Religion and the Moral Foundations of American Democracy

November 16, 2021 Updated: November 16, 2021


According to social scientists, traditional religiosity is in decline in contemporary America. Fewer Americans identify as members of long-established churches. Fewer Americans attend religious services on a weekly basis than in generations past.

Some Americans view these developments in purely empirical terms, as evidence of a changing culture. Others, critics of traditional religion, take the decline of American religion as a desirable trend, a sign of liberation from outmoded beliefs, and irrational superstitions unsuitable to a modern, rational age.

Neither of these assessments, however, is consistent with the mainstream American political tradition. That tradition views religion not as a private concern, the decline of which would be a mere sociological curiosity, nor as a relic of an unenlightened past with which the contemporary world can happily dispense. Instead, it regards religion as an essential element of America’s political culture. According to this venerable understanding, the American regime cannot attain its ends—that is to say, America cannot truly be America—in the absence of widespread religious belief and practice among its citizens.

To understand this claim, we need to recall the ends or purposes of the American regime, and in particular to appreciate that our form of government, and political way of life aim to reconcile certain ends that tend to be in tension with each other. On the one hand, we are committed to self-government—in America, the majority rules. On the other, we are equally committed to the protection of individual rights. These rights are understood to be not merely the product of political negotiation but instead to be rooted in nature. They are part of the eternal moral order that all governments, even democracies, are obliged to respect.

We know from hard experience, however, that the majority does not always rule justly, does not invariably respect the rights of individuals or of politically powerless minorities. One of the dangers of democracy is tyranny of the majority. The aim of America’s Founders was to establish a country in which the majority would be empowered to rule, but at the same time would be checked in such a way as to diminish the chances of majority tyranny.

To accomplish this end, the Founders relied to some extent on prudent institutional arrangements embodied in the Constitution. Bicameralism—the division of the legislative body into two distinct chambers—reduces the odds of majority tyranny by requiring that any law must command majorities in both houses of Congress. An additional safeguard is provided by the separation of powers among the legislative, executive, and judicial branches. If a tyrannical majority should seize control of both houses of Congress, its aims might be frustrated by a president exercising the veto power, or a Supreme Court subjecting the Congress’s acts to constitutional scrutiny. Finally, federalism, or the division of power between the federal government and the states, limits the possibility of majority tyranny by ensuring that a national majority does not have the right to dictate the country’s political life, a substantial portion of which is reserved to the self-government of the states as distinct political communities.

The American Founders did not, however, hold that such constitutional structures could on their own provide sufficient protection against majority tyranny. They also thought that the country needed a morally serious citizenry, one that possessed within itself the ethical discipline to resist the desire to violate rights in the pursuit of its own interests. The institutional arrangements were affirmed, in the words of James Madison, as “auxiliary precautions,” but with the understanding that the first line of protection against majority tyranny would be the good character and decency of the people themselves.

A view of the countryside from a desk in the main house at Montpelier, the family home of James Madison. (Courtesy of Montpelier Foundation)

This view was defended perhaps most famously by President George Washington in his Farewell Address of 1796. As he prepared to leave the presidency and retire from public life, Washington counseled his fellow citizens on the policies that the nation would have to pursue and the habits it would have to foster if its experiment in self-government were to succeed. He warned against the dangers of faction in domestic policy and of excessive attachment to European interests in foreign policy. He also, however, singled out religion as a necessary ingredient in the political health of the new nation.

“Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity,” Washington contended, “religion and morality are indispensable supports.” Religion and morality, he continued, are the “firmest props of the duties of men and citizens” and hence the “great pillars of human happiness,” equally to be cherished by both the “pious man” and the “mere politician.” Washington then proceeded to link the strength of religion and morality with the protection of the rights that governments are established to protect. “Where,” he asked, “is the security for property, for reputation, for life, if the sense of religious obligation desert the oaths which are the instruments of investigation in courts of justice?” Finally, Washington reminded his countrymen that these two great forces for good, religion and morality, cannot be separated in political practice. That is, one cannot hope to maintain a moral citizenry without the popular influence of religion. Washington did not contend that no human being could be morally upright without the support of religious faith. He conceded the moral power of a “refined education” on “minds of a peculiar structure.” Nevertheless, he suggested, the citizen who is non-religious but at the same time morally earnest is the exception, and not the rule in civic life. Washington therefore advised Americans to “with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion,” because “reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.”

As president, Washington acted on these views and used his office to promote religious belief and practice. Early in his first administration, Congress requested that Washington recommend “to the people of the United States a day of public thanksgiving and prayer, to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many, and signal favors” that “Almighty God” had bestowed on the nation. Washington complied in his celebrated Thanksgiving Proclamation of 1789, in which the president noted “the duty of all nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey His will, to be grateful for His benefits, and humbly to implore His protection and favor.” Washington then recommended Thursday, the 26th of November of that year, as a day “to be devoted by the people of these States to the service” of God, to thanking him for the nation’s many blessings, to seeking God’s “pardon for our national and other transgressions,” and asking him “to grant unto all mankind such a degree of temporal prosperity as He alone knows to be best.”

