Two hundred years is not long, considering the history of most nations. But with the United States, it’s as long as it gets! A little over two hundred years ago, our forefathers set out to establish a new nation—a nation, as Lincoln said, “conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” It was an altogether new experiment on the world scene—a nation for the people, ruled by the people, but under God. The Europeans didn’t think it could work. They believed it could only end in anarchy and eventual ruin.
Were the Europeans right? Has the grand American experiment failed? Let us consider two fundamental principles upon which the United States of America was founded. Then we should ask, is America still grounded on these principles today? And if not, what will be the final outcome?
In 1787, several of the greatest minds America has ever produced gathered in Philadelphia for what became known as the Constitutional Convention. Benjamin Franklin was there. So were George Washington, James Madison, Alexander Hamilton and Gouverneur Morris. They gathered to write a Constitution. They knew they were sailing in uncharted waters—embarking on a bold new plan to establish a federal government for the purpose of unifying the colonies under one nation. But it was a unification that would affect all nations, as Morris prophesied when he said, “The whole human race will be affected by the proceedings of this Convention.” Morris’ declaration can hardly be disputed. After the Constitution became supreme law in the U.S. on March 4, 1789, America quickly ascended to astonishing heights—becoming the most powerful and dominant nation this world has ever known.
But to what extent can that awesome development and growth be attributed to America’s humble beginning? In the Bible, God places special emphasis on starting small, and on the right foundation. Jesus likened the Kingdom of God to a mustard seed, “Which indeed is the least of all seeds: but when it is grown, it is the greatest among herbs…” (Matt. 13:32). And in the parable of the sower in the field (Matt. 13), He said that unless that small seed starts right, in fertile ground, it can never develop.
As far as human government goes, the United States started about as right as any government man has ever produced. Critics today can say what they will about why it started right. But the Founding Fathers all seemed to be in perfect agreement on the issue. The country began in fertile ground because it was founded upon religion and morality. These are the two fundamental building blocks upon which America was built.
The Founding Fathers may not have known that America’s earliest settlers were in fact descendants of Israel (write for The United States and Britain in Prophecy for proof), but they certainly likened America to a “New Israel.” Historians and political commentators alike recognize this fact.
William J. Bennett wrote in his latest book, Our Sacred Honor, “What made this country different from all others was a prevalent belief that God played a direct and active hand in founding a people. Like the Jerusalem of old, America’s ‘New Jerusalem’ was to become God’s promised land to the oppressed—an example to all humankind” (p. 366).
New Jerusalem. Promised land. These are biblical terms. There was a tendency, Angelo Codevilla wrote in The Character of Nations, for “Americans to equate themselves with the children of Israel.”
Probably the first American statesman to see a parallel between the Exodus and early American history, was Benjamin Franklin. According to Milt Machlin, author of Joshua’s Altar, Franklin “described the independent colony on America’s shores as ‘God’s new Israel,’ and proposed that the Great Seal of the United States should depict Moses with his rod uplifted and the Egyptian armies drowning in the sea.” According to Machlin, Thomas Jefferson recommended a similar design patterned after the Exodus.
Just as the Israelites of old fled from an oppressive Egypt to settle in a new land given unto them by God, so did many of the early colonial settlers flee from religious persecution to the shores of America—a land they claimed to be theirs by God’s divine right. This biblical concept is what Manifest Destiny was all about—a belief that it was God’s will for America to stretch from sea to shining sea—from the Atlantic all the way to the Pacific Ocean.
“Without God’s blessing,” Bennett wrote, “many of the Founders, especially Washington, believed that this country would never have come into being” (op. cit., Bennett).
Religion and Morality
Indeed, George Washington, America’s first President, championed this cause: that high morals and sincere religion had to be the fundamental building blocks of American society—if it was to succeed and prosper. In his First Inaugural Address on April 30, 1789, President Washington said, “The foundations of our national policy will be laid in the pure and immutable principles of private morality.” What we do in the privacy of our own home does matter! For Washington, this was not a peripheral issue. It was the foundation of our national policy!
At the end of his presidential oath, Washington himself reverently added the words “so help me God.” Every president since has followed in his tradition. And according to Washington Irving, after our first President concluded his oath, he bowed down humbly and kissed the Bible. Without religion and morality, Washington knew the American “experiment” was doomed to fail.
Washington’s ideals were not unlike those of his fellow Founders. Benjamin Franklin, a self-proclaimed non-churchgoer, was nevertheless very religious. In his Autobiography, he listed thirteen points to follow for attaining moral perfection, the last of which was to “imitate Jesus.” During the Constitutional Convention, when the delegates arrived at an impasse, it was Franklin who offered this solution: pray for the “assistance of Heaven.” That from a non-churchgoer!
