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From 2001 President's Essay
Copyright 2001 The Heritage Foundation
Edwin J. Feulner, President, The Heritage Foundation


This year's President's Essay tells the story of John Witherspoon, the only clergyman to sign the Declaration of Independence, and a powerful though largely overlooked force in the birth of our nation. It was written by Joe Loconte, whose job title I will come to by way of a different story that is very much to the point of his essay.

One weekend in November of 1997 I was visiting with William E. Simon, who had been a Heritage Trustee, colleague, and personal friend for more than twenty years. As we talked, our conversation turned toward religion. This wasn't unusual, because Bill was a man of deep faith and a eucharistic minister. Hundreds of destitute, terminally ill patients died with their souls at peace because Bill Simon had been there to pray with them and comfort them in their final moments. As we chatted, I could see that this wasn't mere conversation. Bill had something weightier than usual on his mind. He had been giving serious thought to the state of religion in America. He saw an institution once vibrant and vital that had been gradually pushed out of the public square and onto the margins of our nation's civic life.

Bill saw a nation that was losing its soul, and he wanted to do something about it. He wondered aloud if it might be done through an endowed fellowship at The Heritage Foundation. The outlines of his idea were clear enough. The American Founders were men of faith who had made a place for religion as a central and essential pillar of a free society. The erosion and displacement of that pillar over the years was not a self-correcting process. Serious people of faith must make serious efforts to correct it. Ever the businessman, Bill wanted to see a plan of action: Heritage is a think tank, so what did we think about that problem?

Well, we thought a lot about it. I soon wrote to Bill and suggested what seemed like an ideal statement of purpose for the fellowship he was contemplating. It was expressed in this passage from a speech by Michael Novak when he accepted the 1994 Templeton Prize:

We must learn again how to teach the virtues of the noble Greeks and Romans, the commandments God entrusted to the Hebrews, and the virtues that Jesus introduced into the world — even into secular consciences — such as gentleness, kindness, compassion, and the equality of all in our Father's love. We must celebrate again the heroes, great and humble, who have for centuries exemplified the virtues proper to our individual peoples. We must learn again how to speak of virtue, character, and nobility of soul…. We will have to learn, once again, how to think about such matters, and how to argue about them publicly, with civility, and also with the moral seriousness of those who know that the survival of liberty depends upon the outcome. The free society is moral, or not at all.

Those words rang true, so we worked out details for advancing those aims. A few months later Bill pledged an endowment gift to establish The Heritage Foundation's William E. Simon Fellow for Religion and a Free Society. As we cast about for our first Simon Fellow, Joe Loconte was a natural and easy choice. A trained journalist, Joe had already earned our respect as deputy editor of our flagship journal Policy Review. He is also a compelling public speaker and holds a master's degree in Christian history and theology. And perhaps most important, he is a man of faith whose work reflects his professional competence and personal commitment.

Joe's essay reprinted here is aptly titled Minister to Freedom: The Legacy of John Witherspoon. I would underscore the word "legacy." As America enters the twenty-first century and approaches its 225th birthday, we are a nation in need of rediscovering the sadly neglected legacy of our Founding Fathers. Our motivation to do so has been greatly, though cruelly, energized. As I write these lines, it is less than one month after Tuesday, September 11, 2001. Following that terrible day of senseless destruction, Americans turned to religion in numbers unknown to living memory. Churches and synagogues were suddenly filled to overflowing, and public officials on our television screens spoke continually of God and faith.

Despite the horrific cause, a nation searching for comfort in religion is disposed to add momentum to what was already, in fact, a healthful trend toward rediscovering and reviving our roots as Americans. The past few years have brought a growing number of popular and scholarly books, magazine articles, movies, and television documentaries that explore various facets of the Founding Era.

But there is more than one way to read history and extract its lessons, and some ways are better than others. On that point, the late Professor Allan Bloom of the University of Chicago drew a crucially important distinction in his 1987 book The Closing of the American Mind, which shows how the American university, once an island of intellectual freedom where ideas were freely and seriously investigated, has been cut adrift and driven into the shoals by gusts of public opinion, political correctness, and moral relativism:

There is an enormous difference between saying, as teachers once did, "You must learn to see the world as Homer or Shakespeare did," and saying, as teachers now do, "Homer and Shakespeare had some of the same concerns you do and can enrich your vision of the world." In the former approach students are challenged to discover new experiences and reassess old; in the latter, they are free to use the books in any way they please.

The latter approach found its full voice in the 1960s' cry for "relevance," which meant: Our present-day framework of beliefs, values, manners, and morals is just fine, thank you. We seek from history only those notions that fit into our framework.

Turn to current thinking about religion and you see the danger in that approach. We live at a time when, to cite one telling example, the highest court in the land interprets our Constitution to mean that students cannot hear a prayer at their high school graduation ceremony. No one who takes that framework as sound will discover much of value or "relevance" among the Founders' views of religion. To recover their lost treasures we must stand in their shoes, look through their eyes, and learn to see the world as they saw it through their framework of beliefs, values, manners, and morals.

Michael Novak drove that point home brilliantly in a speech titled "Sacred Honor: Religious Principle in the American Founding," which he gave at Heritage's Annual Board Meeting at Philadelphia in April 2000. He related a series of stories that illustrate how radically the Founders' views of religion differ from today's thinking. For example, one story concerned an article in the Constitution of Massachusetts that required "towns, parishes, precincts, and other bodies-politic or religious societies to make suitable provision, at their own expense, for the institution of the public worship of God … in all cases where such provisions shall not be made voluntarily." Novak then said:

When this article was attacked as an infringement on religious liberty, John Adams replied, in effect, "Not at all, you don't have to believe it. But if you want the good order that comes from instruction in religion, particularly the Jewish and Christian religion, then you have to pay for it." That's not the way we think today, I hastily add, but this is the sort of logic our Founders used.

Indeed, that is not the way we think today. If we are to bridge the chasm between contemporary views and the Founders' views, we must get inside their logic and understand the relation of church and state as they understood it. On that point, Novak and Bloom speak as one.

Approached in that way, this essay on John Witherspoon, and the excerpts of his original writings that follow it, provide an opportunity for you to leave the 21st century and return to America's Founding Era, walk alongside one of the most influential Founders, experience the world as he experienced it, and think about it as he thought about it. From that vantage point, and only from that vantage point, can we ever hope to identify and correct the drastic contemporary errors of thought that place barricades between religion and a free society.

That is what Bill Simon wanted to help accomplish when he talked with me on that weekend back in 1997. Bill died in June of 2000, but his faith and patriotism live on through the fellowship that bears his name and makes this year's President's Essay possible. It is with fondness and gratitude that I dedicate it to the memory of William E. Simon.

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