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One nation under God: the supremacy of God as Creator, Lawgiver, and Source of individual rights is at the center of our nation's vision of liberty under law. (Cover Story: Pledge of Allegiance).

The late, great comedian Red Skelton once remarked on national TV, concerning the Pledge of Allegiance, "Since I was a small boy ... two words have been added to the Pledge ...: 'under God.' Wouldn't it be a pity if someone said 'That is a prayer,' and [the Pledge] would be eliminated from schools too?" Mr. Skelton, an entertainer speaking to another age, when patriotism and public expressions of faith were still very much in fashion, would be dismayed to see his prediction close to becoming reality. On June 26th, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of plaintiff Michael Newdow, a militant atheist who had sued the federal government to require that the Pledge of Allegiance be prohibited in public schools because it refers to God.

Yet even in 1969, when Red Skelton voiced his concern, the drive, spearheaded by the federal judiciary, to banish religion completely from public life was already far advanced. And just as Skelton could foresee where the trend to secularize public schools might lead, so we can easily imagine future frontiers for the dogmatic enemies of religion to explore. Is it a stretch to imagine future monetary currency purged of all references to God, as Michael Newdow also advocates (he makes a practice of crossing out "In God We Trust" on all paper currency that passes through his hands)? How about a future Congress shorn of chaplains and prayers? Or even future courts of law in which the phrase "so help me God" has been removed from the oath required of witnesses? In an age where Christmas displays and the Ten Commandments have been banned from public buildings and public prayer from school sporting events, the attack on the Pledge of Allegiance is but another way station on the road to a post-Christian America.

It wasn't always thus. During the founding era, Americans almost unanimously ascribed their success, first in winning independence from the British, and then in creating a constitutional republic, to divine intervention. The founding generation regarded God both as involved in the affairs of the American republic and as the supreme Source of authority to whom all governments must defer.

Source of Rights

If ever there were a first principle of political thought, a bedrock premise on which all other political, legal, and social reasoning should be founded, it is that God is the Source of all rights. As with the physical creation, so with the spiritual and the moral: God is the final cause and origin of all things pertaining to man. As the Declaration of Independence states so emphatically, He endows men with "certain unalienable Rights," among which are "Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness."

The consequences of this single, ultimate fact, that rights come from God and not from any earthly source, are far-reaching. The great French political theorist Frederic Bastiat pointed out in The Law that "each of us has a natural right -- from God -- to defend his person, his liberty, and his property." From this individual right of self-defense, Bastiat then derived collective rights, observing that "it follows that a group of men have the right to organize and support a common force to protect these rights constantly. Thus the principle of collective right -- its reason for existing, its lawfulness -- is based on individual right." Therefore, if we assume that God bestows rights on individuals, we must also acknowledge that the individual is superior to the collective, and therefore to the State -- the "common force" Bastiat spoke of.

As Bastiat indicates, government -- the "common force" -- exists to protect only that which the people have legitimately received from the Almighty: their God-given rights. In the words of the Declaration, "to secure these Rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just Powers from the Consent of the Governed." For example, since God has given to man the right to acquire and to control property "by the sweat of his brow," it follows that properly constituted government must protect that right. But it should not empower man to wrest property from his neighbor, since God has never authorized men to steal from one another. Likewise, government must protect the individual's right to defend himself, but it may not, without violating the laws of God, commit murder or authorize its citizens to do so. And certainly no legitimate government can prohibit a man from praying or from invoking the name of Deity; of all the privileges vouchsafed by God to his children, the privilege of supplicating the Alm ighty, for aid, for strength, for pardon, or for any other purpose, is surely the most important. Any government placing barriers between man and God by forbidding him to pray in public places is no better than Nebuchadnezzar's Babylon, which prohibited worshipping the God of Israel and required men instead to bow down to the golden idol of the State.

Another consequence of the doctrine that God is the author of rights is that individuals are primarily amenable to God, not the State, for their conduct. In the words of James Madison, "before any man can be considered as a member of Civil Society, he must be considered as a subject of the Governour of the Universe." For this reason, limited republican government under God depends crucially on its citizenry 's moral and religious conduct. George Washington observed, in his Farewell Address, that "of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports." Samuel Adams warned that "neither the wisest constitution nor the wisest laws will secure the liberty and happiness of a people whose manners are universally corrupt." And John Adams stressed that "our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other." It is simply impossible to imagine a limited, enduring republic without God and without morality, since, as English statesman Edmund Burke, a contemporary of the Founders, so trenchantly observed, "society cannot exist unless a controlling power upon the will and appetite be placed somewhere, and the less of it there is within, the more there must be without. It is ordained in the eternal constitution of things, that men of intemperate minds cannot be free. Their passions forge their fetters."

Republican governments under God, then, are the truest champions of liberty. God, the source of all of man's attributes, obviously has created us with varied and unequal endowments of talents. Under conditions of liberty, men and women of equal God-given rights deploy their diverse and unequal God-given skills to create a society where every individual benefits from the talents of others.

