ND   Jacques Maritain Center : Religion, Agnosticism, Education / by J.L. Spalding

IV. God in the Constitution --
A Reply to Colonel Ingersoll.

THE founders of the colonies from which the United States has sprung were deeply religious. Their faith was the chief motive which impelled them toward the New World, as religious zeal had led Columbus to his discovery. When the War of Independence broke forth, the descendants of the original settlers were still believers in God and Christ, as their fathers had been. To represent them as skeptical and irreligious is a perversion of the truth of history. And this is what Colonel Ingersoll has done in the article to which I have been asked to write a reply. In declaring that "All governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed," they certainly did not believe they were "guilty of an act of pure blasphemy -- a renunciation of the Deity." They were not declaimers and had no thought of making "a declaration of the independence of the earth," which would have been false and foolish both from a scientific and a rhetorical point of view. In making this simple declaration, our fathers did not dream that they thereby "politically tore down every altar, and denied the authority of every sacred book, and appealed from the providence of God to the providence of man." They were not critics, but creators; not destroyers, but builders; and for them the providence of man was but a phase of the providence of God. Their world view did not permit them to think that man makes the sun shine, the rain fall, the wind blow; gives to earth its double motion, and drives the innumerable stars like a flock of birds through the limitless expanse of the heavens. They were aware that there was nothing new or startling in the declaration of rights. How could a revelation of high import leap forth from a convention or congress? They who argue and debate lose sight of the benign face of Truth, visible to some quiet thinker in the pleasant solitude of delightful study. From the time of Aristotle, philosophers and theologians had taught that man is by nature a social and political animal, and consequently that he has natural social and political rights. St. Thomas, more than six hundred years ago, held that dominion or supremacy is introduced by virtue of human law, and Cardinal Bellarmin, who lived in the sixteenth century, took great pains to show that power resides as in its subject in the whole people, and that they transfer this power to one person or more by natural law. Here we have the principle that government derives its just powers from the consent of the governed. In affirming this truth our fathers could have had no thought of denying God since they held that from Him man derives his being and therefore his natural rights. For them, as for the American people to-day, all that we are and all that we can hope to be comes from the Infinite Being in whom we live and move and have our being. This was the faith of the framers of the Constitution. They were wise and practical men who were brought face to face with what seemed to be almost insuperable difficulties. The Union under the Articles of Confederation was hardly more than nominal. Disruption and bankruptcy threatened the Government. Antagonisms of various kinds prevented the States from coalescing into an organic whole. The question of slavery divided the North and the South; the smaller States were jealous of the larger States; religious disagreements and prejudices gave to different parts of the country a distinctive character, and the introduction of the question of religion would not only have brought discord into the convention but would have engendered strife throughout the land.

There were not only grave misgivings concerning the ability of the delegates to agree among themselves, but there were even stronger doubts, whether, should they succeed in drawing up a constitution, it would be ratified by a sufficient number of States to make it binding. If their work failed, they clearly perceived that war, involving ruin and the loss of liberty, would be the result. In the presence of such danger, like wise men and patriots, they as far as possible avoided irritating subjects, and set themselves to work "to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquillity, provide for the common defence, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty." It was prudence, then, and not skepticism, which induced them to leave the question of religion to the several States, and which led to the first constitutional amendment, taking from Congress the power to make laws respecting the establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof." This amendment was made not for the destruction but for the protection of religion, by men who believed that religion, which alone gives to the moral character the glow of enthusiasm and the strength of abiding convictions, is the surest safeguard of free and healthful public life. Had our fathers been skeptics or anti-theists, they would not have required the president and vice-president, the senators and representatives in Congress, and all executive and judicial officers of the United States, to call God to witness that they intended to perform their duties under the Constitution, like honest men and loyal citizens. The causes which would have made it unwise to introduce any phase of religious controversy into the Constitutional Convention have long since ceased to exist. We have become a united people; the States have coalesced into the nation; our political and religious differences are of a pacific and emulative nature. If there are still reasons why express recognition of God's sovereignty and providence should not form part of the organic law of the land, they are certainly not those by which the minds of the authors of the Constitution were swayed in omitting to do this.

