Though civil libertarians rightly point out the dangers of an unchecked government, they blissfully ignore the dangers of an unchecked, unrestrained populace. It is thus worthwhile to return to the founders and examine what role they desired religion and morality to play in their new Republic.

The story goes that as Benjamin Franklin departed from Independence Hall at the end of the Constitutional Convention in 1787, a woman asked him what kind of government the delegates had decided on. Franklin replied, “A republic . . . if you can keep it.” At the risk of “asking a kashyah on a maaseh,” what exactly did Franklin mean in saying that a republic must be kept? A certain strain in American political thought would insist that republic-maintenance is limited to the design, norms, and conduct of our political institutions: separation of powers, free and fair elections, an independent judiciary, and the rule of law are sufficient to keep the machine humming. This position holds no place for the education and choices of its citizens as significant to the upkeep of our political way of life. Rather, as long as the government stays out of our business, all will be well. An infamous summary of this position would be these oft-cited words of Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy in his brief for Planned Parenthood v. Casey: “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.” For Justice Kennedy, America is all about personal freedom from “unwarranted intrusion” by the government, and so its laws “afford constitutional protection to personal decisions relating to marriage, procreation, contraception, family relationships, child rearing, and education.” Prima facie, it would be difficult for a freedom-loving, small government conservative to argue with this statement. After all, one could rightly assert that the whole basis of the American republic lies in, as the Declaration of Independence put it, creating a government whose only purpose is to “secure” the “inalienable rights” of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” However, I believe the anecdote about Franklin cited above challenges this widely held view. If a republic must indeed be kept by its people, this means that citizens’ having the right character and making the right decisions is as essential to American success as enumerated powers and term limits are. As C.S. Lewis wryly noted in The Screwtape Letters, the term “democratic behaviour” can refer to both “the behaviour that democracies like” in addition to “the behaviour that will preserve a democracy.”[1] To keep a republic requires the former, not the latter. While civil libertarians rightly point out the dangers of an unchecked government, they blissfully ignore the dangers of an unchecked, unrestrained populace. It is thus worthwhile to return to the founders and examine what role they desired religion and/or morality to play in their new Republic.

Justice William O. Douglas has a lovely paragraph in his opinion for Zorach v. Clauson in which he succinctly enumerates a number of ways in which religion has become deeply entwined within the U.S. government: “Prayers in our legislative halls; the appeals to the Almighty in the messages of the Chief Executive; the proclamations making Thanksgiving Day a holiday; “so help me God” in our courtroom oaths—these and all other references to the Almighty that run through our laws, our public rituals, our ceremonies.” Going even further, Justice Douglas continues by stating quite matter-of-factly that, “We are a religious people whose institutions presuppose a Supreme Being.” I argue that a proper understanding of the American founding leads us to the realization that religiosity is not merely a description of our nation at its founding, but rather a prescription by many of our founders for the ongoing vitality and success of the American experiment in liberty. This brings us to a cruel irony: religion is necessary for the functioning of a liberal democracy, and yet our foundational political values of personal freedom and limitations on government, as the quote from Justice Kennedy encapsulates, severely curtail what the State can do to help its citizens take on the kind of character that republican living demands.

Aristotle would be very confused by this discussion. As he puts it in Politics, the entire structure and purpose (telos) of politics is the pursuit of virtue by a community, through which every citizen can become virtuous and happy: “the main concern of politics is to engender a certain character in the citizens and to make them good and disposed to perform noble actions.”[2] Because of man’s character as a being who can reason and debate about the good and the just, life in community is the best path to achieve and live out our telos. Crafting laws for the state and working out the legitimate uses of state power, which all citizens must figure out together, provide ideal opportunities for reflection on justice and experimentation with the best ways of achieving the goods we hold in common. In a state where the people rule themselves, the common good can actually be found and applied, though it might take a while. The traditional academic take has been that modern political philosophy, from Hobbes and Locke onwards, has cast off Aristotle and largely dispelled with this lofty purpose of politics. In its stead, they see the telos of government as being to simply protect individuals from violence and lawlessness, using the state’s monopolization of power to, as the preamble to the Constitution puts it, “establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty.” Inspired by Locke, writing in the Second Treatise that “The end of Law is not to abolish or restrain, but to preserve and enlarge Freedom,” the watchword of political thought has morphed from “virtue” to “freedom.”[3] Freedom sees human beings as rational moral agents whose autonomy must be respected, and who must be given the space to build their lives as they please, so long as they don’t harm anyone else. While such a reading of history might rightly account for the views of Locke and Hobbes, I do not think it accurately captures the views of the American founders.

While the founders surely accepted the notion, with Locke, that preserving liberty is the primary benchmark by which to judge governmental action, their writings demonstrate an awareness that virtue itself is necessary for the maintenance and continuity of their republican government, and liberty alone is not sufficient. The Northwest Ordinance of 1787, passed by the Confederation Congress, officially created the Northwest Territory and established rules and regulations regarding its settlement and development. In the body of this law, the Congress wrote: “Religion, morality, and knowledge, being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged.”[4] Given the absence of religion and the existence of “value neutrality” in the curricula of American public schools, it is rather surprising to see that the founders envisioned education as a means of citizen-formation specifically through the tools of religion and morality. This certainly strikes us as far more Aristotelian than Lockeian. Libertarians would insist that granting government the power to regulate the education of its citizens and inject morality into the curriculum is a dangerous recipe for tyranny and the propagandizing of youth, ala Chairman Mao. What they forget, however, is that liberty requires certain virtues in order to be maintained. Without a proper education that inculcates personal and political virtues necessary to live well as a human being and a citizen, the Republic is doomed. As Edmund Burke said, “Men are qualified for civil liberty in exact proportion to their disposition to put moral chains upon their own appetites.” If we do not wish to live in a panopticon state of systematic control, police on every street corner, and the long arms of bureaucratic agencies reaching into every sphere of our lives, we must be able to trust that our neighbours abide by the same principles of honour, respect, and good-faith that we do. If we are to be free from government, we must bind ourselves. Or as John Adams put it in a famous letter to the Massachusetts militia in 1798, “We have no Government armed with Power capable of contending with human Passions unbridled by morality and Religion.”

