The Indispensable Ingredient
The new republic flourished under the Constitution.(1)
Foreign visitors observed the happiness, freedom, and growing prosperity of the people in the United States and wanted these blessings for their countries. In one country after another, constitutions patterned after the United States Constitution were adopted.(2)
But somehow the blessings the American people enjoyed were not realized to a similar extent in the other countries in spite of their adoption of similar constitutions. Apparently there was some additional ingredient that was necessary to the successful operation of a free constitutional republic.
Sometimes when a person receives a gift built by others, he takes for granted the fact that it works, and doesn't realize what makes it work. Also, a better perspective on a familiar subject can sometimes be obtained by looking at it through the eyes of a stranger.
Perhaps the best way to understand why free constitutional government was so much more successful in the United States than elsewhere would be to look back to the early days of the republic and, through the eyes of a foreign observer, to see what the Americans who launched this republic felt was the indispensable ingredient to its success. [p. 26]
In the early 1830's, a Frenchman by the name of Alexis de Tocqueville visited this country. He traveled over 7,000 miles in the United States and Canada and talked to Americans from Canada to the Gulf of Mexico, and from the Atlantic Coast to the frontier wilderness. Then he went back to France and wrote a two volume work entitled Democracy in America, which is regarded as a classic in political science.
He put his finger right on the essential ingredient of a successful free republic. Here it is in his own words:
Religion in American takes no direct part in the government of society, but it must be regarded as the first of their political institutions; for if it does not impart a taste for freedom, it facilitates the use of it. Indeed, it is in this same point of view that the inhabitants of the United States themselves look upon religious belief. I do not know whether all Americans have a sincere faith in their religion for who can search the human heart? but I am certain that they hold it to be indispensable to the maintenance of republican institutions. This opinion is not peculiar to a class of citizens or to a party, but it belongs to the whole nation and to every rank of society.(3)
Why Religion is Indispensable to Freedom
Why did those who launched this free constitutional system consider religion to be indispensable to its maintenance? A brief explanation should clarify the relationship between religion and political freedom. [p. 27]
Freedom is not an absolute concept, but is a kind of balance between two extremes. One extreme is the lawlessness and disorder of anarchy, which is the total absence or suspension of government. The other extreme is the absence of liberty resulting from complete control of the people by the government.
This balance, called freedom, can exist only as long as the people involved, by their own inward motivation, act righteously enough for it to continue. If their inward motivation toward righteous action is not strong enough, then freedom automatically degenerates toward either anarchy or dictatorship.
This concept, that freedom can exist only among a people who have a strong inward motivation to right action was well expressed by Edmund Burke in these words:
Men are unqualified for civil liberty, in exact proportion to their disposition to put moral chains upon their own appetites; in proportion as their love to justice is above their rapacity; in proportion as their soundness and sobriety of understanding is above their vanity and presumption; in proportion as they are more disposed to listen to the counsels of the wise and good, in preference to the flattery of knaves. Society cannot exist unless a controlling power upon will and appetite be placed somewhere, and the less of it there is within, the more there must be without. It is ordained in the eternal constitution of things, that men of intemperate minds cannot be free. Their passions forge their fetters.(4)
While some may argue that people can be righteous without a religious motivation, and their argument may be valid in individual cases, human experience seems to indicate that religious motivation is necessary for large groups of people to act righteously over extensive periods of time.(5) [p. 28]
George Washington, who presided over the wise men the Lord raised up to frame the Constitution, emphasized the necessity for religion to maintain national morality in these words.
Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structurereason and experience both forbid us to expect, that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.(6)
Consideration of the influence of religion in motivating people to act righteously enough to be free sheds light on a quotation often used among Latter-day Saints. When Joseph Smith was asked how he found it easy to govern so vast a people, while others found it difficult, he said: "I teach the people correct principles and they govern themselves.(7)
De Tocqueville himself has been called one of the greatest of the political scientists. Here is his own comment on the necessity for religion in a free society:
Despotism may govern without faith, but liberty cannot. Religion is much more necessary in the republic . . . than in the monarchy . . . it is more needed in democratic republics than in any others. How is it possible that society should escape destruction if the moral tie is not strengthened in proportion as the political tie is relaxed? And what can be done with a people who are their own masters if they are not submissive to the Deity?(8)
In keeping with this belief that a religious citizenry is indispensable to the successful life of a free constitutional republic, laws encouraging religion have been enacted from the beginning of the United States. A few well known examples of such laws are tax exemptions for churches, chaplains in the armed forces, "In God we trust" on coins, and "Under God" in the pledge of allegiance. [p. 29]
Free Government Must Be Founded On Religious Presuppositions
Not only is the American constitutional system a freedom system requiring a religious citizenry for its successful operation, but its philosophical presuppositions are also rooted in a religious orientation toward life.
