I had a fascinating discussion yesterday with a friend of mine who is a liberal democrat. He voted for Hillary Clinton and believes in big government. Naturally, we were talking about Syria and the MOAB launch into Afghanistan, and we disagreed, like we do with many other political questions, how the Trump Administration is doing. (Full disclosure of political diversity: he worked in Obama’s White House, I worked in Bush 43’s White House. His job was cooler than mine though, I was just an intern.)

Yet on matters of faith and the ultimate question: Who do you say Jesus is?—on this we fully agree. Which leads me to a second question, and perhaps the ultimate political question—what do you say government is? On this question, we fully disagree. With respect and admiration to my liberal Christian friend, I don’t think we can accurately answer the second question without correctly answering the first.

In an increasingly politically and religiously diverse America, we have been sold the idea that the political questions of government, rather than being dependent on faith, are completely separate. Even many evangelicals have bought into the idea of “separation of church and state.” Who I say Jesus is (God or merely another good teacher or a complete heretic) should be discussed only within the walls of church because my answer only matters to the church. But when it comes to government, politics, social issues, and American life, who cares who I say Jesus is?

But the Founders saw these questions of who we say Jesus is and what we say government is inextricably intertwined. For government to have any legitimate basis in society, it must have a moral standard. It must have a particular stance on the question of where we derive our morality from. In other words, who do we say Jesus is? Is He God? Is He our moral lawgiver or not?

Civil government in any society prohibits certain acts and conduct. We designate these specific prohibitions as criminal conduct. Therefore, every society does in fact legislate morality, the question just becomes, whose morality are we legislating? We cannot answer this question in a political vacuum if we are honest. We cannot procedurally ever truly separate church and state, even if we try ideologically. More importantly, the Founders did not answer this question in a vacuum or in fact separate the question of morality and the question of government power. Most importantly, our Founders answered this question not just for themselves as individuals, but as the representatives of the United States of America in the first political act from which all other political acts of America followed.

The Founders specifically recognized that America’s legal basis to gain independent political sovereignty was fully and totally reliant on the answer to who Jesus is and a precise recognition that we as a new sovereign nation appealed to the ultimate source of political authority—the Supreme Judge of the world. They had to first answer the question of who God is to determine what power their government would have. They did not separate the question of moral authority and the question of political authority. The Declaration of Independence shows how inextricably intertwined our Founders understood these questions to be.

In fact, they began with a unanimous statement of the moral basis of law and political governments:

The unanimous Declaration of the thirteen united States of America, When in the Course of human events, in becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation. 

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.—That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed…

Before the Founders ever contemplated what system of government would be designed for America, before they answered any political questions, before they argued over federal versus state powers, they answered the question of who God is. And they unanimously declared that government is subordinate to a moral authority. That life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are only possible with a truthful recognition of who God is.

John Adams wrote in 1798, a decade after the Constitution was ratified, “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” He meant that our Founders (himself included) first recognized moral Truth and then designed a constitutional republic that answered who God is.

Our political debates in the past 60 years have sought to excise God from the public square. To not answer the question of who God is. To argue that the question of God is irrelevant. We have sought to divorce these two important questions and answer the political government questions in an amoral vacuum. And we are in a mess. We are attempting to answer moral legislative questions, religious liberty questions, and basic civil rights questions without first recognizing our Founders answered the question and established a government specifically built upon their answer.

And, our Founders also recognized that a government built upon this answer of who God is must, like God Himself allows, recognize religious liberty. God does not compel belief in Him. He offers His Truth to us, which is the Gospel that Easter celebrates. The Founders also recognized that true liberty and pursuit of God requires answering this question of who God is on an individual basis.

And some, on an individual basis, will answer this question differently than the Founders. And the Founders understood that in order to preserve true individual liberty while also preserving a moral government, provided for religious liberty.

A Muslim American has the right to build a mosque in the same way a Christian has the right to build a church and a Jew a synagogue. And Muslim is under the Constitution as the law, which is under the morality of God, as is a Christian, a Jew, and an atheist. But if I want my religious liberty as a Christian protected, then it’s also protected for the Muslim and Jew and even the atheist who does not want to be compelled to any belief in God. Christians are hypocritical if we say religious liberty just for me and not for you. Atheists and secularists are hypocritical if they say religious liberty is unconstitutional.

We live in a very difficult age to protect religious freedom because of religious pluralism, and especially because we have lost the significance of why our Founders first answered the question of who God is and from where our government obtains its legislative morality. This is precisely why John Adams was correct and why our Constitution was indeed made only for a moral and upright people. It is inadequate to the government of any other in the sense that it does not in fact restrain some religious or non-religious activity to the extent some may desire. But it likewise doesn’t restrain Christians to the extent others may desire. This is a very good thing for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. It’s the only way to preserve true liberty.

