The founders of the United States asked the question, “Now that we have won our liberty, how can liberty continue, when no nation has ever been formed on the basis of liberty?” Our teachers in school taught us that they organized a government that had a declaration of rights and the separation of powers, both in federalism and in the division of the federal government. These were aimed at keeping any person or party from consolidating enough power to be tyrannical. They then formed a government just strong enough to prevent weakness from producing anarchy, which would cause people to call for tyranny in order to have peace and safety.
The Necessity of Virtue
Yet this was not the primary foundational conviction of the American fathers. All of our structures are built upon a more basic set of convictions about human nature. The fathers so assumed these ideas that they are rarely made explicit in their writings, but you can find evidence of them everywhere.
Virtue is perfect self-governance.
The conviction of the founding fathers was that freedom could only exist among a people that engaged in self-governance to the degree that they didn’t need a strong government. A self-governed people doesn’t need a government to control them. Self-governance, in this context, is virtue. Virtue is perfect self-governance. The founders knew that virtue was absolutely necessary for a people to be free.
George Mason, a major Virginian statesman, said in 1783: “Happiness and prosperity are now within our reach; but to attain and preserve them must depend upon our own wisdom and virtue.”
The relationship between liberty and virtue was beautifully articulated by Edmund Burke, a British statesman and contemporary of Mason:
“But what is liberty without wisdom and without virtue? It is the greatest of all possible evils; for it is folly, vice, and madness, without tuition or restraint. Those who know what virtuous liberty is, cannot bear to see it disgraced by incapable heads, on account of their having high-sounding words in their mouths.”
He says elsewhere that, “Men are qualified for civil liberty in exact proportion to their disposition to put moral chains upon their own appetites… It is ordained in the eternal constitution of things, that men of intemperate minds cannot be free. Their passions forge their fetters.” Burke translated this into a grim warning for his fledgling nation: “Among a people generally corrupt, liberty cannot long exist.”
The Necessity of Faith (in something)
John Adams pushed this further to make explicit the third corner of the Golden Triangle:
We have no government armed with power capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion. Avarice, ambition, revenge, or gallantry would break the strongest cords of our constitution as a whale goes through a net. Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.
On another occasion, he said: “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. The only foundation of a free Constitution is pure Virtue, and if this cannot be inspired into our People in a greater Measure than they have it now, they may change their Rulers and the forms of Government, but they will not obtain a lasting Liberty. They will only exchange Tyrants and Tyrannies.”
Conviction does not grow in the soil of coercion.
Most of the founding fathers saw a connection that is denied today: Virtue in a people cannot be supported in the absence of religion. Modern atheists like to say that we can be good without God and that “good itself” is a good enough reason to be virtuous. This is true only in the narrowest possible sense: a person can be in line with moral moors without claiming to have religious faith. But without God, human reason can derive “goods” that seem to be in line with nature and reason that religion has taught us are abominable (ex. slavery).
Religion fills the social and psychological job of teaching people morals. Religion brings accountability through its social fabric and its connection to a doctrine of judgment promising punishment or rewards. Yet, in the separation of church and state, religion does this in the midst of freedom rather than in the coercion of tyranny.
The Necessity of Freedom
This brings us to the final element in the Golden Triangle: Religion must be free from government without forfeiting completely its coercing power. Religion can only be healthy in renewing itself and supporting virtue when it is free, so it must be free from government interference. Religion can ruin itself by seeking the coercive power of government, which will destroy its ability to build free faith in people. When faith isn’t free, it cannot build free virtue. Conviction does not grow in the soil of coercion.
The Golden Triangle then can be summed up this way:
- Freedom can only exist in the presence of virtue.
- Virtue can only be reliably formed and sustained through faith.
- Faith can only flourish in liberty/freedom.
If the Triangle is accurate, there are three main implications for our understanding of public life:
- Society should be pro-religion, yet not have an institutional religion. Freedom can only be broadly sustained in the presence of vibrant faith and religion, so a society must be supportive of free faith and the institutions of religion without coercing or institutionalizing religion in the government. That is a somewhat difficult proposition.
- Society should not have an institutionalized barrier against virtue. Public life should humiliate neither religion nor the virtue that religion creates. This assumes that most religious faiths are going to produce a fairly similar group of virtues, or at least affirm a similar group of virtues. The clash of Western societies with Islam and disestablishment liberalism has brought this into question. Both of these worldviews are opposed to the ethics of the West that have run through the Bible as well as pagan writings which have been the foundation of Western ethical thought for at least a couple thousand years. Facing the relativism of disestablishment liberalism and the totalitarianism of sharia found in Islam will be a difficult task, since a society can only have cohesion as a diverse people if there is a broadly similar set of understandings about virtue.
- The government cannot be the teacher of virtues and morals. The teaching of virtues and morals must be, fundamentally, a function of family, religion, and civil society broadly. As soon as governmental institutions begin teaching virtue, they are implicitly teaching religion and philosophy, and they are instituting something that must remain within the realm of free conscience. This is where modern atheism has gone wrong in its insistence that secular atheism is not a religion, and therefore can have a public expression. By today’s thought, no religion can have a public expression equal to atheism because of “the wall of separation between church and state.” Although many judges have implicitly gone along with this thinking, it is completely foreign to the understanding of the founders, and it is foolhardy and ignorant as a public philosophy. I believe Christians should point this out whenever possible.
