[Editor’s Note: This is excerpted from the Focus on the Family daily Broadcast, which aired June 30 – July 1.]
As Americans prepare to celebrate the 235th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, David Barton, founder and president of WallBuilders and eminent historian, reflects on the lives of the Founding Fathers and the true spiritual heritage on which this great nation was founded.
1. From your years of studying our nation’s founding documents, what have you learned about our religious heritage?
We, as Americans, are really blessed. … (W)e really do have a very strong religious heritage. I don’t think there’s any discussion or debate about that.
(W)hat I find interesting is the way we now portray our heritage. I’ve recently been appointed in my state to the committee of 15 individuals that oversee the writing of history textbooks for all the students in our state. And as we go back and look over what we had — say 50 years ago — and what we have today/ It’s radically different. One of the things that you’ll see in some textbooks today — not all — they will at least mention the Pilgrims and Puritans, that they were a religious group.
What you will not find, however, (are) things like this: the Mayflower Compact. .. This is the first government document created on this country. First one created right here and what’s significant about it is its content. It’s two paragraphs long — it’s 200 words long — but we haven’t been able to find this in a history textbook in nearly 50 years. Wonder why it’s disappeared? It’s real easy. You know what the Mayflower Compact says? It says those people came here to propagate the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ. That was their goal and that’s what they were going to pursue in America.
Now the problem with that is, we’re talking about a government document here with a lot of evangelical language in it. And most people today are willing to concede that religion’s okay if you keep it in private. Keep at home or keep it at church, but let’s not get in the public market. … (T)herefore, those aspects of our heritage that are religious, and also show public religious expression, we pretty much ignore today.
Most people don’t even realize that for 150 years in America’s history — again after the ratification of the Constitution — the Fourth of July was even considered a religious holiday. If you look at our government proclamations on that day, it was a day when we said, “People of America, we need to stop and thank God Almighty for what He has done in this nation, that He has raised this nation up to propagate the gospel across the world.”
2. It appears then that history has been re-written to some extent. How does this affect us today?
Well, you find that (history) has a great impact on public policy. You see you wouldn’t really want it to appear that someone with the credibility of George Washington might actually endorse public religious expressions. So, what we do is make him into a nonreligious individual.
This affects our policy. … The portrayal of our history affects what we have right now as current public policy. And there’s no question that we have a strong religious heritage in our … in our background, that it’s not just a private religious heritage; it’s a public religious heritage. But there’s no question that our policies no longer reflect that today, just as our textbooks do not. I don’t say that lightly.
I could show you hundreds of cases … but what’s the basis to all these cases? Without exception, they all are built on the … same foundation. They say, “You know, we’re doing this because our history demands it. This is simply our heritage. What we’re doing in this case, this is exactly what our Founding Fathers wanted when they gave us the First Amendment of the Constitution. We’re just following our history.”
This really is the difficulty we have today. We don’t even know our own heritage, particularly in this religious arena.
I speak at public universities across the nation. In the last three years, I’ve had students come to me on a regular basis telling me that in their American History classes, university level, not only are they now taught, but they are now tested that not one single one — not even one of our Founding Fathers — even believed in God; that they were all atheists and agnostics and deists. And you consider what that does for our public policy 15 years from now, when these kids become our local and our state and our federal leaders. I mean there’s no reason they shouldn’t accept this. They’re being taught that. They’re being tested on it.
Now 15 years later, they’re in office and a question of religious expression comes before them. How do you think they’ll rule? “What do you mean, can you have a Nativity scene in public? Of course not. The guys who gave us the Constitution didn’t even believe in God, much less Jesus Christ. No way would they have wanted a Nativity scene in public. And by the way, what in the world are we doing with ‘In God We Trust’ on the money? They never would have wanted that.” And on it goes. And you see, this is how the perception of history affects public policy, so we need to deal with this for just a moment.
