In his first inaugural address in 1789, George Washington said he hoped “that the foundations of our national policy will be laid in the pure and immutable principles of private morality.” John Adams added, “It is religion and morality alone which can establish the principles upon which freedom can securely stand.” In a letter to the Massachusetts Militia, Adams also added, “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious People.”
Washington and Adams were in essence saying that without religious freedom and absent public morality, the freedoms framed in the Constitution were merely window dressing.
Both Washington and Adams invoked the Latin phrase sine qua non “without which (there is) nothing,” connecting the essential nature of religious liberty and public morality to freedom and the American Constitution.
Through the years, and with increasing blunt force and brute strength, the secular world has attempted to attack and dislodge religion and morality from the public square. Governments around the world, including in the U.S., have altered, limited and targeted religious liberty and religious institutions.
But on Oct. 23 at the University of Oxford, Elder Quentin L. Cook, a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, delivered a landmark address titled, “The Impact of Religious Freedom on Public Morality.”
A speech delivered by a world religious leader on religious freedom and public morality may seem unremarkable. His remarks, however, created a perfectly fitted frame around the principles required for the light of liberty to burn brightly and provided a window through which to look at the world today and the critical criteria necessary for true freedom to endure.
Following in the footsteps of Washington, Adams and others, Elder Cook stated, “Freedom to believe in private and to exercise belief and speech in the public square are essential to protecting unalienable rights.”
Elder Cook went on to declare, “I am equally concerned that the foundations which have historically supported faith, accountability to God, and the religious impulse are increasingly being marginalized in a secular world and derided and even banished from the public square.”
He also detailed how religious liberty has been established as part of essential human rights through the ages.
Elder Cook made a compelling case that the sine qua non of religious liberty and public morality were the foundation from which one of his personal heroes, William Wilberforce, launched his pursuit to abolish slavery in Great Britain. Without the protections of religious liberty and the power of public morality, Wilberforce’s crusade against slavery would have been snuffed out before it ever sparked the flame of justice and human dignity. The long, arduous battle for the emancipation of slaves in the British Isles was eventually victorious.
Providentially, the flame of freedom for slaves rose as the light in the life of Wilberforce flickered. Emancipation was proclaimed one week before Wilberforce died. Elder Cook noted that many of the great breakthroughs and advancements in history began with a person of faith entering the public square to make a moral stand.
Another religious leader, Rabbi Dr. Meir Y. Soloveichik, regularly speaks to the need for faith to be taken into the public square. He remarked, “When the state demands disloyalty to one’s faith as the price for entering society, that is an assault on the human soul, and that is intolerable, because ‘the soul of man is the candle of God.’”
Rabbi Soloveichik continued, “‘The soul of man is the candle of God.’ It is a powerful and enduring image. The human soul is a candle kindled by the Creator. Like a candle’s flame, the soul’s sanctity is so easily extinguished when buffeted by the winds of change, by the zeitgeist, by social pressure or by persecution. And yet like a flame, the soul, if protected, if sustained, if fueled by freedom, by faith, by courage, contains within it an infinite amount of power that can spark and inspire. …”
He then concluded, “Originally, until recent times and in Jerusalem today, Hanukkah lights were kindled not inside but outside the door of Jewish homes, right outside the door. … Lighting candles outside the doors of our homes expresses that when people of faith leave their homes and enter the world, they take their beliefs and their religious identity with them. They do not check their beliefs at the door when they enter the public square. Their souls, the candle within each person, illuminates their path wherever they may lead.”
What we bring to the public square as individuals is so much more than our physical presence. We should be bringing our whole, authentic self to work and to our communities — that includes our religious beliefs. Leaving our deeply held beliefs at home, in the mosque, synagogue or church is to leave a portion of self behind and accept a smaller portion of the illuminating light that emanates from the soul of every man and every woman.
As the capstone to a life of service and sacrifice to the nation, Washington chose to include in his farewell address this counsel: “Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports. In vain would that man claim the tribute of patriotism, who should labor to subvert these great pillars of human happiness, these firmest props of the duties of men and citizens. The mere politician, equally with the pious man, ought to respect and to cherish them. A volume could not trace all their connections with private and public felicity. Let it simply be asked: Where 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? And let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.”
American liberty and a constitutional republic are but “window dressing” to human flourishing without what Founding Fathers like Washington and Adams, along with today’s world religious leaders like Elder Cook and Rabbi Soloveichik, have declared. Religious freedom and public morality are indeed the sine qua non of liberty. If America is going to remain a beacon of hope and freedom, every leader and every citizen must live within their shared public morality and seek to secure the religious freedom required to promote and defend it.