Colonel Ingersoll, however, raises objections to the recognition of God in the Constitution which he deems insuperable, and I proceed to examine them. "Intelligent people," he says, "know that no one knows whether there is a God or not." This is a radical assertion. To know that no one knows whether or not God is, one should have a thorough, comprehensive, and critical knowledge of the development and history of philosophic thought from Socrates to Kant and Mr. Herbert Spencer; and I venture to think there are not a dozen intelligent Americans who are willing to claim that they possess such knowledge. Nearly all intelligent men, in every age, including our own, have believed in God, and have held that they had rational grounds for such faith. What new information, what deep insight, what access of mental strength have the intelligent people of Colonel Ingersoll gained, that they know that no man knows whether God is? Has any argument for God's existence, however it may have been modified, been invalidated or even weakened by the revelations of science? Kant's criticism of reason has doubtless affected theistic, as it has influenced all modern thought. He has shown that all our knowledge is a synthesis of contingent impressions and necessary conditions; and he and the agnostics maintain that we know only the conditioned; but they are bound to assume that we know also the conditions of thought, and these conditions are unconditioned, since they are necessary. We cannot know the relative without knowing the absolute, nor the phenomenal without knowing the noumenal. Modern agnostics, following the lead of Kant, deny the objective validity of the conditions of thought; but consciousness witnesses that the subjectivity of any true category is inconceivable. The proofs of God's existence, which Kant's criticism apparently weakened, have during the last twenty-five years steadily gained in the estimation of the best and most impartial thinkers. Stuart Mill, who had been brought up an atheist, recognizes their force, in the Essays published after his death. The cosmological, the teleological, and the ontological arguments in favor of theism, though the manner in which they are urged has changed to conform with our widening knowledge, have lost none of their power to convince.

No believer, it is needless to say, claims that we have an adequate knowledge of God, for this would be a denial of the necessity of faith. He alone can grasp His own infinite perfection, and we look to Him as to the sun, with eyes blinded by the too great light. But is not all knowledge partial ignorance? So long as we walk contented through the world of fact and appearance, our path is smooth and our progress secure; but when we attempt to look beneath and ask ourselves what anything is apart from its sensible presentation, we sink into boundless regions, where intellectual sight grows dim. The mind is superior to whatever it comprehends, and hence the Infinite Adorable must forever clothe Himself in mystery. But our knowledge of the truth of science is not more certain or more clear than our knowledge of God's being. We know that matter is, but what it is we can only conjecture. It can be known by us only in terms of mind, and hence our knowledge of the soul is more intimate and more immediate than our knowledge of corporeal substance. Unless we are willing to accept the crude realism of the uneducated, we cannot hold that matter is an object of experience. God is the idea of ideas, the ultimate in thinking, without whom all thought is chaotic. Knowledge begins and ends in belief. We trust the testimony of the senses, and the facts they reveal to us are received on faith. We can know the minds of our fellow-men only by inference, and in the same way we know God. We do not claim that knowledge without faith is sufficient, or that we are able to explain all the intellectual difficulties by which our belief in God is beset. From the very fact that the idea of God is comprehensive of all ultimate ideas it is more open to assault than any other. But the inference from difficulty to doubt is illogical -- they are incommensurate terms. There are causes of belief which are not reasons. Our faith in the freedom of the will is irresistible and fatal, and yet there is no logical proof that we are free. It is difficult to answer the arguments of the idealist, but our confidence in the objective reality of the external world remains unshaken. The determinist has weighty considerations to show that freedom is impossible, but all the same we remain conscious of our freedom; the atheist and agnostic advance with confidence to prove there is no God, or that man cannot know there is, but the human soul, in the midst of a transitory and shadowy world, cleaves to the Eternal, the source of life and love and hope. Americans believe in God, believe they know He is, and to assure them, as Colonel Ingersoll does, that such faith is evidence of lack of intelligence, will, I imagine, leave the fact unchanged.

