The United States as a Theistic Nation

I have written about this before, but wanted to cover some of the same topics in the context of the issue in Utah of distributing “In God We Trust” posters to be displayed in the public school classrooms.

When those with more liberal views than I say that the nation as the founders established it was not a Christian Nation, they are superficially correct. However, the nation was arguably founded explicitly as a Theistic Nation, a fact which they often ignore or deny. And Christianity had an undeniable influence on the formation of the United States and its government even if it was not explicitly Christian. While there was to be no established religious sect or creed, the government and nation were expected to officially recognize the authority of a vague, generic Supreme Creator as the source and judge of their laws and actions and to recognize the necessity of His approbation of their collective actions.

To prove that the government was intended to be Theistic we can look at the philosophy of the founding documents and the national symbols and heraldry created by the founders.

The philosophy of the Declaration of Independence was that the equity of the laws and actions of any nation could be judged by the people by comparing them to a Natural Law of Justice and Morality established by Nature’s God. It was by appealing those higher laws and the Supreme Being that the colonists justified their rebellion against Britain and the formation of a new government.

While the Constitution itself never appeals to God explicitly, the form of government it establishes was designed to create a “more perfect union” and “establish justice.” In other words, it assumes the same philosophy as the Declaration of Independence because the founders believed that the way to measure whether the new union is “more perfect” than the previous union and that the laws are more just than before was by comparing them to the higher standard cited by the Declaration: the Laws of Nature and Nature’s God. The checks and balances of the Constitution are all made in an implicit attempt to create a government that adheres more closely to ideals established by a Superior Power. The Constitution is the practical implementation of the philosophy, or in other words an incarnation of the spirit, of the Declaration of Independence.

In this way, the founding documents are inherently Theistic even though they are not explicitly Christian.

Additionally, the national symbology of the United States makes this marriage of Theism and the U.S. government explicit in a way that is hard to deny.

In one of its first post-declaration actions on July 4th 1776, the Continental Congress formed a committee to create a Seal for the new nation. Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson were assigned to the first committee charged with designing the Great Seal.

Benjamin Franklin proposed an image of “Moses standing on the Shore, and extending his Hand over the Sea, thereby causing the same to overwhelm Pharaoh who is sitting in an open Chariot, a Crown on his Head and a Sword in his Hand. Rays from a Pillar of Fire in the Clouds reaching to Moses, to express that he acts by Command of the Deity.” And he proposed the motto: “Rebellion to Tyrants is Obedience to God.”

Thomas Jefferson proposed a depiction of the children of Israel guided through the wilderness by a daytime cloud and a nighttime pillar of fire.

Several committees later in 1782 the final Great Seal was adopted. It symbolically expressed these same Theistic attitudes about the relation between God and Government, even though in the end they did not use Franklin or Jefferson’s specific symbols. The official blazon of the Great Seal, as adopted by the very first U.S. Congress explains that: “The pyramid signifies Strength and Duration: The Eye over it & the Motto allude to the many signal interpositions of Providence in favour of the American cause.” The motto referred to appears in the seal as “Annuit Cœptis” and means literally “he nods in assent to the things that have been started.” It is officially interpreted to mean “He (God) has favored our undertakings.”

The fact that the pyramid representing our nation is unfinished but is being built in the mirror image of the triangle containing the eye of providence above it can be interpreted to represent that our nation is continually built in the image of an ideal established by God—an work that is unfinished yet.

So the official symbol and heraldry of the U.S., as established by the founders themselves, explicitly invokes God in our political institutions. The seal has appeared on every official action by the government since that time, though it is often the obverse side and not the reverse where the pyramid and motto are shown. Everyone has seen it on the one-dollar bill. It proclaims that God should “nod in assent” to what we undertake as a nation. “In God We Trust” may have been added much later, but it was clearly consistent with the original founding notions of the nation’s symbols and motto.

