A critical issue faces our nation today: Is the Constitution of our country divinely inspired and thus worthy of our vigorous defense, or instead, is it a secular document in need of drastic overhaul to comply with current societal trends? This raises the preliminary question, “Did the Founding Fathers coincidentally and conveniently appear on the scene at the same time, or were they raised up by God to establish a nation and Constitution inspired by Him?”
Unfortunately, it has become academically in vogue to denigrate many of our Founding Fathers. Undoubtedly, they had imperfections, as do all men, but nonetheless, they were chosen instruments in God’s hands. God had the eternal perspective to see beyond their weaknesses, and instead, capitalize on their integrity and incredible strengths. He could see the masterpiece behind the few flawed strokes. God, himself addressed this subject: “And for this purpose have I established the Constitution of this land, by the hands of wise men whom I raised up unto this very purpose” (D&C 101:80).
In 1877 the Founding Fathers appeared to Wilford Woodruff in the St. George Temple and declared that they had laid the foundation of this government and “were true to it and were faithful to God.” They then requested that their temple work be done.
Some years later in a general conference of the Church, Wilford Woodruff testified:“ I am going to bear my testimony … that those men who laid the foundation of this American government and signed the Declaration of Independence were the best spirits the God of heaven could find on the face of the earth. They were choice spirits, not wicked men. General Washington and all the men that labored for the purpose were inspired of the Lord.”
God sent these men forth at a specified time and place to fulfill their divinely appointed mission. And what was that mission? It was to form a government that would establish our God-given rights, including freedom of speech and religion, so we would become a nation under God, not a nation without God.
The Declaration of Independence sets forth our God-given rights. But in and of itself this Declaration was not sufficient. We needed a document that would not just define these rights but also protect them—hence the Constitution.
Joseph Smith loved the Constitution. He said, “I am the greatest advocate of the Constitution of the U.S. there is on the earth.” President Ezra Taft Benson bore his testimony of its divine nature: “I reverence the Constitution of the United States as a sacred document. To me the words are akin to the revelations of God, for God has placed His stamp of approval on the Constitution of the land.” No wonder President David O. McKay instructed us as members of the Church: “Next to being one in worshipping God, there is nothing in this world, upon which the Church should be more united then in upholding and defending the Constitution of the United States.” Is there any question how the prophets of this Church felt and do feel about the Constitution?
James Madison, the Father of the Constitution understood that God’s hand was in such a document: “It is impossible for the man of pious reflection not to perceive in it a finger of that Almighty hand which has been so frequently and signally extended to our relief in the critical stages of the revolution.”
Because the Constitution was inspired by the Almighty, it was not just a patchwork of ideas from other nation’s charter documents. James Madison spoke of the uniqueness of this document in the entirety of history: “[The Founding Fathers] reared the fabrics of government which have no model on the face of the globe.”
Who then were these Founding Fathers that produced such a remarkable document? Were they heroes or, as some claim, villains? Ted Stewart, a federal judge and author, put this question in its proper light:
Today, it is common to criticize the founders of America. Judging them by today’s standards of equality and justice they do fail. Some owned slaves, none fought to give women equal rights. Most were wealthy white men. Yes, judging the founders by today’s standards of equality and justice they fail. But there is just one problem with judging them by today’s standards and it is this: but for those imperfect founders and the sacrifices that they made and the instruments of government which they created, there would be no current, enlightened standards of equality and justice by which to judge them.
Judge Stewart is so right. The reason the critics can freely criticize, protest, vote for change, run for office, and exercise freedom of religion or irreligion as they choose is for one reason and one reason only—because the Founding Fathers made it so. We are part of the greatest democracy the world has ever known.
If unwilling to acknowledge the Founding Fathers’ inspired and timely experiment, one must wonder, “Do the critics believe our liberties came about by chance or that they were spawned by evil men?” If so, how do they reconcile such a position with the unerring logic of the Savior, who said, “A good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit, neither can a corrupt tree bring forth good fruit.” It seems somewhat hypocritical to partake of and enjoy the good fruits of liberty today while at the same time criticizing the very tree that produced such fruit—namely, the Founding Fathers.
