January 3, 2009
Is Religion Necessary?By Joseph Ashby
The least understood idea presented in Mitt Romney's 2007 speech on religion was his statement, "Freedom requires religion just as religion requires freedom." From Left to Right this comment was savaged and belittled.
Neither Romney's speech nor his answers to questions on the topic indicated exactly why he thought religion was so important to freedom. He did assert that many of the Founding Fathers shared his view. Those familiar with the Founders know there is always a ‘why' in what they believed.
Romney's couplet was based on a statement John Adams made to the US Military where he said:
"Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other."
To understand this statement we must remember that the Founders based their philosophies on human nature. So what Adams was saying was not theological or religious but pragmatic. George Washington's words clarify Adams' belief:
"Let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion. Reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle."
The debate over whether this concept is anti-atheist ignores Washington's point. Which is that "reason" (the atheist's guiding light) and "experience" tell us that religion is necessary to maintain national morality; not that it's some mystic force that favors believers over non-believers.
There are so many who take personally any mention of religion in a public context, perceiving it as an attack on non-religious, moral individuals. But such statements should be taken in the broadest of all contexts, speaking generally to the entire society and espousing the most basic of all moral principles (such as honesty, fidelity and love for fellow man).
Returning to Adams' point, America's Constitutional system specifically requires a high level of morality (and by extension religion). This is because of the broad freedoms the Constitution affords. At the time Adams was president there were no drug laws, gun control laws, disaster relief or welfare programs. In essence, the Founding was built on the principle that Americans not only could but must govern themselves.
Self governance cannot function without morality. As morals decline, laws expand and freedoms necessarily contract. This is because no law is perfect. The perfect application of law is only possible if the lawmaker and judge are omniscient, knowing every reason a law exists and every detail, even the thoughts, of the alleged law-breaker.
Since this is impossible, the best situation is to have the fewest laws possible, to avoid illegalizing proper behavior under legislation's inevitably wide swath. The more self-regulating (or moral) a nation is collectively, the fewer laws needed to maintain order.
As national morality declines, inducing governments and citizens to favor more laws, the less plausible our Constitutional system becomes.
Recent tactics of the pro-gay marriage camp are a perfect illustration of this principle. As reports mount of out of hand protests and intimidation, it's obvious that what they are doing is wrong. The Stalinist tactics used to target private citizens, business and churches are clearly a perversion of First Amendment rights.
Unfortunately, this problem has no solution that can be both legislative and Constitutional. Passing a law restricting this behavior destroys the rights of responsible citizens whose actions are too similar to be legally distinguishable.
This dilemma is systemic. Misuse of guns induces public fervor to violate the Second Amendment. Neglectful parents lead to laws that destroy the right to parental prerogatives in raising and educating children. Corrupt politicians provoke expression demolishing restrictions on speech and campaign donations. The immoral use of rights is a precursor to laws that infringe upon those rights.
The only Constitutional solution to these problems is to depend on citizens' sense of morality. In the absence of a "moral and religious people," the rights enumerated in the Constitution are "wholly inadequate" in creating a well-ordered society*. This is the meaning of Adams' words.
The irony should not be lost that the Anti-Prop 8 groups, who call for "the exclusion of religious principle" from constitutions, are the very people demonstrating why it is necessary.
* It should be noted here that in many respects, because government has overstepped its bounds, we are not governed by the Constitution. As our religiosity and morals have declined (and I count socialism's legalized plunder immoral), we have distanced ourselves from the America of John Adams' day. This is yet more empirical evidence supporting his conclusion about morality and religion.
Joseph Ashby is an aeronautical engineer specializing in lightweight carbon composite aircraft design.