Those who, contrary to these facts, proclaim that the founding was essentially atheistic, often point to the few iconoclastic but highly influential founders like Washington, Franklin, Madison, Adams, and Jefferson. They describe them as Deists. However, while Jefferson denied that Jesus was the son of God, he also declared that the fundamental ethical teachings of Jesus were sublime and the best of moral philosophy. In an ethical sense at least he, Franklin, Washington, and Madison were “Christians.” And, as their proposals for the Great Seal demonstrate, they believed in a God who worked within history through the imposition of his will in the affairs of mankind, and that his aide and favor could be acquired through supplication—beliefs which are foreign to what we mean modernly when we speak of “Deism” and contrary to the notions of those who preach an atheistic founding.

Additionally, if we consider all of those who signed the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation, attended the Constitutional Convention, signed the Constitution, or served in the First Federal Congress that adopted the Bill of Rights and established the direction of the country, there were about 200 individuals involved in the founding, the vast majority of whom were adherents of a Christian sect—predominantly Episcopalian, Presbyterian, and Congregationalist. At very least one must recognize a reflection of the democratic processes of Congregationalist parishes in the Democratic forms of the government that was formed.

The negative aspects of historical Christianity clearly also played a role, as the founders sought to avoid the folly of the bloody sectarian violence that had plagued Europe, however, as I hope is evident from the Great Seal, their goal was anti-sectarian, not anti-Theism.

Even among the pilgrims, Roger Williams’ argument for religious tolerance, upon which he founded Providence, Rhode Island with separation of Church and State, was based in ideals explicitly derived from Christianity and the teachings of Jesus (as Williams, who was a Christian theologian, understood them). Religious Tolerance and the Separation of Church and State themselves were originally rooted in and justified by Christian thought and teaching, as was the freedom of the press (see John Milton’s Areopagitica).

Obviously there were other philosophical influences on the founders in addition to Christianity, but most of those philosophies had been filtered through the lens of Christianity simply because of the cultural environment in which the founding occurred.

So the U.S. was intended by its founders to be an explicitly Theistic Nation with ideals derived from at least the ethical teachings of Christianity.

I do not want to make our nation more explicitly “Christian.” As a Latter-day Saint, I do not want other Christians to enforce their particular sectarian views upon me. I want the nation to tolerate a variety of views, including atheism. But, I am strongly opposed to those who would remove the explicit Theism of the founding completely from our institutions. In my view, the Theism of the founding is essential to, and inextricable from the form of government we enjoy and if we attempt to excise it from the government we will leave our institutions without a foundation and they will eventually crumble.

If our rights come from man and not from the Creator, then they can be revoked by man. But our rights don’t come from men. They come from God. That is why most modern totalitarian endeavors so often seek to eliminate religion. Because as long as the people believe that there is a higher authority to which they can appeal over their political rulers, as did our nation’s founders, totalitarian systems are in the long run doomed. If we cease to look to God to “nod in assent to our undertakings” we will lose out freedoms and rights because it is he who has endowed us with them.

One can disagree that Theism is essential to our government, but one should not pretend that such views are historical or consistent with those of the founders.

Annuit Cœptis.

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One Response to The United States as a Theistic Nation

  1. A fine write-up, J. Max. Atheism as a worldview really didn’t emerge until the middle of the 19th century, so if you force a choice on the Founding Fathers (either they were theistic or atheistic), obviously they’ll look theistic.

    But they were founding a geographically extended republic, a novel undertaking that was a very iffy thing back then, and they were convinced that public virtue (what we might today call civic morality, if we had any left) in its citizens was an essential requirement. And religion is the primary nursery of such public virtue. So I think much of their official religiosity was instrumental, not religious or spiritual. They were just being pragmatic leaders. That doesn’t make them atheistic, but neither does it make them theistic (in whatever sense we today take that term). I’m not really disagreeing with you, just looking at things from a different perspective.

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