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I know there are many who say Adams and other Founders were deists, believing in a creator that is distant and uninvolved in humanity, indeed believing man can reason his way through life.
But Adams’ words don’t sound like the words of a deist. They sound like the words of a man who understood that faith and reason are not enemies but rather equally important to a man’s—and a nation’s—development. After all, an “overruling Providence” is not distant or uninvolved.
We may pretend there is a wall separating church and state, but there isn’t. Any country where people vote at churches, where presidents attend annual prayer breakfasts, where legislative business opens with a chaplain’s prayer, where the chief magistrates enter their chambers to the refrain “God save the United States and this Honorable Court!” is not really secular.
These expressions of faith, these reminders of God—“unfashionable as they may be,” to paraphrase Adams—are not only beneficial; they bind America’s present to its past.
In the prologue to his edition of The Federalist Papers, Isaac Kramnick notes that many of the Founders believed “religion was a crucial support of government.”
The result is that church and state coexist in America’s public square. The danger of one co-opting the other is a subject for another essay; suffice it to say that after 235 years Americans have come to a consensus that they don’t want religion to control government (like the Islamic Republic of Iran) and they don’t want government to control religion (like the People’s Republic of China).
Although the Constitution and its amendments were vague on the dividing line between faith and government, the two grew up together, their roots overlapping and mingling in the same soil. As Tocqueville explained in the 1830s, “I do not know whether all Americans have a sincere faith in religion—for who can search the human heart—but I am certain that they hold it to be indispensable to the maintenance of republican institutions.” He called religion the first of America’s “political institutions,” marveling at how it somehow facilitated freedom.
In short, Adams and his fellow Founders created a nation that embraces faith. George Washington invoked God at his inauguration; so did the devout Adams and deistic Jefferson; so did TR and his archenemy Wilson; so did Carter on the left and Reagan on the right; so did the taciturn elder Bush and his born-again son; so did Obama, who quoted from Paul’s epistles. All of them began their presidencies by putting a hand on the Bible—by custom and tradition, not by force of law.
Adams’ Independence Day letter reminds us that our nation began in much the same way.
Alan W. Dowd writes on defense and security issues.
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