When President Coolidge spoke on this day eighty-nine years ago, he reflected upon the circumstances of America’s making. Addressing those gathered in honor of one of the most dedicated missionary-circuit riders to America, the Methodist Francis Asbury, Coolidge recalled the great power of spiritual revival and religious renewal that set the stage for the political and economic freedom that followed. Our nation was not built on humanistic creeds, demanding a censorship of God, a silence of any public profession of Christ, or separation of religious belief from one’s public responsibilities. Our nation did not entrust its foundation stones to the Old World’s belief that man was his own final authority. Nor did America trust, as would France, Italy and many other nations, that the State, as the embodiment of that blind confidence, deserved omnipotent power to effect human perfection. On the contrary, Coolidge looking across the years concurred with those who were there at America’s making, “in the direction of the affairs of our country there has been an influence that had a broader vision, a greater wisdom and a wider purpose, than that of mortal man, which we can only ascribe to a Divine Providence.”
Religion informs our understanding of self-government. Religion makes freedom possible. It is what preserves the balance between liberty and tyranny. It was no demand for oppressive theocracy. It was the opposite of coerced belief systems, a deliberate protection of the individual conscience from government mandating what to believe and practice. It gives strength to culture and preserves a peace in society that no order of government can attain. This is why something so fundamental to America’s life and growth cannot be divided into secular and sacred. It was the spreading of religious truths that prefaced the fight for independence in the years that followed America’s “Great Awakening.” No man could honestly claim credit for these events. America owes its existence not simply to some great man, or committee of sages, but to Providential favor.
The experience of history teaches us that there are two, irreconcilable theories of government. Coolidge explains, “One rests on righteousness, the other rests on force. One appeals to reason, the other appeals to the sword. One is exemplified in a republic, the other is represented by a despotism.” Coolidge knew that a proper grasp of religious belief did not clash with logic, it made rationality possible. Faith was no “crutch for the masses,” it was the bedrock of sound living. Government, on the other hand, is blunt force. By keeping government clear of regulating what individuals must believe and worship, reason not force prevails. In this way, the conscience is preserved not in service to the State but to God, where it must remain. Just as Coolidge would reaffirm, America made its decision which theory of government would function here at its founding. Consequently, Coolidge could, without apology, declare, “Under our constitution America committed itself to the practical application of the rule of reason, with the power held in the hands of the people.” Not consigned to the malleable interests of government, “the work of religion” is done by the individual. “We cannot escape a personal responsibility for our own conduct. We cannot regard those as wise or safe counselors in public affairs who deny these principles and seek to support the theory that society can succeed when the individual fails.” No government can supplant the personal obligation of each one of us to live rightly. We are no more able to delegate our moral duties than government is to mandate its own redefined morality upon each individual. Making abortion or same-sex marriage legal does not make them moral. Forcing individuals to violate conscience may become law but it cannot be made righteous. Government cannot make moral what is immoral. Government cannot relieve one from the duties of conscience. Government cannot save the soul.
As President Coolidge concluded his dedication of the devout minister’s life and example, he considered all the hardships through which the missionary triumphed. His success was America in miniature. It served as a reminder that this nation, having faced some of the fiercest storms imaginable, emerges truer and better on the other side. The current troubles were not cause for despair or surrender. For, Coolidge noted, “[U]nderneath it all our country manifested then and has continued to manifest a high courage, a remarkable strength of spirit and an unusual ability, in a crisis, to choose the right course. Something has continued to guide the people.” That guide was not from human greatness or mortal ability but came by heeding “the still small voice,” the Divine authority that inspires men to carry on and live by “the word of truth” in the most violent storm. Such is necessary if the “contests of the day” are to be “preparations for victories on the morrow.” To all those detractors of America, Coolidge said, “America continues its own way unchallenged and unafraid. Above all attacks and all vicissitudes it has arisen calm and triumphant; not perfect, but marching on guided in its great decisions by the same spirit which guided Francis Asbury.” That spirit guides, not in the power of government to redefine morality, but in the conscience of the individual free to believe and practice its obligations without fear or hindrance. The individual, first committed to the truth, finds the ultimate source of strength and bulwark of fulfillment not in a “benevolent” despotism but in God through service. When the exercise of religion is left free from a grasping State, political and economic self-government follow. The strength of our Republic and the basis for its future continuance, will correspond to the strength of our religious faith, the reasoned belief in the truth.