Are we still a moral people capable of self-governance?

"Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious People. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other." —John Adams

John Adams was not alone in understanding that our Constitution functions only if people have a shared morality derived from Judeo-Christian principles.  James Madison wrote that our Constitution requires "sufficient virtue among men for self-government"; otherwise, "nothing less than the chains of despotism can restrain them from destroying and devouring one another."  It's not clear that 21st-century America has that necessary virtue.

The Ten Commandments are at the center of Judeo-Christian moral teaching.  (I have written before about the connection of virtue and morality as it relates to First and Second Amendment rights.)  Even non-religious people once understood that these principles are useful guides for moral living in a functioning society.  Much has changed in just a few years, though.

The first few commandments are about man's relationship with God and are not relevant to this discussion.  What matters here are the commandments that concern our relationships with others, which define morality as our Framers understood it.  They have societal value independent of the precepts about the relationship to God.  No religious beliefs are necessary to accept their value as moral principles.  It was this morality that the Framers saw as essential to constitutional self-government.

Today, many on the left no longer consider these principles a standard for moral behavior.  They have become a standard to avoid.  A significant part of our society believes we should actively defy the moral truth of these principles.  This belief has serious political implications.

A system specifically designed for a moral people's use necessarily requires a moral people.  Without this connection, there will be increased friction between constitutional principles and the people.  If our representatives share revulsion for the moral principles, the damage will be fatal to constitutional rule.  One can expect increasing tyranny because a ruling class devoid of morality can only govern by command and control.  There will be no consent of the governed.

Examples of this change in morality are everywhere.  First, we do not honor our elders.  A moral society respects the wisdom and experiences of its elders.  It understands, too, that those who are old are dependent upon younger generations.  However, in several states, the governors' pandemic policies specifically harmed the elderly.  Society is increasingly youth-centered, with elders discriminated against in employment and promotions.  Our schools teach students to defy parents, and parents are excluded from decisions concerning their children.

Second, killing has become a necessity of convenience for unborn life.  For the first decades after Roe v. Wade, abortion was still spoken of only as a horrible necessity to be used sparingly.  Bill Clinton said it should be "safe, legal, and rare."  This recognized that, while it may be available, it's not an ideal solution.  Today, many glorify abortion.  It is a thing of boasting, not regret.  At the other end of life, the excessive nursing home deaths also point to the belief that some killing benefits society.

Third, we no longer impose moral restrictions on intimate relationships.  People have always struggled to follow this principle, but it was accepted as the ideal even as people failed to achieve perfection.  The principle has now lost all moral meaning.  There is no type of relationship that is not socially acceptable.  We have redefined marriage to have no sacramental meaning.  It's about taxes.  There is no male and female.  There is only a self-declaration that defies biology.

Fourth, honesty has disappeared.  Lies are acceptable if they achieve a political or personal goal.  A self-governing society can exist only when we can trust each other.  Our society teaches that we cannot trust people who are not like us.  Since there is no trust, there is no need to be truthful.

If one has been harmed, it is acceptable to steal to get even.  Insiders and the connected can take advantage to get things that are not theirs.  Governments have policies that allow for stealing property in the form of civil forfeitures.  It is not just real property.  Reputations, ideas, and opportunities are stolen, too, with no legal repercussions.  Looting is considered a protest.

Our society teaches that if we are not satisfied with what we have, it is acceptable to try to get from others that which we cannot earn for ourselves.  Contentment and gratitude are rare commodities in our society.  The discontent disrupts all aspects of our relationships.  Discontent is the beginning point of all moral failure.

If morality is the defining quality for our form of self-government, we may no longer be qualified to self-govern.  The Framers understood this.  Our new immorality is the prescription for the constitutional system to fail.  It is not that society cannot be formed by immoral people.  It certainly can.  However, that society's governance will reflect the people's (im)morality, and that rule will be centered on command and control without a moral basis.  It will be tyranny.

Image: The Ten Commandments by George Bannister.  CC BY 2.0.

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