MICHAEL NEWDOW, the atheist who went to court to get the Pledge of Allegiance declared unconstitutional, spent his 15 minutes of fame last week asserting that the Founding Fathers would have cheered his campaign against the words "under God."
"He is confident," The Washington Post reported, "that the framers of the Constitution would have supported his view, noting that they did not mention God in the nation's founding document." He had earlier made the same claim on television, telling Katie Couric, "There is no reference to God in the Constitution. It's striking . . . that it is missing."
As it happens, there is a reference to God in the Constitution, a specifically Christian reference: "Done in Convention by the Unanimous consent of the States present," the final sentence begins, "the Seventeenth Day of September in the Year of our Lord one thousand seven hundred and Eighty-seven. . ." If the Framers were as determined as Newdow seems to think they were that the political system they were crafting be sanitized of any hint of God, surely they would have found a different way to date their document.
In fact, the last thing the founders of the American republic wanted was a public square from which every reference to God was removed. "Americans of the founding generation appealed without flinching to the undeceivable Judge of all consciences," Michael Novak writes in On Two Wings, his stirring new book on the centrality of religion to American nationhood, "precisely because they believed they had formed a covenant with Him, in the name of His most precious gift to the universe, the liberty of the sons of God."
Trying to make sense of the creation of the United States with reference only to its Enlightenment underpinnings is, in Novak's metaphor, "to cut off one of the two wings by which the American eagle flies." The philosophy of liberty developed by thinkers such as John Locke and Charles Montesquieu was crucial in shaping the ideas later embodied in the Declaration of Independence and Constitution, but it was only half the story. Religion was the other half.
The Pledge of Allegiance wasn't written until late in the 19th century; the phrase "under God" wasn't added until halfway through the 20th. But the 18th-century men who led America into revolution and independence never doubted for an instant that America is a "nation under God."
For freedom, they believed, was what God intended for His human creatures -- the freedom to be faithful to God's purposes and to follow the course He had set out in the Bible. In fighting for liberty and in establishing a republic, they were advancing God's vision for mankind; they saw their young nation as a new Israel, a people chosen by the Almighty and liberated with His help so they might build a society worthy of His ideals.
"I always consider the settlement of America with reverence and wonder," John Adams wrote in 1765, "as the opening of a grand scene and design in Providence for the illumination of the ignorant and the emancipation of the slavish part of mankind all over the earth."
It was a point others would make again and again, both in the years leading up to the war with England, and long after that war was won.
In an influential sermon in 1776, the Rev. John Witherspoon -- James Madison's teacher at Princeton and a leading member of the Continental Congress -- argued that God's hand could be discerned in the gathering storm and in the chain of events that had led to it. "It would be a criminal inattention," he said, "not to observe the singular interposition of Providence hitherto, in behalf of the American colonies."
At a very different moment 11 years later, reflecting on the remarkable unanimity achieved by the Constitutional Convention -- a body that should have been riven by bickering factions -- Madison likewise saw divine intervention.
"It is impossible," he wrote in Federalist No. 37, "for the man of pious reflection not to perceive in it a finger of the Almighty hand which has been so frequently and signally extended to our relief in the critical stages of the revolution."
But a nation under God is not just a nation whose destiny has been guided by Heaven. It is a nation, the Founders insisted, that never forgets that there is, as the Declaration put it, a "Supreme Judge of the World" who holds men and women responsible for their deeds. To them, awareness of God was not optional -- not if American liberty and republican government were to succeed.
"Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, Religion and morality are indispensable supports," George Washington avowed in his Farewell Address. It was a conviction he shared with most of his contemporaries.
Indeed, the idea that government support for religion is incompatible with the First Amendment would have struck the Framers of that amendment as ludicrous. On the same day the First Congress approved the constitutional language prohibiting "an establishment of religion," it also passed the Northwest Ordinance, which authorized a government for the territory north of the Ohio River. "Religion, morality, and knowledge, being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind," the law specified, "schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged."
Even Thomas Jefferson, though skeptical of much that he read in the Bible, believed that inculcating Judeo-Christian virtue was essential for America's political well-being. For that reason, he not only made a point of attending church, but used federal funds to support the weekly religious services held in the Capitol and other government buildings.
Much has changed in the last 226 years, but the health of our political institutions still depends on our ethics and religion. The men of 1776 have long since gone to their reward, but it remains our responsibility to preserve today what they envisioned so long ago: one nation under God, with liberty and justice for all.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe.)