Perspective: The Constitution was designed for a moral and religious people
The Founding Fathers repeatedly declared the Constitution would only be effective in preserving freedom if the people it governs are a moral and religious people. But who determines what morality is?
Editor’s note: For years, the Deseret News’ editorial page carried the epigraph: “We stand for the Constitution of the United States as having been divinely inspired.” In honor of Constitution Month, the Deseret News is publishing a variety of articles examining the Constitution’s continued importance.
But who determines what is moral — a professor, a politician, a judge, a social activist, a pollster? Who becomes society’s governing scepter for morality? All may have good intentions, but when all is said and done, whose moral code should govern our society?
So there would be no question about the answer, the Founding Fathers responded in remarkable unison and clarity — morality was an absolute — to be determined solely by God.
And learning the will of God was best determined by a religious people who sought God’s will as expressed in the Bible. James Wilson, a Founding Father, and one of the original justices of the U.S. Supreme Court noted, “How shall we, in particular cases discover the will of God? We discover it by our conscience, by our reason, and by the Holy Scriptures.”
Without moral guidelines from God, there are no fixed boundaries to address the burning social issues of our day, no foundation on which to build an enduring nation. Under such circumstances our nation would be built on moral relativism, a foundation of sand that shifts or collapses with the constantly changing tides of public opinion.
Moral relativism is a poison pill to a nation’s longterm survival. It is a philosophy that caters to self-indulgence and the “here and now.” It leads to moral depravity and avoidance of personal accountability since there’s no shared standard to which one is accountable.
Fortunately, our Founding Fathers understood human nature, and knew that our God-given rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness could be preserved only if accompanied by moral responsibility. Rights and responsibilities are inseparable — you can’t have one without the other. And since our unalienable rights spring from God, it is natural to assume that the corresponding moral responsibilities to maintain those rights also spring from God.
Thomas Jefferson wrote: “Whatever is to be our destiny, wisdom, as well as duty, dictates that we should acquiesce in the will of Him whose it is to give and take away.” He then added that “(Jesus’s moral laws are) the most sublime and benevolent code of morals which has ever been offered to man.” George Washington concurred: “It is the duty of all Nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, (and) to obey his will.”
As a result, the Founding Fathers understood the critical nexus between morality and religion. John Adams warned that “our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious People. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” Washington was in full accord: “Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports.” Patrick Henry was but another witness of this truth: “The great pillars of all government and of social life (are) virtue, morality and religion. This is the armor ... and this alone, that renders us invincible.”
Why did the Founding Fathers link religion and morals? Because they knew that religion was the best catalyst for fostering a moral people. They knew that religion was the prime source to inspire people to embrace and live God’s will.
Perhaps Alexander Hamilton stated it most succinctly when he said: “Morality must fall without religion.”
Some years ago, Harvard professor Clayton Christensen had a profoundly insightful conversation with a Marxist economist from China who was in Boston on a Fulbright scholarship. He asked the economist if he had learned anything that was surprising or unexpected while in the U.S. Without hesitation he replied, “Yes, I had no idea how critical religion is to the functioning of democracy … democracy works because most people, most of the time, voluntarily choose to obey the law.”
The greater our reliance on morality and religion, the less our need for reliance on government intervention and compulsory enforcement, and thus the greater our liberties.
He then added that “Americans followed (the) rules because they had come to believe that they weren’t just accountable to society, they were accountable to God.” But what happens to our democracy if religion is diminished in America and people no longer voluntarily choose to obey the law? Christensen offered this tragic conclusion: “If you take away religion, you cannot hire enough police” to enforce the law.
The Founding Fathers understood this principle — the greater our reliance on morality and religion, the less our need for reliance on government intervention and compulsory enforcement, and thus the greater our liberties. This is the genius of the First Amendment which protects religious freedom and provides space for conscience and morality to flourish while guarding against the infringement of that freedom by not establishing any single government church.
There are two methods by which society enforces it laws — moral and legal, but the first is far superior to the latter. Why? Because moral laws govern our internal nature, not just our external behavior, and thus foster greater character, agency and spiritual progress.
A political system rooted in moral principles can advance our goal of freedom. On the other hand, a system moved about by moral relativism can obstruct that goal. The Founding Fathers gave us the vision and path to walk — a nation under God, not without God — a moral code based on the will of God, not the will of man.
In the Latter-day Saint tradition, the God has promised: “This is a choice land, and whatsoever nation shall possess it shall be free from bondage, and from captivity, and from all other nations under heaven, if they will but serve the God the land, who is Jesus Christ.” Hopefully we will preserve our Constitution and become a moral people as defined by God, not the world.
Tad R. Callister is an emeritus General Authority of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He is currently the chair of the Why I Love America committee, a group dedicated to educating citizens about the US Constitution.