traditional and perpetual moral standard. When he spoke of the republic, he called us a “free, enlightened, and at no distant period, a great nation.” He said that as a nation, we should ” give mankind the magnanimous and too novel example of a people always guided by an exalted justice and benevolence.” He also said: ” religion and morality enjoin this conduct,” and asked, ” Can it be that providence has not connected the permanent felicity of a nation with its virtue?” Washington implied in this statement that indeed true religion, and morality had served as a cause, and became the unique virtue that set the protective and always victorious hand of God over the colonists, guiding them and their supporters to victory over the British monarchy and the Church of England through which the monarchy claimed legitimacy.
Separation of Church and State and the US Constitution
There are more than a few Americans who are concerned that there is a serious and deliberate assault being waged today in this country against the very religious and moral principles that many of our Founders obviously believed served as the cause for which we fought a long and hard revolution, the free practice and expression of religion being a primary objective of the revolution. These people are not all “right wing” or Zionist Christians, or fundamentalists or extremist fanatics, etc. We are average people, Americans, of various religious backgrounds, and ethnicities, who don’t understand how, or through what process, we as a people, arrived at 2003 as a radically secular society where it is deemed illegal to publicly display the Ten Commandments, or to say “One nation under God” in our pledge of allegiance, even though the addition of that clause was in total and absolute keeping with the established meaning of the oath, and the established meaning of the Constitution, in respect to the relationship between the Church and State. Such displays and oaths are also part of an established tradition that should provide a precedent for legal decision-making.
It would not be an exaggeration to suggest that we have, over the past 20 years, found more innovative ideas in our US Constitution than our Founders may have thought possible. The farewell speech makes it clear that George Washington, and Alexander Hamilton at least, did not feel that holding God in esteem is equal to the establishment of an official state religion, or anything close to it. Even if Jefferson held such sentiment, and to date no one has proven that Jefferson was a radical secularist, he was obviously a minority among the Founders, since Washington’s interpretation garnered him not one, but two appointments to the Presidency by his peers. It’s almost unimaginable that the Founders would have sought to prevent public displays of religious artifacts or monuments in government facilities, even in our time, especially considering that clearly 90% of the American people believe in, and worship God.
Tests of truth, such as observation and experience cannot be equally exchanged for the convenient, yet unsubstantiated and untested theoretical interpretations of our Constitution being put forward by radical secularists, who suggest that the First Amendment to the Constitution prohibits the state from allowing the display and expression of religious belief and sentiment by the government, or on government property. To display religious artifacts, relics, or other expressions of religious belief and sentiment in a government building might not mean, as some have suggested, that the state is attempting to establish a state religion, or to advance a particular religion, or to prohibit minority religions from enjoying all the same rights and privileges as the more popular religions. It could mean simply that a nation of people who understand and appreciate and have affection for the religious thought and tradition that is the origin of the very basic ideals of liberty and freedom that led to our revolution and victory, desire to keep forever attached to it, and to display in various ways, its symbols, and remembrances, whether or not that be in our local and national government buildings, schools, and/or churches, all arguably appropriate settings for such displays.
Perhaps one of the most profound and touching segments of President Washington’s farewell address is his commentary on the Constitution, and its authority. He wrote:
This government, the offspring of our own choice, uninfluenced and un-awed, adopted upon full investigation and mature deliberation, completely free in its principles, in the distribution of its powers, uniting security with energy, and containing within itself a provision for its own amendment, has a just claim to your confidence and your support. Respect for its authority, compliance with its laws, acquiescence to its measures, is duties enjoined by the fundamental maxims of true liberty.
Washington obviously believed that our government was established in the 1700s and not re-established with every change in popular political trend or transfer, or usurpation of power. The Constitution is a constant, and it must be if it is to serve as a source of stability and guidance that anchors our society against the flux of change that has historically rendered other less fortunate countries paralyzed after each election, or successful movement for reform, leading to rewritings that take place sometimes annually. Washington believed that attempts to polarize the society, or to force changes to the Constitution through changes of interpretation, adopted, or forced upon the population capriciously, might actually be attempts to “undermine what cannot be directly overthrown” and if we look at some of the examples of other nations who have experimented with constitutionalism, we see that his concerns were not unfounded. This is perhaps one reason it appears that Washington repeatedly emphasized unity, and called upon the American people to stand together to meet challenges to the established meaning of our Constitution. Washington also suggested that all such challenges be resolved publicly and not behind closed doors, or by a single, or even a cadre of judges, but rather by the “whole” or majority of the people of these United States. Washington said:
The basis of our political system is the right of the people to make and to alter the constitutions of government. But the Constitution which at any time exists, till changed by an explicit and authentic act of the whole people (emphasis added) is sacredly obligatory upon all. The very idea of the power and right of the people to establish government presupposes the duty of every individual to obey the established government…Let there be no change by usurpation, for though this in one instance may be an instrument of good, it is customarily the weapon by which free governments are destroyed. The precedent must always greatly overbalance in permanent evil, any partial or transient benefit, which the use can at any time yield.
There is little chance that President Washington knew when he and Alexander Hamilton penned the Farewell speech that their concerns, raised as far back as the 1700s, would be the subject of the major political and cultural debates of our time. Neither did we know, as we recited the pledge of allegiance to the flag daily, professing our loyalty to one nation under God, or while crouched beneath our desks, where we prayed silently that it was only a drill and not a real foreign attack, that one day other Americans would suggest that, to say, or display “God” publicly in relation to anything political or governmental is unconstitutional. Yet, the civil war, along with attempts to separate religion permanently from the government and to make public testimonies of faith, or a faithful moral tradition illegal, or unconstitutional, are clearly reminiscent of Washington’s heartfelt concerns, as are our foreign and passionate attachments, which starkly contrast the established meaning of America and our tradition as a people who believe in, worship, and fear God, and who declared a right to independence based upon the self evident truth that all men are created equal. This is not to suggest however, that those who believe in the radical separation of Church and State are evil. Quite the contrary. It suggests rather the existence of a dishonorable human nature that men have wrestled with from perhaps the beginning of time. Washington called it, ” a love of power and proneness to abuse it, which predominates the human heart.”
It might be the appropriate time to resolve the Constitutional challenge presently facing the nation, and that seems to repeatedly raise its heads at the most inconvenient of times, such as following terrorist attacks, during wars, economic crises, and prior to Presidential elections.