Some might argue that even without our Founding Fathers, our democracy would have eventually evolved, and therefore they did nothing special. But history would not be kind to such a proposition. At the time of our Founders’ noble experiment, there was nothing like it in the world. For centuries, even millennia of recorded history, there was no comparable democracy that had the breadth of liberties and lasting power of what they created. Theirs was a bold and ingenious initiative, from which many other countries would subsequently pattern their governments. If nothing else, the burden of proof has shifted to the critics—that the Founders established our democracy is a certainty—that there would have been a similar democracy without them, as claimed by some naysayers, is no more than a speculative possibility without any historical precedent whatsoever.
As inspired as the Constitution is, the Founding Fathers repeatedly declared that it could not exist as a viable document unless first and foremost there existed a moral people. But who determines what is moral—a professor, a politician, a judge, a social activist, the so-called enlightened elite? So there would be no question about the answer, the Founding Fathers responded in remarkable unison and clarity—morality was to be determined solely by the will of God.
Thomas Jefferson wrote: “Whatever is to be our destiny, wisdom, as well as duty, dictates that we should acquiesce in the will of Him whose it is to give and take away.” He then added that “[Jesus’s moral laws are] the most sublime and benevolent code of morals which has ever been offered to man.” George Washington concurred: “It is the duty of all Nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey his will.”
As a result, the Founding Fathers understood the critical nexus between morality and religion. John Adams observed and warned: “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious People. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” Washington was in full accord: “Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports.”
Why the Founding Fathers’ reference to religion as well as morals? Because they knew that religion was the best catalyst for fostering a moral people. They knew that religion was the prime source to inspire people to embrace and live God’s will. Perhaps Alexander Hamilton stated it most succinctly when he said: “Morality must fall without religion.”
Some years ago, Harvard professor Clayton Christensen had a profoundly insightful conversation with a Marxist economist from China who was in Boston on a Fulbright Scholarship. He asked him if he had learned anything that was surprising or unexpected while in the U.S. Without hesitation he replied, “Yes, I had no idea how critical religion is to the functioning of democracy … democracy works because most people, most of the time, voluntarily choose to obey the law.”
He then added that “Americans followed [the] rules because they had come to believe that they weren’t just accountable to society, they were accountable to God.”
Professor Christensen then expressed concern over what would happen to our democracy if religion were diminished in America and people no longer voluntarily chose to obey the law. He then offered this tragic conclusion, “if you take away religion, you cannot hire enough police.” The Founding Fathers understood this principle—the more the morality and religion, the less the need for government intervention and compulsory enforcement, and thus the greater our liberties.
If God’s moral law and religion are not the foundation for our society, then secularism, meaning moral relativism, will rapidly and radically replace the void, and our Constitution will be effectively nullified. Since religion is indeed the best vehicle to encourage the living of God’s moral laws, the Founding Fathers demonstrated by their words and actions that religion in general should be encouraged in the public as well as private sector without ever establishing a national religion—evidenced by the following:
First: Religion in Public Education. The Northwest Ordinance, which regulated the western expansion of the United States, was ratified in 1789 by the same Congress that adopted the Constitution. It stated, “Religion, morality, and knowledge being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education, shall forever be encouraged.” Benjamin Rush, a Founding Father wrote: “The only foundation for a useful education in a republic is to be laid in Religion.” And Gouverneur Morris, another Founding Father penned: “Religion is the only solid basis of good morals; therefore education should teach the precepts of religion and the duties of man towards God.”
Yet how far afield we have strayed from the Founding Fathers’ original understanding of what an education should be based upon—namely, morality and religion.
Second: Religion in Government. John Jay, a Founding Father and first chief justice of the Supreme Court, noted, “[It is] the duty of all wise, free, and virtuous governments to countenance and encourage virtue and religion.” Joseph Story, a Harvard law professor and member of the U.S. Supreme Court from 1812-1845, wrote the famous Commentaries on the Constitution of the United States. In doing so he came to the following conclusion: “It yet remains a problem to be solved in human affairs, whether any free government can be permanent, where the public worship of God, and the support of religion, constitute no part of the policy or duty of the state in any assignable shape.”
Third: Religion in Public Monuments. Numerous public monuments, sanctioned and paid for by the government, make reference to God. For example, Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, engraved on the wall of the Lincoln Memorial, mentions God fourteen times and references the Bible four times. Does that sound like a government that wanted to remove references to God and the Bible from the public domain?
