In his new book, Kevin Seamus Hasson argues that understanding—and protecting the fact—that our natural rights are endowed by our Creator are essential to the American project. Without this philosophy, the reach of our government is boundless.
Consider these familiar news stories: A lawsuit is filed in protest of an opening prayer before a football game. An atheist’s rights group protests the Pledge of Allegiance being recited at public ceremonies. Someone starts an online petition in hopes of having “In God We Trust” removed from United States currency. Simply put, there’s no shortage of litigation and loud protests demanding the government stop invoking God and the cries seem angrier today than ever before in our history.
For over two hundred years America has held firm that our rights are “endowed to us by the Creator.” In his new book, Believers, Thinkers, and Founders: How We Came to Be One Nation Under God, Kevin Seamus Hasson, founder of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, argues that if we distance ourselves from this understanding of the founding and our natural rights, we risk altering the entire American experiment and what it actually means to be an American.
Lest there be any confusion, Hasson is not making a case that America is a Christian nation nor is he delivering a blueprint for a theocratic takeover of the country. He is, however, arguing that America’s founders were a mix of ordinary Christians, Deists, and some in between, that all had very different ideas about God, but agreed that this Creator (who they all disagreed about!) did grant to us individual rights. Shepherding and stewarding those rights are what gave birth to the American project—in particular, its legal instruments such as the Declaration of Independence and our Constitution that still provide the framework for governance today.
Yet essential to Hasson’s thesis is that the Founders made a philosophical claim about God, rather than a religious one. Drawing on the observation of British writer G.K. Chesterton that Americans have “a creed” rather than a particular religion, Hasson argues “the existence of God is a philosophical conclusion and not a religious dogma at all.”
There’s long been a distinction between faith and reason and Hasson believes that the existence of God can be known by reason alone. Faith, however, is what teaches us who God actually is. Throughout the book Hasson documents America’s longstanding tradition of recognizing a higher being that serves as “the source of our rights and the author of our equality.” In fact, this very same belief is what allows for the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and countless other legal instruments to affirm the inherent dignity of all human person, which “gives coherence to human rights.”
The American founding’s acknowledgement of God, according to Hasson, was an intellectual proposition—not a religious dogma—and this actually helps us navigate many of the divisive issues in our culture wars today. When certain folks are upset about students reciting the Pledge of Allegiance or seeing coins that mention “In God We Trust,” contrary to what they believe, there is no religious endorsement taking place, a profession of faith, or an underhanded attempt to proselytize.
Instead, as the Ninth Circuit Court of the United States concluded in 2010, references to God are meant to “underscore the political philosophy of the Founding Fathers that God granted certain inalienable rights to the people and the government cannot take away.” Nothing more is implied there—but in it, rests the protection of a free citizenry and a limited government.
In his second inaugural address, President John F. Kennedy reminded us that our rights “come not from the generosity of the state, but from the hand of God.” In acknowledging this, the state recognizes its limited reach and provides for the free exercise of religion—and many other practices—that have defined the ideals of this nation since its founding.
As we approach the anniversary of our Founding, at a time when religious liberties and our first freedoms are increasingly under assault, this principle from several centuries ago seems as timely as ever.