Did We Take a Wrong Turn Somewhere Along the Way?

By Dr. Christian Overman

In the 1830s, the French historian Alexis de Tocqueville came to examine America. He wrote a book about what he discovered entitled Democracy in America. The following excerpts from this remarkable book will give you a flavor of the day from the perspective of an outside observer: “From the earliest settlement of the emigrants, politics and religion contracted an alliance which has never been dissolved. [p. 281] . . . I do not know whether all the Americans have a sincere faith in their religion; for who can search the human heart? But I am certain that they hold it to be indispensable to the maintenance of republican institutions. This opinion is not peculiar to a class of citizens or to a party, but it belongs to the whole nation, and to every rank of society. [pp. 286-287] . . . The Americans combine the notions of Christianity and of liberty so intimately in their minds that it is impossible to make them conceive the one without the other. [p. 287] . . . Upon my arrival in the United States, the religious aspect of the country was the first thing that struck my attention; and the longer I stayed there, the more did I perceive the great political consequences resulting from this state of things, to which I was unaccustomed. In France I had almost always seen the spirit of religion and the spirit of freedom pursuing courses diametrically opposed to each other; but in America I found that they were intimately united and that they reigned in common over the same country. [p. 289] . . . America is still the place where the Christian religion has kept the greatest real power over men’s souls; and nothing better demonstrates how useful and natural it is to man, since the country where it now has the widest sway is both the most enlightened and the freest. . . . [p. 291]1 So much for not mixing Christianity with civil liberty.

John Adams plainly spoke when he declared: “We have no government armed with power capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion. Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”2 Does anyone think the “religion” Adams had in mind was anything other than Christianity? Think again!

I’m not a fan of Woodrow Wilson, but in one 1911 speech, he hit the mark with 100 percent accuracy: “We know that there is a standard set for us in the heavens, a standard revealed to us in this book [the Bible] which is the fixed and eternal standard by which we judge ourselves. . . . We do not judge progress by material standards. America is not ahead of other nations of the world because she is rich. Nothing makes America great except her thoughts, except her ideals, except her acceptance of those standards of judgment which are written large upon these pages of revelation. . . . Let no man suppose that progress can be divorced from religion, or that there is any other platform for the ministers of reform than the platform written in the utterances of our Lord and Savior. America was born a Christian nation. America was born to exemplify that devotion to the elements of righteousness which are derived from the revelations of Holy Scripture.”3

Following this speech given to 12,000 people on May 7, 1911, Wilson wrote a personal note to a friend, Mary Ellen Hulbert Peck, in which he stated: “The Bible . . . is undoubtedly the book that has made democracy and been the source of all progress.”

Today, we hear a lot of talk about the United States being a pluralistic society. If by this we mean that many different beliefs make up the population, we are indeed a pluralistic group. We are a place where people of all religions and persuasions (including atheism) may freely believe what they choose. But if we mean by pluralism that a single belief system, in particular, a Bible-based system, should not be the basis of our laws and civil institutions, we are taking a totally opposite direction in our thinking than the Founding Fathers had in mind.

Some may think morality can be brought back into our nation without bringing back the Bible and the principles it contains. But George Washington said, “Reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.”4

Where do you think the “religious principle” Washington had in mind came from? In none other than the Book the Founding Fathers quoted more often than any other—the Bible. The Book President Abraham Lincoln affirmed by declaring: “In regard to this Great Book, I have but to say, it is the best gift God has given man. All the good the Savior gave to the world was communicated through this book. But for it we could not know right from wrong.”5

Now, why would John Adams say our constitution is “wholly inadequate” for the governing of any other than a moral and religious people? It is because these kinds of people know how to govern themselves under God, and people who govern themselves under God do not need kings, dictators, or potentates to regulate their actions. People who are morally responsible internally do not need the external strong arm of government to tell them what they can or cannot do. People with self-government under God, or self-control, understand what is required of them to live at peace with others. Furthermore, self-control is not just a matter of restraining evil impulses but of initiating good without being manipulated to do so. The essence of genuine moral self-government is to be motivated by internalized principles of godliness.

