George Washington and Abraham Lincoln understood that America has a civic religion. As previously noted, this civic religion is different than the personal faith of individuals–their manner of worship, fellowship and practice. Religion is embedded in the foundation of our government.
George Washington, so immersed in the entire process of the founding of this nation, praised the effectiveness of critics for insisting upon the first ten amendments to the United States Constitution, and he complimented both James Madison and Alexander Hamilton for their work in writing the Federalist Papers saying, they “have thrown new light upon the science of government; they have given the rights of man a full and fair discussion, and explained them in so clear and forcible a manner as cannot fail to make a lasting impression.”
During the swearing-in ceremony for President Washington, he placed his hand on an open Bible at Genesis, chapter 49. Of his own volition, he took the oath of office concluding with the precedent-setting foundation, “So help me God.” Immediately the new president bent down and kissed the sacred book (Peter A. Lillback with Jerry Newcombe, George Washington’s Sacred Fire, Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, Dickson Press, 2006, 224).
In his Farewell Address of 1796, Washington reminded Americans that: “Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports. In vain would that man claim the tribute of patriotism, who should labor to subvert these great pillars of human happiness, these firmest props of the duties of men and citizens. The mere politician, equally with the pious man, ought to respect and to cherish them. A volume could not trace all their connections with private and public felicity. Let it simply be asked: Where is the security for property, for reputation, for life, if the sense of religious obligation deserts the oaths which are the instruments of investigation in courts of justice? And let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.”
Contemporary liberals insist that the Declaration of Independence has no relevance to the Constitution. Nothing could be further from the truth. That was the argument used by Stephen A. Douglas in the historic Lincoln-Douglas debates. Douglas, who practiced constitutional revisionism, rejected Abraham Lincoln’s insistence that moral judgment applies to situations calling for decision. Lincoln quoted from the Declaration of Independence to affirm the moral predicate of constitutional law.
The following is from Lincoln’s Peoria speech, October 16, 1854: “I have quoted so much [of the Declaration] at this time to show that according to our ancient faith, the just powers of government are derived from the consent of the governed. Now the relation of masters and slaves is, pro tanto, a total violation of this principle. The master not only governs the slave without his consent: but he governs him by a set of rules altogether different from those he prescribes for himself. Allow all the governed an equal voice in their government, and that, and that only, is self-government.” Harry V. Jaffa, reviewing Lincoln’s speech, added, “Aristotle, in his only reference to piety in the Nicomachean Ethics, says that virtue requires us to honor truth before our friends. That is because we would not otherwise be worth having as friends.”*
“I believe the Bible is the best gift God has ever given to man” (Abraham Lincoln).
*Harry V. Jaffa, “In Defense of Political Philosophy,” National Review, January 22, 1982.
~ David Norris