The Declaration of Independence and the Fear of God

Russian poet Irina Ratushinskaya grew up in the final gray decades of Soviet communism. Despite, and partly because of, the best efforts of communist indoctrination, Irina became a follower of Christ as she matured into a woman of conscience. In 1983, at the age of 28, Irina was sentenced to seven years of hard labor and five years of internal exile for writing what was seen as anti-Soviet poetry. Before being exiled to the West, she wrote of her experiences in Grey is the Color of Hope.

She relates the unwieldy attempt of communist educators to ingrain atheism. In school, she says, they would learn to read, and then be told there is no God; and then learn math, and be told there is no God; and then science and be told there is no God. Irina says she eventually realized that, indeed, there was a God or they wouldn’t have to try so hard to convince her otherwise.

What Principles, this Principal?

The time is gone when all of the good stories about overcoming odds to discover God came from the communist world. They abound in modern America, as we drift precariously toward godless public institutions.

A rich example is the action of a middle school principal to prohibit Steven Williams, a fifth-grade teacher at Stevens Creek School in the San Francisco Bay area suburb of Cupertino, from introducing in classroom lessons historical documents that refer to God, including The Declaration of Independence. Williams has filed a lawsuit. According to Reuters, Williams asserts in the lawsuit that since May he has been required to submit all of his lesson plans and supplemental handouts to the principal, Patricia Vidmar, for approval, and that she will not permit him to use any that contain references to God or Christianity.

Among the materials she has rejected, Williams says, are excerpts from the Declaration of Independence, George Washington’s journal, John Adams’ diary, Samuel Adams’ “The Rights of the Colonists,” and William Penn’s “The Frame of Government of Pennsylvania.”

“He hands out a lot of material and perhaps 5 to 10 percent refers to God and Christianity because that’s what the founders wrote,” says Williams’ lawyer. “The principal seems to be systematically censoring material that refers to Christianity.”

It is a classic battle on the front lines of the culture war (there are many other stories to be told). Without knowing more about the particulars and the parties involved in the Cupertino dispute, it is perhaps more productive to ask a question about the action of the principal based on what we do know: What would be the motivation or the justification for prohibiting the study of formational documents that mention or even discuss the role of God?

Or as Jason asks on the Trommetter Times blog: “It’s a season typified by lawsuits against manger scenes, crosses and even the words Merry Christmas. Why are these people so afraid of references to God? The first amendment protects churches from the government. It doesn’t create religion-free zones in public schools.”

Whether dissing the Declaration of Independence or erasing Christmas references, I believe that there are five reasons we are seeing a trend away from traditional religion-related observances: (1) Fear of God, (2) Disdain for Faith, (3) Confusion on Separation, (4) Search for Popularity, and (5) Hatred of Heritage.

Here’s a closer look at each:

1. Fear of God:

In the halls of government, academia, and most public institutions there is a fear of God. Not fear of biblical character or proportion– awe, reference, and dread—but a fear of allowing God or any vestiges of faith or overt religious expression in the public square. It has become a reactive, irrational response, as demonstrated in this case of disallowing the study of how our founding fathers recognized God as a source of wisdom and strength.

“The naked public square,” to use a term coined 20 years ago by Rev. Richard John Neuhaus of the Institute on Religion and Public Life in his book, has become the assumed norm and attempts to introduce religious content are rejected without question.

There is clamoring for the public square to be a “religion-free zone,” in which there is a cleansing of all that is religious from public life. The sources of this vision are diverse and not all secular. To be sure, some citizens support this position because of their secularist philosophies. But some believers are strict separationists in constitutional interpretation, and others are simply people who recoil from endless conflicts. “A plague on both your houses” is their attitude, so the naked public square is the outcome by default.

But when the public square is naked, the result is even less just and workable than an established religion. Not only does this vision favor a worldview in that is the minority in America—secularism; it represents a decisive repudiation of the historic American relationship of faiths and freedom. This can be a lethal blow to sustaining freedom.

2. Disdain for Faith

Among many secularists there has developed a strong disdain for the expression or reliance on faith, and for any yielding to the traditional, dominant Christianity. It’s the French model of 1789, when the people rejected the prevailing church and state.

The revolutionaries’ spine-chilling cry: “We must strangle the last king with the guts of the last priest!” In France, religion–viewed as reactionary–went one way, whereas freedom–viewed as progressive–went another. French republicanism was therefore irreligious from the beginning and much of France shows little change today. This French model of rejection of the church is reflected in the attitudes of many of the “cultural elite” in America today.

