This weekend we commemorate the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776 by the Continental Congress initiating a revolution against the British Empire, an oppressive occupying foreign power.
The Declaration used universal terms, listed grievances against the English King and declared governments derive “their just Powers from the Consent of the Governed”. The American Revolutionary War followed leading to independence from monarchy (England) and religion (Church of England).
The Constitution creating our independent republic and establishing our secular democracy was signed September 17,1787. The Preamble states six secular reasons our nation was founded by and for “We the People”. The Constitution at Article VI commands “no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States” (separating religion from government and protecting government from religion).
We became the first nation in history established independently without acknowledging dependency on higher authority (emperor, monarch, dictator, gods, religion, scripture, etc). James Madison reminded fellow signers the Constitution “is derived from the superior power of the people”. There were no public prayers during the Constitutional Convention’s 116 days. Less than 20% of colonists belonged to religion establishments in 1776. Less than 50% of Americans are members of a church, synagogue or mosque today (Gallup).
The Constitution created three separate and equal government branches for check and balance on power. The legislative branch enacts laws, executive branch executes laws and judicial branch interprets laws. The first 10 Amendments are our Bill of Rights providing individual liberties. 17 additional Amendments have been enacted by Congress and ratified by the states.
The 1st Amendment provides our historic trinity of religious liberties – freedom from government established or endorsed religion, freedom of any religion or no religion and freedom for religion speech. It prevents our government from “respecting” religion establishments, “prohibiting” free exercises of religion or “abridging” religion speech (separating government from religion and protecting religion from government). Government neutrality is required regarding religion (neither anti-religion nor pro-religion but religion-neutral).
1st Amendment genesis was the 1785 Virginia Statute of Religious Freedom authored by Thomas Jefferson and James Madison which mandated “No man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever.”.
The original national mottoes adopted by our Founders in 1782 are – “E Pluribus Unum ” (Out of Many One), “Novos Ardo Seclorum ” (New Order of the Ages), and “Annuit Coeptis ” (Favored Undertakings). They remain on the US Great Seal, one-dollar bill and other government documents.
It is fact, history and law we were not founded on religion. The 1797 Treaty of Tripoli, an international legal document confirmed to the world “…the United States is not in any sense founded on the Christian religion…”.
The treaty was negotiated during 1st President George Washington’s administration, unanimously ratified by the US Senate and signed by 2nd President John Adams. The American Consul to Algiers, Joel Barlow (Revolutionary War chaplain and Washington appointee), negotiated, co-authored and signed the Arabic version abroad during Washington’s presidency. Barlow also authored the English version ratified and signed in the United States during Adam’s presidency.
World history records the human harm resulting when governments and religion combined. Separation of church and state is a fundamental liberty of free people keeping public government out of private religion and private religion out of public government. It was indisputably our Founders’ intent as provided by their governing documents, evidenced by countless historical records, publicly acknowledged by every President except the defeated and disgraced previous one, and confirmed by the judiciary as the law of our land. It is also provided by most state constitutions.
We were the first nation in history to constitutionally provide and protect freedom of belief by separating government and religion. It was genesis for the historic document passed by the United Nations declaring “ …everyone shall have the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion.” (Article 18, Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1948). Even Jesus separated government and religion (Matthew 22:21; Mark 12:17).
Native-American contribution to our democracy has also been recognized – “…the confederacy of the original Thirteen Colonies into one republic was influenced by the political system developed by the Iroquois Confederacy as were many of the democratic principles which were incorporated into the Constitution itself.” (100th US Congress Resolution).
The historic significance of our independence is often obscured by other celebratory activities. The facts, history and law are contained in the founding documents (1776 Declaration of Independence, 1782 National Mottoes, 1787 Preamble and Constitution, 1791 Bill of Rights and 1797 Treaty of Tripoli). The originals were written in English in America by Americans for Americans and are preserved in our national archives.
The eagle was selected as our national symbol by the Founders. Eagles are free and fearless. Eagles do not follow or flock like herded species. May loyal and patriotic Americans honor our independence as a nation and our liberty as individuals by becoming more like eagles and less like sheep.
Brigadier General, Judge Advocate General’s Corps, US Army (Retired)
Former Chief Judge, US Army Court of Military Review & US Army Legal Services Agency
Disabled American Veteran (Vietnam Era)
Board Member, Military Religious Freedom Foundation