The James Wilson Foundation on Natural Rights and the American Founding

“Civic Religion and the Peace Cross” –Gunnar Gundersen in The Catholic Thing

In an essay for The Catholic Thing titled “Civic Religion and the Peace Cross”, JWI-affiliated scholar Gunnar Gundersen defends the inherent value of religion amid a conservative push toward moral relativism.  After sketching the Court’s history of secularizing public religious symbols, Gundersen observes the early formation of a sort of Roman civic religion in the United States.  In contrast to state-centered pagan creeds, Christianity has always existed before and above the workings of government—a principle originally understood by America’s Founders and reaffirmed by the generations who followed them.  Responding to the Supreme Court’s recent decision in the “Peace Cross Case”, Gundersen denounces civic religion as a cheapened form of faith, hollowed out to survive liberal interpretations of the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause.  Properly understood, religion cannot be conveniently retooled for instrumental use by public officials; instead, Gundersen’s conception of religion transcends government and demands its respect as an inherently valuable part of the American experience.

Some excerpts from the piece:

“Religion was protected at the Founding because it was considered by those and subsequent generations to represent a real, religious duty to God – a Supreme Being to whom we owe all things. It was not protected because it adds solemnity to our civic proceedings or connects us to our history.”

“Th[e] view of Christianity as a civic religion is contrary to how it has always viewed itself – as a religion founded by Christ, not by secular governments. In contrast, the pagans had civic government. Politics created pagan religion, not the other way around: religion existed for the sake of the political order, the political order did not exist to serve religion.”

“Promoting religion is not some exercise in maximizing personal autonomy, then. Rather, it is way for the polity to acknowledge and assert that it is God who rules. Rooting religious rights in a rational, loving God will make it impossible to argue that religious exercise is merely the exercise of some idiosyncratic and arbitrary invocation of transcendental or demonic powers. And it will tend to promote religious practices that encourage forgiveness, love of neighbor, and jealous protection of every citizen’s God-given rights. In this way, the rights of all will find greater security – rooted in obligations to God rather than as grants from the government.”

Read the whole essay here.

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Law and liberty cannot rationally become the objects of our love, unless they first become the objects of our knowledge.
— James Wilson, Lectures on Law, 1790