Yes, Mr. Commenter, Freedom Only Works for Moral and Religious People

Without public morality, government must grow. When government grows, freedoms contract. Freedom requires morality.

There’s a commonly understood, even if unspoken, rule for most opinion columnists, and that is: don’t read the comment section. It’s not that those forums can’t ever produce good thoughts or insightful observations. It’s that those sections are far more often havens for nameless trolls who are far more interested in name-calling and pejoratives than in seriously engaging the argument being made.

Admittedly, I break that rule from time to time and am sometimes just amazed at how many people truly read only the title of a piece, never the content, before unloading both keyboard barrels with a vengeance. I’ve learned restraint for the sake of my sanity, and very rarely – if ever – take time to engage. But the other day, a commenter on one of my articles said something that was so astounding I decided it wasn’t worthy of a mere reply in the comments. It was worthy of its own piece.

Forgive the condescending way this may come across, but we can call this a teaching moment.

After my article on how Christians should respond to the cultural chaos that surrounds us, a gentleman responded by quoting the esteemed patriot John Adams who once wrote that, “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” His response was measured, appropriate, and meaningful – prime fodder for lurking trolls.

And right on cue, a reply came in:

“What bullocks! The constitution only works if the governed are religious. My goodness…that’s a new one.”

Actually, no. It’s not a new one at all. In fact, it’s as old a principle as Western Civilization itself. It’s as old as political philosopher Edmund Burke who reasoned in a letter he wrote to a member of the National Assembly:

“Men are qualified for civil liberty in exact proportion to their disposition to put moral chains upon their own appetites…Society cannot exist, unless a controlling power upon will and appetite be placed somewhere; and the less of it there is within, the more there must be without. It is ordained in the eternal constitution of things, that men of intemperate minds cannot be free. Their passions forge their fetters.”

Men of intemperate (immoral) spirits cannot be free. That’s the precise point that President Adams was wisely making. Here’s the full context of his remarks written to the officers of the Massachusetts militia:

"[W]e 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.”

Adams’ point is abundantly clear to anyone with even a modicum of reason: in America we dare to make men free. But freedom only works if people are willing to morally restrain themselves. If they don’t, external controls – as in, government – must necessarily increase. And what does any student of basic civics understand? With every law that government writes, citizens lose just a little bit more of their freedom.

The Constitution, Adams writes, as great as it may be, is completely impotent in preserving our experiment in freedom if people are not internally restrained by a sense of morality. There is no government big enough to stop crime. Government can react to crime, punish immoral actions after they’ve been committed, but can never preempt the infraction or prevent it from occurring.

At the time of our founding, we had no gun laws, no drug laws, no child labor laws. And why? Because we didn’t need them – people had moral chains on their immoral appetites that kept them from abusing those freedoms. But as civic morality waned in the intervening years, what happened? People began using their freedoms with guns to do bad things; they used their freedoms with drugs to abuse them; they used their freedom in the marketplace to exploit children.

And what resulted from that abuse? Cries to the government to protect us from such immorality. And the government responded with gun laws, drug laws, child labor laws. It’s not that those laws are bad – it’s that the mere enactment of those laws resulted in a sacrifice of freedom on the part of the people.

That’s how this works. That’s how this has always worked. Without public morality, government must grow. When government grows, public freedoms contract. Any Constitution made for a free people then, is completely dependent upon the preservation of national morality. And how do you preserve national morality? Ask John Adams’ predecessor, the Father of our Country, George Washington himself in his Farewell Address:

“Reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.”

So back to our commenting friend, the idea that “the constitution only works if the governed are religious” isn’t “bullocks” at all. It’s the wisdom of political philosophers, the counsel of our Founding Fathers, and now sadly the testimony of our great American experiment in liberty.

Comments
No. 1-18
HarmenB
HarmenB

Meh. When you deify the Founding Fathers, you lose the argument in my eyes.

The Founding Fathers were overall smart, bright, driven people, with often very good intentions.

They were also a bunch of men, often slave owners, who could not imagine seeing women as equals to men.

And they were willing to enshrine the great, wicked evil of state-sanctioned slavery in order to get their Union, thereby setting the Union on a course towards eighty years of horrific violence towards human dignity, making a complete mockery of America's founding ideal that all are entitled to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

What followed was a murderous Civil War. What followed was a century of further extreme violations against human dignity and rights of citizens. What followed was a painful, prolonged struggle for Civil rights and up until today a fight to truly live up to the ideals of the revolution.

The Founding Fathers were overall great human beings.

But they were only human beings.

They made horrific, bloody, immoral choices.

It is best to stop deifying them.

ekay
ekay

There is a huge difference between being religious and being a believer. How to tell the difference? The bible tells us "by their fruit you will know them". A "Religious" person often is faithful in attending church but doesn't "walk the talk". Too many people equate sitting in a pew on Sunday with being "religious".

