A Republic Needs Virtue—But What Kind?

I believe that Dr. Hall is conflating two quite different questions in his essay: first, whether the United States had a Christian founding, and second, whether the majority of the founders were, like the vast majority of the population at that time, believing Christians. The answer to the second question is obviously yes. But that doesn’t mean the republic had a Christian founding, and Dr. Hall’s assertion that God’s absence from the text of the Constitution is a “trivial” point is quite untrue. The omission was deliberate, as the writings and correspondence of Madison, Hamilton, and Jefferson clearly indicate. It was also blatantly radical: a sovereign nation with no established religion was something new on the face of the earth, a cause for wonder.

Dr. Hall has put the founding in philosophical context but not the wider historical context, which is all-important. “Enlightenment ideas indisputably had some positive influence,” he allows, “but a more important reason Americans embraced religious liberty was because of their Christian convictions.” No, no, and no! For there were Christians and Christians—though Dr. Hall writes as though the various sects formed a monolithic bloc. In fact, for more than two-and-a-half centuries—ever since Martin Luther posted his 95 theses—Christians had been torturing and slaughtering each other all over Europe. Bitter warfare in France, culminating in the St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre of Protestants by Catholics in 1572, endured until the very end of the century, and recommenced, just as brutally, in 1685. It was still going on during deliberations over the American constitution. The Netherlands suffered 80 years of warfare before the Protestant provinces finally succeeded in detaching themselves from Catholic Spain. Germany and other parts of Central Europe were torn apart by the inconceivably savage Thirty Years’ War (1618-48), in which entire regions were devastated and the population of the area was reduced by 30 percent. Britain, closer to home for most American colonists, had seen Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries, Mary I’s persecution of Protestants, and finally the bloody Civil War (1642-51), in which Puritan parliamentarians took on Anglican royalists, divided the nation, and executed the monarch.

Needless to say, these events constituted no fine advertisement for Christian tolerance, and the founders recognized that some institutional guarantee had to be constructed to keep American Christians from tearing each other to pieces as the Europeans had done. The founders were reading Spinoza, yes; but they were also reading more recent philosophers whose works made a frontal attack on the hypocrisy of eighteenth-century Christians, such as Voltaire (Letters on England, The Philosophical Dictionary, Candide) and Montesquieu (Persian Letters, The Spirit of Laws). Indeed, the well-publicized meeting and stagey embrace in Paris between the elderly philosophes Benjamin Franklin and Voltaire was one of the great set pieces of the age. And the founders were students not only of recent events but of more distant history, too. They were terrified, and rightly so, of rivalry between different Christian sects breaking out into full-scale persecutions, as had happened throughout Europe, and designed the Constitution to preclude that possibility. Religion, wrote Madison, “has been much oftener a motive to oppression than a restraint from it,” and religious laws “will be found to leave crevices…through which bigotry may introduce persecution; a monster feeding and thriving on its own venom, gradually swells to a size and strength overwhelming all laws human and divine.” Years later, writing to Jefferson about the Protestant bigotry that had once more reared its head in the early years of the nineteenth century, John Adams expressed heartfelt gratitude for the founders’ wisdom and prescience in providing the Constitution’s Establishment Clause. “What a mercy it is,” he exclaimed, “that these People cannot whip and crop, and pillory and roast, as yet in the United States! If they could they would.”

Dr. Hall raises an interesting question in this essay when he suggests, in the first paragraph, that there is a connection between the Bible and liberty, between the Christian tradition and the founders’ program of expanding freedom. I have heard this claim before, and while no historian has ever explained it to me convincingly, it is impossible to write off the idea. Also: what is the significance of the fact that the Enlightenment itself grew from Christian soil? Are Enlightenment ideas peculiarly allied to a Christian sensibility or point of view? Reading Dr. Hall’s essay and his book, Did America Have a Christian Founding?, I again failed to find a coherent development of this theme, and in the lengthy perusal of the founders’ writings I conducted while writing my own book on the subject I did not do much better.

