In his excellent book “Founding Faith” Steven Waldman outlines the beliefs of the leaders who brought this great country into being. This book, and others I have studied, tell us what motivated the great patriots. At this time of year, we ought to thank and praise them and understand why ethics and morality are as critical now as at the founding.
Many of the founders were disillusioned with parts of church doctrine, but they also were firm believers in a higher power (God) and His place in human events.
Benjamin Franklin left Boston in part to escape rigid and unforgiving Puritan beliefs. But it was Franklin who wrote, “I have lived, Sir, a long time and the longer I live, the more convincing proof I see of this great truth, that God governs the affairs of men.”
John Adams wrote “We have no government armed with power capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion.”
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James Madison, the founder most influential in drafting the Constitution and Bill of Rights, led the fight for religious freedom at a time when support for state-sponsored church was still undecided. He believed in the place God, not church, should have in the affairs of our government; consider carefully the religious freedom clause in the 1st Amendment, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”
In some ways George Washington was the most enigmatic of the founders as to his beliefs. He was raised in an Anglican family and was a member of the church. However, in all his writings no mention of Jesus or Christianity is found. Instead he spoke of Providence. He believed in an omnipotent and constantly intervening God who seemed to protect the new nation as a whole, and him in particular. He, like the others, considered religion essential to the creation of a democracy. He led the Continental Army to victory in 1783, despite the weak Continental Congress. In his Thanksgiving Proclamation (1789) he said “it is the duty of all nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey His will, to be grateful for all His benefits, and to humbly implore His protection and favor.”
In his farewell address he said “of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports.”
Perhaps no man in history meant more to a glorious cause than he. Without Washington would American independence have succeeded and survived to this day? If the U.S. had failed, what about other nations that follow our example to this day?
So what does this mean to us today?
First, disgust with examples of an overbearing clergy and dogmatic church is not new. The founders complained about it also. But it is important to distinguish between an objectionable church and a deep and profound belief in God.
Second, in order for democracy to flourish, high morals and ethics are essential. How do we acquire these traits? When we are born we are selfish; we want to be fed and held. Morals are not instinctive. They must be learned.
Religion is, and has been for thousands of years, the great teacher. Not any one particular church, although for some there is great benefit in regular attendance. What must guide our nation is belief in the God of our forefathers — belief in a benevolent, uncomplicated faith, in generosity, goodness, ethical truth, kindness, forgiveness and love for our neighbor.
Think about it on Independence Day.
Tom McCreedy, of Eagle, is a retired MK project director, managed design and construction of the Lucky Peak Hydroelectric Plant, and after retirement played a key role in design and construction of the Arrowrock Hydro Plant. He has studied the founders and founding documents extensively.