The Religious Underpinnings of America
Summer marches on. Soon we celebrate the establishment of our country as a free and independent nation. Along with the fireworks, picnics, and family fun, a reminder of the religious nature of our heritage seems appropriate. The more I read about the Founding Fathers and their intentions of building a nation on the firm foundation of faith in God and on true Christian principles, the more incredulous I become at certain current attitudes and actions.
A 1965 copy of Destiny Magazine reminds us how this country started:
Let us always remember that the planting of America in the strain that determined our country’s character was a spiritual planting. The fathers who planted this nation were Christians. They came here as Christians. They came because they were Christians. They came on a specifically Christian venture. Get it fixed in your mind that the planting that determined the genius of America was a church – not a town, not a colony, not a trading or exploring venture, not a gold rush, but a church, a little Pilgrim church crossed the sea for the sake of its church life. That is the origin of the United States.
The Founding Fathers Were Believers
When the Founding Fathers joined together to create the documents that would guide this nation, the Bible was one of the principle sources of their wisdom. Those assembled prayed together; they acknowledged their dependence on God in the grand endeavor of establishing a free nation.
W. Cleon Skousen said, “Americans of the twentieth century often fail to realize the supreme importance which the Founding Fathers originally attached to the role of religion in the unique experiment which they hoped would emerge as the first civilization of a free people in modern times. Many Americans also fail to realize that the Founders felt the role of religion would be as important in our own day as it was in theirs (The Making of America: the Substance and Meaning of the Constitution, p. 6776).
Latter-day Church leaders have affirmed the inspiration involved in the founding of our nation. President J. Reuben Clark, Jr. said: “To me, my brethren and sisters, that statement of the Lord, ‘I have established the Constitution of this land,’ puts the Constitution of the United States in the position in which it would be if it were written in this book of D&C itself. This makes the Constitution the word of the Lord to us. That it was given, not by oral utterance, but by the operation of his mind and spirit upon the minds of men, inspiring them to the working out of this great document of human government, does not alter its authority.” (General Conference, April 1935)
Washington’s Spiritual Example
George Washington is a good example of the religious character of our early statesmen. At Newburgh, Orange County, New York, in June 8, 1773, he wrote this prayer and sent it to the Governors of all the States:
Almighty God: We make our earnest prayer that Thou wilt keep the United States in Thy holy protection; that thou wilt incline the hearts of the citizens to cultivate a spirit of subordination and obedience to government, and entertain a brotherly affection and love for one another and for their fellow-citizens of the Untied States at large. And finally that Thou wilt 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 mind which were the characteristics of the Divine Author of our blessed religion without a humble imitation of whose example in these things we can never hope to be a happy nation. Grant our supplication, we beseech Thee, through Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen. (Reprinted in Ohio State History of the Daughters of the American Revolution by Annie Jopling Lester, page 6. Greenfield, Ohio: Greenfield Print. & Pub. Co., c1928)
In his farewell address, Washington wrote: “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 … Reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail to the exclusion of religious principle … It is substantially true that virtue or morality is a necessary spring of popular government.” (Adler et al, The Annals of America, 3:612)
The Founders Seek Equality of Religious Expression
The Founders, although Christian to a man, campaigned for the equality of all religions. James Madison said, “Who does not see that the same authority which can establish Christianity, in exclusion of all other religions, may establish with the same ease any particular sect of Christians, in exclusion of all other sects? … (Letters and Other Writing of James Madison, 4 vols., 1:163-64)
So the First Amendment states that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” Those last words: “prohibiting the free exercise thereof” give us pause. This amendment was to protect our right to freely exercise whatever religion we choose.
Skousen says, “It is clear from the writings of the Founders as well as the commentaries of Justice Story that the First Amendment was designed to eliminate forever the interference of the federal government in any religious matters within the various states. As Madison stated during the Virginia ratifying convention: ‘There is not a shadow of right in the general government to inter-meddle with religion. Its least interference with it would be a most flagrant usurpation.'”
I often wonder what the Founding Fathers are thinking about the events of the past few decades, which have left the majority who believe in God without the right to freely mention His name, to pray in schools or other public gatherings, to freely teach morality or the Bible or even the most universally accepted religious beliefs in public settings.
Our Religious Heritage Is Not Being Passed On
I have found the book The Rewriting of America’s History by Catherine Millard of great interest. The author shows numerous examples of how the spiritual underpinnings of our history have been stripped from the textbooks our children are learning from. American history outside the context of God and religion and Christian principles is like a caricature of the true picture. Many parents and independent educators are going back to original documents and books in order to share with young people the inspiring spiritual aspects of our country’s history. We are blessed to still have the right to teach our children what we know is true in our homes and in our churches. We have a double obligation to do so when we know they will not be taught these things in school.
What Can We Look Forward To?
We have often heard that the Elders of Israel will be called upon in meaningful and important ways in regard to our constitutional rights. In the following quote, Elder Joseph L. Wirthlin refers to this possibility using quotes from Brigham Young :
We should at all times be willing to sustain the great Bill of Rights in our own country, to sustain and uphold the laws here. I firmly believe that Brigham Young was a prophet of Almighty God. I think that he spoke under the inspiration of the Lord’s Spirit. I want to read to you an excerpt from one of his sermons, wherein he laid upon the shoulders of the Priesthood of this Church some very definite responsibilities relative to the fundamental law of our country. He said: “I expect to see the day when the Elders of Israel will protect and sustain civil and religious liberty, and every constitutional right bequeathed to us by our fathers.
He said these rights would go out in connection with the Gospel for the salvation of all nations, and added: “I shall see this whether I live or whether I die. I do not lift up my voice against the great and glorious government guaranteed to every citizen by our Constitution, but against those administrators who trample the Constitution and just laws under their feet.”
We see from this prophecy, uttered by a prophet of God that there will yet devolve upon the Priesthood of this Church the responsibility of protecting the rights and the Constitution of our great country (General Conference, October 1938).
We would be wise to study the constitution and Bill of Rights. Skousen’s above-quoted book The Making of America is an excellent place to start. We need to search our own hearts, and be certain that we honor and live these inspired directives ourselves. For instance, do we honor and protect each others right to freely exercise our chosen religion? Do we base our own lives on the solid base of Christian principles that our Founding Fathers knew would keep this nation strong? We can rejoice that our country was started by God-fearing men who created inspired documents upon which America was founded. And we can look forward to the time when the Elders of Israel will further protect and sustain the religious liberties our constitution promises.