What about Dr. Hall’s contention that “with few if any exceptions, every founding era statesman was committed to the proposition that republican government required a moral citizenry, and that religion was necessary for morality”? This is unarguable, but many of the founders would not necessarily have claimed the Christian religion as the one indispensable system. As John Adams remarked, “Phylosophy looks with an impartial eye on all terrestrial religions.” When critics objected, of the No Religious Test clause, that it would enable a Jew, a Hindu or even “the Great Turk” to become president, the authors of the Constitution didn’t deny the possibility. But Dr. Hall has a valid point: many intellectuals of the era, though freethinkers, deists, or doubters themselves, thought that a strong civil society could be achieved only if the relatively unlettered populace adhered to a religious faith. No morality, in other words, without religion.

Jefferson, a card-carrying member of the radical Enlightenment, disagreed: the moral sense, he believed, was an inborn human trait. “If we did a good act merely from the love of God and a belief that it is pleasing to him, whence arises the morality of the Atheist?” he queried. “It is idle to say, as some do, that no such being exists.” But most of his fellow-founders understood that religious sentiments could have a positive effect on civic life. The example of Franklin, cited by Dr. Hall, is a most interesting case. Franklin’s cronies among the radical philosophes of Paris took him for one of their own—an unbeliever. And he may well have been. But his suggestion that each day of the Constitutional Convention be opened with a prayer was far more than mere rhetoric: the psychologically canny Franklin knew that the religious impulse is a force that under the right direction can bring unity as well as division. And besides, a daily dose of humility would do these gentlemen no harm.

Dr. Hall points out that 50-75% of Americans during the founding era were Calvinists, who “place special emphasis on what they refer to as the doctrine of total depravity” and “believe that even redeemed men and women continue to struggle with sin.” He goes on to suggest that it is this Calvinistic creed that inspired the founders to create our “constitutional order characterized by federalism, the separation of powers, and checks and balances.” But once again, “the founders” and “the American people” are not at all the same thing. The numerous founders who were imbued with Enlightenment ideas, while not necessarily denying the reality of sin and grace, had long been moving toward a Roman ideal of “virtue”—a civic rather than a theological concept. Montesquieu, the philosopher who most influenced the framers, wrote in The Spirit of Laws (1748) that different qualities were required of a populace under different regimes. A tyranny, he wrote, needs fear; a monarchy needs honor; a republic, critically, needs virtue. The virtue of a good citizen, that is: not necessarily that of a good churchgoer. George Washington, while no very enthusiastic churchgoer, was nevertheless widely recognized as the consummate virtuous citizen, in the antique mold: a man of deeds rather than words, of unshakable patriotism; a man who brought out the best qualities in his compatriots; a man who unhesitatingly gave up power when the time came and retired to private life.

How might this sort of virtue be fostered in the American citizenry? Through education; through national service, perhaps; through civic engagement and general participation in the political process, certainly. Through religious faith and church membership? Possibly—but not necessarily. Dr. Hall is correct when he writes that the founders “did not think that religion must be driven from the public square.” And they were right: look what happened in France when that was attempted—and in Russia! They finally agreed, though, that it should be a private matter between oneself and one’s God. In Madison’s formulation, “Religion and government will both exist in greater purity, the less they are mixed together.”

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

Response Essays

  • Brooke Allen argues that while the American founders thought virtue was essential to good government, there were other ideals of virtue besides those of religion. She suggests that the idea of civic virtue did much of the work, in the founders’ minds, that was supposed to preserve the republic. She adds that while a large majority of Americans were Calvinists at the time of the founding, the founders owed more of their political thought to Montesquieu than they ever did to Calvin.

  • Faith played a strong role in the American founding, says Prof. Thomas Kidd. But it may not be the role we expect. “Deism” meant several different things at the time, and it’s not always clear what the founders meant when they used the term to describe themselves. And even religious freethinkers in the 18th century would be thoroughly versed in the Bible; this was a mark of education, but not necessarily of orthodoxy.

  • Prof. Steven Green argues that the founders were trying to create a government based on consent, and not on any theory of divine right. The document was not “godless,” because the founders were not godless men themselves. They were concerned, however, that consent remain at the forefront, and so they avoided the language—common at the time—that would have asserted a divine institution.