Religion and Government

Back in December, presidential candidate Mitt Romney quoted John Adams in his “Faith in America” address delivered at the George H.W. Bush library in College Station, Texas.  Many bloggers have already analyzed how Romney incorporated Adams into his speech, so I don’t need to go there.  But I am fascinated by the relationship between faith and government that is found in Adams’ writing.

John Adams was not only the second president of the United States and one of the framers of the Declaration of Independence, but he was also an important political philosopher during that crucial embryonic phase of our Republic.  He had many great ideas that still shape our life today in America. 

The Adams quotation that Romney used (in part) is this one: “Our Constitution was made for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”

[As an interesting sidelight, John Adams died on July 4, 1826, exactly 50 years to the day after the adoption of the Declaration of Independence, and–cue The Twilight Zone music–the exact same day on which his political nemesis Thomas Jefferson died.]

I was curious–and a little disappointed–to learn that Adams, like many of his contemporaries, was a Unitarian and rejected the bulk of Christian orthodoxy.  However, at least on this occasion, Adams hit the proverbial nail on the head when speaking of the relationship between government and religion.  “Our Constitution was made for a moral and religious people.”  That is, the way our government is set up–to maximize our liberties and freedoms–requires the masses to possess a certain amount of common moral and religious ground in order for it to keep functioning. 

And this speaks volumes to our society today!  The simple fabric of our Constitution (it is breathtaking in its simplicity and comprehensiveness!) is stretched over the moral framework of the Enlightenment, which to a large extent was founded on Christian ideals.  While the framers of the Constitution were clearly against establishing an official church (they had seen the abuses of that model in Europe), they clearly assumed the moral and religious behavior of the people undergirding the strength of the Republic.

A good, contemporary example of this idea concerns the Second Amendment, the right to bear arms.  Along with this Constitutional right comes a great moral responsibility not always shared by people today!  Take, for instance, Robert Hawkins, the shooter at the Westroads Mall massacre in Omaha in December of 2007: Was he exercising his explicit Constitutional right to have a firearm?  Yes.  But was he exercising his implicit Constitutional responsibility to use that firearm in a moral way?  No!  Our freedom is not freedom if we pervert it for our own ends.  In other words, if we abandon our moral and religious moorings and use our rights for evil, then it is not freedom at all!

The apostle Paul said it best: “You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free.  But do not use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature; rather, serve one another humbly in love.” (Galatians 5:13 TNIV)  Although The Westminster Confession of Faith addresses specifically Christian freedom (that is, our freedom in Christ), its words are important background color for the fragile freedom we enjoy as Americans: “They who, upon pretense of Christian liberty, do practice any sin, or cherish any lust, do thereby destroy the end of Christian liberty….” (6.110 Book of Confessions)

Although I am not normally so pessimistic, this is a point where I fear for our society.  As we become more and more relativistic in our moral convictions, we will enjoy less and less freedom.  Take, for instance, air travel: because of a few radicals who abuse our freedom, all of us are restricted in our movement.  As we move away from basic morality in our public life, we will see the proliferation of rules and laws designed to restrain vice and promote virtue–something that should be instilled in homes and churches, not in Congress–while at the same time curtailing the freedom we have.

Where is John Adams when you need him? 

May God have mercy on our great country.

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