Even Thomas Jefferson, considered an atheist by many, demanded this of the American people in his Notes on the State of Virginia: “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 of the gift of God?”
Study a bit of American history for yourself. See what priority our forefathers placed upon religion and morality. It was the chief cornerstone upon which the country was built.
Notice what George Washington said during his famous Farewell Address in 1796: “Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports.” Washington said they are indispensable. To him, religion and morality were not optional. They were essential, at least if the United States was to experience success, prosperity, and peace.
For the Founding Fathers, adherence to this doctrine was essential for the American experiment to succeed.
Washington continued, “In vain would that man claim tribute of patriotism, who should labor to subvert these great pillars of human happiness, these firmest props of the duties of men and citizens.” Those who worked to subvert these indispensable pillars, religion and morality, would be working in vain! So says George Washington. How many Americans would fall into this category today?
If the Founding Fathers were right, our greatness and success depend on how moral and religious we are. Let us now shift our attention from the Founding Fathers to the American people in the late 18th-century. What good, if any, did the God-fearing, highly moral leadership have on American society?
Early American Life
It should be noted that America, like any other nation at that time, had its share of brothels and philanderers. But those lewd, immoral practices were not nearly as prevalent in the mainstream as they are today.
For the most part, early America was deeply religious. We were a people who read our Bibles and took the instruction more literally than Americans do today. Unlike the showy services you see on TV, a church service back then was more like a classroom, where the teacher gave a lesson. That’s where they studied and learned about a higher law—a code of ethics. That’s where they learned the Ten Commandments; the same commandments, according to James Madison, upon which “we have staked the whole future of American civilization.” It was at church services across the land where so many Americans learned about the children of Israel. “Nowhere else in Christendom,” writes Angelo Codevilla, “was the Old Testament read so much and the notion of God as lawgiver so widespread.” Codevilla goes on to say that the tendency for Americans to liken themselves to the children of Israel was so common that it even spread among the Negro slaves. He said sincere religion and high morality were “something immediately obvious to visitors” (op. cit., Codevilla, p. 227).
The effect religion had on America was widespread. It influenced America from within, Codevilla said. Early American society was one built around the biblical sanctity of marriage and family. “Since the founders had no doubt that popular government is possible only among virtuous people, they revered marriage as few people before or since” (op. cit., Codevilla, p. 220).
The 18th-century American family was organized with each member fulfilling his or her natural role, as defined in Scripture. The father was the head of the family, the provider and protector. Wives respected their husbands’ authority and faithfully supported their men. They took pride in their role as “help meets” and enjoyed managing the household. The Founders viewed the wife’s role as complementary to the husband’s. Together, a husband and wife were a complete team: a well-organized family by which children could be raised properly.
At the same time, our nation’s leaders enacted laws designed to protect marriage and family. Husbands were obliged by law to support their wives; to pay off all debts they incurred. In some communities, dead-beat dads were sentenced to hard labor while in confinement. Divorce was illegal except in the rarest of cases. In the early 1800s, there were only a few hundred divorces in the whole country.
Clearly, the ideals and character of the Founding Fathers did filter down to individual families. And that’s the way those great men wanted it. Six years before the Constitution was enacted, George Washington’s objective for the country could not have been more clear: “We have now a national character to establish.” If a fledgling America was to get off the ground as a nation, it had to begin in each home.
Our second U.S. President, John Adams, himself a devoted husband, said the “foundation of national morality must be laid in private families.” As leaders, Adams and his fellow-statesmen knew the linchpin for developing a prosperous, free society was religion and morality. As “founders” and great leaders, they were obliged to lead the way by example. This is a biblical principle. The scriptures say Jesus came to set us an example that we might follow in His steps.
Nothing can be more basic when evaluating the success or failure of nations through man’s 6,000-year history: character does affect how leaders lead; and the character of a leader, whether good or bad, does greatly influence the people. As Codevilla wrote, “What the great do in a grand way, lesser folks do as they may.”
Why Religion and Morality?
In 1776, the year Thomas Jefferson drafted the Declaration of Independence, John Adams wrote to his cousin, “It is religion and moralityalone, which can establish the principles upon which freedom can securely stand.” There it is again. Why did the Founding Fathers keep pointing back to these fundamental building blocks? Adams himself answered that question in 1798, while serving as President: “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”
There’s the answer! They kept referring to religion and morality because, as Adams said, our Constitution was made only for moral and religious people! Now the question is, why? Why was the Constitution written only for moral and religious people? Why was it inadequate to the government of any other?
