“The things of the spirit come first”

From Bill Bennett’s American Patriot’s Almanac we have this entry for today, 5 July:

“The things of the spirit come first”

On July 5, 1926, in a speech in Philadelphia commemorating the 150th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, President Calvin Coolidge reminded Americans that “in its main features the Declaration of Independence is a great spiritual document.


Our forefathers came to certain conclusions and decided upon certain courses of action which have been a great blessing to the world. . . . They were a people who came under the influence of a great spiritual development and acquired a great moral power. No other theory is adequate to explain or comprehend the Declaration of Independence. It is the product of the spiritual insight of the people. We live in an age of science and of abounding accumulation of material things. These did not create our Declaration. Our Declaration created them. The things of the spirit come first. Unless we cling to that, all our material prosperity, overwhelming though it may appear, will turn to a barren scepter in our grasp. If we are to maintain the great heritage which has been bequeathed to us, we must be like-minded as the fathers who created it. We must not sink into a pagan materialism. We must cultivate the reverence which they had for the things that are holy. We must follow the spiritual and moral leadership which they showed. We must keep replenished, that they may glow with a more compelling flame, the altar fires before which they worshiped.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. Legisperitus says:

    “Of all the dispositions and habits, which lead to political prosperity, Religion and Morality are indispensable supports. In vain would that man claim the tribute of Patriotism, who should labor to subvert these great pillars of human happiness, these firmest props of the duties of Men and Citizens. The mere Politician, equally with the pious man, ought to respect and to cherish them. A volume could not trace all their connexions with private and public felicity. Let it simply be asked, ‘Where is the security for property, for reputation, for life, if the sense of religious obligation desert the oaths, which are the instruments of investigation in Courts of Justice?’ And let us with caution indulge the supposition, that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect, that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle. It is substantially true, that virtue or morality is a necessary spring of popular government. The rule, indeed, extends with more or less force to every species of free government. Who, that is a sincere friend to it, can look with indifference upon attempts to shake the foundation of the fabric?”

    George Washington, Farewell Address

  2. WaywardSailor says:

    “America is the only nation in the world that is founded on a creed. That creed is set forth with dogmatic and even theological lucidity in the Declaration of Independence; perhaps the only piece of practical politics that is also theoretical politics and also great literature. It enunciates that all men are equal in their claim to justice, that governments exist to give them that justice, and that their authority is for that reason just. It certainly does condemn anarchism, and it does also by inference condemn atheism, since it clearly names the Creator as the ultimate authority from whom these equal rights are derived. Nobody expects a modern political system to proceed logically in the application of such dogmas, and in the matter of God and Government it is naturally God whose claim is taken more lightly. The point is that there is a creed, if not about divine, at least about human things.”
    ? G.K. Chesterton, What I Saw in America

  3. cjcanniff says:

    It’s amazing to think that Coolidge was governor of Massachusetts before becoming President. With a wonderful statement like this, he would never even be elected as dogcatcher in this liberal state today. Oh, how times have changed!

    On another note, hopefully Mitt Romney will be the second, former Massachusetts governor to be elected President.

  4. Mark Scott Abeln says:

    From what I’ve read, the early presidents of the United States, including Washington, strongly supported the moral virtue of religion out of a sense of justice. The Founding Fathers often wrote of the virtues, and said that they ought to be cultivated.

    However, I’ve read that no American president received communion until Benjamin Harrison (president from 1889 to 1893). The worldly virtue of religion, of course, should not be confused with the theological virtue of faith. The early presidents, whose thinking was likely more in line with the lodge than with the Church, were at least honest by not receiving communion.

  5. Joe Magarac says:

    “Our forefathers … were a people who came under the influence of a great spiritual development and acquired a great moral power.”

    This is a great quote, but it’s revisionist history. Jefferson (who wrote the Declaration of Independence) was not religious and expressly denied the divinity of Christ. Franklin (who profoundly influenced the Declaration’s content) was a Deist who walked away from his family’s Calvinist church at age 15 and never attended church as an adult. Some of the remaining Founders were nominal members of religious denominations, but few of them were churchgoers, and many of them were Deists like Franklin. Indeed, the Americans in 1776 were in large part only nominally religious; we didn’t become a churchgoing nation until the First and Second Great Awakenings (which stimulated church attendance among Protestants) and the various waves of Catholic immigration.

  6. wmeyer says:

    Actually, Joe, the notion that the founders were not influenced by Judeo-Christian values is the revisionism.

    Thomas Jefferson wrote:
    “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among them are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness – that to secure these rights governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed ….”


    “God who gave us life gave us liberty. Can the liberties of a nation be secure when we have removed a conviction that these liberties are the gift of God?” He also wrote: “Almighty God hath created the mind free. … All attempts to influence it by temporal punishments or burthens…are a departure from the plan of the Holy Author of our religion…”


    “I have sworn upon the altar of God eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man.”

    Our Founding Fathers wrote the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution:

    “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

    President George Washington said this when proclaiming our National Thanksgiving Holiday:

    “It is the duty of all nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God ….”

    John Adams wrote this:

    “We have no government armed with power capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion. Avarice, ambition, revenge, or gallantry would break the strongest cords of our Constitution as a whale goes through a net. Our Constitution was made for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”

    There are many other examples available.

  7. Joe Magarac says:

    @wmeyer –

    Of course you are right that the Founders were profoundly influenced by Christianity and hoped that the USA would be influenced by it too. That’s obvious from what they wrote. As you say, there are many examples available.

    But in the passage that Fr. Z quoted, Coolidge didn’t say that the Founders were influenced by Christianity and leave it at that. He mad a much bigger claim – which is that the Founders and there contemporaries had “come under the influence of a great spiritual development and acquired a great moral power.” Anyone who is even moderately familiar with the personal lives and religious habits of Jefferson and Franklin knows that isn’t true. Anyone who is familiar with existing research into the religious habits of Americans circa 1776 also knows that isn’t true.

    A person can be influenced by Christianity while not actually attending religious services. Ronald Reagan – who never went to church while he was in the White House – is one such example. The Founders provide many more such examples.

  8. Kerry says:

    “Anyone who is even moderately familiar with the personal lives and religious habits of Jefferson and Franklin…” Isn’t this the Donatist heresy? If their “personal lives and religious habits” disprove when they affirmed “Endowed by their Creator”, why then do these ‘failings’ not also invalidate everything else written in the Two Documents? After all, if “by their Creator” is suspect, then so is ” …a decent respect to the opinions of mankind”, and “deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed”. Or do”personal lives and religious habits” only disprove the Deity…?
    If the Donatist hypothesis is correct, then only Christ Himself disproves it. And isn’t He Himself, then sufficient, to make His own case?

  9. Venerator Sti Lot says:

    Is there any reason to think that Coolidge particularly had Jefferson and Franklin in mind when he spoke of “Our forefathers” as “a people” and “the people”?

    When Joe Magarac says “we didn’t become a churchgoing nation until the First and Second Great Awakenings” is he tacitly disputing the dating of the ‘First Great Awakening’ to the period from the 1730s on?

    And how many of the signers of the Declaration were clergymen? When they conducted their services, did they do so alone in empty churches?

    What Coolidge says sounds not unlike the thesis of Alan Heimert in ‘Religion and the American Mind: From the Great Awakening to the Revolution’ (1966), in fact.

    Curiously, and perhaps for reasons best known to himself, even Franklin appears to have been an active public promoter of George Whitefield – and so of the ‘First Great Awakening’!

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