The Theology of the United States

Liberals believe that the American principle of religious liberty requires not only the separation of church and state, but also the separation of religion from politics. They argue that a prohibited “establishment of religion” exists whenever government promotes religion at all.

Some conservatives agree that government should be neutral on the matter of religion. Neutrality is hardly served, they point out, by excluding religious expression from the public square while allowing non-religious and anti-religious expression. Other conservatives say that government may support religion, as long as it supports “religion in general,” not any particular faith or denomination.

All of these current views of religious liberty are opposed to the approach of the American Founders. Jefferson, Washington, and Adams would have gladly endorsed this prayer, clearly inspired by the Bible, delivered by a Jewish rabbi at a Rhode Island high school graduation. It was outlawed by the Supreme Court in 1992:

God of the Free, Hope of the Brave. . . . For the liberty of America, we thank you. May these graduates grow up to guard it. . . . We must each strive to fulfill what you require of us all: To do justly, to love mercy, to walk humbly.

Conservatives often believe they are defending the original understanding of religious liberty when they argue that government may aid religion, as long as it does so nonpreferentially. They seem not to realize the pitfalls of this approach.

If government sponsors prayers of the sort just quoted, evenhandedness requires that graduating girls also be given the opportunity to pray to “Our Sweet Sophia.” At the 1993 “Re-Imaging” conference co-sponsored by the Episcopal Church of the United States, these words were addressed to that goddess: “we are women in your image. With the nectar of our thighs, we invited a lover. . . . With our warm body fluids we remind the world of its pleasures and sensations.”

Even the bloodthirsty gods of the Aztecs would have to be invoked at least occasionally by a resolutely nonpreferentialist government.

These conservative and liberal views of religious freedom would have been rejected with laughter, or anger, by America’s founding generation.

Washington and Jefferson

In his letter to the Hebrew Congregation at Newport, Rhode Island, Washington called the free exercise of religion an “inherent natural right.” But that right means only that government may not molest or injure anyone for holding religious views different from the ones it wishes to promote. It does not mean that government must hold its tongue on all theological or religious matters.

Therefore Washington concluded his letter to the Hebrews with a prayer affirming belief in an afterlife: “May the Father of all mercies scatter light and not darkness in our paths, and make us all in our several vocations useful here and, in His own due time and way, everlastingly happy.”

The First Amendment requires a separation between church and state: there must be no denomination or sects designated as the official religion of the country and supported at taxpayer expense. But the Amendment does not require a separation between God or religion and state. How could it, when the Declaration of Independence declares that God is the source of the rights that government is bound to secure and protect? Without the Declaration’s “laws of nature and of nature’s God,” America would be wandering in the dark.

Consider Jefferson, who is often thought to agree with today’s liberal view of religious liberty. He issued a number of public prayers in his official capacity as president. In his famous letter to the Baptists of Danbury, Connecticut, he wrote that the First Amendment builds “a wall of separation between Church and State.”

This letter has been used for fifty years to denounce any presence of religion in American public life, especially government-sponsored prayer. Yet the letter itself concludes with a government-sponsored prayer: “I reciprocate your kind prayers for the protection and blessing of the common Father and Creator of man.” Jefferson, of course, composed this prayer on government time at taxpayers’ expense, and he delivered it in his official capacity as president. If today’s view of religious liberty were correct, Jefferson would have breached the wall of separation at the very moment he proclaimed it.

Founding Theology

The Declaration of Independence is a striking example of government promotion of a particular theology. The Declaration contains four distinct references to God. He is the author of the “laws of nature and of nature’s God.” He is the “Creator” who “endowed” us with our inalienable rights. He is “the Supreme Judge of the world.” And he provides “the protection of Divine Providence.”

The Supreme Court has ruled that government may not “teach or practice religion.” It may not exert “subtle coercive pressure” on students by prayers or religious instruction. If the Declaration were taught in a public school as the truth, the teacher would “teach religion.” She would be exercising “subtle coercive pressure” on students. She would be teaching them that God is our lawgiver, creator, judge, and providential protector. By the logic of the Court’s view of religious liberty, teaching the Declaration of Independence in public school is an unconstitutional establishment of religion.

Of course, teaching the Declaration has not been declared unconstitutional, but that is only because the Court has been unwilling to admit the logical consequences of its view of “establishment.” To avoid the public outrage that would follow if the Declaration were banned from the classroom, the Court falsely assumes that that document is not really religious. Reading the Declaration in school, asserted Justice Brennan, “no longer ha[s] a religious purpose or meaning. The reference to divinity in the revised pledge of allegiance, for example, may merely recognize the historical fact that our nation was believed to have been founded ‘under God.'”

In other words, the Supreme Court will allow the theology of the Declaration to be taught in the classroom as long as it is understood that it belongs to a world that is dead and gone, that it has nothing to do with the world that we live in here and now, that it is not a living faith that holds God to be the source of our rights, the author of the laws of nature, and the protector and Supreme Judge of America.

The Great Seal

The Great Seal of the United States is the most obvious example of the Founders’ conviction that the government should “teach religion.” The Seal was adopted in 1782 and reaffirmed by Congress many times afterwards. It is printed today on the dollar bill. The pyramid side of the Seal is a memorable representation of the theology of the Declaration of Independence. This fact is not widely recognized, in part because so many people believe that the symbols of the pyramid and eye are Masonic in origin.