Alexis de Tocqueville’s 19th-century observations on the American republic answer this critical question. After touring America for two years in the early 1830s, he returned home to France and wrote his political classic Democracy in America. Like the Founding Fathers, De Tocqueville acknowledged that religion and morality were indispensable to the maintenance of the American republic. Why indispensable? He said that while the constitutional law of liberty allowed Americans complete freedom to do as they please, religionprevented them from doing that which is immoral and unjust. In short, De Tocqueville surmised, liberty could not be governed apart from religious faith, lest there be anarchy.
Without the moral restrictions of a higher spiritual law, the liberty afforded Americans in the Constitution would be abused. George Washington knew that! So did the rest of the Founding Fathers. That’s why they kept harping on religion and morality. They did not want to see the United States of America self-destruct.
Today, Americans have departed from the ideals of our forefathers. We reason that religion and morality are nice, but certainly not necessary for the overall well-being of the nation. We have been led to falsely assume that private morality and public duty are separate issues. George Washington would have been appalled by such reasoning. And he was the father of our nation. Abraham Lincoln would have been appalled. And he saved the nation from ruin during the Civil War.
Times have certainly changed in the United States of America. Imagine a fornicator or adulterer being publicly ridiculed because of his sin. For that matter, imagine a public official even calling those acts sinful. Does it seem old-fashioned? It wasn’t two hundred years ago.
Consider the changes in America over the past two hundred years. When Americans go from proclaiming that a free society can only exist when founded on private morality to thinking that character just doesn’t matter, it is time to ask some hard questions about the future of this nation.
The Final Outcome
Because our forefathers likened the fledgling nation of America to the children of Israel, it seems fitting to conclude this article by summarizing the story of that ancient biblical nation, chosen by God.
God delivered the ancient Israelites out of Egypt by the hand of one of their forefathers, Moses. At long last, freed from religious persecution and the oppression of slavery, they departed with shouts of joy, singing praises to God.
At Mt. Sinai, God delivered His moral code of ethics to Moses on two stone tablets. When Moses returned to the people, he told them all that God had said, and what God expected of them in morality and religion. If they agreed to abide by this strict moral standard, in return, they could have absolute freedom and abundant prosperity. Very quickly the people answered in unison, “All that the Lord hath spoken we will do.”
But they didn’t. Shortly into their journey, the Israelites became more concerned about their own desires and lusts than they were about what was right for the nation—what was right in God’s eyes. And so they wandered around in the wilderness for forty years, prohibited by God from entering the Promised Land.
After their generation died, a new one matured which trusted in the words of Joshua, Moses’ successor. With a high hand, they crossed the Jordan River, routed the walled-city of Jericho and settled in the Promised Land—a prosperous land flowing with milk and honey. Israel served the Lord all the days of Joshua. And they prospered and had good success.
But when Joshua died, Israel lost an extraordinary leader. They also lost their passion for serving God and for subjecting themselves to an exalted moral standard. They turned to other religions. Their morality deteriorated. Their families divided. The nation suffered. Occasionally, while in the midst of a sore trial, the people would cry out to God for deliverance, and God would respond. He would send a leader who feared Him and kept His commandments; a leader who was a man of truth; who wasn’t led away by his own lusts. And that upright statesman would lead the Israelites out of the hole they had dug for themselves.
But when that judge died, they again forgot their God. Finally, it says in Judges 21:25, “In those days there was no king in Israel: every man did that which was right in his own eyes.”
And so what was the end result of their miraculous deliverance from the oppression of Egypt? Anarchy. There was no common standard or purpose. There was no real political authority. Everyone just did what seemed right in their own eyes. And the final outcome of their anarchy? The great nation of Israel was eventually ripped apart and separated into two nations—the northern kingdom of Israel, and the southern kingdom of Judah. For many generations, God pleaded with both kingdoms to return back to that high moral standard which, at one time in their history, had afforded them much success and prosperity. But they rejected God’s pleas and His law—to their own shame.
In 721 b.c., the people of the northern kingdom of Israel were uprooted out of their own land by a ruthless and cruel Assyrian nation, thrust into slavery, and lost from world view to this day. Judah didn’t fare much better. They were overrun by the Babylonian Empire and made slaves in 604 b.c.
After such a promising start, the ancient nation of Israel rejected God and His moral standard, turned to anarchy, became divided, and eventually went into captivity.
Today, “New Israel” is on course to follow in that same path. We have forsaken our God and the ideals of our forefathers. Every man does what is right in his own eyes. No one seems to care about the character of our leaders. How could we, when we don’t care about our own character?
As Alexis de Tocqueville said, any free society founded on liberty, yet without a sacred moral code to govern the actions of individuals, cannot stand. It can only end in anarchy. Because America has forsaken the ideals of our Founding Fathers, because we have forsaken our God—that is where we are headed. As it turns out, the Europeans were right. The grand American experiment has failed.