Could America Survive without Religion?
by Robert P. George
Can freedom survive in a society in which most citizens believe that human beings, who are supposed to have inalienable rights, are merely material beings inhabiting a universe of purely material and efficient causality?
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.John Adams famously said that our Constitution was made “only for a moral and religious people and is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”
Was he right?
Perhaps the first thing to note is that our Constitution is, to borrow a phrase from Hayek, a “constitution of liberty.” Under it, the power of government over the people is checked and limited, and the people enjoy a large measure of freedom. But freedom can, of course, be used for good or for ill. Freedom can be used wisely or irresponsibly.
Like the other Founding Fathers, Adams recognized that freedom does not guarantee virtue; yet the maintenance of freedom and the cultivation of its cultural conditions require virtue. Freedom itself is placed in dire jeopardy when free people become corrupt or foolish. It is also put at risk when fear, absent the virtue of courage, induces them to abandon freedom for the sake of security—be it economic or physical.
So, virtue is one cultural condition of freedom, and it is necessary to the establishment and preservation of freedom’s other cultural conditions. Beyond that, there are other social goods—essential aspects of the common good of any political society—that require virtue among the people. When freedom degenerates into what the Founders called “license”—a counterfeit of true freedom—these goods, too, are placed in grave peril.
All of this may be common sense, but it was a sense that was by no means common when Adams and his fellow Founders launched what they themselves understood to be an “experiment” in republican government and ordered liberty. And it is a common sense that, as the conditions of contemporary intellectual life have made all too clear, can be forgotten. Indeed, it is a common sense that can be derided and mocked by people who regard themselves as too worldly, sophisticated, and enlightened to believe in things like morality and virtue. So in the face of modern nihilism (sometimes, paradoxically, masquerading as the most high-minded moralism) the defense of Adams’s proposition takes on a kind of urgency.
Is Religion Necessary for Morality?
Let’s look at Adams’s proposition regarding virtue in the context in which he asserted it. Here are his words:
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, and sincerity, while it is rioting in the rapine and insolence, this country will be the most miserable habitation in the world. Because we have no government armed with the power capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion. Avarice, ambition, revenge, and gallantry [by which Adams evidently meant sexual license] 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.
Among those intelligent, honest, and humble enough not to think themselves too sophisticated to agree with Adams that the common good and freedom itself depend on virtue, some will say, “Well, yes, virtue surely is required, but individuals—and even nations—can be virtuous even if they are not religious.” So Adams, they maintain, should have said, “Our Constitution was made for a moral people, whether or not they are religious.”
Are they right?