John Adams famously wrote, “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” We seem to be hell-bent on testing his prescience.
Adams’s admonition is often quoted as proof that the American founders desired to form a government based on Christian principles, but this gets it exactly wrong. Rather, our second president realized that a government founded on liberal principles would require the perpetuation of the pre-liberal or non-liberal norms extant among the people to be sustainable. The preceding but less-well-known lines of Adams’s letter make this clearer: “[W]e have no government, armed with power, capable of contending with human passions, unbridled by morality and religion. Avarice, ambition, revenge and licentiousness would break the strongest cords of our Constitution, as a whale goes through a net.”
Patrick Deneen argued in “Unsustainable Liberalism” that liberalism itself corrodes the pre-liberal norms and institutions that sustain and structure liberal societies. We need not accept the inevitability of this corrosion to observe that it has in fact occurred.
Rod Dreher writes in a similar vein:
For orthodox Christians, Christianity is not simply a construal, that is, a complex set of opinions about how the world should be ordered. It is a revelation of how the world really is ordered. For example, to say that God created man and woman in His image is not simply a poetic expression. It is a poetic expression that embodies a profound anthropological and theological truth. Any laws based on a contrary point of view is false, literally. And if those laws end up justifying practices (e.g., trade in human embryos) it might be evil.
Yesterday at the Tradition conference, a participant brought up Tocqueville’s position that liberal democracy depends on religion to form the character of the people, so that they are capable of self-rule. …
Anyway, the participant said that liberalism is not producing the kinds of people it needs to perpetuate itself.
Dreher has written before that those who do not consciously construct their lives to be distinct from secular culture will live to see themselves (or their family) “colonized” by that culture. I think that’s basically right.
At this point, we continue to dress up some of our public life in the clothing of Christianity, and we speak to the abstract value of diverse religious faith on some occasions, but we’re operating in the context of a de facto secular atheism. So it does seem correct to say that we’re truly testing the strengths of the Constitution’s “cords” in anchoring our society to something besides power.