Government Without God

When God is removed from the calculus of government, all of these attributes of God-given liberty are turned on their heads. It was the French Revolution, that grotesque parody of the American founding, which first enshrined the heresy that rights are transmitted to the individual, not by God, but by the Almighty Collective or "general will." According to the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen, the counterfeit of our glorious Declaration of Independence, all sovereignty (i.e., power) resides "essentially in the nation. No group, no individual may exercise authority not emanating expressly therefrom." The French sansculottes, in substituting for God the will of the majority, completely inverted the relationship of individual to state. Government, which they believed to have originated by majoritarian consent, conferred rights on individuals, reserving to itself the power to revise or retract them any time it chose.

From this distorted premise flow distorted ideas, which have been responsible for much of man's suffering at the hands of the State. For if there is no God, then the State must reign supreme, and all must obey its edicts. Morality then becomes mere obedience to man-made, positive law, and subject to change at the whims of rulers. Instead of equality under the law, egalitarianism -- the radical urge to suppress and level individual achievement -- becomes the order of the day. Among the clamoring interest groups that replace individuals as the fundamental political units, strength depends on conformity to mass standards rather than on independent thought and action. Moreover, since individuals are no longer the crucial building blocks on which government depends, personal virtue and self-discipline are no longer needed. Such government does not have liberty as its goal, but seeks instead to exercise raw force. It must therefore he freed from all moral, legal, and religious restraints to achieve its full destruc tive potential.

These two great polarities are completely irreconcilable. Either men will serve God, and frame government to protect God-given rights, thereby maximizing human liberty, or they will serve the exalted State, the most powerful agency man can create when left to his own devices. Only a State acknowledging God as an authority superior to itself will resist the tidal pull of tyranny.

Church and State

But then what of the Founders' insistence, in the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, on Congress making "no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof"? Doesn't this mean that a "wall of separation between church and state," in Jefferson's famous phrase, should be erected at every level of government?

First, there is an important distinction between a "church" or an "established religion," on one hand, and "religion" in general on the other. The phrase "established religion" referred in the Founders' day to an official or state religion such as the Church of England. Both the Founders and the English jurist William Blackstone, whose writings on English law were widely read by the Founders, often used such terminology. Blackstone, in his Commentaries on the Laws of England, wrote of England's established church:

If ... men quarrel with the ecclesiastical establishment, the civil magistrate has nothing to do with it.... [But the civil magistrate] is bound to protect the established church.... For, if every sect were to be indulged in a free communion of civil employments, the idea of a national establishment would at once be destroyed, and the episcopal church would no longer be the church of England. [Emphasis added.]

The First Amendment, then, prohibits not the public exercise of faith but the establishment by law of a particular sect as the official national religion. The Founders had no intention of banishing Christianity in general from the halls of government; they saw their country and the government they had founded as essentially Christian. According to Joseph Story, a Supreme Court justice appointed by President Monroe and arguably the foremost legal and constitutional scholar of his generation:

[A]t the time of the adoption of the Constitution, and of the [First Amendment], the general, if not the universal sentiment was, that Christianity ought to receive encouragement from the state, so far as was not incompatible with the private rights of conscience and the freedom of religious worship. An attempt to level all religions, and to make it a matter of state policy to hold all in utter indifference, would have created universal disapprobation, if not universal indignation.

Contrary to what many assume, the First Amendment's "establishment clause" was intended to protect religion from the government, and not the reverse. As Madison put it, "because Religion be exempt from the authority of the Society at large, still less can it be subject to that of the Legislative Body. The latter are but creatures and viceregents of the former.... The preservation of a free Government requires not merely, that the metes and bounds which separate each department of power be invariably maintained; but more especially that neither of them be suffered to overleap the great Barrier which defends the rights of the people."

The Founders intended the "establishment clause," like the rest of the First Amendment and much of the rest of the Bill of Rights, to apply only to the federal and not to state governments. For this reason, the Founders used the words "Congress shall make no law...." (Several state governments at the time of the Founding did in fact have "established" churches.) While many of the Founders might have disagreed in principle with this circumstance, they believed that the overarching principle of federalism -- of limiting the federal government to certain constitutionally enumerated powers and leaving the rest up to the states and to the people -- was more important still. Almost a century after the founding, the 44th Congress in 1876 considered adding a constitutional amendment that would prohibit the states from having any "established religion." However, even in the turbulent post-Civil war period, when many Americans had come to view states' rights as hostile to the Lincolnian dogma of union at any cost, most members of Congress still understood the principle of federalism relative to religion. New York's Senator Kernan, citing the proposed amendment, said:

"No State shall make any law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; and no religious test shall ever be required as a qualification to any office or public trust under any State." That provision has my most hearty commendation; but for all that it is not necessary to put it in the Federal Constitution. That matter was discussed in the convention that made the Constitution, and it was not thought wise to put in any such provision, but to leave it to the States.... There is a provision in the constitution of [New Hampshire] that no one can be elected governor unless he is of the Protestant religion, and so as to members of the Legislature of the State. But I am willing to trust that to the people of that State, believing that very soon in this age of ours and in this country of ours they will adopt the liberal provisions which are found in the constitutions of the other States on the subject of the sacred rights of conscience.

