As the often heated, sometimes bitter debates that characterized the Constitutional Convention roared back and forth, month after month, throughout the long summer of 1787, Benjamin Franklin found himself gazing more and more at the painted image carved on the chair used by George Washington, who was presiding over the convention.
Franklin couldn’t decide, he told those sitting around him, if the image of a shining orb was supposed to represent the dawn of a new day…or dusk, and darkness coming on the land.
“Now,” he announced with a smile, as the Constitution was finally approved and signed on September 17, “I have the happiness to know that it is a rising, not a setting sun.”
Today, 223 years later, it’s sometimes tempting to want to pull out the old chair and look again. In America, the sunrise on tomorrow is only as sure as the state of our Constitution…and today, that state is shakier than it’s been in a long, long time.
Perhaps no element of that Constitution is more endangered than the First Amendment protections of religious liberty. That cornerstone of our nation’s freedom—the dream that brought the Pilgrims and so many of the other early settlers to our Atlantic shores—is now under direct, daily assault coast to coast.
From California courtrooms to the legislative halls of Massachusetts, our First Freedom is denounced as an impediment to those who would reinvent marriage into something it’s never been, and never can be. On university campuses, it’s all but outlawed as administrative officials segregate Christian students and their activities.
In public schools, religious freedom is ignored as educators work diligently to immerse our children in an aggressively secular world view. In hospitals and clinics and pharmacies across the country, it’s a freedom often denied to those whose religious faith prohibits their participation in abortion.
For far too many Americans, their awareness of the danger is as flimsy as their knowledge of the Constitution. For most, that understanding is limited to muddled memories from high school civics classes and a carefully orchestrated falsehood fabricated years ago by the American Civil Liberties Union and pummeled relentlessly into the public consciousness ever since: “separation of church and state.”
That so-called separation, and the growing legal assault it foments against people of faith, are both so far, far removed from any intention of those who hammered out our extraordinary, unprecedented Constitution that hot Philadelphia summer of so long ago.
Of course, not even the men Thomas Jefferson (whose duties as America’s ambassador to France kept him out of the country) called “an assembly of demi-gods” were immune to the temptation to sideline the Almighty from their undertaking. So conspicuous was His absence that finally Franklin—no overtly religious man himself—asked for the floor, and, addressing Washington, offered one of the most remarkable observations in American history:
In this situation of this Assembly, groping as it were in the dark to find political truth, and scarce able to distinguish it when presented to us, how has it happened, Sir, that we have not hitherto once thought of humbly applying to the Father of lights to illuminate our understandings?
In the beginning of the contest with Great Britain, when we were sensible of danger, we had daily prayer in this room for the divine protection. Our prayers, Sir, were heard, and they were graciously answered.
All of us who were engaged in the struggle must have observed frequent instances of a superintending Providence in our favor. To that kind Providence, we owe this happy opportunity of consulting in peace on the means of establishing our future national felicity. And have we now forgotten that powerful Friend? Or do we imagine that we no longer need His assistance?
I have lived, Sir, a long time, and the longer I live, the more convincing proofs I see of this truth – that God governs in the affairs of men. And if a sparrow cannot fall to the ground without His notice, is it probable that an empire can rise without His aid?
We have been assured, Sir, in the sacred writings that “except the Lord build the house, they labor in vain that build it.” I firmly believe this; and I also believe that without His concurring aid we shall succeed in this political building no better than the Builders of Babel: we shall be divided by our little partial local interests; our projects will be confounded, and we ourselves shall become a reproach and byword down to future ages.
And what is worse, mankind may hereafter from this unfortunate instance, despair of establishing Governments by Human Wisdom and leave it to chance, war and conquest.
I therefore beg leave to move that henceforth prayers imploring the assistance of Heaven, and its blessings on our deliberations, be held in this Assembly every morning before we proceed to business, and that one or more of the Clergy of this City be requested to officiate in that service.
The observation—like the petty in-fighting, the global implications, and the very real danger of self-destruction—is as applicable to our nation now as it was that day.
Religious freedom is the thread by which hangs not only the document we commemorate today, Constitution Day, but the future of the nation to which that document gave birth. In our willingness to defend that freedom—through our decisions, through our votes, through our prayers—lies the answer to the ever-new mystery of that image carved on Washington’s chair.
Is it morning in America? Or is a great darkness descending?