As a lifelong student of American government and history, one question has always intrigued me about the events which led to the Declaration of Independence, the Revolutionary War, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.
How unlikely was this assembly of leaders and populace in one place that bred a nation which, in its early years, was unlike any other that preceded it?
It’s fashionable today to revisit the founders and other great men and women of American history, measure them against 21st century standards of behavior and find them wanting. As former President George W. Bush so eloquently put it, “Too often we judge other groups by their worst examples, while judging ourselves by our best intentions.” Certainly, we should not deny that they were flawed, but if you embrace a biblical worldview of mankind, their flaws and ours are placed in a divine context and no one can hold themselves up over another.
Whatever their sins, from an expansive perspective, the convergence of these great leaders and thinkers and a general public ready to embrace their radical vision for a new nation was, in my humble opinion, providential.
Because of this perspective, I find myself often delving into their writings to understand what they were thinking as they birthed this nation, consulting primary sources as much as possible. I suppose if I were a jurist, that would make me an originalist!
One such journey led me to a famous quote by John Adams, a Founding Father and the 2nd President of the United States.
In a letter dated October 11, 1798, he wrote to the Officers of the First Brigade of the Third Division of the Militia of Massachusetts, and he commented, in part, on how successful the fledgling republic had been in avoiding the “principles and manners which are now producing desolation in so many parts of the world.”
He hoped America would remain “sincere, and incapable of insidious and impious policy” but warned that would change if America followed the path of other nations:
But should the people of America once become capable of that deep simulation towards one another, and towards foreign nations, which assumes the language of justice and moderation while it is practising iniquity and extravagance, and displays in the most captivating manner the charming pictures of candor, frankness, and sincerity, while it is rioting in rapine and insolence, this country will be the most miserable habitation in the world; because we have no government armed with power capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion.
In short, if America failed to practice what it preached, it would become no better than any other nation that existed at that time. How were we to guard against this calamity? President Adams indicated that government was incapable of “contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion.” He then drives that point home:
“Avarice, ambition, revenge, or gallantry, would break the strongest cords of our Constitution as a whale goes through a net. Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”
To be “unbridled” is to be “uncontrolled; unconstrained.” This definition has popped up in my mind often in recent days as I scan the news and social media. Everything about the American polity seems “uncontrolled; unconstrained.” In military law, there is an offense called “conduct prejudicial to good order and discipline”, and that seems like an apt phrase to describe the state of our nation today. Our emotions appear to have gotten the better of us, and we are acting out in ways that belie our chronological ages. Few people seem to be immune to this malady.
Moreover, we are encouraging this acting out of our emotions, as if it is a badge of honor to behave intemperately if the cause is just – I believe the young people call it being “woke”. This observation isn’t directed at any particular political party or ideology; “human passions unbridled” is a bipartisan phenomenon.
Perhaps my alarm at this apparent loss of civility and self-control comes from my personality and upbringing. I am a measured and self-contained person for the most part, and I believe that time and introspection before action is good advice in almost any situation. As the child of a military veteran and a veteran myself, I’ve been inculcated with a strong sense of duty; even one of those dubious Facebook personality profiles reveals me to be “dutiful”. Being dutiful implies compliance, obedience and a desire to maintain “good order and discipline,” and those who know me well say that’s me to a tee.
Finally, as a Christian, I do my best to cultivate the fruit of the Spirit that dwells within me as a consequence of the Holy Spirit which takes residence in the hearts of all believers. Linguists will note that, in Galatians 5:22-23, the word “fruit” is inclusive of the descriptive traits which follow, meaning that they are not severable and all of them should be characteristic of the Christian life:
But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law.
Clearly, these traits do not lend themselves to “human passions unbridled”.
With that, let me circle back to John Adams’ famous quote and ask a provocative question.
Recently, as I watched the evening news, a report on the budget talks in Washington, DC spoke of potentially eliminating watchdog organizations that provide consumer protection, reducing regulations on businesses, and essentially removing government restraints on human behavior.
As someone who, in principle, supports the Constitution’s provisions of limited but effective government and believes that governance should occur at the lowest level possible, beginning with the self, I confess that the words of John Adams came to mind. I wondered, “Is our Constitution wholly inadequate to the government of today’s American people?”
Benjamin Franklin once said, “Only a virtuous people are capable of freedom. As nations become corrupt and vicious, they have more need of masters.” The unanimity of the Founders on the essentiality of virtue to a self-governing republic is compelling to me, and I question whether we are still the “moral and religious people” they deemed essential to the system of government they designed.
I should note here that everyone who sees the phrase “moral and religious” is going to run to their respective political corners to find their favorite cudgels with which to beat their opponents, who they deem immoral by their particular standards, or to attack the notion of religion as a bastion of morality because they reject religious orthodoxy on topics of importance to them, or they have been hurt by people who they considered religious.
My plea to you is to resist your emotions and elevate your thinking beyond your pet issue, whatever it may be, to the lodestones of “moral and religious” behavior – devotion to a higher order of thought and behavior, and treating others as we would like to be treated.
Jesus put it this way:
Jesus declared, “’Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets depend on these two commandments.” ~ Matthew 22:37-40
Isn’t that the universal essence of religion – to be devoted to God and to love one another? If we were all dedicated to those principles, do we doubt that we would benefit individually and corporately?
The Founders didn’t have the benefit of social science when they concluded that a “moral and religious people” were most capable of self-governance and, therefore, most likely to function optimally under a Constitution such as ours. They were students of history and keen observers of the human condition, however, and they concluded that there is an immutable bond between the virtue of the people and their ability to thrive without excessive oversight.
We in the modern era have the benefit of decades of studies and surveys which document a direct correlation between committed religious belief and practice and better mental health, greater happiness, more charitable giving, more community engagement and, on the flip side, less family breakdown, delinquency, deviance, and crime. Professor Rodney Stark, author of the book America’s Blessings: How Religion Benefits Everyone, Including Atheists, states:
Translated into comparisons with Western European nations, we enjoy far lower crime rates, much higher levels of charitable giving, better health, stronger marriages, and less suicide, to note only a few of our benefits from being an unusually religious nation.
Professor Stark even calculates the economic benefits of religiosity, estimating an annual benefit of $2.67 trillion in savings as a result of America’s religious belief. This is not hard to imagine, as the debate over the size and scope of government reveals how expensive it is to provide protection and oversight in a nation that is increasingly in need of masters.
Since we are human, we are entirely capable of screwing up even good things, and religion can also be associated with negative outcomes. Of note, however, the social sciences suggest an association between the certainty of one’s faith and positive individual and societal outcomes. In other words, the more certain you are about the existence and nature of God, the more likely you are to have a positive perspective on and interaction with the world around you.
Depending on who you ask, we are either still a deeply religious nation or we are in a post-religious age, with committed religious belief being replaced by secularism or a nebulous and vacuous “spirituality” without conviction or consequence.
As we witness individuals and organizations becoming “unbridled” in social media and on the evening news, however, perhaps we can reach a consensus that we are somehow different and should be concerned.
So who are we? Are we a people for whom the Constitution is relevant, or is it “wholly inadequate” to who we are today?