3. Who are some of the Founding Fathers that have been omitted from our history books?
(O)f the 56 individuals who signed the Declaration of Independence, 27 had seminary degrees. … That’s fairly impressive. I mean, that’s like saying the U.S. Congress today is made up of half pastors. That’d blow our mind, but that’s the way it was back then. Well, the Rev. Dr. Witherspoon here is responsible for two American translations of the Bible.
Why is it nobody ever hears about Gouverneur Morris today and he’s the guy who penned this thing? Well, when it comes to faith in Jesus Christ, when it comes to public religious expression, religious activities in general, Gouverneur Morris, like so many other[s] of those Founding Fathers, is absolutely politically incorrect.
… (I)n 1789, when the Constitution was ratified, the very next two years consecutively — 1790, 1791— Morris authored two works on the Constitution. You know what he told us? He said, “Religion is the only solid basis of good morals. Therefore, education should teach the precepts of religion and the duties of man toward God.” Now that’s nowhere close to the national policy we have today, but then again, what does he know? He just wrote the Constitution.
This is the irony of not knowing our own heritage, not knowing what was in our background, not knowing what the intent was.
The same way, another Founding Father to have a lot of fun with is this man, James Wilson. … Wilson is the next-to-last man to sign the Constitution. (H)e is the second-most active member of the Constitutional Convention. (He) spoke on the floor of the convention 168 times and so, here he is, the second most active. He signs the Constitution. When George Washington becomes President, he puts James Wilson on the U.S. Supreme Court as an original justice on the Court. So, here he is, one of our leading justices on the Court. And in 1792, he authored America’s very first legal commentaries on the Constitution.
He starts out by saying, “You cannot separate God’s law from civil law. Those two things are inseparable. Human law must rest on that which is divine.” He says, “Far from being rivals or enemies,” he said, “religion and law are twin sisters. They’re friends; they’re mutual assistance. Indeed, these two sides just run into each other.”
That’s a great description of where we are today, a word description, because today, they do run into each other. It’s like a head-on collision.
… Today law and religion are enemies. They don’t get along, but back then, they were like two yoke of oxen, pulling in the same direction, never to be separated.
Another Founding Father I have a lot of fun with, because he speaks to a very contemporary issue is this man, William Samuel Johnson, signer of the Constitution. … Johnson was not only a signer of the Constitution; he was one of America’s leading educators. He’s the first ever president of Colombia College in New York. [It] still exists today. And as a leading Founding Father, as a prominent educator, he was very often asked to address public school graduations.
“Students,” he said (at one graduation), “you this day have received a public education, the purpose whereof has been to qualify you better to serve your Creator and your country. …Now, you are sensible. …Your first duty is you were sensible of those you owe to heaven, to your Creator and to your Redeemer. Let these be ever present to your minds and exemplify it in your lives and conduct.” And for the rest of his oration, he went through specific Bible verse after specific Bible verse. The very next one he used, he said, “Students, we are told in Acts 17:28, that in Him, we live and move and have our being.” He said, “I want you to remember that apart from Jesus Christ, you can do nothing in your life.” And he went that way for verse after verse after verse.
Now I guess it’s unfortunate that somebody didn’t tell him that what he was doing was unconstitutional. I guess he just didn’t realize that. You see, this is the irony. If we did the exact same religious practices of those who gave us the document, today they’d be struck down under that same document, supposedly by their authority.
Now how has this come to be? Well particularly in the last three decades, we’ve really seen that the changes in textbooks, and in the rhetoric, etc. And we’re told basically, that America is a secular nation, created on a secular document by secular people, who wrote that secular document and that’s why it’s to remain secular today. And that’s why we’re not supposed to have this public religious expression.
4. In what other ways did the Founding Fathers influence civil society?
Let’s look at other societies that we have today that we enjoy, other activities, organizations that we, as Christians, participate in. Let’s take Sunday school. Now where did Sunday school get started in America? [In] 1791, they formed the American Sunday School Union, by the signers of our documents. They formed that movement in America. The first-ever president of the American Sunday School Union was Francis Scott Key, the man who authored the “Star Spangled Banner.” For 52 consecutive years, he was president of the American Sunday School Union. His two great loves: America and getting kids in Sunday school to teach them about Jesus Christ.