One might respond that Washington is not fully representative of the Founding generation on these questions. Perhaps he illustrates only the more conservative, Federalist understanding of religion and politics. What, then, of the other, more liberal and secular, Jeffersonian wing?

In fact, Thomas Jefferson’s understanding of the place of religion in American politics is not very different from Washington’s. In his celebrated “Notes on the State of Virginia,” Jefferson, like Washington, presented religious belief as necessary to supporting respect for rights. Meditating on the terrible problem of slavery in America, Jefferson asked: “Can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are the gift of God? That they are not to be violated but with his wrath?”

Jefferson, to be sure, held that the First Amendment stood for a principle of “separation of church and state” that prevented the federal government from using its authority to promote religious belief. Accordingly, he declined to issue any proclamations of Thanksgiving, as Presidents Washington and Adams had done. Nevertheless, Jefferson did use the formal rhetoric of the presidency to emphasize the importance of religion to America’s political well-being. In his First Inaugural address, Jefferson enumerated the “blessings” that make Americans a “happy and prosperous people.” Here he noted that Americans are “enlightened by a benign religion, professed, indeed, and practiced in various forms, yet all of them inculcating honesty, truth, temperance, gratitude, and the love of man.”

The Founders did not understand their belief in the political necessity of a religious citizenry, and their accompanying determination to encourage religious belief and practice, as incompatible with their equally firm commitment to religious liberty. Jefferson regarded his authorship of the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom as one of his most important accomplishments. In his Thanksgiving Proclamation, Washington mentioned “civil and religious liberty” as one of the blessings for which the nation should be grateful. Later, in his famous Letter to the Hebrew Congregation at Newport, Washington praised America for its “enlarged and liberal policy” which gave to all “alike liberty of conscience, and immunities of citizenship.” Here, he continued, there was no question of mere religious “toleration,” as if “it were the indulgence of one class of people that another enjoyed the exercise of their inherent natural rights.” America’s form of government, he explained, “gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance,” and “requires only that they who live under its protection should demean themselves as good citizens in giving it on all occasions their effectual support.”

For the Founders, then, religious belief and practice should be encouraged because they are essential to the establishment of decent and moderate self-government. At the same time, however, faith and practice must not be coerced because to do so would be a violation of religious liberty.

From the Founding, this understanding of the relation of religion and politics passed into the mainstream of the American political tradition. It has been repeatedly affirmed by the nation’s leading statesmen. Its greatest example will suffice for all the others. Like the Founders, Abraham Lincoln praised the American regime for its protection of religious freedom. In his Lyceum Address of 1838, Lincoln noted our country’s possession of “a system of political institutions conducing more essentially to the ends of civil and religious liberty than any of which the history of former times tells us.” At the same time, Lincoln affirmed the importance of religion to the moral health of the political community. In an 1846 campaign, Lincoln was accused by political opponents of being “an open scoffer at Christianity.” Lincoln denied the charge. He then added, significantly, that he did not believe that he could himself support a public enemy of religion for public office, because he did “not think that any man has the right thus to insult the feelings, and injure the morals, of the community in which he may live.” Lincoln, then, followed Washington in holding that an attack on religion is an attack on public morality.

President Abraham Lincoln
President Abraham Lincoln sits for a portrait on Feb. 5, 1865. (Alexander Gardner/Library of Congress via Getty Images)

Accordingly, Lincoln also followed Washington in using the presidency to encourage religious faith and observance. In his Thanksgiving Proclamation of 1863, for example, Lincoln attributed the nation’s blessings to the work of “the Most High God” and held that “they should be solemnly, reverently, and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and one voice by the whole American People.” He therefore set aside the last Thursday of November “as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens.”

We may be tempted to look complacently on the decline of American religion, thinking that rights and freedom are modern and desirable, while religion is a burdensome relic of the past. The American Founders, however, and the political tradition they initiated, would warn us that such thinking is mistaken. Religion supports the morality necessary to a free society—and so, as Washington taught, we have both patriotic and pious motives to encourage religious belief and practice. As Alexis de Tocqueville, a friend and friendly critic of American democracy, wrote in 1835, “Despotism can do without faith, but liberty cannot …. And what is to be done with a people that is its own master, if it is not obedient to God?”

From RealClearWire

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.

Carson Holloway is professor of political science and Ralph Wardle Diamond professor of arts and sciences at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. He has been a visiting fellow in Princeton University’s James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions and the Heritage Foundation’s B. Kenneth Simon Center for American Studies. He is the author of “Hamilton versus Jefferson in the Washington Administration” (2016) and co-editor, with Bradford P. Wilson, of “The Political Writings of Alexander Hamilton, Vols. One and Two” (2017).