When I was a child, I learned at school that America was settled as a refuge from religious persecution. The American colonists understood their emigration from the Old World in light of the exodus of the Jews from Egypt; they saw England as Egypt, the King as Pharaoh, the Atlantic Ocean as the Red Sea, America as the land of Israel. These “new Israelites” left Europe in order to find freedom and to build a society on biblical principles.
The colonists were in large part successful. The nation they eventually founded in this land was in reality—and in the understanding of subsequent generations—built in accordance with the Judeo-Christian worldview. Only in the last several decades have liberals attempted to drive a wedge between the United States and its biblical founding, especially by misinterpreting the First Amendment in the courts. This is no less than an attempt to erase from memory the source of our civic unity. The consequences are dire.
Biblical Values and Freedom of Religion in the American Founding
What I learned at school has long been part of Americans’ self-understanding. Throughout our history, not only have historically sensitive observers noticed the likeness of the colonists to the Israelites, but Americans have recognized the importance of biblical values and religious communities for the health of the polity.
For instance, Abiel Abbot, pastor of the First Church in Haverhill, Massachusetts, noted in his 1799 Thanksgiving sermon that “the people of the United States come nearer to a parallel with Ancient Israel, than any other nation upon the globe. Hence our American Israel is a term frequently used; and our common consent allows it apt and proper.” The same thought is echoed more recently by noted biblical scholar Gabriel Sivan in his 1974 book, The Bible and Civilization: “No Christian community in history identified more with the People of the Book than did the early settlers of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, who believed their own lives to be a literal reenactment of the Biblical drama of the Hebrew nation.”
But it is not just a matter of how the colonists saw themselves. Our biblical values really have been indispensable for the maintenance of our governing institutions and for Americans’ flourishing in everyday life. As that brilliant observer of the Americans’ way of life Alexis de Tocqueville recognized, religion “should be considered the first of their political institutions.” He further observed that moral limits, based upon a submission to G-d, is critical to the success of democracy, and in the process rejected the anti-religious ideologues who “deride religion as nothing but a source of oppression and promote public atheism as a guarantee of freedom.”
Even recently, the United States Congress, on a bipartisan basis, acknowledged that “our great Nation was founded” upon a “historical tradition of ethical values and principles . . . known as the Seven Noahide Laws.” This moral covenant, frequently referred to as the Judeo-Christian worldview, was initially established by G-d with Noah for the renewal of civilization after the Flood. It was practiced and transmitted by Abraham and reaffirmed at Mount Sinai as the eternal and universal legacy of humanity through the Torah and in particular through the Ten Commandments. Many observe these commandments today.
Our founders lived their lives according to the word of G-d and incorporated many of the laws, values, and principles of the Bible both into their everyday life and into the laws under which they chose to be governed. George Washington warned us in his Farewell Address that “religion and morality” are the “firmest props of the duties of men and citizens” and therefore indispensably support “the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity. . . . [R]eason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.”
The Attempt to Misunderstand the First Amendment
Because many of the founders had been persecuted for their religious beliefs, colonial America became a haven for devoutly religious dissidents. It’s not surprising that they sought to protect “freedom of religion” through the First Amendment to the Constitution.
Make no mistake: the First Amendment secures Americans’ right to the freedom of religion. The notion that it only secures freedom from religion is a novel and dangerous reinterpretation.
The history of this misinterpretation of the First Amendment begins with the construction of a fake legal principle in Everson v. Board of Education in 1947. Faced with a First Amendment designed to accommodate religious communities and to encourage religious expression, Justice Hugo Black reached for a phrase of Thomas Jefferson and claimed that the point of the First Amendment was to build a “wall of separation” between church and state. However, this use of Jefferson’s language is not only a misinterpretation of his intent but also violates policies he routinely pursued such as endorsing the use of federal funds to build churches and supporting Christian missionary work among Native Americans. Interestingly, the factual question in Everson was whether parents of religious school attendees could receive reimbursement for transportation costs to parochial schools. In approving the expenditure of public funds for such a purpose, the Court indicated that the wall had not been breached. Ever since, however, the misleading concept of “the wall” is regularly used by those who seek to purge religion from American society.
Eleven years later, the village of Ossining in Westchester County, New York, formed a committee of Catholics, Protestants, and Jews to solicit funds to erect a Nativity scene in the village. A group of plaintiffs brought an action, first to enjoin and later to ban its installation on school property. In dismissing the complaint, the presiding judge, Elbert T. Gallagher, presciently warned that if courts did not stop misstating the false legal principle of “separation of church and state,” people would begin to believe that it actually came from the Constitution.