But, if we are, as a nation, to recognize that there is a God, what God, asks Colonel Ingersoll, shall we choose: the God of the Catholics, of the Presbyterians, of the Methodists, or the Baptists? This objection is childish, and it is enough to answer, that whatever doctrinal differences on other points may exist among them, Christians and Jews acknowledge one and the same God, as Republicans and Democrats have the same country, as men of science have for the object of their investigations one and the same nature, however various and contradictory even their views and conclusions may be.

"The government of God," Colonel Ingersoll urges, "has been tried," and he thinks, has been found wanting. It was tried in Palestine; in Europe, during the Middle Ages; in Geneva, under Calvin; in Scotland, under the Presbyterians; in New England, under the Puritans; and as Colonel Ingersoll holds, the result, in every case, was failure, cruelty, and misery. But we are indebted to the Government of God in Palestine for our moral earnestness and strength, our passion for justice and righteousness. The influence which radiated from Jerusalem has stimulated and invigorated every people which during the last nineteen hundred years have risen to a higher, purer, and more intelligent life. The Middle Age sprang from the chaos which resulted from the ruin of pagan civilization and the incursions of the barbarians. It brought order out of chaos, saved Europe from Mohammedanism, created parliaments, instituted trial by jury, invented the printing-press and gunpowder, built the social structure upon the monogamic family, preserved the literatures of Greece and Rome, produced the manifold and sturdy kind of life which made Shakespeare possible and which he has made immortal, wrested the charter of popular rights from a tyrant's hands, and when it was about to fade away before the coming age, as the moon grows pale when the sun

"Tricks his beams, and with new spangled ore
Flames in the forehead of the morning sky,"

it sent Columbus to open another world to human energy. The Puritans of New England have impressed their character upon the whole country. To them we owe much of what is best in our life. They had the faults which spring from intellectual narrowness and religious prejudice, but when I consider their qualities I know not where to find such men to-day.

The government of God has, indeed, been tried; but has the government of atheism or agnosticism been tried? If there has ever been a government of atheists it has existed only among the lowest savages; and as a system of thought, atheism gains acceptance only in epochs of decadence. It is a creed of despair. A universe of ever-beginning evolutions, which forever end in dissolutions, to begin and end again, without end, is a universe which makes pessimism the only possible creed. And as for the government of agnostics, who are simply hopeless skeptics, it will be sufficient to quote Goethe's words: "All epochs of faith," he says, "are epochs of glory, which uplift souls, and bear fruit for the present and the future. On the contrary, the epochs in which a sad skepticism prevails, throw, at the best, but a passing gleam, whose light does not reach the eyes of posterity, because no one wishes to devote himself to the study of sterile things."