We miss the point on both sides if we fail to recognize the role and scope of the Constitution–it preserves and protects individual rights of American citizens. And any law made in furtherance thereof must indeed recognize the ultimate natural law (not any other form or basis of law) whereby it obtains its authority. It is a critical distinction.

We cannot have a system of government that recognizes an absolute moral Truth without answering the question of who God is first. We in fact do not have a government that does not recognize its source of moral authority. Our Founders answered the question of who Jesus is first. He is God and our divine lawgiver. Natural law is the basis of our Constitution’s authority.

So I submit to my friend, the liberal democrat, that we can disagree on the political questions because we do have the freedom and liberty to do so. But we cannot separate the questions of who God is with the questions of politics and government. We must answer the political questions in light of our response to who God is. To conserve our constitutional republic, to keep it, as Benjamin Franklin said immediately after the Constitutional Convention, means we must recognize our government’s source of moral authority.

This Easter Sunday is not just a religious holiday. The Fourth of July is not just a political holiday. I submit that Americans must understand why we celebrate both, with latter dependent on the former. We would in fact not have a Fourth of July holiday without an Easter Sunday. The events of July 4, 1776 would not have been possible without recognizing the event of Easter Sunday and without recognizing God.

Our Founders answered this question for our government. But we as individuals must still answer it for ourselves. On this Easter Sunday, who do you say Jesus is?

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1 comment
  1. Ellis’s essay appears to be predicated on several profound misunderstandings of separation of church and state.

    First, she appears to conflate the constitutional principle and the political doctrine. Separation of church and state is not only a fundamental American value that has long stood us in good stead, but also a bedrock principle of our Constitution, much like the principles of separation of powers and checks and balances. Just as the founders did not simply say in the Constitution that there should be separation of powers and checks and balances, but rather actually separated the powers of government among three branches and established checks and balances, they also did not merely say there should be separation of church and state, and rather actually separated them by (1) establishing a secular government on the power of “We the people” (not a deity), (2) according that government limited, enumerated powers, (3) saying nothing to connect that government to god(s) or religion, (4) saying nothing to give that government power over matters of god(s) or religion, and (5), indeed, saying nothing substantive about god(s) or religion at all except in a provision precluding any religious test for public office. Given the norms of the day (by which governments generally were grounded in some appeal to god(s)), the founders’ avoidance of any expression in the Constitution suggesting that the government is somehow based on any religious belief was quite a remarkable and plainly intentional choice. They later buttressed this separation of government and religion with the First Amendment, which affirmatively constrains the government from undertaking to establish religion or prohibit individuals from freely exercising their religions.

    Underlying Ellis’s thesis is an idea on which we agree: Everyone has a philosophy of life and necessarily engages the world from that standpoint.

    It should not be supposed though that the constitutional separation of government and religion somehow demands otherwise or conflicts with this observation. It does not prevent citizens from voicing views or making decisions or voting based on principles derived from their religions. Moreover, the religious beliefs of government officials naturally may inform their decisions on policies. The principle, in this context, merely constrains government officials not to make decisions with the predominant purpose or primary effect of advancing religion; in other words, the predominant purpose and primary effect must be nonreligious or secular in nature. A decision coinciding with religious views is not invalid for that reason as long as it has a secular purpose and effect.

    Nor should it be supposed that the government, by remaining separate from and neutral toward religion in keeping with the Constitution, somehow thereby favors atheism or the like over theism or the like. There is a difference between the government (1) remaining neutral in matters of religion and leaving individuals free to choose, exercise, and express their religious views without government intrusion and (2) taking sides in matters of religion and promoting one view (whether theism [in one, any, or all its various forms], atheism, or whatever) to the detriment of others. It is one thing for the government to endorse the idea that god(s) exist or, alternatively, endorse the idea that god(s) do not exist; it is quite another for the government to take no position on the matter and respect the right of each individual to freely decide for himself.

    That said, I hasten to add that confusion understandably arises because the constitutional principle of separation of church and state is sometimes equated with a political doctrine that goes by much the same name. That political doctrine generally calls for political dialogue to be conducted on grounds other than religion. The underlying reasons for that approach are many, but two primary ones are that it facilitates discussion amongst people of all beliefs by predicating discussion on grounds accessible to all and, further, it avoids, in some measure at least, putting our respective religious beliefs directly “in play” in the political arena, so we’re not put in the position of directly disputing or criticizing each other’s religious beliefs in order to decide on some political issue. This political doctrine, of course, is not “law” (unlike the constitutional separation of church and state, which is). Rather, it is a societal norm concerning how we can best conduct ourselves in political dialogue. Reasonable people can disagree about whether the doctrine is a good idea or not and whether or how it should influence us in particular circumstances.

