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John Adams and Alexander Solzhenitsyn Were Right
A huge reason for the success of Western Civilization is that our Judeo-Christian faith focuses on improving yourself. You are made in God’s image. Act like it. Look inside yourself. Are there improvements that you could make in your soul? Well sure, but that’s really hard. But with God – the creator and master of the entire universe – watching you and taking a personal interest in your soul, perhaps you might give it a try. So we work at it. With varying degrees of success, to be sure, but we work at it. Our religious leaders are constantly imploring us to study the lessons of the Bible, and take them to heart. Don’t criticize others when you are so flawed. Let he who is without sin cast the first stone, and so on. Fix yourself first. A society full of Jews and Christians who truly believe in their God and seek to please him; that society is generally a pretty nice place.
John Adams was characteristically insightful when he observed, “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” I would argue that this is true not only of our Constitution but also of any other government ever conceived.
Adams’ point is that if the behavior of people is not governed by their religion, then it must be governed by their government. He was a student of history. He knew that that does not end well.
In Matthew 22:21 Jesus said, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s; and to God the things that are God’s.” He understood that government was necessary to manage the affairs of men, but when it comes to managing really important things, like our souls, only God could do that. I would presume that students of the 20th century could reach no other conclusion.
Because government, understandably, takes a different approach. The government manages citizens and things, not souls. So it is essentially in the business of telling people what to do, and what not to do. What else could the government do? There is no other way.
In Christianity, you seek to improve yourself. In government, you seek to improve others. Modern progressives and others who have a great deal of faith in the power of government to improve our lives should stop and consider this very important distinction. And they should consider how well this has worked in the past.
Over the course of history, this has been tried in many different ways. Tribes governed by chiefs. Kingdoms governed by royal families. Socialist systems. Communist systems. And so on and so forth. They all look different on the outside, but on the inside, they’re all the same. They involve telling other people what to do. And for whatever reason, this doesn’t seem to work very well. In fact, these systems seem to rapidly, and consistently, devolve from ineffective to catastrophic. Every time. There is no other way.
It would appear that the only way to improve a society full of people is to improve the actual people. One at a time. From the inside out.
Teachers recognize this phenomenon. A kid from a good family is easy to teach. A kid from a horrible home will be either very difficult or impossible to improve, no matter how talented and dedicated his teachers are. The damage is done. There’s nothing to work with. And good teachers can recognize which kid is which by the end of the first week of school. They know which kids will be in college prep courses, and which will be in detention. They do their best with everybody, of course. But they know how things will turn out. They’ve seen it before.
So as we abandon our religious faith as individuals, we hope that improved government can maintain this very nice society to which we have been accustomed. And despite its flaws, our government is certainly one of the best in the world.
But it doesn’t matter. The damage is done. There’s nothing to work with. Teachers would understand. John Adams was right.
Viktor Frankl felt that freedom was a negative aspect (a lack of something – a lack of oppressive government), and that the corresponding positive aspect was responsibility. He said, “I recommend that the Statue of Liberty on the East Coast be supplemented by a Statue of Responsibility on the West Coast.” He didn’t understand how one could exist without the other.
The government can’t create 300 million responsible, moral individuals, by fiat. That is the work of parents, and of the church. There is no other way.
We’ve tried other ways. Those who believe that morality and ethics can be created by pure reason should stop and think about that if they study the history of the 20th century. Or even studied the history of any era, if you think about it.
To look deep into oneself, and critically judge what one sees, and then undertake to improve upon it to the very best of your ability – that is agonizingly difficult. The government cannot encourage us to do that. Only religion can.
On the contrary, if our behavior is governed by a system of laws, then it is only natural to work around and within those laws as effectively as possible. Most people are reasonable, and that is a reasonable thing to do. But even if your behavior is reasonable, and even legal, it may not be ethical. Which seems harmless. But as it turns out, it’s not harmless. Thousands of years worth of brilliant men, from Moses to Solzhenitsyn, have spent their lives explaining to us why this is so incredibly dangerous.
