Coolidge on the Spiritual Roots of the Declaration

Coolidge on the Spiritual Roots of the Declaration
In 1926 President Coolidge gave a speech commemorating the 150th anniversary of our founding. The speech was given at the newly constructed Sesqui-centennial International Exposition in Philadelphia. My grandparents were present at the event, as my grandfather was a Naval officer stationed at the Navy Ship Yard, adjacent the exposition park. I have their invitation to the formal opening on May 31, 1926, shown to the left. The speech by Coolidge is recommended by Leon Kass in the July 1 edition of the Wall Street Journal. (Find a copy Kass’s column here; for the entire speech by Coolidge look  here)
I am struck by similarities between Coolidge and on the religious roots of freedom, and our Declaration. 

Here is an excerpt from Coolidge:

A spring will cease to flow if its source be dried up; a tree will wither if its roots be destroyed. In its main features the Declaration of Independence is a great spiritual document. It is a declaration not of material but of spiritual conceptions. Equality, liberty, popular sovereignty, the rights of man these are not elements which we can see and touch. They are ideals. They have their source and their roots in the religious convictions. They belong to the unseen world. Unless the faith of the American people in these religious convictions is to endure, the principles of our Declaration will perish. We can not continue to enjoy the result if we neglect and abandon the cause. . . .
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 sceptre 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 . 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.”
Pope John Paul II made this statement to Ambassador Boggs:
Indeed, it may be asked whether the American democratic experiment would have been possible, or how well it will succeed in the future, without a deeply rooted vision of divine providence over the individual and over the fate of nations. As the Year 2000 draws near and Christians prepare to celebrate the bi-millennium of the birth of Christ, I have appealed for a serious examination of conscience regarding the shadows which darken our times (cf. Apostolic Letter Tertio Millennio Adveniente, 36). Nations and States too can make this a time of reflection on the spiritual and moral conditions of their success in promoting the integral good of their people. It would truly be a sad thing if the religious and moral convictions upon which the American experiment was founded could now somehow be considered a danger to free society, such that those who would bring these convictions to bear upon your nation’s public life would be denied a voice in debating and resolving issues of public policy. The original separation of Church and State in the United States was certainly not an effort to ban all religious conviction from the public sphere, a kind of banishment of God from civil society. Indeed, the vast majority of Americans, regardless of their religious persuasion, are convinced that religious conviction and religiously informed moral argument have a vital role in public life. (Speech may be found here)

Pope John Paul II also warned of the danger of consumerism, what Coolidge called “pagan materialism,” whose tide continues to rise and inundates the souls of our fellow citizens. In Centisimus annus he warned that the materialism of the west could be as devastating as Marxist materialism:

A given culture reveals its overall understanding of life through the choices it makes in production and consumption. It is here that the phenomenon of consumerism arises. In singling out new needs and new means to meet them, one must be guided by a comprehensive picture of man which respects all the dimensions of his being and which subordinates his material and instinctive dimensions to his interior and spiritual ones. If, on the contrary, a direct appeal is made to his instincts — while ignoring in various ways the reality of the person as intelligent and free — then consumer attitudes and life-styles can be created which are objectively improper and often damaging to his physical and spiritual health. Of itself, an economic system does not possess criteria for correctly distinguishing new and higher forms of satisfying human needs from artificial new needs which hinder the formation of a mature personality. Thus a great deal of educational and cultural work is urgently needed. §36

We must affirm the concluding remarks of Leon Kass, adding only that John Paul II would back both Tocqueville and Coolidge on this issue of religion and political life:

Coolidge was no religious fanatic. He appreciated our constitutional strictures against religious establishment and religious tests for office, limitations crucial to religious freedom and toleration, also principles unique to the American founding. But he understood that free institutions and economic prosperity rest on cultural grounds, which in turn rest on religious foundations.

Like Tocqueville, who attributed America’s strength to its unique fusion of the spirit of liberty and the spirit of religion, Coolidge is rightly concerned about what will happen to the sturdy tree of liberty should its cultural roots decay. It is a question worth some attention as we eat our barbecue and watch the fireworks.


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