Whether the issue is guns, gays, or Roe v. Wade, people who claim to be patriotically secular in their politics warn Christians to leave their faith out of political decision-making. Religion and public life are a dangerous mix, they say, and for that reason, our nation was supposedly founded on a separation of government and religion. But this is the misconception of those who think America is like France, with its tradition of strictly secular public life (laicite) tracing back to the French Revolution of 1789.
Such an unaccommodating hostility to religion has never been our tradition and was never intendedto be. “Congress shall pass no law establishing religion …,” our Constitution reads, but it does not forbid government having anything to do with religion at all.
It is traditional in America to allow religion into public life, to allow government and religion to occupy the same civic space, as it were.
In October 1789, both houses of Congress petitioned President George Washington to proclaim a day of thanksgiving for the new constitution. His proclamation began, “Whereas it is the duty of all Nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey his will, to be grateful for his benefits, and humbly to implore his protection and favor …,” and everyone was fine with that.
When the president-elect takes the oath of office (or affirms the same), even though the Constitution does not require that he place his hand on a Bible or that he end saying “so help me God,” this has become our unchallenged practice.
Furthermore, it is actually desirable to mix government with religious influence. In 1798, President John Adams said, “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” As this is true not only of the ruled but also of those who rule, Adams surely had in mind what political theorists call “the political problem.” James Madison gave it classic expression in Federalist Paper no. 51 where he wrote:
“In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself.”
We need government because people have a tendency to violate each other in their lives, liberty, and property. But when you empower government to restrain this, the power to protect is also the power to oppress.
Our system of government addresses this problem chiefly by constitutional means, like the separation of powers, and institutional checks and balances. But the good character of those in government is no small contribution to our political safety. Good character is an internal law that reaches where civil law is powerless to go. On its own, it isn’t enough, but, as Adams assured us, it completes a good constitution. What is it that develops good character in people but strong families, close communities, and healthy religion? Hence, Adams’ remark.
Some want government purged of religion for liberty’s sake. But the less Christian character there is in government and the governed, the larger the government must be to restrain us and the more dangerous that government will be when it does.