Sure enough, the language became so confused that Justice William Rehnquist, in his 1985 dissent to Wallace v. Jaffree, had to voice his alarm at how the Court deliberately ignored or overrode the language and intent of the founders of the First Amendment. He said,
It is impossible to build sound constitutional doctrine upon a mistaken understanding of constitutional history. … [W]hen we turn to the record of the proceedings of the First Congress leading up to the adoption of the Establishment Clause of the Constitution, … we see a far different picture of its purpose than the highly simplified “wall of separation between church and State.” In the 38 years since Everson, our Establishment Clause cases have been neither principled nor unified. Our recent opinions, many of them hopelessly divided pluralities, with embarrassing candor conceded that the “wall of separation” is merely a “blurred, indistinct, and variable barrier,” which “is not wholly accurate” and can only be “dimly perceived.”…
Whether due to its lack of historical support or its practical unworkability, the Everson “wall” has proved all but useless as a guide to sound constitutional adjudication. It illustrates only too well the wisdom of Benjamin Cardozo’s observation that “[m]etaphors in law are to be narrowly watched, for starting as devices to liberate thought, they end often by enslaving it.”…
But the greatest injury of the “wall” notion is its mischievous diversion of judges from the actual intentions of the drafters of the Bill of Rights . . . [But] no amount of repetition of historical errors in judicial opinions can make the errors true. 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.
A Return to Biblical Values
The Puritans who settled Massachusetts wrote their laws with biblical principles in mind, such as the expectation that all sexual activity would be confined to marriage between a man and a woman. Today, of course, on the topics of sexuality, marriage, life, and gender, the laws of Massachusetts are a far cry from its colonial origins. As the first state to redefine marriage (through the courts, of course) and to force Catholic adoption agencies to stop providing adoption services, it has pioneered “politically correct” laws regarding sexual behavior.
Today we hear much talk about making America great again and the need to return to the principles of the American Constitution. To do so, we must urgently recover the biblical principles upon which so many of state and federal constitutional provisions were drafted.
By shaping young minds to accept and endorse today’s politically correct agenda and encouraging a hostility toward people of faith, whether within public schools, the military, or political life, we are doing a dramatic disservice toward our country. We need to reinstill knowledge of the biblical values upon which our country was based, rather than continue to reinforce today’s politically correct mentality.
By accepting political correctness, we have produced generations of young people whose basic knowledge of United States history and civics has dramatically declined. Formal assessments by the National Assessment of Educational Progress showed that in 2014 roughly a quarter or fewer eighth-grade students scored at or above proficiency in geography (27%), civics (23%), and US history (18%). These figures were essentially unchanged from 2010. We should not be surprised by these results.
Isaiah 5:20 warns us against calling evil good and good evil. But that is exactly what political correctness asks us to do. We are living in a time of great moral and social drift, when both individuals and legislators are looking for an objective and universal moral compass. Because it is applicable to all of the Abrahamic faiths—and, indeed, applies to all people—the timeless laws of the Noahide Code provide such a moral compass and resonate with the several religions based upon this Code. As Judge Gallagher put it in his 1958 Baer v. Kolmorgen decision, “It may be a tragic experience for this country and for its conception of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness if our people lose their religious feelings and are left to live their lives without faith. The Constitution does not demand that every friendly gesture between the church and state should be discountenanced; nor that every vestige of [G-d] be eradicated.”
America is undergoing a populist revolt against an entrenched elitist ideology within the media, academia, and our politics. Donald Trump’s election tapped into these resentments. One of the objects of this grievance is “the aggressive secularization and repression of the culture of faith as the moral anchor of society and the individual.” Thankfully, President Trump has nominated to the judicial branch of government many who understand the principles of originalism. These principles will hopefully prevent the judicial imposition of the secularism which Tocqueville warned about. He observed that without religion as an internal moral compass, “each man gets into the way of having nothing but confused and changing notions about the matters of greatest importance to himself and his fellows.”
The populist revolt in America seeks to restore people’s natural affinity with their Creator and to live by values inherent in the Judeo-Christian worldview. By incorporating into our daily lives and our government Noahide principles, that is, the commonality underlying the Judeo-Christian worldview of America’s founders, we can produce positive political and social consequences for American society.
Arthur Goldberg is Co-Director of the Jewish Institute for Global Awareness and the former Co-Director of JONAH, Inc. JIFGA sponsors www.fundingmorality.com, a crowd-funding site for those committed to Biblical values. He has authored Light in the Closet: Torah, Homosexuality, and the Power to Change.