After visiting the United States, G. K. Chesterton asked himself the question, “What makes America peculiar?” He answered it with accustomed perspicacity: “America is the only nation in the world that is founded on a creed. That creed is set forth in the Declaration of Independence . . . It enunciates that all men are equal in their claim to justice, and that governments exist to give them that justice, and that their authority is for that reason just.” According to Mortimer Adler in his book We Hold These Truths, the Declaration is, “in the most profound sense, a preface to the Constitution, more fundamental politically than the Constitution’s own preamble.”
America’s founding creed is stated with sparkling clarity in the second sentence of the Declaration: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” Considered to be the most potent and consequential words in American history, they were reaffirmed by Abraham Lincoln in his Gettysburg Address when he declared that “this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom . . .”
America was founded on the principle that God was the Creator of its citizens and Author of their rights. Therefore, as it has been repeated time and again by presidents and members of the Supreme Court, “America is a religious nation.” The opening session of the Supreme Court begins with the invocation “God save the United States and this honorable Court.” The words “So help me God” have marked every presidential oath since 1789. “In God We Trust” appears on our currency . . . and who could forget the sight of Members of Congress singing “God Bless America” in front of the Capitol building on 9/11?
But is America still a religious nation? The word “equal” as it appears in the Declaration refers to the equality of “all men” as human beings as well as to their equal entitlement to justice. But it does not refer to equality of philosophy or equality of opinion. Unfortunately, American liberalism now embraces religion and non-religion as equal values. This is an error of considerable magnitude, for as we can see, it displaces America as a religious nation whose laws embody its founding creed. As John L. McDermott, J.D., author of the book How American Law Lost God (2012) has observed, “In less than 150 years, America has taken an erroneous journey from a system of laws based on Christian principles and the natural law to morally vacuous law based upon legal positivism/relativism.”
In Torcaso v. Watkins (1961), the Supreme Court specifically listed “Secular Humanism” as a religious viewpoint. Writing for the majority, Justice Hugo L. Black declared that “Neither a state nor the Federal Court . . . can aid those religions based on a belief in the existence of God as against those religions founded on different beliefs.” In footnote 11, Black clarified what he meant by religions based on different beliefs: He identified “Secular Humanism,” which does not acknowledge God, as a religion.
In 1965, the Supreme Court held that non-theistic viewpoints can qualify as religious as long as they “occupy the same place in [a person’s] life as the belief in a traditional deity holds” (United States v. Seeger). In a similar ruling a few years later, the Court held that a non-theistic viewpoint can be regarded as religious if it occupies “a place parallel to that filled by God in traditional religious persons” (Welsh v. United States, 1970). By 2005, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals could affirm that “The Supreme Court has recognized atheism as equivalent to a ‘religion’ for purposes of the First Amendment on numerous occasions . . .” (Kaufman v. McCaughtry).
Nonetheless, theism and atheism are not equal, neither politically nor philosophically. Theism refers to a being that is believed to be real, a view supported by Aristotle down through a long line of eminent thinkers and, in general, by the majority of people in all cultures throughout history. Atheism, as the word indicates, is a negation, the absence of any belief in God, the view that God is not real. There can be no proof, however, for the non-existence of God. Atheism is a privation. Therefore, it cannot be considered equal to something that is not a privation. Blindness is not equal to sightedness even though they both pertain to the eye. “Light and darkness have nothing in common,” to quote St. Paul.
An insidious problem arises when a privation is identified with its correlative perfection; the two do not reside peacefully side-by-side. The privation attempts to overcome the perfection. For example, atheists often classify theists as “closed-minded” or “superstitious.” Sigmund Freud held that religion is a neurosis. Karl Marx called it “the opium of the people.” Members of the LGBTQ group routinely vilify heterosexuals as “homophobic.” Pro-abortionists castigate those who defend life in most derogatory terms. The sexually promiscuous often deride chaste people as “uptight,” “Victorian,” “prudish,” or worse. Some theater owners have received death threats for showing the movie Unplanned. The late journalist Charles Krauthammer referred to this phenomenon as “defining deficiency up.” It is more like granting deviancy undue power.
At the August 2020 Democratic Convention, two caucuses began with the Pledge of Allegiance, but it was recited without the words “under God.” Many hailed the omission with approval and applause. A religious, Sister Simone Campbell, led a prayer invoking “a Divine Spirit.” It seems that “under God” is problematic because it refers to a God who is protective, sovereign, and providential. The liberal temper of today’s Democratic Party eschews dependence on a Supreme Being. But without God, there is no American creed, and without her creed America would not be America. In the words of John Adams, the country’s second president: “Our constitution was designed only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate for the government of any other.”
In a column entitled “One Nation ‘under God’? More and more Americans don’t think so” (Washington Post, August 24, 2020), journalist Charles Lane contends that “one of the most consequential cultural changes of our time may be the swift and seemingly accelerating decline of religious commitment.” An October 2019 Pew Research Center report, he notes, showed that the percentage of Americans claiming to have no religious affiliation “had grown from 16 percent to 26 percent since 2007. Fewer than half of Americans now attend services regularly—with only 35 percent of millennials going at least once a month.”
Lane cites the work of political scientist Ronald F. Inglehart, who, he writes, “suggests the United States is now rapidly catching up with the trend toward secularization that exists elsewhere in the world . . . Increasingly, the two political parties are not characterized by their respective predominant religious groups but by whether their adherents belong to any religion at all.” A recent poll indicated that 38 percent of Democrats say they regularly attend services whereas the figure for Republicans is 54 percent. However, Lane continues, Inglehart does offer some hope for a resurgence in religious observance, which could happen if “the pandemic and associated hardships lead people to rediscover solace from God.” The fundamental need to find meaning still exists in the human soul and may be awakened when material comforts are in decreasingly short supply.
Still, the searing divisions concerning matters of morality in contemporary America—sex, pornography, marriage, abortion, euthanasia—are clear signs that the notion of unity under God continues to be a matter of contention. David McCullough, a two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize as well as the National Book Award, has remarked that “we need history as much as we need bread or water or love.” His point is worth pondering. We, as a nation, have sorely underestimated the wisdom of our forebears as we have strayed from the moral and religious principles on which America was founded—under the providential care of God. We would do well to reflect on the words of William H. Marnell, who in his book The Good Life of Western Man (1971) makes the following tribute to the American Founding Fathers: “It may be soberly questioned if any nation in history has ever had at one time the dedicated and unselfish service the incipient United States was given by Washington, Franklin, Adams, Jefferson, Madison, Jay, Hamilton, and the rest.”