This week’s horrific school shooting in Texas has caused many to ask why these events keep happening in America. We need to look at the private morality of our people.
For the most part, early America was deeply religious. We were a people who read our Bibles and took the instruction more literally than Americans do today. Unlike the showy services you see on tv, a church service back then was more like a classroom, where the teacher gave a lesson. That’s where they studied and learned about a higher law—a code of ethics. That’s where they learned the Ten Commandments. It was at church services across the land where so many Americans learned about the children of Israel. “Nowhere else in Christendom,” wrote Angelo Codevilla, “was the Old Testament read so much and the notion of God as lawgiver so widespread.” He said sincere religion and high morality were “something immediately obvious to visitors” (The Character of Nations).
The effect religion had on America was widespread. It influenced America from within, Codevilla said. Early American society was one built around the biblical sanctity of marriage and family. “Since the founders had no doubt that popular government is possible only among virtuous people, they revered marriage as few people before or since” (ibid). The 18th-century American family was organized with each member fulfilling his or her natural role as defined in Scripture. The father was the head of the family, the provider and protector. Wives respected their husbands’ authority and faithfully supported their men. They took pride in their role as “helpmeets” and enjoyed managing the household. The founders viewed the wife’s role as complementary to the husband’s. Together, a husband and wife were a complete team—a well-organized family by which children could be reared properly.
At the same time, our nation’s leaders enacted laws designed to protect marriage and family. Husbands were obliged by law to support their wives; to pay off all debts they incurred. In some communities, dead-beat dads were sentenced to hard labor while in confinement. Divorce was illegal except in the rarest of cases. In the early 1800s, there were only a few hundred divorces in the whole country!
Clearly, the ideals and character of the Founding Fathers did filter down to individual families. And that’s the way God and those great men wanted it. Six years before the Constitution was enacted, George Washington’s objective for the country could not have been more clear: “We have now a national character to establish.” If a fledgling America was to get off the ground as a nation, it had to begin in each home.
John Adams, himself a devoted husband, said the “foundation of national morality must be laid in private families“ (emphasis mine throughout). As leaders, Adams and his fellow statesmen knew the linchpin for developing a prosperous, free society was religion and morality. As “founders” and great leaders, they were obliged to lead the way by example. This is a biblical principle. The Scriptures say Jesus came to set us an example that we might follow in His steps.
Nothing can be more basic when evaluating the success or failure of nations through man’s 6,000-year history: Character does affect how leaders lead; and the character of a leader, whether good or bad, does influence the people. As Codevilla wrote, “What the great do in a grand way, lesser folks do as they may.”
In 1776, the year Thomas Jefferson drafted the Declaration of Independence, John Adams wrote to his cousin, “It is religion and morality alone which can establish the principles upon which freedom can securely stand.” There it is again. Why did the Founding Fathers keep pointing back to these fundamental building blocks? Adams himself answered that question in 1798 while serving as president: “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”
There’s the answer! They kept referring to religion and morality because, as Adams said, our Constitution was made only for moral and religious people! Now the question is, why? Why was the Constitution written only for moral and religious people? Why was it inadequate to the government of any other?
Alexis de Tocqueville’s 19th-century observations on the American republic answer this critical question. After touring America for two years in the early 1830s, he returned home to France and wrote his political classic, Democracy in America. Like the Founding Fathers, Tocqueville acknowledged that religion and morality were indispensable to the maintenance of the American republic. Why indispensable? He said that while the constitutional law of liberty allowed Americans complete freedom to do as they pleased, religion prevented them from doing that which was immoral and unjust. In short, Tocqueville surmised, liberty could not be governed apart from religious faith lest there be anarchy.
Without the moral restrictions of a higher spiritual law, the liberty afforded Americans in the Constitution would be abused. George Washington knew that! So did the rest of the Founding Fathers. That’s why they kept harping on religion and morality. They did not want to see the United States of America self-destruct.
Today, Americans have departed from the ideals of our forefathers. We reason that religion and morality are nice, but certainly not necessary for the overall well-being of the nation. We have been led to falsely assume that private morality and public duty are separate issues. George Washington would have been appalled by such reasoning. And he was the father of our nation. Abraham Lincoln would have been appalled. And he saved the nation from ruin during the Civil War.
When Americans go from proclaiming that a free society can only exist when founded on private morality to thinking that character doesn’t matter, it is time to ask some hard questions about the future of this nation.
For more, read my free booklet Character in Crisis.