“Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious People. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” – John Adams
Most people are familiar with John Adams averment that “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious People. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other,” because it is quoted quite frequently, especially by those who wish to argue that America was founded as a “Christian Nation.”
I am not here to argue that, as I don’t believe that is an accurate depiction of the nascence of the country. Our founding documents do, however, make clear that the founding fathers were religious. Some were Christian from diverse denominations such as Anglican, Presbyterian, Congregationalist, Quaker, Lutheran, and others. Some were Theistic Rationalists. Whether they believed in Christianity or not, all of the founding fathers had the utmost reverence for Christianity, and though their faiths differed, they held quite a bit in common. Among those commonalities were the beliefs that:
- there is a supernatural God who created all things
- that God is revealed through the natural world
- morality comes from religion
Thus, in drafting the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson contends that it is an evident truth that men are “created” beings, that they were created by “Nature’s God,” and that the founding fathers were relying upon “divine providence” for protection in founding the country. The men who ratified these documents affirmed the existence of a being greater than ourselves who is actively involved in the affairs of men. This is also why they recognized men as having inherent, or “natural,” rights – rights that are not granted by government, but which were to be protected by government.
Those rights, however, were to be governed by morality. Since to be governable requires morality, and morality stems from religion, government could not be permitted to interfere with the exercise of religion. These brilliant men who had left behind the British motherland, knew what could happen if the government dictated religion. That does not mean they did not believe religion should not influence government. Quite the contrary. If the government is to govern a moral and religious people, that government must also be composed of moral and religious people.
In the Declaration, Jefferson outlined three specific rights: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. These rights are inextricable. The pursuit of happiness requires liberty, and liberty requires life. Unfortunately, as time has worn on, misconstruing the original intent of the right to pursue happiness precipitated liberty giving way to license.
When Jefferson penned in the Declaration the words, “the right to…the pursuit of happiness,” he was not saying we each have a right to indulge our every desire or cater to our every emotional whim. This phrase does not harbor a hidden hunger for hedonism. Jefferson did not have in mind what we now describe as happiness, that state of lacking discomfort, of having all our appetites sated.
Our founding fathers were heavily influenced by thinkers such as John Locke. Locke spoke of happiness thusly:
Though God has given us no innate ideas of himself; though he has stamped no original characters on our minds, wherein we may read his being; yet having furnished us with those faculties our minds are endowed with, he hath not left himself without witness: since we have sense, perception, and reason, and cannot want a clear proof of him, as long as we carry ourselves about us. Nor can we justly complain of our ignorance in this great point, since he has so plentifully provided us with the means to discover and know him, so far as is necessary to the end of our being, and the great concernment of our happiness.
– John Locke, Essay on Human Understanding – Part II
Locke believed happiness was found in knowing God. What, however, does he mean by such an intimation? What does Locke mean when he says we are “to discover and know him”? Locke further writes:
Let that principle of some of the philosophers, that all is matter, and that there is nothing else, be received for certain and indubitable, and it will be easy to be seen by the writings of some that have revived it again in our days, what consequences it will lead us into. Let anyone, with Polemo, take the world; or with the stoics, the æther, or the sun; or with Anaximenes, the air; to be God; and what a divinity, religion and worship must we needs have!
Nothing can be so dangerous as principles thus taken up without questioning or examination; especially if they be such as concern morality, which influence men’s lives, and give a bias to all their actions. Who might not justly expect another kind of life in Aristippus, who placed happiness in bodily pleasure; and in Antisthenes, who made virtue sufficient to felicity? And he who, with Plato, shall place beatitude in the knowledge of God, will have his thoughts raised to other contemplations, than those who look not beyond this spot of earth, and those perishing things which are to be had in it.
He that, with Archelaus, shall lay it down as a principle, that right and wrong, honest and dishonest, are defined only by laws and not by nature, will have other measures of moral rectitude, and pravity, than those who take it for granted, that we are under obligations antecedent to all human constitutions.
– John Locke, Essay on Human Understanding – Part II
Locke here rejects naturalistic philosophy, the belief that all we see around us is all that exists. He also implies that the consequences of such a belief would be dire. Morality, he avers, arises from religion, and that, a proper religion. Stoicism, paganism (worship of any of the elements of nature), Cyrenaicism, Cynicism, Platonism, naturalism, all are abject atrocities that can neither provide proper moral guidance nor lead to true happiness. Those, however, who believe that we answer to a higher authority, that we have a responsibility to Him, will find the right path. This will lead, as Locke asserts, to moral conduct:
- 3. Secondly, Πραϰτιϰὴ, the skill of right applying our own powers and actions, for the attainment of things good and useful. The most considerable under this head is ethics, which is the seeking out those rules and measures of human actions, which lead to happiness, and the means to practice them. The end of this is not bare speculation, and the knowledge of truth; but right, and a conduct suitable to it.
