Very few people would realise it, but there is a very real and vital connection between freedom, religion and morality; between liberty, faith and virtue. And perhaps nowhere was this concept so explicitly and strenuously promoted and championed than in America during the time of its founding.
The American Founding Fathers wrote extensively on the vital importance of both personal faith and social morality if their experiment in freedom was to succeed. They knew that a political system alone, no matter how well conceived, would not long last unless the citizenry was a virtuous people.
And they knew that freedom, no matter how important, would simply give way to license, and a new tyranny, unless the population were solidly religious and moral. Indeed, the founding of America was really one of the most unique and amazing events in modern history.
I cannot here go into all the detail of the birth of what really was a great nation, but I do want to draw your attention to a tremendous new book which I hope everyone will get and read. And it is not just Americans who must read this book. Anyone concerned about how faith and freedom must coexist should also master this volume.
I refer to Matthew Spalding’s We Still Hold These Truths (ISI, 2009). The title of course harks back to some of the opening words of the Declaration of Independence (1776). Spalding wants us to recall what an incredible event the founding of the American Republic was, and how much wisdom, thought, prayer and earnestness went into drafting its key documents and laying out its political structures.
The entire book is a real gem, looking at ten key themes or principles which went into making America a “light set on a hill”. These include: religious liberty, the rule of law, private property, the consent of the governed, and limited government, or constitutionalism.
But here I just want to focus on one chapter of the book, “The Virtues of Self-Government,” which is about “Building Community, Forming Character, and Making Citizens”. In this chapter Spalding shows how very seriously the Founding Fathers took the notions of religion and morality in the creation of a free and prosperous nation.
They realised that certain preconditions were necessary to ensure that their attempts at creating a new nation with abundance and liberty would be a success. Self-government, both personal (moral) and social (political), were essential.
The Founders understood that individuals “could not govern themselves as a body politic unless they were each first capable of governing themselves as individuals, families, and communities.” They were not just concerned with “the structures of limited constitutional government but also with the public virtues and civic habits needed to maintain the capacity for political self-government.”
If liberty was the great theme of America, so too was virtue. “The Founders never thought liberty to be an open-ended right to do whatever one wanted. They were careful to distinguish ‘the spirit of liberty from that of licentiousness, cherishing the first, avoiding the last,’ as George Washington once phrased it.”
“As a whole, the Founders recognized that citizen virtue was necessary for the success of republican government, and that limited government was possible only if citizens were able first to govern themselves by ruling their own passions.”
John Adams for example said, “We have no government armed with power capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion. 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.”
Spalding reminds us of the centrality of religion to the Founders’ project. George Washington put it this way in his Farewell Address: “Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensible supports.”
Says Spalding, “The Founders held to this simple syllogism: morality is necessary for republican government; religion is necessary for morality; therefore, religion is necessary for republican government.” Of course today the secularists are seeking to rip religion out of governance altogether.
The Founders would have none of such thinking. “Laws, by permitting or restraining certain behaviours, cannot help but shape habits and form the character of citizens. The Founders did not think such a concept at all improper.” But government-enforced virtue alone was not the answer.
“America’s founders did not think that law alone – even state and local law close to the people – could (or should) shape morality without the active engagement of character-forming institutions outside of government. This was mainly to take place in homes, schools, churches, voluntary societies, and so on.
Four key civic virtues were emphasised. The first was the virtue of self-reliance. Personal responsibility and hard work were held in high esteem. “The thought of formal welfare programs organized at the remote national level was unimaginable.”
Of course they encouraged help for one’s fellow man when needed, but they discouraged a welfare mentality. Benjamin Franklin put it this way: “I am for doing good to the poor, but I differ in opinion of means. I think the best way of doing good to the poor, is not making them easy in poverty, but leading or driving them out of it.”
A second virtue was strong character, as seen in courage, risk-taking, and competitiveness. A third virtue was a keen knowledge of the rights and responsibilities of citizenship. The last was self-restraint and moderation. Citizens must be able to control their own passions if they are to expect constitutional government to work.
“The American Founders sought to establish the constitutional basis for a society that could inspire these moral qualities in the American character, strengthened by the religious faith held by nearly all Americans. They also understood that the practice of these virtues was the essence of self-government in the individual and the firmest foundation for an independent, self-governed society,”
I suspect that most Americans – and most Westerners – today would find such words and thoughts to be utterly foreign to them. This simply shows how far we have moved away from the intentions and aspirations of those who helped to establish America.
These were men who were steeped in God, in morality, and concern for the public good. These characteristics are of course largely absent today. Thus to be once again reminded of the special, unique and in many ways providential founding of America is the need of the hour.
There would be hundreds of volumes which can be recommended on the moral, spiritual and intellectual roots of America’s establishment. Here I just want to draw your attention to a set of three superb volumes. Back in 1977 Peter Marshall and David Manuel wrote The Light and the Glory (Revell).
It was a careful examination of the divine purposes which seem to have unfolded with the founding of America. A revised and expanded edition of this book appeared in 2009. It covers the period of 1492-1793. A second volume by these authors appeared in 1986, and a third appeared in 1999, which were re-released in 2009.
From Sea to Shining Sea covers the period of 1787-1837, while Sounding Forth the Trumpet examines 1837-1860. The vast amount of historical material covered in this trilogy (totalling 1550 pages), demonstrates just how much God was at work in early American history (and just how much we have forgotten).
I highly recommend these three volumes, along with Matthew Spalding’s very important book. These four books alone will clearly demonstrate what a powerful and abiding influence Christianity had on the founding and development of America.