But Colonel Ingersoll's thesis that the recognition of God in the Constitution must have, as its necessary result, a theocracy, is untenable. It is, indeed, manifestly absurd, and flies in the face of facts known by all who know anything. Is the government of Massachusetts theocratic? In the Constitution of that State, there is more than the recognition of God's being. "It is the right [I quote from the Constitution], as well as the duty of all men in society, publicly, and at stated seasons, to worship the Supreme Being, the great Creator and Preserver of the universe." "If God is allowed in the Constitution," says Colonel Ingersoll, "man must abdicate. There is no room for both. If the people of the great Republic become ignorant enough and superstitious enough to put God in the Constitution, the experiment of free government will have failed. . . . With religion government has nothing whatever to do. . . . If a nation is Christian, will all the citizens go to heaven? . . . There can be no such thing as a Christian corporation. Several Christians may form a corporation, but it can hardly be said that the corporation thus formed was included in the atonement. For instance, several Christians form a corporation, -- that is to say there are seven natural persons and one artificial, -- can it be said that there are eight souls to be saved?" This kind of writing, which runs through the whole essay, is boyish trifling, or worse. It is the kind of American style which the cultivated thinkers of the world call flippant and vulgar. To affirm that there can be no room for God and man in the Constitution or anywhere, if it have any meaning at all, is bald atheism. If to recognize God in the Constitution would prove the American people to be ignorant and superstitious, to believe in God at all is evidence of ignorance and superstition; and since Americans, as a matter of fact, with few exceptions, do believe in Him, Colonel Ingersoll must hold that they are ignorant and superstitious. To affirm that there can be no such thing as a Christian nation is to be sophistical. Nation is an abstraction, and an abstraction cannot be Christian, but neither can it be free, and therefore there can be no such thing as a free nation. "The Church has been," says Colonel Ingersoll, "in all ages and among all peoples, the consistent enemy of the human race." This is loud and clamorous talk, but empty and hollow as the rumbling of winds amid waste mountains, where no human voice has ever uttered words of sober sense. Everywhere and at all times it has opposed the liberty of thought and expression." On the contrary, the Church has been and is the most strenuous advocate of the freedom of the will, without which there can be no free thought, and only at times and within certain spheres has it sought to prevent the expression of honest thought. In our own country to-day there are thoughts which a man would be punished for publishing, and the latitude of opinion and utterance which in this age may be beneficial, might in altogether different social conditions be ruinous. Discussions which are helpful to mature and enlightened men would often be harmful to ignorant youths whose animal passions are ever ready to bribe what faculty of thinking they may have. The barbarian is a youth, as the savage is a child; and the Church, which has had to deal with mankind in every phase of development, has not always been able to choose an ideal policy. "It has," says Colonel Ingersoll, "been the sworn enemy of investigation and intellectual development." The Church preserved the literatures of Greece and Rome, and by the genius which forever burns there, the modern mind has been set aglow, and the classics are still the best school of the most perfect intellectual culture. The authors of scientific investigation are Descartes and Bacon. Both were Christians; Descartes, a Catholic, educated by the Jesuits, and all his life the intimate friend of priests; Bacon, a Protestant, who, in his essay on atheism, says: "I had rather believe all the fables in the legend and the Talmud and the Alcoran than that this universal frame is without a mind. . . . It is true that a little philosophy inclineth men's minds to atheism, but depth in philosophy bringeth men's minds about to religion." Not only the originators of modern science, but nearly all the great investigators of physical truth -- Copernicus, Kepler, Newton, Leibnitz, Ampère, Liebig, Fresnel, Faraday, Mayer, Agassiz, Van Beneden, Pasteur -- were or are religious men, Catholics and Protestants. Colonel Ingersoll continues his indictment: "It has denied the existence of facts, the tendency of which was to undermine its power." The existence of what facts, shown to be facts, has the Church denied? Only fools deny the existence of well-authenticated facts; and whatever opinion of the men who have given direction to religious thought in its relations to scientific theories one may hold, there are few who will imagine they were idiotic.

"It has always been carrying fagots to the feet of philosophy." The Church bore no fagots to the feet of Plato and Aristotle, who, after Socrates, are the fathers of philosophic thought, but it preserved their writings, and its saints from Augustine to Thomas of Aquino, have been their most illustrious disciples. Colonel Ingersoll continues: "It has erected the gallows for genius." Nay, it erected no gallows for Dante and Petrarch; for Lopez de Vega and Calderon; for Corneille and Racine; for Michael Angelo and Raphael; for Bossuet and Fénelon; for Shakespeare and Cervantes; for Mozart and Beethoven; for Palestrina and Wagner; for Goethe and Browning.

With the genius of the critic who would empty the universe of God, and leave man to wallow in the slough of matter and to be ground to atoms by the infinite fatal machine, the Church, doubtless, has never had any sympathy. Colonel Ingersoll's love of outrageous assertion is a will- o'-the-wisp which leads him into quagmires where there is no solid ground of fact or theory. A destructive critic necessarily stumbles when his style jolts from epigram to epigram. Then Colonel Ingersoll is too indignant. Indignation is a passion of which we soon weary, one which a good writer will rarely indulge, and his wrath at the ways of God and religious men, the sublime fury which the sight of a priest or a preacher arouses within him, have ceased to be interesting. Ministers of the Christian religion have doubtless, here and there, committed both crimes and blunders, but in the main they have been good men working for the good of men. It is easy to find fault with those whose deeds have left an impress on the world's history; and believers in God and in Christ have been doers, while skeptics and infidels have for the most part been content to drift on the infinite ocean of talk and discussion. To insist upon the failures of religion and to ignore its successes is to be unfair. Montesquieu, whose testimony on this subject cannot be suspected of partiality, declares that this is a poor way to argue against religion. "If I were to recount," he says, "all the evils which have been done by civil laws, by monarchy, and by republican government, I should tell the most frightful things." Are the crimes and misdeeds, the murders and lynchings, the adulteries and prostitutions, the abortions and infanticides, the dishonesties and official venalities, the drunkenness and rowdyism, which are so common in our country, an argument against popular government? Tyrants think so, but those who love liberty forget the evil in contemplating the good wrought by free institutions; and so sophists may hold that the Inquisition and the burning of Servetus and Bruno are proofs of the harmfulness of religion, but the wise and the judicious know that accidental wrongs leave the infinite good of faith in a divine order of things untouched.