But how does this work in practice? Locke concurred that liberty cannot morph into license, but his design of government offers no clear path to mitigate and handle this serious risk. In his Farewell Address of 1796, George Washington said that “of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports . . . these firmest props of the duties of men and citizens. A volume could not trace all their connections with private and public felicity.” What, then, does Washington propose as the solution to ensuring that American citizens embody these republican qualities? He lukewarmly suggests to “promote . . . institutions for the general diffusion of knowledge.” The vagueness of this suggestion is a wonderful illustration of the deep tension that we have been discussing, namely, that virtue is difficult to guarantee without tyranny whereas liberty cannot be maintained without virtue!

The historian Will Durant once wrote that “a nation is born Stoic, and dies Epicurean.” If, hypothetically, the United States were to one day become Epicurean, and thus liable to destroy itself, what could the government possibly do about it? Locke and his intellectual descendants would tell us we couldn’t do very much at all. By reducing religion to being a matter of salvation of the soul and theoretically limiting the reach of government to only protect natural rights, there is no alternative left to save us from ourselves. In West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette, in which the Court ruled that forcing students to recite the Pledge of Allegiance in public schools violates the First Amendment, Justice Robert H. Jackson wrote in the majority opinion: “To believe that patriotism will not flourish if patriotic ceremonies are voluntary and spontaneous, instead of a compulsory routine, is to make an unflattering estimate of the appeal of our institutions to free minds.” Making an idol out of freedom and voluntarism, the good Justice assures us that human beings are certainly rational agents whose freedom must be respected. I would reply that while patriotism certainly can flourish without coercion, there is also the very real possibility that it will not, and in that case, what are we to do? The case of patriotism is a wonderful test case for our problem. Surely, patriotism is a virtue necessary for national cohesion, loyalty, public service, and even fighting in wartime. With the passage of time, however, public polling shows that Americans are reporting historic lows of patriotic sentiment. It doesn’t take a political scientist to predict the deleterious effects that this might have on our public life and institutions, and the degraded quality of democratic participation that will ensue. I foresee declines in voting, service in the armed forces, the quality of our bureaucrats and the quality of our elected officials as the downstream effects of people feeling less proud of their country, less taken by its story, and less interested in serving it.

To answer this problem, conservatives and libertarians will predictably remind us of Burke’s “little platoons,” and the many middling spheres and institutions that exist between government and the individual, like families and churches and volunteer organisations. Thus, they say, even if the government, the media, and higher education are incapable of transmitting citizen-forming values, these other cultural forces are strong enough to do so in their stead. Sadly, these institutions aren’t doing very well at the moment, and liberal democracy does not possess the political resources to hit a reset button and recover all that is being lost. Social capital, as famously described by Robert Putnam in his book Bowling Alone, serves as a useful analogy here. Dr. Putnam showed that the social interconnectedness of a society, developed through norms of trust and reciprocity, is the best predictor of economic growth and healthy, vibrant democratic life. Places with thick civic networks where people trust each other are actually governed better, too. Just as liberal democracies have been unable to come up with any effective solutions to address the serious problem of declining social capital, so too they are averse to doing much about solving the decline of religion in public life. It is easy enough to say that these issues are best addressed by the private spheres of family and community, but this ignores the potential reality (current or future) where institutions themselves are weakened and enervated to the point of no longer fulfilling their purpose.

To conclude, let us return to the beginning. Man is a social, political animal who naturally lives and cooperates with others. Asserting the priority of the individual and his freedom over society and its constraints robs us of the habits and institutions that make life meaningful. Our wellbeing lies in interaction with others and in having identities that are embedded in close-knit groups with a shared history, institutions, and cultural norms. As Dr. Putnam has taught us, religions are a major source of social value, whereas absolute freedom kills the social order. Highly connected societies are more successful than their modern Western counterparts. A civic religion makes us feel part of a shared endeavour, and integrates us into a moral community. Thus, a society without any binding norms holding it together except for the freedom to pursue whatever we want will suffer and then disintegrate as the institutions propping it up weaken. This Aristotelian-American perspective understands that the liberty of the individual is a goal worth pursuing only in tandem with a culture that forms human beings who can wisely and prudently rule themselves. Without that culture, with our little platoons emaciated and our all-powerful government pitifully helpless to compel virtuous behaviour, Justice Kennedy’s notorious mystery passage will be relegated to the dustbin of history and the project of liberty is doomed.

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[1] C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters (San Francisco, CA: HarperOne, 2015): 197.

[2] Aristotle, Politics, trans. Ernest Barker (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009): 1099b30.

[3] John Locke, Second Treatise of Government, ed. C.B. Macpherson (Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing Company, 1980): section 57.

[4] The Northwest Ordinance of 1787, Section 14, Article 3.

The featured image is Allegory of Wisdom and Strength (c. 1565) by Paolo Veronese (1523-1588) and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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