Our country has a long tradition of official encouragement of religion on a non-sectarian basis. That tradition reflects the understanding of the nation’s founders that, as George Washington declared in his Farewell Address, religion and morality are “indispensable supports” of “political prosperity” and that we should “with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion.”
Speaking at a Marine Corps air station’s prayer breakfast in 1998, Justice Antonin Scalia celebrated our traditional belief, expressed unashamedly in our national pronouncements and reflected faithfully in our public policies, that we are a nation under God. First Things is pleased to publish this address in conjunction with the release of On Faith: Lessons from an American Believer, in which it appears.
I want to speak to you this morning about tradition. The Marine Corps understands the value of that elusive, intangible quality. It is there in your motto: Always Faithful. Not just faithful today; not just faithful from now on; but faithful always, from 1775 to the present, and for as long as the republic will call upon you. It is there in the “Marines’ Hymn,” which recalls expeditions against enemies of the republic so long gone and so long forgotten that few Americans, alas, even know what the Halls of Montezuma were. And it is there, of course, in your battle pendants, giving witness to a long road of fidelity and honor from Tripoli to Iwo Jima to Iraq.
It is a strange thing, tradition. It can be squandered, but not bought. It can be lost, but not given to someone else. In the field of human activity in which I toil—the law—the newly emerged democracies of Eastern Europe are trying to establish independent judiciaries, and we are trying to help them. But to tell you the truth, we cannot help them very much. We can tell them of our two-century-long tradition of proud judicial independence, and urge them to emulate it. But we cannot give them a tradition of independence to replace their own lengthy traditions of judicial subservience to political authority. When we think “judge,” we think of an impartial arbiter between the power of the state and the rights of the citizen; when they think “judge,” they think of one of the faithful instruments of state power.
Because human institutions succeed or fail in large part because of the good traditions or the bad traditions that animate them—and because good traditions, once lost, are difficult if not impossible to re-establish—we must guard and nourish all of our valuable traditions with the same care and devotion that the Corps devotes to Semper Fidelis. I want to speak this morning about one of our oldest and I think most important national traditions that has for some years been in grave and imminent peril: the traditional belief, expressed unashamedly in our national pronouncements and reflected faithfully in our public policies, that we are a nation under God. That tradition appears, of course, in the first document to issue from us as a nation. The Declaration of Independence, which appeals to the “Laws of Nature, and of Nature’s God,” affirms that “all men . . . are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights,” and asserts in its concluding sentence “a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence.” The first Congress to be elected under the new Constitution adopted a joint resolution requesting the president to “recommend to the people of the United States a day of public thanksgiving and prayer.” President Washington responded to that request by issuing the first Thanksgiving Day proclamation, and of course we have had Thanksgiving Day proclamations ever since. We have also had, from the very beginning, publicly supported army and navy chaplains, House and Senate chaplains who open each day’s sessions with a prayer, exemptions from state property taxes for houses of worship, “In God We Trust” on the coinage (since the Civil War), and yes, even opening of the sessions of the Supreme Court with the invocation “God save the United States and this Honorable Court.”
This religious tradition of ours has consistently affirmed a national belief in God—but not a national belief in a particular religion. That has been the key distinction: between official encouragement of religion, which was always practiced, and official favoritism of particular religious sects, which was prohibited. The best exemplar of this distinctively American approach toward church and state was the greatest American of them all, the indispensable man, your first commander in chief, George Washington. When he presided over the 1787 convention in Philadelphia that drafted the Constitution, Washington wrote home to his wife, Martha, that “this morning, I attended the Popish mass.” Imagine this aristocratic Virginian attending a Roman Catholic church service. He attended, of course, in his capacity as the virtual personification of the new nation that was in the process of forming; everyone knew he would be elected president, if the Constitution-drafting project were ever a success. And he attended to demonstrate that this new nation would not favor one sect over another. This was the same extraordinary man who, in the first year of his presidency, would write a letter addressed “To the Hebrew Congregation in Newport, Rhode Island,” thanking them for their letter to him and saying among other things the following:
It is now no more that toleration is spoken of, as if it was by the indulgence of one class of people, that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights. For happily the Government of the United States, which gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens, in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.
He concludes the letter:
May the children of the Stock of Abraham, who dwell in this land, continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other inhabitants, while everyone shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree, and there shall be none to make him afraid. May the Father of all mercies scatter light and not darkness in our paths, and make us all in our several vocations useful here, and in his own due time and way everlastingly happy.
This long American tradition of official encouragement of religion, but strict neutrality among religious sects, was acknowledged by my Court as recently as 1952. In a case upholding New York City’s so-called released-time program, whereby public-school children whose parents so requested were released from school early one day each week so that they might attend religious instruction programs at their churches or synagogues, the Supreme Court said the following:
We are a religious people whose institutions presuppose a Supreme Being. When the state encourages religious instruction or cooperates with religious authorities by adjusting the schedule of public events to sectarian needs, it follows the best of our traditions. For it then respects the religious nature of our people and accommodates the public service to their spiritual needs. The government must be neutral when it comes to competition between sects. It may not coerce anyone to attend church, to observe a religious holiday, or to take religious instruction. But it can close its doors or suspend its operations as to those who want to repair to their religious sanctuary for worship or instruction.
That opinion for the Court was written, by the way, by William O. Douglas, hardly one of the more conservative justices.