3. Confusion on Separation

There is total confusion about the separation of church and state, some of it marshaled by personal agenda, much of it created by burgeoning cultural and religious pluralism.

British scholar Os Guinness, a follower of Christ and senior fellow at the Virginia-based Trinity Forum writes with great insight on making A World Safe for Diversity. Guinness cites three reasons for the confusion:

Exploding pluralism: Pluralism and religious liberty have been linked inextricably since the colonial days. On the one hand, religious liberty has made pluralism more likely. On the other hand, pluralism has made religious liberty more necessary. Thus the American story has always been one of steadily expanding pluralism–the Middle colonies in the eighteenth century were among the world’s most religiously diverse regions. But for all the steady expansion since then, nothing rivals the explosion of pluralism in the last forty years that now includes members of almost all the world’s religions and a marked increase of secularists–significant because so strong among the educated elites.

Emergent separationism: Beyond all question, disestabishment and the separation of church and state are at the heart of both the purpose and achievement of the First Amendment. On the one hand, they remove what in other lands has been a central source of hostility to religion–its established and often oppressive status. On the other hand, they disallow any religion from depending on state power, and so throws each one back on its own resources–thus fostering a climate of entrepreneurial freedom and competitiveness. But this traditional view of separation is a far cry from the “strict, total, absolute separationism” that has become prominent since 1947. Slowly, strict separationism has grown from a theory to a doctrine to orthodoxy to a ruling myth. In the process the relationship between the two Religious Liberty clauses has changed. “No establishment” has become an end, not a means, and a new vision of church-state separation has become dominant–in which public life is inviolately secular and religious life is inviolately private.

4. Search for Popularity

Among many in the chattering class, in education, and in entertainment, actions and attitudes are not driven by ideology, historical inevitabilities, or spiritual convictions but by the potent desire to be popular. To be socially appropriate. People desperately seeking political correctness. We cannot underestimate the peer pressure in the newsrooms, NEA conferences and cocktail parties, where you will become a pariah if you violate the precepts of liberalism. The dogma of the liberal intelligentsia is to protect every secularist and adherents of all faiths from being offended in any way by exposure to the dominant Christian faith.

5. Hatred of Heritage

There is something else at work here. Modernity rejects its roots. There is little admiration for the struggles, sacrifice, and wisdom of our forebears. We don’t need old-time religion, old-fashioned values, or colonial-era inclinations. The leaders of our modern institutions (this has also affected our churches, by the way) believe wisdom comes only with the morning dew. Yesterday’s is gone and forgotten.

Tony at A Red Mind in a Blue State, helping me with my search for truly great short speeches, pointed me to one from 40 years ago, including a passage that relates to this discussion of a public God.

“…The world is very different now. For man holds in his mortal hands the power to abolish all forms of human poverty and all forms of human life. And yet the same revolutionary beliefs for which our forebears fought are still at issue around the globe — the belief that the rights of man come not from the generosity of the state but from the hand of God. We dare not forget today that we are the heirs of that first revolution….’

Is this from a fundamentalist of an earlier time? No, it’s a selection from John F. Kennedy’s inaugural address. He’d be out of place at a Democratic national convention today! And he could be in trouble if he was a school teacher in California.

It must be mentioned that it would be so much easier to further vital religious pluralism if our allies in retaining a religious presence in public life weren’t so utterly lacking in subtlety. That is not surprising, however. Whether Russian dissidents or pro-life protesters, the zealots of the cause are often socially awkward and uncomfortably abrasive. They are important to progress because they care more about principle than popularity; they slow progress when they choose to defend only some of the important principles.

What then is the right model for addressing the interplay of religion and government? Guinness suggests a “civil public square,” where citizens of all faiths and none are free to enter and engage public life within the framework of Constitutional first principles:

He writes: “The result is neither a naked public square where all religion is excluded, nor a sacred public square with any religion established or semi-established. The result, rather, is a civil public square in which citizens of all religious faiths, or none, engage one another in the continuing democratic discourse. This vision provides a constructive way forward because it goes back to the notion of covenantal, or federal, liberty that lies behind the Constitution itself.”

The answer certainly is not to keep our students from reading historical documents because our forefathers dared mentioned their dependence on the Creator God. Of course that could produce young Christian poets.

–James Jewell


About Jim Jewell

I am a writer and consultant on faith and public life, active for many years in management and communications in the evangelical community. I now work as the director of the nonprofit practice at The Valcort Group ( Everything on this blog, however, is my personal opinion and is not read or approved before it is posted. Opinions, conclusions and other information expressed here do not necessarily reflect the views of Valcort.
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