God and the Public Square: The History No Longer Taught in School

By Kimberly Bloom Jackson

Our founding fathers believed that America’s birth was the work of a Divine hand. How else could a small collection of farming colonies have won it’s independence from the mighty British Crown?

The Apotheosis of Washington

The founders also understood that civic virtue and morality were absolutely essential if citizens were going to govern themselves. In the words of our second president John Adams, “Our Constitution was made only for a religious and moral people. It is wholly inadequate for the government of any other.”

Unfortunately, this important part of our history is no longer taught in school. No wonder there’s so much hostility toward free speech these days, let alone religious expression. But it wasn’t always this way.

Recently, while visiting our nation’s capitol, I was amazed to see just how much religion was front and center everywhere I went. In fact, America’s capitol is a treasure trove of religious symbolism found on canvas, parchment, stained-glass, stone, and marble. Throughout the National Mall, God in the public square really isn’t such a taboo after all, as secularists would have us believe.

The National Archives Building
My journey began at the National Archives, a repository for America’s historic documents. My mission was to see our Charters of Freedom—the Declaration of Independence (1776), Constitution of the United States (1787), and Bill of Rights (1791)—located in the building’s rotunda.

Just before entering the rotunda there’s a bronze floor inlay of the Ten Commandments. This image was intended to convey that our legal system originated in God’s law.

Once inside, I made a beeline for the most consequential freedom document in human history, the Declaration of Independence. This document was heavily influenced by the Magna Carta of 1215, a contract of rights between King John of England and his barons. But there’s one major difference between the two documents on the concept of rights. Our founders believed that our rights came from the Creator, not government. As the Declaration states:

When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to … assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them…. We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.

The Capitol Building
One of the most fascinating historical facts about the Capitol Building is that in 1800 Congress approved the House Chamber to be used for Sunday services. These services were available to everyone and government didn’t intervene. In other words, Congress passed legislation to support religion in the public square, not to limit it. Sunday services in the Capitol lasted 100 years!

Adorning the walls of the rotunda in the Capitol are some of the most exquisite religious artwork I have ever seen, including eight grand paintings showcasing America’s religious heritage. As a little teaser, here are two paintings:

Painted in the eye of the rotunda’s dome, 180 feet up, is a spectacular fresco called The Apotheosis of Washington. It portrays George Washington, our first president ascending to heaven.

At the East entrance of the Senate Chamber is the inscription “Annuit coeptis,” Latin for God has favored our undertakings. Over the South entrance, “In God We Trust” is written. There’s also a portrait of Moses. In the Cox Corridor of the House wing there’s an inscription that reads, “America! God shed his grace on Thee….” Here, once again, one can see the words “In God We Trust.”

The Supreme Court Building
The most impressive feature of the Supreme Court Building is the East Pediment portraying a procession of civilization’s great lawgivers, including Solon (c. 638-558 B.C.), Confucius (c. 551-478 B.C.), and Muhammad (c. 570-632). Moses (c. 1300s B.C.) appears front and center holding two tablets. In fact, there are several more depictions of Moses inside the building.

But what if I told you there are also multiple images of the Ten Commandments? After all, as a lawgiver, Moses wasn’t holding some mysterious tablets, as secularists have suggested. Images of the Ten Commandments appear on the courtroom doors, inside the courtroom, and engraved on the Chief Justice’s chair!

The Washington Monument
Although the interior of the monument is undergoing renovation until 2019, it contains numerous religious displays, including a Holy Bible, a prayer offered by the City of Baltimore, and a memorial presented by Chinese Christians. On the monument’s capstone are the words “Laus Deo,” Latin for Praise be to God.

As I expected, President George Washington’s 555 foot monument is bursting with all sorts of references to God. After all, he was a devout Christian. As our first president, Washington is also credited for taking the first oath of office in 1789 with his hand on a Bible and finishing the oath by saying “So help me God.”

The Lincoln Memorial
President Abraham Lincoln’s faith deepened during the Civil War crisis that took the lives of some 620,000 Americans. Two of his most famous speeches are inscribed on the interior walls of the memorial, each making references to God. The excerpt below comes from Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, which references God and the Bible eighteen times:

Each [Union and Confederate] looked for an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding. Both read the same Bible, and pray to the same God; and each invokes His aid against the other.

Eighteen steps down from Lincoln’s statue is a modest inscription marking the spot where Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech. Like Lincoln, King’s speech was also greatly inspired by the Bible.

The Jefferson Memorial
It was President Thomas Jefferson who first penned the phrase “a wall of separation between church and state” in an 1802 letter to the Danbury Baptist Association to reassure them that the federal government would never interfere with public religious expression. Not surprising coming from a man who regularly attended Sunday services at the Capitol Building.

While Jefferson’s monument is also filled with references to God, I found the following excerpt from his 1785 Notes on the State of Virginia to be particularly fitting today:

God who gave us life gave us liberty. Can the liberties of a nation be secure when we have removed a conviction that these liberties are the gift of God? Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just, that His justice cannot sleep forever.

Conclusion
My visit to the National Mall was an incredible history lesson. I now have a better understanding of our founding fathers profound belief that God was the basis of America’s birth, liberty, and survival, and that free public expression of faith was paramount to maintain it.

If you haven’t already explored our nation’s capitol in person, I highly recommend that you do. There’s so much to see. It would take a giant wrecking ball to completely erase evidence of our religious heritage.

Still, the hostility toward God in the public square continues to be perpetrated by those who can’t bring themselves to see the bigger picture. As President Ronald Reagan warned, “If we ever forget we are a nation under God, then we are a nation gone under.”

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