Why, then, do I say that our national tradition of public religiousness is imperiled? Because many people, particularly opinion leaders, no longer believe what Justice Douglas wrote, but rather espouse the view that the government must be scrupulously impartial, not merely as between various religious sects and denominations, but even as between religion in general and atheism. The Constitution, these people believe, forbids government from bestowing any special favor upon religion, even if it is done in a non- sectarian fashion. How serious the situation is may become apparent when I tell you that these people include (insofar as one can tell from the cases) a majority of the justices of the Supreme Court. For the Court has explicitly abandoned Justice Douglas’s approach and has demanded a scrupulously secular state. In a 1968 opinion, for example, the Court said the following:
Government in our democracy, state and national, must be neutral in matters of religious theory, doctrine, and practice. The First Amendment mandates governmental neutrality between religion and religion, and between religion and nonreligion.
That position—mandated neutrality between religion and non-religion—is where the Court’s jurisprudence in theory remains today. It was the basis, for example, for the Court’s striking down in 1989 a Texas statute (which had counterparts in the laws of many other states) that exempted from state sales tax the sales of doctrinal religious publications—Bibles, Korans, and Talmuds. It was unconstitutional, the Court held, thus to favor religious belief.
I dissented from that opinion, because I do not believe in the principle of neutrality between religion and non-religion on which it is based. Indeed, it seems to me that the First Amendment itself is a repudiation of that principle, since the Free Exercise Clause gives special favor to the free exercise of religion. The neutrality principle is also contradicted by the many national practices, dating back to the earliest times, which I have described earlier.
The Court has changed its position on this matter once—and hopefully will change it back once again. Indeed, to put it that way makes the Court’s current jurisprudence sound much more logical than it in fact is—since the Court has continued to approve practices that are flatly inconsistent with the new principle of “neutrality between religion and nonreligion.” It has approved, for example, the longstanding practice of legislative chaplains who open sessions of both state and federal legislatures with non-denominational prayers. And it has approved property-tax exemptions for church property. If you can figure out how these holdings are consistent with the principle that religion in general cannot be favored, you are sharper than I am.
If I were you, I would not look to Supreme Court opinions to figure out our national tradition on matters of this sort. A good person to look to, in this as in many other matters, is your first commander in chief. I will conclude with a few of his more prominent pronouncements, and you can judge for yourself whether he thought we somehow had to suppress the notion that we were a nation under God.
On November 2, 1783, at Rocky Hill, near Princeton, New Jersey, Washington issued his Farewell Orders to the bulk of the armies of the United States, which the Continental Congress had released from federal service. In the concluding paragraph of those orders he offered to the departing troops “his recommendations to their grateful country, and his prayers to the God of Armies. May ample justice be done them here, and hereafter, attend those who, under divine auspices, have secured innumerable blessings for others.” About a month and a half later, on December 23, Washington addressed the Continental Congress at Annapolis on resigning his commission. The next-to-last sentence of his brief address was this: “I consider it an indispensable duty to close this last solemn act of my Official life, by commending the Interests of our dearest Country to the protection of Almighty God, and those who have the superintendence of them, to his holy keeping.” One of the congressmen present reported that as he spoke the words “our dearest Country to the protection of Almighty God,” his voice “faltered and sank and the whole house felt his agitations.” He rode on horseback that day for Mount Vernon; he came up the driveway lined by trees that he had planted, Martha standing in the doorway, on Christmas Eve.
Washington left us another famous Farewell Address, the one he gave to all the citizens of the republic on September 19, 1796, when he advised them of his resolution not to stand for a third term as president. That lengthy address had something quite specific to say about his view of the relationship between religion and politics:
Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, Religion and morality are indispensable supports. In vain would that man claim the tribute of Patriotism, who should labour to subvert these great Pillars of human happiness, these firmest props of the duties of Men and citizens. The mere Politician, equally with the pious man ought to respect and to cherish them. A volume could not trace all their connections with private and public felicity. Let it simply be asked where is the security for property, for reputation, for life, if the sense of religious obligation desert the oaths, which are the instruments of investigation in Courts of Justice? And let us with caution indulge the supposition, that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that National morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.
Finally, as a stellar example of what I mean by the religious faith central to our American political tradition, and also as the most appropriate conclusion imaginable to this prayer breakfast, let me read President Washington’s and the nation’s first Thanksgiving proclamation, issued in New York City on October 3, 1789:
Whereas it is the duty of all Nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey his will, to be grateful for his benefits, and humbly to implore his protection and favor—and whereas both Houses of Congress have by their joint Committee requested me “to recommend to the People of the United States a day of public thanksgiving and prayer to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many signal favors of Almighty God especially by affording them an opportunity peaceably to establish a form of government for their safety and happiness.”
Now therefore I do recommend and assign Thursday the 26th day of November next to be devoted by the People of these States to the service of that great and glorious Being, who is the beneficent Author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be—That we may then all unite in rendering unto him our sincere and humble thanks—for his kind care and protection of the People of this Country previous to their becoming a Nation—for the signal and manifold mercies, and the favorable interpositions of his Providence which we experienced in the course and conclusion of the late war—for the great degree of tranquillity, union, and plenty which we have since enjoyed—for the peaceable and rational manner, in which we have been enabled to establish constitutions of government for our safety and happiness, and particularly the national One now lately instituted—for the civil and religious liberty with which we are blessed; and the means we have of acquiring and diffusing useful knowledge; and in general for all the great and various favors which he hath been pleased to confer upon us.
And also that we may then unite in most humbly offering our prayers and supplications to the great Lord and Ruler of Nations and beseech Him to pardon our national and other transgressions—to enable us all, whether in public or private stations, to perform our several and relative duties properly and punctually—to render our national government a blessing to all the people, by constantly being a Government of wise, just, and constitutional laws, discreetly and faithfully executed and obeyed—to protect and guide all Sovereigns and Nations (especially such as have shewn kindness unto us) and to bless them with good government, peace, and concord—to promote the knowledge and practice of true religion and virtue, and the encrease of science among them and us—and generally to grant unto all Mankind such a degree of temporal prosperity as he alone knows to be best.
Antonin Scalia was a Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States.
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