Strong, external governmental control was precisely what the Founding Fathers were trying to get away from and what they did not want repeated on the west side of the Atlantic. But with a “moral and religious” population, a government “by the people” might just work. If the people had moral self-government under God, it could bring peace, order, and, as Washington put it, “political prosperity” to a new kind of governmental system. This was a revolutionary, biblically-based idea. Freedom could be entrusted only to such a populace.

Daniel Webster summed it up this way: “Our ancestors established their system of government on morality and religious sentiment. Moral habits, they believed, cannot safely be trusted on any other foundation than religious principle, nor any government be secure which is not supported by moral habits. Living under the heavenly light of revelation, they hoped to find all the social dispositions, all the duties which men owe to each other and to society, enforced and performed. Whatever makes men good Christians, makes them good citizens.”6

Today, we still have the form of a free nation, but we are rapidly losing the character necessary to sustain it. Our civil freedoms can only survive as long as the people are able to govern themselves in a morally responsible way. While no freedom-granting government can keep people morally responsible, only morally responsible, self-governed people under God can keep government freedom-granting.

The more citizens there are who do not practice self-government under the God of the Bible, the greater risk we all have of losing what freedoms we yet enjoy. The choice is simple: Either the people will regain their ability to morally govern themselves internally via submission to Jesus Christ, or the strong arm of government will come in and control us externally. Benjamin Franklin said, “Only a virtuous people are capable of freedom. As nations become corrupt and vicious, they have more need of masters.”7

Robert Winthrop put it this way in 1852: “Men, in a word, must necessarily be controlled either by a power within them, or by a power without them; either by the Word of God, or by the strong arm of man, either by the Bible, or by the bayonet.”8

In 1787, when the Constitution was first drafted, it was not unreasonable to think citizens would be the kind of moral and religious people necessary for a freedom-granting government to work. Early citizens, especially the educated ones, were Bible-conscious and understood what self-government under God was all about. After all, they had sacrificed much to gain the opportunity to practice it.

Here is what Calvin Coolidge had to say about it: “America became the common meeting-place of all those streams of people, great and small, who were undertaking to deliver themselves from all kinds of despotism and servitude, and to establish institutions of self-government and freedom. . . . It was the principle of personal judgment in matters of religion for which the English and Dutch were contending, and which set the common people to reading the Bible. There came to them a new vision of the importance of the individual, which brought him into direct contact with the Creator. It was this conception applied to affairs of government that made the people sovereign. . . . The logical result of this was the free man, educated in a free school, exercising a free conscience, maintaining a free government. The basis of it all, historically and logically, is religious belief. These are the fundamental principles on which American institutions rest. . . . It was the American colonies that defended and reestablished these everlasting truths. They set them out in resolutions and declarations, supported them on the battlefield, wrote them into their laws, and adopted them in their Constitution.”9

Not all early Americans were followers of Christ by any means, and those who were followers were not faultless. But the overriding thrust of the colonies, and the new nation that followed, was openly Bible-based and Christian-oriented.

The following official statement issued by the House Judiciary Committee of Congress on March 27, 1854, bears this out: “At the time of the adoption of the Constitution and the amendments, the universal sentiment was that Christianity should be encouraged, but not any one sect. . . . In this age there is no substitute for Christianity. . . . That was the religion of the founders of the republic, and they expected it to remain the religion of their descendants.”10 Two months later, the following was declared by the Committee: “The great, vital, and conservative element in our system is the belief of our people in the pure doctrines and divine truths of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.”11

The very basis of law in early America was openly founded upon the Bible, as seen in Commentaries on the Laws of England by William Blackstone, an English jurist who greatly influenced the colonists. He wrote from the assumption that God is the source of all authority and that His Word rests above all other words, even those of kings. His commentaries clearly leaned upon Scripture for support. This is evident in even a casual glance at his work, which was the standard text for lawyers trained in early America for many years.