If hope were the sole boon religion brings,
Hope that the end of all is life and light,
That dawn will break through universal night;
Hope that the fount of being upward springs,
Through graves and ruins and the wreck of things,
Borne ever Godward with increasing might,
Till all we yearn for lies within full sight,
And the glad soul its song of triumph sings, --

If naught but hope like this religion gave,
Of all we know or dream of, it were best,
Though all our life be swallowed in the grave
Like a brief day that sinks in the dark west,
Dying forever in the gloomy wave
And of mere nothingness eternal guest.

The seventy or eighty thousand Christian ministers in the United States to-day, Protestant and Catholic, are free from all theocratic pretensions; they would repel, if it could be made, any offer of union of Church and State; they are lovers of liberty, civil and religious; they accept science as the natural revelation of God and the friend of man; they with their brethren are busy with every kind of work that can comfort, console, strengthen, uplift, enlighten, and purify the children of men. That here and there some should fail is insignificant. The great army still moves forward bearing the banner of faith toward God and toward immortal life. We are a Christian people -- why should we be ashamed to confess our faith? What true American would not resent as an insult the imputation that ours is a godless nation. Both Houses of Congress open their proceedings each day with prayer, the President appoints each year a day of thanksgiving and prayer, and, when occasion requires, a day of fasting and humiliation. Christianity, in fact, though not legally established, is understood to be the national religion. No political party is hostile to it, or to any particular body of Christians. The churches are as popular as any of our other institutions. Though the Puritan Sabbath is gone, the observance of Sunday is general. The interest in theological questions, however controversial methods may have changed, is still keen, and if now the wave of agnosticism seems to be rising, it will break and subside, like many another wave of unbelief in the past. Nearly all the works of active beneficence, in which no country surpasses the United States, are carried on by religious men and women. Our moral standard is Christian, and religious faith is the paramount impulse to good. No people has ever become civilized without the guidance of religion; and if a race of men could be found who should think there is no God and that they are the highest beings in the universe, it is impossible to imagine that they should not sink to lower and lower planes of life. For such men the world could be but a machine, and the enthusiasm which springs from faith in divine ideals would die within their hearts. Their whole of life would be but this: --

Man wakens from his sleep within the womb,
Cries, laughs, and yawns; then sleeps within the tomb.

Who would exchange the passionate soul of youth for knowledge? Who would barter the ecstasies of faith, hope, and love for the truths of science? Who would not prefer the longing for eternal life to a whole lubberland of sensual delights? Nay, is not the dream of heaven better than the things we see and touch? Hitherto, at all events, civilized society has rested on religion, and free government has prospered only in religious nations; and if we are wise we shall not imagine that we are exempt from this law. A true statesman will look to other things than questions of finance and the machinery of government. He will seek to keep the inner source of life strong and pure, and will know that nothing has such power to do this as true religion. What good reason, then, is there why we should not write God's holy name upon the title-page of our organic law? The doing this would add to patriotic zeal something of the glow and fervor of religious faith. It would be a recognition of the fact that man's soul craves for infinitely more than any government can give; it would awaken in us a deeper consciousness of the providential mission, which, as a nation, we are called to fulfil; and it would infringe upon the rights of no human being.

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