The definitive history of the Seal—Patterson and Dougall’s The Eagle and the Shield,—finds no evidence to support the claim of its Masonic inspiration or meaning. As far as we know, none of the Seal’s designers were Masons. Although founding-era Masons did use the eye to represent God (but not in a triangle), Patterson and Dougall report that this ancient symbolism was well established outside of Masonic circles.

This concern over the Great Seal’s Masonic origins has distracted us from the most obvious and reliable way to understand its meaning—by observation and reflection. Of particular help is the report of the Seal’s co-designer, Charles Thomson, a document that is part of the 1782 law officially approving the Seal.

The reverse side of the Great Seal consists of two parts: a heavenly eye and an earthly pyramid. Each part is labeled with a Latin motto.

In the earthly part, a pyramid rises toward the heavens. Thomson’s report explains that “The pyramid signifies strength and duration.” On the base of the pyramid is the Roman number MDCCLXXVI (1776), the date, as Thomson remarks, of the Declaration of Independence. The pyramid has thirteen rows of bricks, signifying the thirteen original states. (The number of rows is not specified in the law, but there are thirteen in co-designer William Barton’s original drawing, and on the 1778 fifty-dollar bill from which the pyramid idea was originally taken.) The pyramid is the United States, a solid structure of freedom, built on the foundation of the Declaration. It is unfinished because America is a work in progress. More states will be added later.

“In the zenith” above the unfinished pyramid, the 1782 law calls for “an eye in a triangle, surrounded with a glory.” This design and placement of God’s eye suggests that America is connected to the divine in three ways:

First, the eye keeps watch over America, protecting her from her enemies. Thomson’s report explains: “The eye over it and the motto allude to the many signal interventions of providence in favor of the American cause.” The Declaration of Independence had expressed “a firm reliance on the protection of divine providence.”

Second, the complete triangle enclosing God’s eye is a model for the incomplete or imperfect triangular shape of the pyramid below. The perfect divine shape symbolizes God’s perfection, the divine standard for imperfect human beings. God’s shape, in turn, guides, and governs the construction of the earthly pyramid.

The Declaration says that America, grounded on “the laws of nature and of nature’s God,” seeks to secure the rights with which the Creator endowed all men. The incomplete triangular pyramid, in contrast to the perfect triangle of God, implies that America is a work in progress in a deeper sense than its number of states. No matter how many rows of bricks (new states) are added to the pyramid, America must always look to the Supreme Being as, and at, her “zenith,” to be true to what she is and aspires to be.

Third, the all-seeing eye is not only America’s protector and ruling guide. God is also her judge. This theme is not as obvious as the first two, but it is implied by the motto annuit coeptis, “He approves of what has been started.” These words imply that God will no longer approve if America strays too far from the right path.

In the Declaration, America “appeal[ed] to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions.” Facing the injustice of slavery, Jefferson therefore trembled for his country when he reflected “that God is just, that his justice cannot sleep forever.”

In sum, America is a nation “under God” in three ways. God protects America; God is America’s guide and goal; and America is judged by God.

Virgil on the Dollar

The Seal has two Latin mottoes, one for each of its parts, heavenly and earthly. The mottoes are taken from the great Roman poet Virgil.

The pyramid is labeled novus ordo seclorum, “a new order of the ages.” Thomson’s report explains, “the words under it signify the beginning of the New American Era, which commences from that date [1776].”

The phrase is a variant of a line in Virgil’s fourth Eclogue: “a great order of the ages is born anew.” This Eclogue describes the return of the golden age, an age of peace and plenty. The change of words is significant. America is a “new order,” not just a “great order.” Virgil’s golden age has come before and will come again, but nothing like the American founding has ever happened.

The words over the eye, annuit coeptis, are taken from Virgil’s Aeneid, where Aeneas leads a remnant of men from conquered Troy over the sea to a land far to the west. After they arrive in Italy, the natives mount a ferocious attack against them. In the midst of the battle, Aeneas’s son Ascanius prays to Jupiter to “nod in assent to the daring things that have been started.” Jupiter hears the prayer; Ascanius shoots, and his arrow pierces the enemy’s head. That victory enables the small band of Trojan warriors to stay in Italy. They will eventually become Rome, the greatest empire in world history.

The two mottoes point to the founding of Rome and the golden age. Taken together they suggest that America, with divine approval and support, will become a New Rome, combining the glory of the old Rome with the freedom, prosperity, and peace of the golden age. America’s foundation, like Rome’s, had to be laid in violence.

But unlike Rome, the new order will not grow to greatness through warfare and conquest, but through the arts of peace. (On the front of the Seal, the eagle’s head is pointed toward the olive branch in his right talon, not the arrows of war in his left.) As Washington wrote in his letter to the Newport Jews, in America, “everyone shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree and there shall be none to make him afraid.”

The example of the Seal shows us why the Founders’ understanding of religious liberty does not prohibit, but in fact encourages, government promotion of religion. That promotion is necessary because even Jefferson—on the “left wing” of public opinion in the founding era—knew that government cannot afford to be indifferent to the religious convictions of the people:

And can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are of the gift of God? That they are not to be violated but with his wrath?

That means, of course, that the religious convictions promoted by government must accord with “the laws of nature and of nature’s God.” For these divine and natural laws are at once both the ground and goal of America’s greatness.


  • Thomas G. West

    Thomas G. West is Professor of Politics at the University of Dallas.

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