BKP1883
BKP1883

I have read scripture and I posted this as a response to another post below:

Nothing in the history of religion has shown it to be some barricade to corrosion of human rationalizing. Religion itself must have a foundation of temperance and morality, as to be true one must want what is good.

Assuming Christianity is the moral buttressing, there are scriptures that point to an inate morality free of christian belief. God stamps it into our hearts, and even those ignorant of Christianity shows by their conscience that morality is stamped on their hearts.

Now I don't believe in a god-given morality. I believe we as humans developed it over millennia to survive as a social species. We see rudimentary altruism and morality in other species. But whatever the case, the message is the same: morality is in our minds and hearts by nature, whether supplied by the divine or not. From there, people maintain their goodness or rationalize it away based upon their character, and religion will not prevent or encourage it.

And besides, this is all moot, as the legal and ethical norms of western democratic capitalism creates a system that is maintained by exchange. Ones own self-interest is provides for by meeting another's self-interest.

Oregun
Oregun

King George called our war for independance a presbyterian parsons rebellion and he was somewhat correct. The issue of the day was between the idea of the divine right of kings or the king is law. Verses the reformed biblical position of Lex Rex, that is the law is king. Our greatest principles of law ie separation of powers and jurisdictional responsibilities are all derivitives of the broad view of the ten commandments from calvanistic creeds such as the Westminster and 2nd London Baptist confessions. The high value on personal liberty is from the families of the colonist coming here to escape religious persecution and monarchial tyrany. Even getting these ideas here cost a price of persecution and bloodshed that few are willing to pay. Sometimes knowing the historical cost of freedom makes me shocked at the present willingness to through it away in temper tantrums of ungratefulness and ingnorance. The historical choice has allways been to be educated in sound doctrine and practice to be self governed or to be enslaved by tyrants in vice and ignorance.

Dr. Maturin
Dr. Maturin

"At the time of our founding, we had no gun laws, no drug laws, no child labor laws. And why? Because we didn’t need them – people had moral chains on their immoral appetites that kept them from abusing those freedoms. But as civic morality waned in the intervening years, what happened? People began using their freedoms with guns to do bad things; they used their freedoms with drugs to abuse them; they used their freedom in the marketplace to exploit children."

I'm sorry, but this argument is simply wrong. Let's take these one by one:

o Child labor. At time of our founding, child labor existed, but it was different from child labor we legislate against today. In the late 18th century, ours was a primarily agrarian society, with small family farms and small handicraft businesses. Children did work, but much of it was within their own family farms and businesses. Children also might be apprenticed out once they reached a certain age, but they were learning a trade and thus a useful skill.

This all changed as America became more industrialized. Children ended up working long hours for others in factories in dangerous conditions and with no hope of bettering their lot in life. Far from religious belief constraining child exploitation, child labor became its worst during the Victorian era--a period of high religiosity in America. Many of these religious people thought the factory owners were doing the children a service, arguing that child employment would prevent habitual idleness and degeneracy. (The old "idle hands are the devil's work" bit.)

You also make the big assumption that the founders would have viewed child labor--even child labor that we would consider exploitative--as immoral. Like the many of the Victorians, they thought child labor could be salutary for the children and prevent the danger of idleness. For example, Alexander Hamilton, as Secretary of the Treasury, noted in a 1791 report on manufacturing that children “who would otherwise be idle” could become a source of cheap labor.

Behind these attitudes towards child labor was the fundamental belief that children were property--the property of their parents. And the parents were entitled to put them to whatever productive use they saw fit. In addition, a great deal of child abuse simply was accepted. Apprentices, for example, could be badly mistreated and beaten by their masters. Just as we had to mature enough to see slaves as more than just property, so we had to come to see children as being more than just property. With respect to our treatment of children, we have become more moral, not less.

o Drugs. Our founding fathers didn't make drug laws in a large part because street drugs didn't exist. Cocaine, meth, cannabis, psychedelics--all that stuff simply wasn't available. Opium was perhaps available in small quantities, but it didn't become widely available until the 1800s.

The one drug that was widely available was, of course, alcohol. And it was also widely abused. Our founders were in general much harder drinkers than we are today, often starting out the morning with hard cider,and continuing to drink beer, wine, or hard liquor with each subsequent meal. Public drunkenness and alcohol-fueled violence and domestic abuse was common. In their defense, alcoholic drinks were safer than water, since they had no clue about infectious disease and water-borne illnesses. However, it would be difficult to say they had moral chains on their appetite for alcohol.

o Guns. Well, I really don't want to get into this one, both because it would require too much writing and because I don't want to turn this into a gun control argument. I'll just say that we are looking at very different times--an agrarian society in which guns were an essential part of life and that had not yet invented professional police forces. I also will point out that gun violence and gun control as a solution are not 20th century inventions. Throughout the 19th century, different states and municipalities tried and sometimes succeeded in introducing gun control laws, often in response to very real problems with gun violence.