The historical evidence for Christianity as the compelling force behind American laws and civil institutions is so weighty that when the United States Supreme Court had occasion to look into this matter in the case of Church of the Holy Trinity v. United States (1892), the court issued the following statement quoting no less than eighty-seven precedents: “Our laws and our institutions must necessarily be based upon and embody the teachings of The Redeemer of mankind. It is impossible that it should be otherwise; and in this sense and to this extent our civilization and our institutions are emphatically Christian. . . . This is a religious people. This is historically true. From the discovery of this continent to the present hour, there is a single voice making this affirmation. . . . We find everywhere a clear recognition of the same truth. . . . These, and many other matters which might be noticed, add a volume of unofficial declarations to the mass of organic utterances that this is a Christian nation.”12

Many people are uncomfortable with the term “Christian nation,” and for a good reason. The phrase itself is a misnomer in the sense that a country can never be “Christian.” Only individual people within nations can be Christian. But in using this descriptive language in connection with America, the court was not saying everybody born in this country was a follower of Christ, nor was the court saying this nation existed just for Christians, nor were they saying that no other religions should be freely practiced in America. But what the 1892 court did clearly say was that our laws and institutions “must necessarily be based upon and embody the teachings of The Redeemer of mankind . . . and in this sense and to this extent our civilization and our institutions are emphatically Christian.”

To say that our culture is “emphatically Christian” today, however, would be blasphemy. Our revised laws are no longer based upon the teachings of Jesus, as the Supreme Court of 1892 said they should be.

Did we take a wrong turn somewhere along the way?

This article was formatted for publication from Assumptions That Affect Our Lives by Dr. Christian Overman (pp. 124-130, Ablaze Publishing, 1989, ninth edition, 2017).

Dr. Christian Overman is the author of Assumptions That Affect Our Lives and God’s Pleasure at Work: The Difference One Life Can Make. Dr. Overman has taught on biblical worldview and Christian education across America and Central America, South America, Europe, Africa, and Asia. He and his wife, Kathy, have four adult children and twelve grandchildren. Contact Dr. Overman at overman@biblicalworldview.com.

ENDNOTES 1. Alexis de Tocqueville, translated by Henry Reeves, Democracy in America (New York, NY: George Dearborn & Co., 1838), 281-291.

2. John Adams, The Works of John Adams, Second President of the United States: with a Life of the Author, Notes and Illustrations, by his Grandson Charles Francis Adams (Boston: Little, Brown and Co., 1856), Vol. IX 229, Oct. 11, 1798.

3. Woodrow Wilson, The Papers of Woodrow Wilson, Vol. 23 (Princeton University Press, 1977), 18, 20. Following this speech given to 12,000 people on May 7, 1911, Wilson wrote a personal note to a friend, Mary Ellen Hulbert Peck, in which he said: “The Bible . . . is undoubtedly the book that has made democracy and been the source of all progress.” [Papers, 11].

4. James D. Richardson, A Compilation of the Messages and Papers of the Presidents, 1789-1897 (Published by the authority of Congress, 1899), Vol. 1, 220.

5. Abraham Lincoln, The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Roy P. Basler, ed. (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1953), Vol. VII, September 7, 1864, 542.

6. Daniel Webster, The Works of Daniel Webster (Boston: Charles C. Little and James Brown), 1851, Vol. I, 44.

7. Benjamin Franklin, The Works of Benjamin Franklin, John Bigelow, ed. (New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons), 1904, Vol. XI, April 17, 1787, 318.

8. Robert C. Winthrop, Addresses and Speeches on Various Occasions (Boston: Little Brown and Co., 1852) 172.

9. Calvin Coolidge, The Price of Freedom: Speeches and Addresses by Calvin Coolidge (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1927), 290-291.

10. B.F. Morris, The Christian Life and Character of the Civil Institutions of the United States (Philadelphia: George W. Childs, 1864), 320-321.

11. Ibid., 328.

12. Church of the Holy Trinity v. U.S., 143 U.S. 457 (1892).