Senator Bogy of Missouri, during the same period, observed:

And among the most sacred of these rights, lying at the very foundation of all liberty, was that of freedom of conscience and the right to worship God according to the dictates of each one's individual conviction. That was left to the States, and was not placed ... under the control of the Federal Government. The attempt here to exercise this power takes from the States that right and gives it to the Federal Government.

For over a hundred years after America's founding, no one questioned the intent of the "establishment clause" nor the notion that, while America recognized no official religion, the United States and her form of government were fundamentally Christian, enshrining Christian values in her legal code and recognizing the Judeo-Christian God as the supreme authority over the affairs of men.

Secularizing the State

Unfortunately, with the advance of militant secularism in the 20th century, the government in general and the Supreme Court in particular began looking for ways to exclude religion from the public domain altogether. They began using as the flimsiest of pretexts for their attacks on religion both the First Amendment and the Fourteenth Amendment -- the latter having been passed after the Civil War, to guarantee that no state could "deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws." The Fourteenth Amendment was intended to protect citizens' rights to due process -- that is, the "fight to be tried by independent and unprejudiced courts using established procedures and applying valid pre-existing laws," as former Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black defined the term. It also required the states to give all persons equal protection under the laws. Neither of these passages are remotely connected with the establi shment of state religion, but by 1940, the Supreme Court could assert, in Cantwell v. Connecticut, that "the fundamental concept of liberty embodied in the Fourteenth Amendment embraces the liberties guaranteed by the First Amendment. The First Amendment declares that Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the exercise thereof. The Fourteenth Amendment has rendered the legislatures of the states as incompetent as Congress to enact such laws." Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter blithely claimed in 1948 that "we are all agreed that the First and the Fourteenth Amendments have a secular reach far more penetrating in the conduct of Government than merely to forbid an 'established church.'"

Following such pronouncements, the floodgates opened. In 1962, the Supreme Court, in Engel v. Vitale, inexplicably discovered a constitutional prohibition on prayer in public schools. From that day to this, America has been barraged with court decisions similar in tone to Engel, effectively exiling Christian culture, morality, and symbolism from public life. We've seen court decrees banning prayer at school athletic events, mandating the removal of creches and Christmas decorations from government property, and ordering displays of the Ten Commandments in courtrooms to be taken down. At the same time, the courts have protected the alleged rights of the vilest of pornographers, abortionists, and political subversives to ply their nefarious trades. In effect, the government is not driving religion per se out of government, but merely replacing Judeo-Christian values with the humanistic doctrine of exalted, amoral Man.

So-called modern man fancies himself unique in his secular, humanistic worldview, but in truth he is merely an ugly historical anomaly. Throughout most of human history, progress has been driven primarily by religion, by man's desire to glorify the Almighty. All of the advances in limited government that prepared the way for the American founding came about as men in the various European nations groped for ways to configure government so as to please God and to agree with the God-given constraints of natural law. The mightiest works of art and architecture, from the towering Gothic cathedrals of the high Middle Ages to the soaring music of Bach and Handel, were all the products of men seeking to glorify God by fulfilling the highest human impulses. The same could be said of most of the greatest inventors and scientists, at least until fairly recently. There are few historical precedents of a people so obsessed with themselves that they permit their government to decapitate their culture by removing religion from all but the most private domains.

Michael Newdow, with his incoherent claims of constitutional support for his crusade against the Pledge of Allegiance, is only the latest anti-religious extremist granted a hearing by the modern American secularist establishment. His ludicrous claims -- that "it's my parental right to keep the government off my child" (even as he insists on allowing the government to educate his child in public school), and that "the Constitution says that the government isn't supposed to be infusing religion into our society" -- don't deserve to be dignified by further comment here.

But unfortunately, many Americans now believe, at least in part, the outrageous fallacies and distortions about religion and government foisted on them by the media and public schools, and dutifully retailed by the likes of Newdow. We are, tragically, well on our way to becoming a post-Christian civilization.

America, however, cannot deny God's supremacy and remain free. To drift away from our Christian moorings is to chart a course into bondage, both spiritual and political. The French Revolutionaries and others of their ilk began by erecting secular, even anti-Christian states glorifying Man, and ended up enslaving themselves under mob rule , guided and harnessed by tyrants and demagogues. For us there can be no middle ground; we either mimic the mistakes of those who turned their backs on their Creator, or keep both ourselves and our government subservient to the supreme Law-giver, remaining, as our Founders hoped, one nation under God.
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Author:Bonta, Steve
Publication:The New American
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jul 29, 2002
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