We pursue wealth and technological advancements to make our lives easier. And it works. I don’t walk to work. I drive a car. With air conditioning. It’s nice. Much easier than walking. And I like easy. We all hope to avoid things that are difficult. That effort to make difficult things easier is human nature, and it leads to many of the things that make our modern lives so pleasant. We prefer easy things over difficult things.
So we naturally prefer the government to religion. Religion is hard. Improving myself is really hard. It’d be so much easier for me to just tell other people what to do. Would I rather seek out the worst flaws of my character and endure the agony of brutal self-criticism and go through difficult work needed to improve them? Or would I rather put a political bumper sticker on my car and go vote? One can understand why so many people choose the bumper sticker.
Who will get more votes? The 1700’s theologian Jonathan Edwards, whose stump speech is “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God?” Or Bernie Sanders, who says you can do whatever you like, and he’ll give you whatever you want? Actually, forget Jonathan Edwards. A nice, unthreatening Republican can’t win elections if he simply suggests that someone has to pay for all of Bernie’s programs. That sounds hard. We, naturally, prefer easy.
Some will choose the bumper sticker. They always have. Understandably. But what happens when a quarter of us do that? Or half? That’s when things get dicey. And then, inevitably, violent.
Choosing the easy path makes things difficult, eventually. It always does.
There is no other way.
When I have an idea for a post, I often just write it as it appears in my head – just dump it onto the page, with little concern for quality. I type fast. This part generally takes 20-30 minutes. No more, because I get bored as quickly as I type.
Once my thoughts are on the page, I save it, and come back to it in a week or a month, when I feel like posting something. At that point, I’ll generally reorganize it, cut its length by half or so, and clean it up in an effort to achieve, well, coherence, at least. This part takes another 20-30 minutes, usually, unless my original version was total garbage. If this part takes more than 30 minutes, I’ll generally consider that post hopeless, dump it, and try another old first draft to work on, if I’m still in the mood.
I came back to this post today to clean it up, and thought, “Eh, whatever.” I’ve been doing that more and more recently. Sorry about that.
So to paraphrase somebody famous that I’m too lazy too look up, “Sorry this is so long, because I was too lazy to make it short.” Or something like that. It’s easier to just post it.
Again, we often choose the easy way. And that leads to sloppy essays and deadly government.
You’re lucky I’m just writing an essay, and not writing policy.Published in General
I’ve seen that one a few times, so I took the initiative to look it up. There’s this one attributed to Blaise Pascal, “The present letter is a very long one, simply because I had no leisure to make it shorter.”
So true. People will say that they’re good people and don’t need religion. However, it weakens the foundation for the next group and the nice society eventually crumbles.
Thanks for looking that up.
Pascal was an extraordinary man. What a mind. Imagine what he could have come up with if he had been healthy (he was sickly most of his life). And if he had died at 80 years old, instead of 39.
I can’t think of anyplace on the west coast where a Statue of Responsibility would be allowed.
Could anyone describe what it might look like?
John Adams is my favorite Founding Father. A virtuous man, if a bit relentless on himself.
One of my daughters considers herself completely nonreligious, and she has rigorous moral scruples. But she is unusually self-disciplined and not prone to self-delusion.
You could argue that good people don’t need God looking over their shoulder. You may even be right, although I’m extremely skeptical.
And most people are good people. So you could argue that most people don’t need God looking over their shoulder. You may even be right, although I’m extremely skeptical.
But then there are those who struggle with self restraint. If those people believe that they are not accountable to a higher power – now THAT is dangerous.
I would argue that everyone struggles with self restraint, at least from time to time.
So without God, we’re ALL dangerous.
Heck, even with God we’re dangerous. And look what happens without him.
God help us.
Dr. B, this is a beautifully put together essay. I’m glad you didn’t spend that extra 20-10 minutes; you got it right the first time.
So much here and so very true. Thank you for posting it. I’ll add that Alexis de Toqueville also commented on religion’s positive effect on American democracy. I think of what John Adams said and wonder about the future of this country as religion gets further and further marginalized and irreligion and anti-religion become increasingly strengthened. Where and when is the tipping point?
