Jon Meacham (Newsweek) makes two related errors in his criticism of Mitt Romney’s “Faith in America” speech. Meacham is the author of a good book on the subject, American Gospel. He is also a fair-minded thinker; so these two errors represent odd lapses. First, Meacham corrects Romney for a misreading of John Adams. But it is actually Meacham who misreads Adams. Romney takes Adams’s phrase “religion and morality” to mean that the two are interrelated, since each reinforces the other. But Meacham says Adams regards “religion” and “morality” as separate. However, no matter what Meacham or I may believe today, it is certain that Adams did not hold that morality could long endure without religion. It certainly could not for most people, and probably not even for a single individual.
For proof of this, one need only inspect Article III of the Massachusetts Constitution, in whose writing and passage John Adams was both an intellectual inspiration and (from Great Britain) an energetic supporter. Article III obliges every jurisdiction in Massachusetts to provide for religious schools and funds to pay for them. Adams argued that this provision did not violate religious liberty, since it coerced no one to believe in religion. If, however, citizens valued the sound moral habits and law-abidingness inculcated by Christian schools, they should pay for them. Good morals are necessary for a republic, more so than for a monarchy. And religion — for most people — is needed for the inculcation of morals. That is why religion is essential for a republic such as ours.
Actually Adams’s private views were even stronger. He challenged his friends to name a single denier of religion who was not a “rascal” — whether in history or in present-day America. No one in the Founding period — not even Thomas Paine — thought that atheists were morally reliable. Nowadays, Meacham and I believe otherwise. But it is not right to impose our views on the Founders.
II The second error made by Meacham lies in his and Romney’s quote from Washington. That quote is: “Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports . . . let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion.”
Meacham holds that for Washington, religion and morality are “separate.” But this is not quite exact. In the sentence following the one Romney and Meacham quote from the Farewell Address, Washington wrote: “Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of a peculiar structure, reason and experiences both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principles.”
Some editorialists in 1796 held that in referring to “minds of a peculiar structure” Washington was alluding to Jefferson. In any case, like Adams, Washington allowed that some few may be able to live morally apart from God, but he doubted very much whether most people, left to themselves, could do so. A few humans may live by reason (at least some of the time), but most people most of the time live by their passions, as David Hume and other philosophers had earlier observed. That was the common view in 18th-century America.
III For those who can afford the time, I append a few relevant quotations from John Adams and one or two others, to capture the views of crucial Founders more exactly.
a.) From Article III of the Massachusetts Constitution: “As the happiness of a people and the good order and preservation of civil government essentially depend upon piety, religion, and morality, and as these cannot be generally diffused through a community but by . . . public instructions in piety, religion, and morality . . .”
b.) From Dr. Benjamin Rush of Philadelphia: “The only foundation for a useful education in a republic is to be laid in religion. Without it there can be no virtue, and without virtue there can be no liberty, and liberty is the object and life of all republican governments.” [Emphasis added.]
c.) John Adams to Thomas Jefferson (November 4, 1816): “The Ten Commandments and the Sermon on the Mount contain my religion. . . .”
d.) John Adams to Thomas Jefferson (June 28, 1813): “The general principles, on which the Fathers achieved independence, were the only Principles in which that beautiful Assembly of young Gentlemen could Unite. . . . And what were these general Principles? I answer, the general Principles of Christianity, in which all these Sects were United: And the general Principles of English and American Liberty, in which all those young Men United, and which had United all Parties in America, in Majorities sufficient to assert and maintain her Independence. Now I will avow, that I then believe, and now believe, that those general Principles of Christianity, are as eternal and immutable, as the Existence and Attributes of God; and that those Principles of Liberty, are as unalterable as human Nature and our terrestrial, mundane System.”
e.) John Adams to F. A. Van der Kemp (December 27, 1816): “I will insist that the Hebrews have done more to civilize men than any other nation. If I were an atheist, and believed in blind eternal fate, I should still believe that fate had ordained the Jews to be the most essential instrument for civilizing the nations. If I were an atheist of the other sect, who believe or pretend to believe that all is ordered by chance, I should believe that chance had ordered the Jews to preserve and propagate to all mankind the doctrine of a supreme, intelligent, wise, almighty, sovereign of the universe, which I believe to be a great essential principle of all morality, and consequently of all civilization.”
f.) John Adams (in his diary): “One great advantage of the Christian Religion is that it brings the great Principle of Nature and Nations, Love your Neighbor as yourself, and do to others as you would that others should do to you, — to the Knowledge, Belief and Veneration of the whole People. Children, Servants, Women and Men are all Professors in the science of public as well as private Morality. No other Institutions of Education, no kind of political Discipline, could diffuse this kind of necessary Information, so universally among all Ranks and Descriptions of Citizens. The Duties and Rights of The Man and the Citizen are thus taught from early Infancy to every Creature.”
g.) John Adams to Thomas Jefferson (April 19, 1817): “Without religion, this world would be something not fit to be mentioned in polite company. . . . The most abandoned scoundrel that ever existed, never yet wholly extinguished his Conscience and while Conscience remains, there is some religion.”
h.) John Adams to Zabdiel Adams (June 21, 1776): “Statesmen, my dear Sir, may plan and speculate for liberty, but it is Religion and Morality alone, which can establish the Principles upon which Freedom can securely stand.”
i.) And it is always wise to check the judicious Tocqueville for an outsider’s perspective: “It is the product of two perfectly distinct elements which elsewhere have often been at war with one another but which in America it was somehow possible to incorporate into each other, forming a marvelous combination. I mean the spirit of religion and the spirit of freedom. . . . Freedom sees religion as the companion of its struggles and triumphs, the cradle of its infancy, and the divine source of its rights. Religion is considered as the guardian of mores, and mores are regarded as the guarantee of the laws . . .”
Published in National Review Online, December 13, 2007