    Second, Ellis erroneously argues that “America’s legal basis” was “reliant” on an understanding of Jesus and “recognition that we as a new sovereign nation appealed to the ultimate source of political authority—the Supreme Judge of the world.” In support, she invokes the Declaration of Independence. While she and others sometimes draw meaning from the variously phrased references to god(s) in the Declaration (references that could mean any number of things, some beyond or different than any of the Christian ideas of God) and try to connect that meaning to the Constitution, the effort is largely baseless. Important as the Declaration is in our history, it did not operate to bring about independence (that required winning a war), nor did it found a government, nor did it even create any law, and it certainly did not say or do anything that somehow dictated the meaning of a Constitution adopted twelve years. The colonists issued the Declaration not to do any of that, but rather to politically explain and justify the move to independence that was already well underway. Nothing in the Constitution depends on anything said in the Declaration. Nor does anything said in the Declaration purport to limit or define the government later formed by the free people of the former colonies. Nor could it even if it purported to do so. Once independent, the people of the former colonies were free to choose whether to form a collective government at all and, if so, whatever form of government they deemed appropriate. They were not somehow limited by anything said in the Declaration. Sure, they could take its words as inspiration and guidance if, and to the extent, they chose–or they could not. They could have formed any form of government with any sort of relationship to religion, indeed a theocracy if they wished—or, as they ultimately chose, a republican government founded on the power of the people (not a deity) and separated from religion.

    She resorts as well to an oft-repeated quotation by John Adams and suggests that Adams meant that the Constitution somehow infuses religion into the government it established. The quotation, though, says nothing of the sort. Adams observed basically that the Constitution, which establishes a republican government founded on the power and will of the people, necessarily depends on the people’s continued ability and willingness to exercise some measure of good will and judgment and play by the rules laid down in the Constitution. As many in his day did, Adams largely equated morality and religion, or at least attributed the former largely to the latter. He presumed that a moral and religious people would be able to exercise good will and judgment and play by the rules as needed for the government established by the Constitution to work. Rather than suggest that the Constitution is infused with religion as Ellis supposes, Adams’s quotation serves more to observe or even warn that the Constitution will be inadequate and may well fail if the people lack the attributes necessary for maintaining a republican government.

    I agree with Ellis’s underlying thesis that the founders would not establish a government that is inherently at odds with their religious convictions, which were largely Christian in nature. Moreover, given the republican nature of our government, I think it is only natural and expected that the laws enacted by our government—in both the founders’ time and today—largely reflect Christianity’s dominant influence in our society.

    That said, there is no reason to suppose that Christianity or theism is an inherent aspect of our constitutional government. Indeed, any such claim is antithetical to the constitutional principle against government establishment of religion and inconsistent with the Christian principle that people cannot be coerced to believe but rather must come to God voluntarily. By founding a secular government and assuring it would remain separate, in some measure at least, from religion, the founders basically established government neutrality in matters of religion, allowing individuals to freely choose and exercise their religions and thus allowing Christianity (and other religions) to flourish or founder as they will in the marketplace of ideas. As noted above, it is to be expected that the values and views of the people, shaped in part by their religions, will be reflected in the laws adopted by their government. There is nothing in the Constitution that requires or calls for this; it is simply a natural outgrowth of the people’s expression of political will in a republican government. To the extent that the people’s values and views change over time, it is to be expected that those changes will come to be reflected in the laws adopted by their government. There is nothing in the Constitution to prevent this; indeed, just the opposite—the Constitution establishes a government designed to be responsive to the political will of the people. It is conceivable, therefore, that if Christianity’s influence in our society wanes relative to other influences, that may lead to changes in our laws. Nothing in the Constitution would prevent that—and moreover the establishment clause would preclude Christians from using the government to somehow “lock in” (aka establish) Christianity in an effort to stave off such an eventuality.

    The Constitution, including particularly the First Amendment, embodies the simple, just idea that each of us should be free to exercise his or her religious views without expecting that the government will endorse or promote those views and without fearing that the government will endorse or promote the religious views of others. By keeping government and religion separate, the Constitution serves to protect the freedom of all to exercise their religion. Reasonable people may differ, of course, on how these principles should be applied in particular situations, but the principles are hardly to be doubted. Moreover, they are good, sound principles that should be nurtured and defended, not attacked. Efforts to undercut our secular government by somehow merging or infusing it with religion should be resisted by every patriot.

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