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.