Faith in the public square seems to worry some Americans. They see the Ten Commandments posted in a courtroom or voluntary prayer at a public event and think they see evidence of a creeping theocracy. Until a couple of centuries ago, of course, religious persecution was a serious problem in the West and the American colonies, and it is still nearly ubiquitous in the Muslim world. These days, though, we're in much greater danger of prohibiting the free exercise of religion than of establishing it. So it's helpful to remind ourselves of the contributions of the Judeo-Christian tradition to our American ideals.
Historians recognize that our most cherished beliefs as Americans -- equality and human rights, the value of the individual, limited government, freedom -- are branches of a tree with Judeo-Christian roots.
Of course, one can share these values without being a Christian or Jew. The American Founders believed they could be grasped by reason apart from special revelation. This is why Thomas Jefferson, a deist of sorts, could write in the Declaration of Independence: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." On this point, the Founders believed, reason and revelation agreed.
These truths might have been self-evident to the American Founders. It still took hundreds of years of Europeans being told that all men were created in God's image for that truth to become the cornerstone of a nation. And even the Founders didn't apply it consistently. But without the theological background, is there anything less obvious than that all human beings -- no matter how smart, productive or attractive -- are equal? In fact, most cultures in history have insisted on just the opposite. If our modern culture completely forgets its theological roots, how likely is it that we'll retain our commitment to human equality?
The Founders were also acutely aware of the reality of sin. So rather than pursuing utopian fantasies, they created a government with a separation of powers, each of which would check the ambitions of the other. And they were careful to protect the free exercise of religion while prohibiting a federally established religion. That way, separate religious institutions would hold each other in check, while believing citizens would reinforce and defend the public truths they shared and on which our nation is founded.
Perhaps most perplexing to modern secularists is that the Founders could revere God in public, even officially, while still opposing a federally established church. That's because they believed that God's existence and the basic principles of morality were public truths that could be known by reason, and not just sectarian religious doctrines.
As a result, faith has always had an honored place in the American public square, and doesn't constitute an establishment of religion. Just a few years ago, a University of Chicago law professor put this point nicely:
[S]ecularists are wrong when they ask believers to leave their religion at the door before entering into the public square. Frederick Douglas, Abraham Lincoln, Williams Jennings Bryan, Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King -- indeed, the majority of great reformers in American history -- were not only motivated by faith, but repeatedly used religious language to argue for their cause. So to say that men and women should not inject their "personal morality" into public policy debates is a practical absurdity. Our law is by definition a codification of morality, much of it grounded in the Judeo-Christian tradition.