(…continued) As the government of this new nation was being formed, there was much talk about the three legs of a golden triangle, like three legs of a stool. All three legs are needed, and each depends on the other.
The first leg of the stool, the first principle, is that freedom requires virtue, a free nation needs people of virtue. John Adams said, “The only foundation of a free Constitution is pure virtue.” Ben Franklin said, “As nations become more corrupt and vicious, they have need of more masters.” If you must have harsh laws strictly governing every move anyone makes, and multitudes of law enforcement people to enforce all those laws, you will not have a free society. In order to have a relatively free and open society, you have to have people of good character and good will who obey the law even when the police are not watching, who freely help each other out, and who can, for the most part, get along without constant government interference. In no society will everyone always be like that, as we all remain sinners. But if a society is going to be free and open, it must have a majority of the people who are of basically good character (of course, this is not in the sense of being justified before God by our good works, but that we behave as good citizens). Freedom requires virtue.
The second leg of this school is that virtue requires faith. People will have a better chance of being good even when the police are not watching, if they truly believe that someone else is watching, which is to say they believe in a God who sees everything. Atheists can, of course, be good people. But overall, there is a better chance of people being of good character if they truly believe they are accountable to a greater power. The most effective inspiration to virtue is faith.
Therefore, freedom requires virtue, and virtue requires faith, and then, in order for faith contribute its part, faith needs to be free. That is the third leg of the golden triangle: faith requires freedom. Churches need to be free to do their work, teaching about God and about living good and holy and productive lives for God, because if people are living good and godly lives, they are better citizens. Again, this doesn’t always work for everyone, but for the most part, people of faith don’t steal, they don’t cheat, they try to keep their families together, and they help their neighbors– and all of that helps build a better nation.
So the Founding Fathers said, “We want a free nation, and in order to have and keep a free nation, we need good and virtuous people, and to enhance that there must be freedom of religion;” thus, the three legs of the stool– virtue, faith, freedom. Religion needs freedom and freedom needs religion.
Therefore, the very first words in the Bill of Rights are: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…” This was never meant to restrict the practice of religion, but was intended to encourage its practice in every way possible. Two things are included. First, the government must not establish any one religion. Second, the government must not restrict the practice of religion in any way. The history of Europe before 1776 had shown the Founding Fathers what many Muslim nations are showing us now– that when religion and government are too closely tied together, there will be trouble. Therefore, any religion could practice freely without restriction, and, no one religion would be favored.
This was a new and brilliant concept in government. This First Amendment brings together strong religious conviction, which is necessary, while at the same time, encourages good will among the many religious differences. Good Christians, good Hindus, good Muslims, and good Buddhists, can all live by the American rules and help build good citizens. We are Christians, and our job as people of faith consists of more than making good citizens. We want to talk about truth and faith and eternity and prayer and piety, and so much more. Making good citizens is just a by-product of what we do. And the government says, “Good, we want you to do what you do, and we’ll take the good people as the side benefit.” But says the government, “Do your work as a church, but don’t expect Congress to make any laws requiring everyone to be Lutheran, or forcing them to give money to your church.” The Founding Fathers knew the history of Europe after the Reformation, with war after war fought over what religion the government would support. They wanted to keep and encourage strong religious conviction, and they wanted to allow for the freedom of all religions. Thus, the First Amendment, which is a huge part of our freedom and our success as a nation, and we can thank God for it.
Europe today has total religious freedom, but very little religious conviction anymore. Muslim nations have strong religious convictions, but very little sense of religious freedom. The first amendment has helped the United States maintain this delicate balance between conviction and freedom. (continued…)
Romans 13:1a — Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities…
I Timothy 2:1-2 — I urge, then, first of all, that petitions, prayers,intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people— for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness.
Psalm 119:44-45 — I will always obey your law, for ever and ever. I will walk about in freedom, for I have sought out your precepts.
Almighty God, you have given us this good land as our heritage. Make us always remember your generosity and constantly do your will. Bless our land with honest industry, truthful education, and an honorable way of life. Save us from violence, discord, and confusion; from pride and arrogance, and from every evil course of action. Make us who came from many nations with many different languages a united people. Defend our liberties and give those whom we have entrusted with the authority of government the spirit of wisdom, that there might be justice and peace in our land. When times are prosperous, let our hearts be thankful; and, troubled times, do not let our trust in you fail. We ask all this through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
—Lutheran Book of Worship, Augsburg Publishing House, 1978, (#169).