Jefferson’s Reminder
Exclusive commentary by Patrick W. Gavin
April 2, 2004

Washington, D.C.’s Cherry Blossom Festival is invaluable for two reasons. It’s most obvious feature is the cherry blossom’s humbling beauty. Second, it brings hundreds of thousands of visitors to the Jefferson Memorial, where hopefully they will reacquaint themselves with the four passages written on the memorial’s inner walls.

Historical monuments and memorials are meant to serve two purposes: honor the past and provide guidance for the future. It was during my recent visit to the Memorial that I again read Jefferson’s writings, and found them—as always—applicable to our recent debate over the inclusion (or potential exclusion) or “under God” from the pledge of allegiance.

On one of the walls, in a passage taken from “A Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom” (written by Jefferson in 1777), he writes: “Can the liberties of a nation be secure when we have removed a conviction that these liberties are the gift of God?”

Jefferson has a point: If not God, what then, will compel citizens to behave well and abide the rule of law? Jefferson knew well the suspicious view many held of government in his own time and properly determined that a people’s confidence can best be assured by a belief in the Almighty—something higher than themselves and, more importantly, their government.

While the removal of “under God” from the pledge of allegiance—which will then have the very real snowball effect of removing God from many other things, including currency, presidential oaths, legal procedures, etc.—may be a very constitutionally sound move, we must then ask ourselves what would take God’s place.

Would we do our best, tell the truth, and pledge our sacred honor, simply because we said we would? And what if we didn’t? What would make us accountable in ways that really mattered to us?

“Or may lightning strike me dead” hardly carries the same weight, however menacing the thought.

If the answer is that we would pledge ourselves to our fellow man and the overall good of society and the republic, it is ironic that we would place such a high regard on the purity of man at a time when mankind seems most unworthy of our sacred honor and generally tends to disappoint us more often than not (Martha Stewart, Kobe Bryant, politicians, etc.).

The reality is that God’s role in civil society is not simply due to a humbling reverence for the Almighty. It’s a tactical governing and legal move, as well. With God being all-knowing and omnipotent, people are compelled—out of a sense of guilt and fear—to abide by the rules and behave appropriately even when out of the reach and sight of their government. God can get into places, see things, and ensure domestic tranquility in ways that a government could never dream of.

With God out of the picture, might more of us simply think that our lies and societal ills will go unpunished, or unknown?

Not far from the Jefferson Memorial is the U.S. Capitol, where every four years, the president-elect takes his oath of office. Although not nearly as pretty as the cherry blossoms, it is quite a sight to see most every president nervously gulp as they conclude their promises to the country with, “so help me God.”

A bit of humility and accountability from our presidents? I think Jefferson would like that.