On April 30, 1789, the day of his first inauguration, George Washington placed his hand on a Bible from St. John’s Masonic Lodge and recited his oath of office. Kissing that most sacred book, Washington concluded his oath with these words: “… so help me God.”

In the more than two centuries since Washington’s inauguration, that phrase has been interpreted as a violation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, which prohibits Congress from establishing a state religion.

Yet, without fail, all 44 of Washington’s predecessors have followed his tradition on their own inauguration days. Hopefully, that will remain true for centuries to come — but as our nation’s morality declines, skepticism of the original intent of religion in the state is increasing.

Recently, there’s been a push to drive all religion out of government. Separation of church and state has been magnified to the extreme — but our founding fathers never interpreted that separation to mean that the state should be without religion. 

In 2019, House Democrats stopped requiring that individuals testifying before Congress end their oaths to tell the truth with “… so help me God.” Representative Steve Cohen of Tennessee said that by swearing their truth before God, witnesses were “using God.”

“And God doesn’t want to be used,” he said.

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Cohen’s comment was alarming because it communicated a larger message about his party: that any religion in government must be seen as corrupt, unfair, and unequivocally wrong.

“I think God belongs in religious institutions: in temple, in church, in cathedral, in mosque — but not in Congress,” he said.

What many today fail to realize is that the primary religious institution that should instruct Christians comes not from a worldly building or organization, but the institution that dwells within the soul; and as much as the federal government tries to separate church and state, it can never separate man from his soul. God is not confined to a church, nor is He blocked by walls around a government structure. His presence does not, and will not ever, waver because Congress wills it so. 

The biggest challenge to a Christian in modern-day America is finding a way to bridge the divide between church and state. It’s uncomfortable to confront the lies we’ve been told about this jurisprudential concept — but it serves us well to remember that they are lies.

The founding view of religious liberty encouraged free exercise, ensuring that there would be no punishment for individual religious beliefs. The founders specified that each church had the right for internal self-government, just like other private associations did. 

Unsurprisingly, the Biden administration has skewed the original meaning of religious liberty, saying programs that would strip funding from private schools, repeal Trump’s Muslim ban, and disallow taxes that fund religious organizations, are all worthy pursuits to preserve religious liberty. While Democrats and Republicans may agree on some of those points, it doesn’t matter: The First Amendment grants no constitutional powers to the federal government to regulate free exercise of religion in states. 

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The language of the First Amendment states: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion.” Justice Clarence Thomas’ concurring opinion in Zelman v. Simmons-Harris offers a clear meaning of this clause: “This provision places no limit on the States with regard to religion. The Establishment Clause originally protected States, and by extension their citizens, from the imposition of an established religion by the Federal Government.”

The definition of the Establishment Clause, which is now interpreted as any government support of religion, is merely an invalid invention of the Supreme Court. With this clause, the founders simply meant that Congress had to leave the states alone. 

A much better way to explain the founding view of faith-life would be this: “Congress belongs in all federal institutions — but not in God.”

Although the modern view of establishment calls any support of religion (direct or indirect) into question, Christians have a duty to bring their faith into every aspect of their lives; and it’s up to the states to allow that. We shouldn’t sit idly by, watching as the next president swears an oath he has no chance of keeping. 

Our founding fathers understood the importance of religion as an “indispensable support” to a healthy union. Lest we forget their reverence for faith, we need only remember Patrick Henry’s words: “It cannot be emphasized too strongly or too often that this great nation was founded, not by religionists, but by Christians; not on religions, but on the gospel of Jesus Christ. For this very reason peoples of other faiths have been afforded asylum, prosperity, and freedom of worship here.”

Live, act, vote, and prosper with that in mind — and never forget that it was God who gave you liberty, and only God who can provide it.

Haley Strack is an intern with Convention of States, a project of Citizens for Self-Governance.