– John Locke, Essay on Human Understanding – Part II
Locke wasn’t the only mind to guide Jefferson’s considerations in writing the Declaration. Benjamin Franklin also inspired Jefferson’s thoughts:
I conceive for many Reasons that [God] is a good Being, and as I should be happy to have so wise, good and powerful a Being my Friend, let me consider in what Manner I shall make myself most acceptable to him.
Next to the Praise due, to his Wisdom, I believe he is pleased and delights in the Happiness of those he has created; and since without Virtue Man can have no Happiness in this World, I firmly believe he delights to see me Virtuous, because he is pleased when he sees me Happy.
– Benjamin Franklin, Articles of Belief and Acts of Religion, 20 November 1728
Franklin believed virtuous life culminates in happiness. This opinion emanated from his belief in God. In Franklin’s estimation, we cannot achieve happiness apart from uprightness. Therefore, God desires to see us live morally upright lives.
Even Thomas Paine, who rejected divine revelation, still believed in God and felt that happiness came through pursuing the happiness of others. This is contrary to the present view of the pursuit of happiness.
Jefferson considered himself a Christian, though he rejected the idea that the Bible was inspired by God and the idea of the deity of Jesus. Still, he believed Jesus a great moral teacher and Jesus’ teachings of the highest moral value, so much so that he created The Jefferson Bible, which is a compilation of Jesus’ teachings apart from the rest of the New Testament.
If there is anything to be garnered from the attitudes of all these men, it is that religion and religious (primarily Christian) values are necessary for a virtuous life, and a virtuous life is a happy life. Morality is imperative to happiness, and morality flows from religion, not nature, not human assent or accord – it originates with God. Herein lies the explanation for our modern descent into depravity.
The founding fathers wrote the First Amendment, guaranteeing a freedom of religion, expecting that the American people would be a religious people, as Adam’s wrote to the Massachusetts Militia. The 1960’s brought about a movement away from such religious affection and replaced such with a worship of humanity itself, secular humanism. The Divine has been rejected, but to what end?
To free from the restraints of responsibility to God the conscience of those who wish to pursue materialism and hedonism as the primary purposes of human existence. But if there is no God, who defines what is right and wrong? Is it decided by consensus? Where does such subjectivity steer the country?
First, we had the sixties with the sexual revolution and “free love.” The desire of people to do what they wish without consequence. Since that free love often results in pregnancy, there had to be a way to terminate those pregnancies. Thus, in the seventies, we got the Supreme Court Roe v. Wade decision in the seventies legalizing the killing of a child in-utero.
Once a society decides murder (make no mistake – abortion is medical murder) of a child is morally permissible because a pregnancy is inconvenient, a slippery slope ensues with barrels of grease hastening the decline. In 1978, the Freedom from Religion Foundation (FFRF) was founded to loosen people from the constraints of religion.
Divorce rates also climbed during this period. In the eighties, AIDS brought homosexuality to the forefront, and the nineties brought a push to mainstream it, though it once was known to be a heinous sin (as are heterosexual fornication outside of marriage and adultery, both of which are now much more acceptable in society). Since, the dive has been uninterrupted.
This brings us back to John Adams. The quote with which I began this discourse, in its greater context, warns us of the slope down which we slide:
While our Country remains untainted with the principles and manners, which are now producing desolation in so many Parts of the World: while she continues Sincere and incapable of insidious and impious Policy: We shall have the Strongest Reason to rejoice in the local destination assigned Us by Providence. 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 practicing Iniquity and Extravagance; and displays in the most captivating manner the charming Pictures of Candor frankness & 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. 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.
From John Adams to the Massachusetts Militia, October 11, 1798
Adams warned of a departure from religion. He warned that such brings desolation, as he saw happening elsewhere at the time of his note. He ruminated that avoiding such would give America, and thereby, Americans, “reason to rejoice.” If, however, we would practice sin and indulgence, if we were to fall into theft and contemptuousness, while having only an affectation of justice and restraint, then America would become a wretched residence. The constitution, as he states, could no more constrain such people than a fishing net could a whale. This is what we are now experiencing – homelessness, lawlessness, economic turmoil, division, violence, odious offenses – a truly deplorable state.
The past half decade has seen crime decriminalized, psychological disorders normalized, children sexualized and mutilated, – now arises even a push to make pedophilia more palatable. Politicians give justice lip service yet peddle its miscarriage. Instead of despising the despicable, we now accept lying, cheating, and stealing, especially when it comes to politics, as the norm. No longer do people view each other as valuable, endowed by their Creator with intrinsic worth; hate thy neighbor is the new normal. When once women fought for equal rights, people no longer acknowledge that women, as an objective category, exist. There are few impulses that people anymore are expected to resist.
Any attempt to ascend once again the slope down which we’ve slidden will be an arduous assignment. We must return America to true religion – we must spurn secularism and subjectivism. As difficult as that task seems, any alternative will hasten our deterioration. Until we gird ourselves once again with a faith in the divine, unless we find anew objective morality, America will continue to be, as we have become, “the most miserable Habitation in the World.”