Fourth: Religious Prayer in the Public Sector. Prayer has been the focus of presidential prayer breakfasts and the traditional beginning of each U. S. Congressional session offered by a paid clergyman, initiated and sanctioned by whom?—the Founding Fathers.
Fifth: Religion in Government pronouncements and activities. Our currency contains the words “In God We Trust.” Our national anthem makes reference to God. Our pledge of allegiance acknowledges that we are “one nation under God.” All of these evidence government’s encouragement of religion in the public sector.
Sixth: Religion as practiced by Thomas Jefferson in the Public Sector. Thomas Jefferson is often quoted by the secularists for his statement about a “wall of separation between Church and State”—a statement often taken out of context. Jefferson was responding to a letter from the Danbury Baptists, who were concerned that the “free exercise of religion” clause might be interpreted as a government-granted right (and thus subject to man’s change or compromise) rather than a God-given right that could not be rightfully changed or compromised by man under any circumstance.
Based on this concern, Jefferson replied that the free exercise of religion clause was a restoration of man’s “natural rights”—meaning, a right that preexisted government, namely, a God-given right. Accordingly, Jefferson assured the concerned Baptists that there was a wall preventing government from intruding into the free expression of religion, but likewise a wall that prevented the establishment of a national religion. In other words, government was not to prohibit the free exercise of religion in the public sector with one exception—there was to be no establishment of a national religion. This is the exact opposite of how many have interpreted the phrase.
Furthermore, if actions speak louder than words, then Jefferson’s actions should evidence his true opinion on the role of religion in the public sector. In his second inaugural address, he invited the audience to “join with [him] in supplications [to God]” for the nation’s well-being. Was this not encouragement of prayer—a practice at the heart of religion, made from the nation’s preeminent public pulpit? And why did he, along with Franklin, if they were opposed to the expression of religion in public, propose a national seal with these words: “God, or Providence, has favored our undertakings,” knowing that such seal would become a public symbol? In addition, Jefferson, as well as James Madison, attended church services—where of all places?—in the Capitol building—one of the most visible of government buildings. If this were not enough to evidence Jefferson’s feelings about the interdependency between religion and government, Jefferson authorized federal funds for Christian missionaries to preach the gospel to native Americans.
These actions clearly condoned religious worship in public settings and the use of government money for religious purposes. Nonetheless, the courts have quoted Jefferson’s one-off phrase out of context in order to prohibit religious instruction, prayers and reading of the Bible in schools, to remove displays of the Ten Commandments from public buildings, and to outlaw public displays of a Christmas créche.
No wonder Supreme Court Justice William Rehnquist opined: “The ‘wall of separation between church and state’ is a metaphor based on bad history, a metaphor which has proved useless as a guide to judging. It should be frankly and explicitly abandoned.”
Our nation’s history is saturated with references to God because His influence has been profound in the discovery, establishment, and preservation of this country. Accordingly, we pay tribute to God through the presence of religious symbols and practices in both private and public places. It is nothing less than historical fiction to think that our government did not support and encourage religion for our nation’s first 200 years. The initial intent of the Founding Fathers was clear—to promote and encourage religion in both the private and public sectors, and by so doing, reinforce the moral principles upon which our nation was built, but at the same time never establish a national religion.
Our Founding Fathers would be shocked to hear some advocate that religion should be expressed only in the confines of one’s home or the seclusion of a private chapel—that it should be non-existent in the public domain. Religion to them was the prime source for reinforcing the moral values essential to the ongoing viability of the Constitution. They knew that without religion and morality the Constitution could not endure.
I love our Constitution and its inspired principles. God’s fingerprints are everywhere to be found within its confines. President Dallin H. Oaks confirmed its divine origin: “The Constitution of the U.S. is inspired. Through embracing its principles … we can continue to face the future with faith as one nation under God.”
Despite the overwhelming evidence that the Constitution is an inspired document, Joseph Smith prophesied that it would one day hang by a thread. I wondered for a time if this prophecy was adequately documented. But I now know that this language or similar language was substantiated by Brigham Young, John Taylor, Jedediah M. Grant, Eliza R. Snow and others. President Ezra Taft Benson spoke of this prophecy and how the Constitution would be saved in the last days: “It will be saved by the citizens of this nation who love and cherish freedom. It will be saved by enlightened members of this Church—men and women who will subscribe to and abide the principles of the Constitution.” Hopefully this includes reference to you and me.