BTW, I think the statue of responsibility should be of a pair of children (must be inclusive, so make it a boy and girl) washing dishes. Or a boy taking out the trash. Or mowing the lawn.
Too lazy to look up Who stated this.
I enjoyed the essay overall, Dr. B, but you make this statement in various ways and I don’t think I can agree with it. I don’t believe that government should be in the business of improving others, in any way. As you say, our families, teachers, friends, churches and mentors can help us do this, but that isn’t government’s job. I think a little of the Leftist ideas are creeping in. The role of government is to legislate, to represent us, to maintain a framework for order; when we expect it to do more, the government will also decide how to improve us. And that’s where we find ourselves now.
I think we agree, but I’m not expressing myself very well. I’m not sure – see what you think:
My point is that to improve a society, you must improve people individually. And to improve a person, that change must come from within. And that difficult process can be inspired only by God.
When government tells you to improve, that external pressure is less effective at inspiring one to change from within. That external pressure leads to conflict. And conflict destroys societies.
So to improve a society you must improve the people, and that must come from within. That type of true change of our character is extremely difficult for each individual, and can occur only with the assistance and guidance of God.
Government simply cannot improve society, because it cannot improve people.
Is that fair? Would you agree with that? Or do you have a different perspective on this?
Thanks @susanquinn – I appreciate your thoughts.
Fantastic. Really good points.
I’m thinking… Um, I’ll get back to you on these…
“I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.” – Mark Twain
Where ever it is, the site will look exactly the same as it does today for at least another 75 years as the environmental impact study is completed.
What an absurd proposition. It’s true that the government can’t create morals or responsible people. That is up to the people to do. Religion, being the antithesis of reason and morality only works through inculcating fear among its practitioners. Religion does not identify the reason for morality, because religion is bunk. Any argument that assumes that religion has moral authority starts with a losing premise.
Morality existed prior to any Jude0-Christian religion and will exist after it has been forgotten in some distant future.
Belief in God, or adherence to a specific religion, is a personal matter, as we would all admit.
I would agree with much of @drbastiat‘s historical observations, but would offer a slightly different perspective about the role of religion in the nation-state.
We Europeans are very conscious of our Christian (NOT Judeo-Christian, please) past. Our European nations were originally a motley collection of tribes, some more motley than others. When Charlemagne welded these tribes which, since the fall of Rome had become in some cases mini-kingdoms, into what became France and Germany, he began by ensuring that all the pagan tribes converted to Christianity.
By allying political union to the ambitions of the papacy, Charlemagne created the so-called Holy Roman Empire, which lasted 800 years. On one level, Christianity being the common denominator, political stability was obtained by rulers delegating local powers to Archbishops and Bishops. Not only did the churchmen have the confidence of the people, the people accepted the orders of the rulers much more docilely if they were passed down through the clergy.
On another level, life in feudal Europe offering little in the way of hope for a more prosperous future on earth, the people’s faith in the hope of Heaven was what kept them going. Hence, between 1000 and 1250 AD, more than 300 magnificent cathedrals were constructed or at least begun: 110 in France, 90 in Spain, 60 in Germany and 40 in the British Isles, to name but four countries. These edifices embodied the striving of the common man to reach God (the Holiest in the Heights).
Despite the gradual secularization of Europe from the 19th century on, the common Christian belief and values remain the binding force keeping nations together.
Immigrants brought these values to the United States, and the founding fathers correctly assessed the importance of an overriding fear of God in the constitutional creation of your country. This is why, as I have already pointed out, such referential (and reverential) phrases as “In God We Trust” and “One Nation Under God”, must never be allowed to disappear. If they do, the country risks disintegration.
This, a thousand times this.
Is it true that the ability of religion (or any moral philosophy) to improve people is negatively correlated with the temporal power and influence of that religion’s institutions? Life seems to get better in societies (looking at it historically, be it slavery, be it women’s equality, be it issues like prejudice or segregation) as religious institutions lose their power.
It’s an interesting question.