All governments are based on certain presuppositions constituting a philosophical attitude toward government. Such presuppositions are necessarily accepted on faith because they are not subject to proof by what is ordinarily regarded as objective evidence.
The appeal of the signers of the Declaration of Independence to the laws of Nature and Nature's God, and their affirmation that men are endowed with their rights by their Creator, confirm that their basic presuppositions were essentially a matter of religious faith.
The acceptance on faith of the political presuppositions of the Declaration of Independence is further shown by the statement, "We hold these truths to be self-evident." The words "self-evident" refer to acceptance on faith without evidence in the usual sense in which the word "evidence" is used. This interpretation is confirmed by the wording of the Rough Draft of the Declaration of Independence in which the following is found:
We hold these truths to be sacred & undeniable; that all men are created equal & independent, that from that equal creation they derive rights inherent & inalienable.(9)
In support of this position they accepted on faith, the signers of the Declaration of Independence proceeded to risk their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor. There is considerable evidence that their faith was amply justified by subsequent events. For example, in his First Inaugural Address, George Washington declared: [p. 30]
No People can be bound to acknowledge and adore the invisible hand, which conducts the Affairs of men more than the People of the United States. Every step, by which they have advanced to the character of an independent nation seems to have been distinguished by some token of providential agency.(10)
Bearing in mind that the presuppositions of a political system are accepted on faith, the following are a few of the more obviously religious presuppositions of the American constitutional system. Each of these is affirmed in the Declaration of Independence.
1. That there is a God.
2. That God has established natural laws of government.
3. That such natural laws include recognition that because God is the giver of men's rights, those rights cannot be taken from them or even given away by them.
While these are only a few of the philosophical presuppositions of America's constitutional system, they suffice to illustrate how solidly those presuppositions are rooted in a religious orientation toward life.
Various consequences automatically follow from the philosophical presuppositions accepted by a community. One of the main consequences of the religious presuppositions on which the constitutional system is based is that it provides a solid foundation and strong support for individual freedom.
Actually, belief in God is the source from which inalienable rights are derived. This is because their inalienability is an outgrowth of the belief that they are God given. But if God is no longer recognized then there is no firm basis for the belief that men's rights are inalienable. This fact was clearly recognized by Thomas Jefferson, who warned:
Can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of [p. 31] the people that these liberties are of the gift of God? That they are not to be violated but with his wrath?(11)
Furthermore, it is only a religious people who will elect wise and good men to govern them, and will insist that governmental officials properly perform their functions without fear or favor.
Supreme Court Called United States A Christian Nation
An excellent summary of the United States' attitude toward religion is found in the case of Holy Trinity Church vs. United States, decided unanimously by the United States Supreme Court in 1892. In that case, after referring to many examples of recognition of God in American historical documents, the official reported opinion of the Court contains this statement:
There is no dissonance in these declarations. There is a universal language pervading them all, having one meaning; they affirm and reaffirm that this is a religious nation. These are not individual sayings, declarations of private persons; they are organic utterances; they speak the voice of the entire people.(12)
The court opinion then refers to other evidences of religion in the daily life of the American people, and draws this conclusion:
These, and many other matters which might be noticed, add a volume of unofficial declarations to the mass of organic utterances that this is a Christian nation.(13)
One gains increased understanding of the remarkable history of this nation by comparing these statements with certain comments in the Book of Mormon.
Behold, this is a choice land, and whatsoever nation shall possess it shall be free from bondage, and from captivity, and [p. 32] from all other nations under heaven, if they will but serve the God of the land, who is Jesus Christ.(14)
A solemn warning contained in that same chapter should not be forgotten.
For behold, this is a land which is choice above all other lands; wherefore he that doth possess it shall serve God or shall be swept off; for it is the everlasting decree of God.(15)
Perhaps a word of explanation is appropriate concerning statements that this is a Christian nation. Such comments do not evidence disrespect or intolerance for the beliefs of others, or any restriction on the right of each person to worship according to the dictates of his own conscience. What is meant is rather that the Christian religion is professed by the great body of citizens of the United States, that American laws were founded in Christian principles, and that the general tone of American society is a reflection of Christian attitudes.(16) [p. 33]