The text below lists various other quotes from the founders that relate to these things. I’ve taken them from Liberty’s Secrets: The Lost Wisdom of America’s Founders by Joshua Charles, Chapter 4: “Religion, Virtue and Morality: Liberty’s Sentinels.” You’ll note that Charles relies heavily on quotations from John Adams. It’s important to remember that John Adams was perhaps the greatest figure of the post-ratification age. He was the man the country looked to after the presidency of the one they considered their providential savior: George Washington.
On the relationship between virtue and happiness:
Summary of John Adams by Joshua Charles: “Virtue was the basis of the founders’ idea happiness, which is absolutely crucial to understand if we are to properly interpret… ‘the pursuit of happiness’… Happiness was the result of having fulfilled one’s moral obligations to oneself and others, living the good life. This was an idea they inherited from their Puritan ancestors as well as from the ‘historians, orators, poets, and philosophers of [Greece] and [Rome].’”
Cicero (106-24 BC, one of Adams’ influences): “Moral excellence is what guarantees happiness… Everything that is morally good and fine and distinguished is infinitely productive of joy.”
John Adams: “Happiness, whether in despotism or democracy, whether in slavery or liberty, can never be found without virtue.”
Benjamin Franklin: “Virtue and happiness are mother and daughter.”
John Adams: “Nature and truth, or rather truth and right, are invariably the same in all times and in all places. And reason, your unbiased reason, perceives them alike in all times and in all places. But passion, prejudice, interest, custom, and fancy are infinitely precarious. If therefore we suffer our understandings to be blinded or perverted by any of these, the chance is that of millions to one that we shall embrace error. And hence arises that endless variety of opinions entertained by mankind.”
Cicero: “The virtues blossom forth in their various forms and manifestations, and it is revealed to us what nature has ordained as the ultimate good and evil, the principles on which human obligations ought to be based, and the rules we must adopt for the conduct of our lives. And it is the exploration of these and similar questions which brings us to the conclusion … that moral goodness is enough by itself to create a happy life.”
George Washington, in his inaugural address: “The propitious smiles of heaven can never be expected on a nation that disregards the eternal rules of order and right, which heaven itself has ordained.” “The foundations of our national policy will be laid in the pure and immutable principles of private morality… There is no truth more thoroughly established than that there exists in the economy and course of nature an insoluble union between virtue and happiness, between duty and advantage, between the genuine maxims of an honest and magnanimous policy, and the solid rewards of public prosperity and felicity.”
Benjamin Franklin: “Sin is not hurtful because it is forbidden, but it is forbidden because it is hurtful. Nor is a duty beneficial because it is commanded, but it is commanded because it is beneficial.”
Joshua Charles summarizes the founders’ definition of virtue in this way:
Virtue is the elevation of reason over passion, which results from the voluntary submission of one’s behavior to divinely transcendent and universally binding moral obligations to oneself and others, resulting in the greatest possible degree of human liberty, happiness, and flourishing for both individuals and societies.
On the merit of religious faith:
Alexis De Tocqueville: “Men cannot detach themselves from religious beliefs except by some wrongheaded thinking, and by a sort of moral violence inflicted upon their true nature… Unbelief is an accident; faith is the only permanent state of mankind.”
Thomas Jefferson: “On the contrary I hold (without appeal to revelation) that when we take a view of the Universe, in its parts general or particular, it is impossible for the human mind not to perceive and feel a conviction of design, consummate skill, and indefinite power in every atom of it’s composition.… We see, too, evident proofs of the necessity of a superintending power to maintain the universe in its course in order… So irresistible are these evidences of an intelligent and powerful agent that, of the infinite numbers of men who have existed through all time, they have believed, in the proportion of a million at least to unit, in hypothesis of an eternal preexistence of a creator, rather than in that of a self-existent Universe. Surely this unanimous sentiment renders this more probable than that of a few in the other hypothesis.”
John Adams: “The law of nature would be sufficient for the government of men if they would consult their reason and obey their consciences. It is not the fault of the law of nature, but of themselves, that it is not obeyed; it is not the fault of the law of nature that men are obliged to have recourse to civil government at all, but of themselves; it is not the fault of the ten commandments, but of themselves, that Jews or Christians are ever known steal, murder, covet, or blaspheme. But the legislator who should say the law of nature is enough, if you do not obey it, it will be your own fault, therefore no government is necessary, would be thought to trifle.”
John Adams on the absolute necessity of religion: “Human reason and human conscience, though I believe there are such things, are not a match for human passions, human imaginations, and human enthusiasm.”
“Our passions, ambition, avarice, love, resentments, etc. possess so much metaphysical subtlety and so much overpowering eloquence, that they insinuate themselves into the understanding and the conscience and covet both to their party. And I may be deceived as much as any of them when I say that power must never be trusted without a check.”
Joshua Charles: “That check at least as far as voluntary self-restraint was concerned, was religion. The founders understood that mankind’s capacity for self-delusion was boundless; therefore, moral obligations must be placed on divine rather than a humanistic footing if anyone could assert any truth or notion of right and wrong at all” (85).
James Madison: “The belief in a God all-powerful wise and good, is so essential to the moral order of the world into the happiness of man, that arguments which enforce it cannot be drawn from too many sources nor adapted with too much solicitude to the different characters and capacities to be impressed with it.”
John Adams believed that Judaism, through the Bible, had bequeathed to us the most essential ingredient of human civilization: “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 atheist of the other sect, who believed or pretended to believe that all is ordered by chance, I should believe the 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 the great essential principle of all morality, and consequently of all civilization.”
Lastly, for those of you who love the negative point, someone has put together a triangle of tyranny: