Cutting the Roots—But Still Expecting Fruit
[EDITOR’S NOTE: A.P. auxiliary writer Robert Veil, Jr. formerly served as a district attorney for the Washington County State’s Attorney’s Office (Maryland), and previously maintained an active private law practice. He currently preaches in Martinsburg, West Virginia.]
Here’s a quote from the U.S. Supreme Court which may surprise you: “Where can the purest principles of morality be learned so clearly or so perfectly as from the New Testament? Where are benevolence, the love of truth, sobriety, and industry, so powerfully and irresistibly inculcated as in the sacred volume?”1 That statement, part of the official records of the nation’s highest court, was made by Justice Joseph Story, appointed by President James Madison in 1811. Known as the “Father of American Jurisprudence,” Story had earlier written, “Christianity ought to receive encouragement from the state, so far as is not incompatible with the private rights of conscience, and the freedom of religious worship. An attempt to level all religions, and to make it a matter of state policy to hold all in utter indifference, would have created universal disapprobation, if not universal indignation.”2
The interesting backstory to this Supreme Court case involves the death of Stephen Girard in 1831. At that time, Girard was the richest man in America. In his will, he provided for the establishment of Girard College in Philadelphia, PA. But the will was challenged by his familial heirs, who argued that it was void because by excluding scholarly instructors from the various sects, it was adverse to the principles of Christianity. The argument was eloquently presented by Daniel Webster, Esq., but was ultimately rejected by the Supreme Court. Interestingly, while the Court agreed with Webster that Christianity is part of the common law of Pennsylvania, it went on to recognize that support for Christianity is so natural and desirable that it is generally intended and presumed in our legal documents. Statements in a will which could conceivably be understood as opposed to Christianity will not be so interpreted without clear and plain evidence to that effect. In other words, if it is possible to interpret the will in agreement with the principles of Christianity, it must be so interpreted, and allowed to stand.
I find this case fascinating because it provides insight into the mindset of our Founding Fathers, including the Supreme Court in its early days. They not only recognized the principles of Christianity as part of and consistent with the common law, they found it unusual or unthinkable that anyone would question this. They saw it as harmful that documents such as wills should be interpreted otherwise. Justice Story agreed with Daniel Webster as to the honorable and necessary role of Christianity in our nation’s legal system. But he went on to affirm that such recognition is to be presumed as natural and obvious. In 1844, these Founding Fathers and statesmen would not have dreamed of questioning or denying the critical place of Christianity in our laws.
Story’s recognition that Christianity was deeply valuable to society, and that “it ought to receive encouragement from the state” would seem odd or unthinkable to many modern observers. The prevailing view of so many today is that church and state should somehow be “separated” and our country would get along quite well without the principles of Christianity. But that’s not the way the Founding Fathers saw it. They recognized Christianity as part of the common law, critical to our nation’s health and strength. They knew that the principles taught by Christ in the New Testament make for a prosperous and successful land.
Those who deny these truths are like the man who expects fruit from the tree after cutting away its roots. He destroys that which made the tree strong, and which gives it its nourishment and productivity, then demands that it produce as it did before. He cannot understand why the tree appears to be weak and sickly, struggling to match its former glory.
The roots of America’s strength run deeply into the Word of God. The eternal principles of truth and honesty, fair dealing, charity and integrity, sobriety and industry, mutual respect and good will form a bedrock upon which all great civilizations are built. To the extent that we honor and respect such godly principles, we can look for His protection and blessings. And as surely as we cut off and turn away from them, we need not expect the fruit of His divine approval.
1 Vidal et al. v. Girard’s Executors, 43 US 127 - U.S. Supreme Court (1844).
2 Joseph Story (1833), Commentaries on the Constitution of the United States (Boston, MA: Hilliard, Gray, & Co.).