PROVO — The American founding is like an eagle that needed both wings — common sense and humble faith — in order to soar, a theologian, author and former U.S. ambassador said Thursday at BYU.

Michael Novak, who has written nearly 30 books, including "The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism," and was awarded the million-dollar Templeton prize for relating theology to economics, explained that many historians today want to eliminate religion from U.S. history and make the eagle fly, impossibly, on one wing.

"To think (the founders) were atheists or relativists is simply contrary to fact," Novak said, explaining that in 1776, the colonists faced the greatest navy on earth and arguably the greatest army.

"Americans didn't have an army or a navy (or) a munitions factory," he said. "In such circumstances, it is wise to have complete trust in Divine Providence, which they did."

As the colonists fought against Great Britain, they trusted that God would protect them because they felt they were doing what was right in establishing a country where men could practice their religions according to their own dictates and without coercion.

Religious liberty was such an important factor that in June 1776, even before the Declaration of Independence, George Mason drafted the Virginia Declaration of Rights.

In it, he wrote that "religion, or the duty which we owe to our Creator and the manner of discharging it, can be directed by reason and conviction, not by force or violence; and therefore, all men are equally entitled to the free exercise of religion, according to the dictates of conscience; and that it is the mutual duty of all to practice Christian forbearance, love and charity toward each other."

The definition of religion as a duty to the creator was even included in the 1828 version of Webster's Dictionary, Novak said.

And if worshipping was a duty, then it would also have to be a right, Novak said.

"Who would dare to interfere?" he asked. "Nobody has a right to interfere with it — it's too sacred, too dear to the creator."

Novak explained that the founders believed rights grew out of one's relationship with God, a departure from the philosophy of people like John Locke, who wrote that rights came through a social "compact" between individuals.

Even Jefferson, not a particularly religious man, was reported to say that "no nation has ever yet existed or been governed without religion," Novak quoted.

Yet, other Jefferson comments about the separation of church and state often lead liberals or relativists to claim Jefferson for their side, said BYU political science professor Ralph Hancock.

He said it seems such people want to factor out religion from the founding, referring to it only as a prejudice of the time and a fact irrelevant to today's Constitution.

Such discounting misses the point, because even though Jefferson may not have been a devout Catholic or a faithful Protestant, he nonetheless believed in an "objective moral order and that political order depends upon grounding in it," Hancock said.

And for most people at the time, such order was coupled with belief in a provident god, if not the traditional God of the Bible — a belief that many want to overlook or ignore today.

"We are polarized in a way that does not match the founding generations," Hancock said. "They had their polarities, too, and obviously, the religious disagreements went deep in some respects, but in other respects, there was a broad moral religious consensus that is now contested."