Dostoyevsky wrote something similar, “Without God, all things are permissible” for the unhinged nihilistic character Ivan Karamazov in The Brothers Karamazov. The first sentence would be from Christ Himself, though.
Also easy to indoctrinate.
I reckon that depends on many factors, including whether that family teaches its kids the rudiments of critical thinking–understood as a metonym for rational, clear, independent thinking.
How do we explain the high murder rate in Christian El Salvador and the low murder rate in non-Christian Japan?
If we take seriously that not subscribing to Christianity or Judaism causes moral chaos, Japan should be falling apart and El Salvador should be doing great?
There must be more to it.
Thanks, @drbastiat , for sharing a few of my favorite exemplars of courage and perseverance.
Religious institutions are not the heart of religion.
There is. Homogeneity for one.
Different societies have different religions and different ethical systems. This is a cause for conflict. Between nation states historically and with the advent of mass immigration within societies.
Abolition of slavery was a highly religious process both in Britain and the United States. As for prejudice and segregation at least in the US, the effort was led by Dr. Martin Luther King, a Baptist minister. At least in the American case, it has been a matter of coming closer to what is contained in our Declaration of Independence. The weakening of religious institutions at least in the US has been something that has followed after these changes were largely made.
For another, there’s a lot that morality and good religion involve. Eastern cultures often do a good job of imparting an understanding of personal responsibility to family and society. That’s a big part of morality, one western Christian churches are often pretty lousy at (though I know basically nothing about El Salvador).
For yet another, there are different varieties of moral disorder, and different paths towards moral chaos, and some are slower than others. A plummeting birth rate, for example, is a bad sign for the future of a morally ordered society.
Someone PM’ed me and asked me to clarify what I meant by government attempting to improve people. This was my response:
When I say government tries to improve us, I mean they take money from us to help the poor. That’s a nice thing to do, but it’s nicer if you do it because you choose to do so. Or when government passes laws against racial discrimination. Again, that’s well intentioned, but unhelpful unless it comes from within each of us.
Government’s efforts to improve us by telling us what to do are worse than us improving ourselves. Even if the intention is equally good.
Sorry I didn’t define my terms. I should have spent more time on this.
Religion was also used to justify slavery. Using the generic label of religion is not sufficient to explain the abolitionist movement. There was a specific impulse that often, but not always, coincided with a particular strain of religious thought.
Mane there was another strain, also distinctly Christian, that was anti-abolitionist. You cannot claim that they were not Christian or that they were not devout. Historically the Bible never expresses antipathy towards slavery, though it is mentioned many times.
Edit: my iPhone changed something I typed to “mane” but I can’t recall what the original was. I hope the gist is still clear enough.
That is a convenient dodge.
**Respectfully: yes: Judeo-Christian stands as the other side of the (generally) Greco-Roman enlightenment with it’s rejection of Judeo-Christian everything (and during the French Revolution made a point of crowning the “goddess of reason: Candy” the ruling principle (several rather randy Frenchmen carried the svelte actress playing the part)…I mean, I’m not trying to be rude, but the distinction between the Revolutions in France, England, and the U.S, and the Judeo-Christian path via England/UK, and the humanistic, Greco-Roman Enlightenment values were so very different, impacting all society that I doubt Francis Scheaffer and Os Guiness(editorial self-correction: Os Guiness, to my knowledge, is still living. Sorry, Os, I’m loving your new book) are the only great thinkers of our era who studied this split nearly till they died and applied it to some very prescient predictive trajectories 40-50 years ahead.
**Update: (I’m new, that’s my excuse, and I’m sticking to it) Therefore, if I have incorrectly responded to a European person who was, in fact, writing to express their knowledge of the fact that the legal, civil, philosophical, moral, religious influence via England/UK to the US was almost totally (and deliberately) Judeo-Christian (with the exception that the US excluded the instituting of an official State/National Religion/Church due to the whole “free to practice whatever religion you came with thing”… then, it appears you are aware that France and Europe took the Enlightenment path, with it’s Greco-Roman/humanistic influences for legal, civil, philosophical, moral, religious.
In which case. I apologize for my incredulity in thinking you were ignorant of history. et carter