The American Tract Society, you probably heard of that. That’s one of the leading tract distribution companies in America today. It’s not a new company. The American Tract Society was formed by our Founding Fathers. [As a] matter of fact, I have a number of the original tracts, written by our signers of the Declaration, our signers of the Constitution, for the American Tract Society, for the purpose of evangelization and witnessing. Passing out tracts in America’s nothing new; our Founding Fathers started it.
I can go through society after society after society that we still have today, take you back to the roots and show you the original founders of those societies were these gentlemen right here. [As a] matter of fact, if you just go into their writings, you don’t even have to do the stereotypes. Just start individually getting into their writings.
You see, this is where, when we knew our history, we had totally different national policies.
It’s amazing to see the changes we’ve gone through. And I think that maybe Daniel Webster just really nailed this down solid. Webster, in the speech that he gave when he delivered the speech on the cornerstone at the U.S. Capitol, the addition there, he looked at the cornerstone and he said, “That rock is not the foundation of American civil government.” He said, “This right here is.” He said, “The cultivation of the religious sentiment represses licentiousness.” He said, “This inspires respect for law and order. This gives strength to the whole social fabric.” He said, “The sum of my argument actually is very simple.” He said, “Whatever makes men good Christians, makes them good citizens.”
You see and that’s the truth. The police aren’t having to arrest good Christians for drive-by shootings and armed robbery and gang violence and such. Good Christians make good citizens and that’s what we knew and that’s why we never allowed the separation of those basic principles from society. That’s the whole key to a self-governing nation and self-governing individuals and the key to individual self government is right here and this is … it’s what we knew and recognized for years and year.
5. What can Americans do to reclaim our spiritual heritage?
I think the advice for that is given very well by one of our Founding Fathers. This man is William Paterson. He’s a signer of the Constitution from New Jersey. (He) was also placed on the U.S. Supreme Court by George Washington, (and) had the distinction of still serving on the Court two decades after he had helped author the Constitution.
“The key to maintaining sound government in America is given us by God in His sacred Writ.” Now the interesting thing about this is for the righteous to rule in America, there’s only one way that they get there. This, according to John Jay, America’s the first nation in the history of the world to belong to the people. Now you’ll find that in Exodus 18:21, the Scriptures call for choosing out leaders of tens, leaders of fifties, leaders of hundreds and leaders of thousands.
Choose your local, your county, your state, your federal leaders, but as John Jay pointed out, America is the first nation in the history of the world that got to do that. We got to choose everything from dogcatcher through U.S. President. Everybody else had parliaments; that was by hereditary entry. Everybody else had monarchs or kings or dictators, but we, the people, got to choose this one. This is the government that belonged to us.
If America remains righteous, it’s because we, the people, demand that it remain righteous. But if America ever goes wicked, it’s because we, the people, let it go wicked. And it’ll be we, the people, not our leaders, who’ll answer to God for the national wickedness, because the nation belongs to us. There is no title on the U.S. Constitution except “We the People,” and that was what they were so proud of, was this is a stewardship government.
And that’s what it’s going to take, committed people getting in and saying, “It’s time to get involved in all these different arenas.” Time to get involved in education, time to get involved in the media, time to get involved in politics, time to get involved in law, time to get involved in government. We’ve held ourselves out long enough. You see, we are the salt; we’re the preservatives. If we don’t get in any of these arenas, they go rotten real fast. It’s totally up to us whether these things turn around.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Read the entire two-day broadcast transcript.
Order David Barton’s “America’s Godly Heritage,” a comprehensive guide to the beliefs of our Founding Fathers and the interpretation of those beliefs in today’s courts, as well as the impact of those decisions on our culture.