God, America, and the Public Square
Timothy S. Goeglein
Tim Goeglein is Vice President, External Relations, of Focus on the Family, an organization dedicated to "Helping Families Thrive." Its web site is at www.focusonthefamily.com.
Freedom sees in religion the companion of its struggles and its triumphs, the cradle of its infancy, the divine source of its rights. It considers religion as the safeguard of mores; and mores as the guarantee of laws and the pledge of its duration. -Alexis de Tocqueville, on faith in the United States.
There is not a shadow of right in the General Government to intermeddle with religion. The Subject is, for the honor of America, perfectly free and unshackled. The government has no jurisdiction over it. - James Madison, principal architect, the U.S. Constitution.
One of the joys of my professional life is getting out into the country and meeting thousands of people each year on behalf of Focus on the Family. At almost every stop, the idea of how our Christian faith and the public square either coheres or doesn't comes up. I always find it a little surprising at how deeply in despair many of my fellow men and women really are these days. The four most recurring comments I hear are:
I feel like we are losing our country.
I am concerned for my children and grandchildren.
I don't know that to do.
I feel discouraged about the direction of things in the United States.
I think it is fair to say that many men and women of faith, and not a few others, feel that America's best days are behind us, that nations have life cycles and that history teaches us rise and decline are inevitable. The reasons for decline are various: materialism and extravagant wealth; moral and social decay; a loss of a strong culture of marriage and family; a decadent culture; the surrender of the elites; a collapse of confident American exceptionalism; but above all, and perhaps without peer, a collapse of faith.
I am decidedly not in this declinist camp because I believe decline is a choice in a nation, just as I believe incline is a choice. Yet I also believe it is important to flesh out more fully the taproot of my hope for the future. I believe and have faith that an American renaissance is possible, and even likely. But it is important to take stock of the health or illness of our country, culture, and civilization, and to attempt to see it whole, as it really is in its reality.
The British writer George Orwell wrote the first duty of an intelligent person is "the restatement of the obvious." What seems most obvious to me, as a Christian privileged to live in this remarkable nation, is that liberty grows from virtue. It naturally follows that we can have no freedom, and therefore no flourishing country, without moral excellence in both our leaders and in our citizens.
This kind of ordered liberty is our most cherished national credo because it understands that our country cannot thrive in freedom in the truest sense without the morals and manners that provide the underpinning of our great republic. These morals and manners have given our country a civil society and way of life defined by continuity and stability that are derived from that unique blend of individual freedom and personal responsibility.
American law does not compel us; virtue is rooted in duty and obligation. Historically high levels of personal and moral integrity in our citizens have given our nation high levels of liberty. This is not in any way to denigrate the foundational importance of the law, which flows directly from revelation. Our Founding Fathers and Mothers believed this in the deepest recesses of their marrow and DNA.
This connection was captured powerfully by the influential British legal scholar William Blackstone, who had an outsized influence on those who framed our Constitution and drafted our Declaration of Independence.
Blackstone famously observed:
When the Supreme Being formed the universe and created matter out of nothing, He impressed certain principles upon the matter from which it can never depart without which it would cease to be. . . . Man considered as a creature must necessarily be subject to the laws of his Creator. . . . It is necessary that he should in all points conform to His maker's will. . . . This will of his Maker is called the law of Nature. . . . Hence it follows that the first and primary end of human laws is to maintain these absolute [God-given] rights to individuals.
Human freedom and flourishing, which have found such a welcome home in America, find their taproot in moral excellence, which is virtue, and which in the American experience derives from the Holy Scriptures. High character at every level of American life is the source of the confidence necessary to produce a great, free, and prosperous country.
In America, such virtue - even from before our country's formal Founding in the mid-eighteenth century - always found its genesis in that Judeo-Christian tradition's greatest contribution to Western civilization, the Holy Bible, which is the very Word of God.
The Scriptures were and are the ancient and lasting moral code for the overwhelming majority of Americans then and now. This makes us, as Christians living in America, fundamentally distinct from our European allies and most of the rest of the developed world. They have largely snuffed out the candle light of Jesus Christ as a reality in the public square and common life. That is decidedly not the case in America, where millions of men and women of faith continue to navigate their personal and professional lives according to a decidedly Biblical worldview. In this reality is powerful hope for the future.
Even Pew, which conducts the most rigorous polling of America's faith life, concludes that while 20 percent of Americans say they are without faith, only 6 percent decidedly call themselves agnostics or atheists. That is a remarkably low number for the most powerful nation on earth, having endured an historic and unparalleled aggressive secularism during the course of the last half century. Despite this unrelenting onslaught, genuine faith has endured in peerlessly high numbers in America. At one remove, this is nothing short of miraculous.
The dissenting Protestants who founded and built America believed the King James Version of the Bible was the greatest expression of Christian truth in the English language, and they organized our young, constitutional republic in accord with it. The moral code of the Bible is the greatest ethical contribution of our patrimony as a nation, and its reality has shaped, formed, and impacted the destiny of America.
From the foundations of faith grew our government, our legal structure and code, our schools and universities, our military, and all the institutions that comprise the uniquely American way of life. From the beginning no institutions were more important or more necessary or more foundational to American greatness than the unquestioned sanctity of marriage, family, and parish/church/temple life. These provided the faithful sustenance for our flourishing. They still do.
These were the three indispensable supports that nourished the "little platoons," in the words of Edmund Burke, upon which America grew rapidly and fanned out from the East Coast across a large and geographically diverse continent. Each American family was and is a little civilization.
Freedom and Christianity go together, not only in the lives of believers but also in the lives of nations. This is what the Gospel writer John meant when he wrote, "Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty." The faithful soul is free and unshackled. It is true in the life of great nations too.
In America, there exists from our Founding an inseparable relationship between revelation and government. Politics cannot be drained of faith because they have, at one important remove, grown from that faith, though belief and politics - which is a branch of ethics - are decidedly not the same thing. This natural, organic, and even deep unity between America's robust public square and the life of a transcendent moral order precedes our nation's Founding, and its bond continues into our own era.
In order for the United States to remain vital in this still-young new century, we need both a thriving realm of faith and thriving realm of limited government that makes ample room for the flourishing practice of that faith. Does revealed religion consecrate a country like ours? Yes, I believe it does, and I believe it will continue to be the source of our dynamism and our strength in the years ahead - difficult though this present era is for all we believe about the nuclear family, human life, and religious liberty.
Ours is a God of redemption, regeneration, and renewal. He works His will in the lives of individuals. But He is also alive and at work in the very heart of nations that seek to perpetuate both righteousness and humility in the public square. These are immutable, timeless, and unchanging first principles rooted in our Founding. These principles are more timely and relevant now than ever in our history.
The "reality of the unseen" - a God who is alive and active not dead or dormant - remains at the center of the American experience. Our very best days may well be ahead of us. That is our profoundest hope. It was Thomas Jefferson's as well, who wrote in the midst of another deeply troubled American era that "An Angel still rides in the whirlwind and directs this storm." He does indeed. *