Just as the Declaration of Independence invoked the Creator as the source of our inalienable rights, the tradition of a National Day of Thanksgiving further confirms that the founding generation found nothing unusual about viewing government through the dual lenses of faith and reason.
Too often the debate over the proper role of religion in government devolves into polarized camps. One camp argues that the Founders specifically created a Judeo-Christian state; the other counters that, because of their divergent beliefs, they created government as a purely secular institution.
While little factual evidence seems to substantiate the latter view, it seems that the former takes faith a step beyond the Founders’ application. Rather than create a government that was either secular or religious, the Founders assumed a culture that unified around key principles, including reason and faith, that are essential to personal freedom and limited government.
First, the founding generation embraced personal accountability to their Creator. The Founders willingly subjected themselves, individually and collectively, to a higher authority than themselves and acknowledged their shortcomings against that standard. Washington’s Thanksgiving proclamation of 1789, called on all people to ask God to "pardon our national and other transgressions."
The Founders also understood that liberty and license are neither synonymous nor compatible; as Lord Acton later stated, "Liberty is not the power of doing what we like, but the right of being able to do what we ought."
Self-government, they knew, does not simply mean majority rule because people who haven’t practiced personal self-control are ill-equipped to restrain themselves or their government.
Just as the Creator gave us free will and the capacity for reason, the Founders knew private virtue was not something that could be imposed by government.
John Adams, one of the most openly devout Founders captured both the limits of government’s authority — "We have no government armed with the power of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion." — and necessity of private virtue — "Our constitution is made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other."
Others parted with traditional Christianity — like deists Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin, as well as Thomas Paine, who authored a book disputing the Bible yet disdained atheism — but they appreciated that the Judeo-Christian ethic of self-government is essential to a free people.
During his presidency, Jefferson faithfully attended the nation’s largest church service every Sunday in the U.S. Capitol in order to set an example for the people. He later questioned, "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 a gift from God?"
Likewise, to Paine, accountability to God was foundational to respecting human rights: "I consider myself in the hands of my Creator, and that He will dispose of me after this life consistently with His justice and goodness."
Alexis de Toqueville marveled in Democracy in America that American civilization was "the product of two perfectly distinct elements (religion and freedom) which elsewhere have often been at war with one another but which in America it was somehow possible to incorporate into … a marvelous combination."
However, the subtle shift from the Founders’ honorable responsibility to each other to our preference for the primacy of the individual may be just as significant. While they prized freedom, the Founders’ sense of honor demanded that they treat each other with integrity, honesty, justice and fidelity.
Although these cultural changes may never be reversed, we owe it to ourselves and to future generations to recognize that the freedom envisioned by the founders wasn’t motivated by selfishness but by the noble desire to secure freedom by using it honorably.