Shortly before he left office, President George Washington published an essay commonly referred to as his “Farewell Address.” In it, he observed that:
Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indisputable supports. In vain would that man claim the tribute of patriotism, who should labor to subvert these great pillars of human happiness, these firmest props of the duty of men and citizens. … [L]et us with caution indulge the supposition, that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.
America’s founders believed that republican government requires a moral citizenry and that religion is necessary for morality. James Hutson of the Library of Congress suggests that this argument was so widespread that it should be called the “founding generation’s syllogism.”
In the late eighteenth century, every American of European descent, with the exception of about 2,000 Jews, identified as a Christian. And contrary to the assertions of some sociologists, there is every reason to believe that most of these citizens took their faith seriously.
Today, only 70% of Americans identify as Christians, 6% are members of other faiths, and 24% call themselves atheists, agnostics, or unaffiliated. The last group, often referred to as “the nones,” has grown rapidly over the past decade, especially among young people. Only 20% of religiously unaffiliated citizens agree that there are “clear standards for what is right and wrong.”
If America’s founders were correct about the connection between religion, morality, and republicanism, what do these trends suggest for the future of American politics? In this short essay, I briefly explore the founders’ syllogism and then suggest that even if they were correct, we still have reasons to hope that America’s experiment in constitutional self-government can continue to be successful.
Shortly before America declared independence, John Adams wrote, “Religion and morality alone ... can establish the principles upon which freedom can securely stand.” He regularly reiterated this conviction, noting in 1811 that “religion and virtue are the only foundations, not only of republicanism and of all free government, but of social felicity under all governments and in all combinations of human society.” Referring specifically to the U.S. Constitution, he wrote in 1798 that “[o]ur constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”
Among other benefits, religion and virtue help create a unified, safe, and peaceful society. In the words of the minister Elizur Goodrich, “religion and virtue are the strongest bond of human society, and lay the best foundation of peace and happiness in the civil state.” In 1796, future Supreme Court Justice Samuel Chase wrote in a Maryland General Court opinion that “[r]eligion is of general and public concern, and on its support depend, in great measure, the peace and good order of government, the safety and happiness of the people.” Similarly, Jedidiah Morse preached an election sermon in 1799 where he observed that it is to:
the kindly influence of Christianity we owe that degree of civil freedom, and political and social happiness which mankind now enjoys. ... All efforts to destroy the foundation of our holy religion, ultimately tend to the subversion also of our political freedom and happiness. Whenever the pillars of Christianity shall be overthrown, our present republican form of government, and all the blessings which flow from them, must fall with them.
Nor were such sentiments limited to Protestants. Charles Carroll of Maryland, a Roman Catholic signer of the Declaration of Independence, remarked that “without morals a republic cannot subsist any length of time; they therefore who are decrying the Christian religion, whose morality is so sublime and pure ... are undermining the solid foundation of morals, the best security for the duration of a free government.”
Examples of founders insisting that religion is necessary for morality, and that both are necessary for republican government, could be multiplied almost indefinitely. The logic is compelling. If republican government is to work, people need to respect each other. This includes engaging in political debate with civility, treating one’s opponents with dignity, telling the truth, and the like. More importantly, religion is a source of internal control, restraining and disciplining each citizen, and thus limiting the need of external control by civil government.
America’s founders often spoke generally of “religion,” but there is little doubt that most of them, even those most influenced by the Enlightenment, meant Christianity. The great Chief Justice John Marshall, for example, wrote that in America, “Christianity and religion are identified. It would be strange, indeed, if with such a people, our institutions did not presuppose Christianity.”
An exception to this rule is found in a 1789 letter by Benjamin Rush, where he contended that the “only foundation for a useful education in a republic is to be laid in religion. Without this there can be no virtue, and without virtue there can be no liberty, and liberty is the object and life of all republican governments.” With a liberality unusual in his generation, he continued:
[S]uch is my veneration for every religion that reveals the attributes of the Deity, or a future state of rewards and punishments, that I had rather see the opinions of Confucius or Mahomed inculcated upon our youth, than see them grow up wholly devoid of a system of religious principles. But the religion I mean to recommend in this place is that of the New Testament.
Rush ended where many founders began, with the default assumption that Christianity supports and promotes virtues that allows republican government to flourish. But strong moral systems of non-Christian religions are capable of generating the virtues necessary for republican government.
To be sure, there are extremist interpretations of all faiths that may well undercut liberal democratic values. Almost half of all Americans think that Islam and democracy are incompatible, but American Muslims are overwhelmingly supportive of the United States. American Muslims are as likely to take their faith seriously as American Christians, and they share such values as the importance of working for justice and equality.
Not only can all religions foster the moral commitments necessary for democracy, in many instances believers of all faiths have joined together to pursue common goals. For instance, all religious citizens have an interest in robustly protecting what many founders called “the sacred right of conscience.”
According to Barry Alan Shain, one of the best students of religion in the American founding, eighteenth-century European Enlightenment thinkers such as Nicolas de Condorcet were “well on their way to envisioning a benign human nature and even a perfectible one free of original sin.” Practically, this led them to reject the separation of powers, checks and balances, and federalism. “By the 1770s, most leading Enlightenment thinkers embraced unicameralism” and many “leading lights of the Enlightenment” ridiculed American federalism.
America’s founders thought that republican government required a moral citizenry. But they also understood, in the words of St. Paul, that “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). Moreover, they recognized that believers continue to struggle with sin, so even if elected officials are persons of faith, we must still be wary of political corruption. Like Lord Acton, they were convinced that “[p]ower tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
In Federalist No. 51, James Madison observed, “If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external or internal controls on government would be necessary.” He went on to explain that the separation of powers, and checks and balances, are necessary to prevent corruption and promote justice. The founders also insisted that government power must be strictly limited by law.
America’s founders rejected the optimistic view of human nature embraced by some Enlightenment thinkers, as well as utopian theorists before and after the founding era. They desired a religious and moral citizenry, but they designed a constitutional order for fallen men and women.
If the founding generation’s syllogism is correct, the decline of faith in America is a cause for concern. Citizens of faith have good reasons to encourage the “nones” to embrace faith, the success of America’s experiment in self-government being only one of them. But we should take heart that America’s founders did not assume that citizens or elected officials would be virtuous. America’s constitutional order may well be robust enough to survive contemporary religious trends.
Shortly after the delegates to the federal convention signed the Constitution, a woman asked Benjamin Franklin if the new nation was to be a monarchy or a republic. Franklin famously replied, “A republic, if you can keep it.” Like previous generations, we must work together to keep the republic. Doing so is in the interest of all citizens, regardless of their faith commitments, or lack thereof.