In his renowned 1785 pamphlet “Memorial and Remonstrance Against Religious Assessments,” James Madison described religious liberty as not only “a right towards men” but also “a duty towards the Creator,” and a “duty … precedent both in order of time and degree of obligation, to the claims of Civil Society.”
In other words, our Founders and the extraordinary documents they created did not just guarantee freedom of religion for citizens of this new nation. They also assumed a certain, basic obligation on the part of those free citizens to the higher power from which their rights and freedoms derived.
The common phrase on our currency “In God We Trust” is not a call to worship. It is a constant, quiet nudge toward that power from which all our freedoms come. Hint: not government nor earthly king.
From that Founding era onward, there was strong consensus about the centrality of religious liberty in the United States.
The imperative of protecting religious freedom was not just a nod in the direction of piety. It reflects the Framers’ belief that religion was indispensable to sustaining our free system of government.
It has been over 230 years since that small group of Colonial lawyers led a revolution and launched what they viewed as a great experiment: establishing a society fundamentally different from those that had gone before.
They had crafted a magnificent charter of freedom, the United States Constitution, which provides for limited government while leaving “the People” broadly at liberty to pursue our lives both as individuals and through free associations.
The Founders never thought the main danger to the republic came from external foes. The central question was whether, over the long haul, we could handle freedom. The question was whether the citizens in such a free society could maintain the moral discipline and virtue necessary for the survival of free institutions.
Looking around today, one would be forgiven for having doubts about those prospects. But the Founders’ faith in free people lay in more than just unfounded, rose-colored visions. The Founding generation’s view of human nature was drawn from the classical Christian tradition.
These practical statesmen understood that individuals, while having the potential for great good, also had the capacity for great evil.
Men are subject to powerful passions and appetites and, if unrestrained, are capable of ruthlessly riding roughshod over their neighbors and the community at large.
No society can exist without some means for restraining individual rapacity.
But, if you rely on the coercive power of government to impose restraints, this will inevitably lead to a government that is too controlling, and you will end up with no liberty, just tyranny.
On the other hand, unless you have some effective restraint, you end up with something equally dangerous — licentiousness — the unbridled pursuit of personal appetites at the expense of the common good. This is just another form of tyranny, where the individual is enslaved by his appetites and the possibility of any healthy community life crumbles.
So the Founders decided to take a gamble. They would leave “the People” broad liberty, limit the coercive power of the government, and place their trust in self-discipline and the virtue of the American people.
In the words of Madison, “We have staked our future on the ability of each of us to govern ourselves.”
This is really what was meant by “self-government.” It did not mean primarily the mechanics by which we select a representative legislative body. It referred to the capacity of each individual to restrain and govern themselves.
But what was the source of this internal controlling power? In a free republic, those restraints could not be handed down from above by philosopher kings.
Instead, social order must flow up from the people themselves, freely obeying the dictates of inwardly possessed and commonly shared moral values. And to control willful human beings, with an infinite capacity to rationalize, those moral values must rest on authority independent of men’s will. They must flow from a transcendent Supreme Being.
In short, in the Framers’ view, free government was suitable and sustainable for only a religious people — a people who recognized that there was a transcendent moral order antecedent to both the state and man-made law and who had the discipline to control themselves according to those enduring principles.
How does religion promote the moral discipline and virtue needed to support free government?
First, it gives us the right rules to live by. The Founding generation were Christians. They believed that the Judeo-Christian moral system corresponds to the true nature of man. Those moral precepts start with the two great commandments: to love God with your whole heart, soul and mind; and to love thy neighbor as thyself.
But they also include the guidance of natural law — a real, transcendent moral order that flows from God’s eternal law — the divine wisdom by which the whole of creation is ordered. The eternal law is impressed upon and reflected in all created things.
From the nature of things, we can, through reason and experience, discern standards of right and wrong that exist independently of human will.
Modern secularists dismiss this idea of morality as other-worldly superstition imposed by a killjoy clergy. In fact, Judeo-Christian moral standards are the ultimate utilitarian rules for human conduct.
These rules are best for man not in the by-and-by, but in the here and now. They are like God’s instruction manual for the best running of man and human society.
By the same token, violations of these moral laws have bad, real-world consequences for man and society. We may not pay the price immediately, but the harm over time is real.
Religion helps promote moral discipline within society. Because man is fallen, we don’t automatically conform ourselves to moral rules even when we know they are good for us.
But religion helps teach, train and habituate people to want what is good. It does not do this primarily by formal laws — that is, through coercion. It does this through moral education and by informing society’s informal rules — its customs and traditions that reflect the wisdom and experience of the ages.
In other words, religion helps frame moral culture within society that instills and reinforces moral discipline. In fact, no secular creed has emerged capable of performing the role of religion in ensuring the successful prospects of self-governance.
• William P. Barr is the 85th attorney general of the United States. Previously, he served as attorney general under President George H.W. Bush. This essay is adapted from a speech he delivered on religious liberty to the University of Notre Dame.
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