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Nations, Virtue, Religion and Freedom

Dec 22, 2010

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.

Image of WE STILL HOLD THESE TRUTHS: Rediscovering Our Principles, Reclaiming Our Future
WE STILL HOLD THESE TRUTHS: Rediscovering Our Principles, Reclaiming Our Future by Matthew Spalding Amazon logo

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.

Postscript

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.

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14 Responses to Nations, Virtue, Religion and Freedom

  • Hi Bill, here is a really great article from the Nov CFNI magazine (Dallas Texas USA) by president Dennis Lindsay about America’s roots and where the founding fathers etc stood regarding their faith.
    I find it unbelievable how today this has been totally ignored and hidden as if they never believed what they did.
    http://magazine.cfni.org/nov10/nov10.php
    Well worth a read.
    Rob Withall

  • Thanks for that Rob.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • Hi Bill, I was just searching for one of my favourite quotes on how an (athiest) researcher was sent out from China to discover the secrets of the success of the west and who concluded that Christianity is the core of their success and I found this astounding article. It totally blew me away!!!

    Here’s the intro:

    “Watch CBNNews.com report from back in May of last year and a BBCNews article this year that further confirms China’s new found interest in Protestant Christianity for economic and productivity reasons. Values Voter News first posted CBNNews.com report in May of last year at Chinese President Hu Jintao added the word “religion” to the communist party constitution!!! but with now video…”

    Here’s the link:

    http://www.valuesvoternews.com/2010/09/bbcnews-communist-china-is-currently.html

    The rest of the article is awesome!

    Dee Graf

  • Many thanks for the tip Dee. Great stuff.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • This is a sober lesson today for Christians and Conservatives alike. Movements like the Moral Majority in the US or our Christian federal parties down under can only have a circumscribed and limited effectiveness. It is not the business of a centralised government to dictate morality, even morality that we find congenial. It is the business of Burke’s “little platoons” to act as the moral authorities – the organisations that Bill mentioned; “…homes, schools, churches, voluntary societies…” It is a decentralised moral authority system.
    Damien Spillane

  • Actually Bill, it turns out that the man featured in the CBN clip is the scholar that China sent to America to discover the ‘secret of America’s success’ and has since converted to Christianity. As I’ve been praying for the persecuted church in China, I’ve been praying for an explosion of Christianity there. I believe that the blood of the many martyrs there has paved the way for a spiritual breakthrough.
    Dee Graf

  • Thanks Dee

    Yes that is usually the way God operates. For example, it took the martyrdom of Spanish and French missionaries to help open up America to the Gospel. Many were savagely tortured and killed by the Indians there (so much for the myth of the noble savage). As Marshall and Manuel put it, “In soil watered with the blood of their sacrifice, God could now plant the seeds of the nation that was to become the new Promised Land.”

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • “there is a very real and vital connection between freedom, religion and morality; between liberty, faith and virtue.”

    Qualification. By “religion” is meant the Christian religion. By “faith” is meant the Christian faith.

    Tas Walker

  • Thanks Tas

    Yes, that would be how both I and the Founding Fathers understood the terms.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • I believe that the biggest problem with the secular humanist philosophy of many currently in the political field is not just that they do not believe in the importance of the ten commandments and the ramifications of ignoring or disobeying them, which is serious enough, but mainly their desire to be seen to still have certain “standards” and the need to impose these so-called “standards” on everyone else. Consequently they have set up their own substitute list of ten or more commandments, revolving around such “sacred” subjects as feminism, homosexuality, so-called hate crimes and a variety of codswallop, usually referred to as political correctness. And of course, in any discussion, if all else fails, there is that all purpose weapon of racism, which is used to close down any debate on so many subjects.Their choice for their “ten commandments” are so morally shallow and worthless, that good becomes bad, bad becomes good, blatant stupidity is trotted out, particularly by the so-called intelligentsia, as wisdom. This is why nations which have discarded God are in such dire straits, they are literally on the verge of collapse.
    Frank Bellet, Petrie Qld

  • Very interesting about the sacrifice of those Spanish and French missionaries. That is something that I would guess few people know but God certainly knows!
    Christianized Europe was also birthed on 300 years of persecution of Christians before Constantine legalized Christianity in 313AD. And then, as paganized Europe was rotting, God was preparing the new continent of America to take the batton and run with it. As America sent out thousands of missionaries over the 19th and 20th centuries, the seeds were planting only to be watered by the blood of yet more martyrs in preparation of a future rise of the church elsewhere.

    God is always ahead of the human game. He knows which empires are collapsing and which are rising. And hasn’t it always been true that righteousness exalts a nation! I think it’s no coincidence that they are on the rise even as tens of thousands of Chinese are being saved each week.

    Yet, as corrupt as the west is now, I still believe that God will hear the earnest prayers of His people and pour out grace upon us if only we will turn back to Him.

    Dee Graf

  • Your article leaves out inconvenient facts for the purpose of painting a rosy picture. The Founding Fathers, mainly Christian, did not renounce slavery. The rule of law included laws legitimizing the vice of slavery. Freedom of religion did not extend to slaves. They were converted to Christianity without choice and in some areas only allowed into churches for their particular colour. Yes, early Americans valued private property. Slaves were private property. Consent of the governed? Where did slaves give their consent? So Ben “Feel Good” Franklin thought of driving the poor out of poverty, did he? Were not the slaves poor, and kept in poverty? As for the Founding Fathers celebrating the virtue of self-reliance, anyone who thought reliance on slave labour was self-reliant needed watching for further moral contradictions.

    The idea that America from its immoral founding right through to its era of ten thousand nuclear teeth might be part of a divine plan is, as Jeremy Bentham would have put it, nonsense on stilts. And he would also have added blasphemy.

    John Snowden

  • Thanks John

    No I was not leaving out inconvenient facts. Your ideological secularism simply prevents you from even getting your historical facts right. The actual development and eventual eradication of slavery in America is of course a quite complex and multi-layered issue, not one readily dealt with in rather cheap pot shots. There were in fact many Founding Fathers who were strongly opposed to slavery.

    For what it is worth, both Spalding, and Marshall and Manuel, who I mention in this article, spend a lot of time in their books discussing slavery. Spalding for example says that the existence of slavery in America “clearly and blatantly contradicts this nation’s dedication to liberty and equal rights”.

    He goes on to make this incisive observation: “By any and all accounts and measures, slavery was the great flaw in the American Founding. But consider the achievement. Having inherited the institution of slavery, those who founded this nation established in principle a country dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. The principle necessary to destroy slavery was the cornerstone of the new nation.”

    Indeed, so eager were many of America’s leaders to eradicate slavery, that they were even willing to allow the nation to go to war to finally settle the issue.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • Another great article. Thanks, Bill.

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