The Founding Fathers and Religion (OPEN THREAD)

Lost in the many arguments over the proper dividing line between church and state are quotations from our Founding Fathers or their contemporaries on the topic of religion. Here are just a few examples:

John Adams 

“We have no government armed with power capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion . . . Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” 

Benjamin Rush 

“[T]he 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.” 

Also… 

“Without religion I believe learning does real mischief to the morals and principles of mankind…” 

Noah Webster 

“I know not whether I am singular in the opinion; but it is my decided opinion, that the Christian religion, in its purity, is the basis or rather the source of all genuine freedom in government…And I am persuaded that no civil government of a republican form can exist & be durable, in which the principles of that religion have not a controlling influence.” 

Also… 

“[T]he moral principles and precepts contained in the scriptures ought to form the basis of all our civil constitutions and laws. . . All the miseries and evils which men suffer from vice, crime, ambition, injustice, oppression, slavery, and war, proceed from their despising or neglecting the precepts contained in the Bible.” 

Gouverneur Morris 

“I tell him that there seems to be little chance for avoiding the extremes of despotism or anarchy; that the only ground of hope must be on the morals of the people” 

Also… 

“I believe that Religion is the only solid Base of Morals and that Morals are the only possible Support of free governments. [T]herefore education should teach the precepts of religion and the duties of man towards God.” 

James Wilson 

“Human law must rest its authority ultimately upon the authority of that law which is divine. Far from being rivals or enemies, religion and law are twin sisters, friends, and mutual assistants. Indeed, these two sciences run into each other.” 

George Washington 

“Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable 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 duties of men and citizens. The mere politician, equally with the pious man, ought to respect and to cherish them. A volume could not trace all their connections with private and public felicity. Let it simply be asked: Where is the security for property, for reputation, for life, if the sense of religious obligation desert the oaths which are the instruments of investigation in courts of justice? And let 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.” 

Why did the Founders place such heavy emphasis on religion? I think James Madison captured the heart of the matter in Federalist 51 when he said: 

But the great security against a gradual concentration of the several powers in the same department, consists in giving to those who administer each department the necessary constitutional means and personal motives to resist encroachments of the others. The provision for defense must in this, as in all other cases, be made commensurate to the danger of attack. Ambition must be made to counteract ambition. The interest of the man must be connected with the constitutional rights of the place. It may be a reflection on human nature, that such devices should be necessary to control the abuses of government. But what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself. A dependence on the people is, no doubt, the primary control on the government; but experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions.

Checks and balances were created to curb human ambition, for the Founders feared—with good reason—that the mixture of human ambition and power would unavoidably lead to despotism. If power tends to corrupt, and if absolute power corrupts absolutely (John Acton), mechanisms must be in place to counter or contain that tendency. However, competing branches of government can go only so far. A person devoid of a strong commitment to morality will seek to realize h/er ambitions at any cost, and that includes the flouting of law. 

Moral systems lacking an absolute ground define morality according to the whims of a majority. If there are no transcendent truths, no absolutes which govern human behavior, then morality is nothing but might makes right. Good is whatever the majority says it is. To the victor goeth the spoils, and to the victor goeth the warrant to dictate right and wrong. Civil disobedience is fine so long as my side engages in it. When the other side does it, we’ll excoriate them for rejecting the rule of law. When leftists block streets, they’re calling attention to the excesses of government. When pro-life activists block streets, we’ll give them shiploads of negative press and treat them as enemies of the state. Which is it, the rule of law or noble disobedience? It isn’t morality when an act’s goodness depends on whether said act is blue or red. 

Moral agnosticism has created a host of ochlocrats, many of whom have both discarded faith in God and insist with evangelistic fervor that their cause is absolutely just. But lacking a basis for that claim puts them in line behind everybody else who has an equally voracious “moral” appetite. All that breeds is anger, pain and moral confusion.

The divine guidepost of morality is the only hope against the moral confusion in our country. An abiding faith in God restrains man’s appetite against excess and instills a sense of honor that renders impermissible pride, hatred, theft, hypocrisy and unfaithfulness. It provides a clear path for our troubled youth and instills in everyone the expectation that we all act in accordance thereto. 

There will always be transgressors, and none of our Founders was deluded into thinking otherwise. They simply saw that without a vibrant religious life, our form of government will founder. Morality is the glue that holds us together. Without it, we are lost. 

We are living in difficult times, but we can, among many other things, be thankful for a clear sound in the din of confusion (1 Cor. 14:8). Let us hope that many others will hear that sound before it’s too late.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone. 

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