« Guardrails, Why America needs Religion »

George Washington, in his 1796 Farewell Address, warned the new nation about a variety of potential developments. He warned against consistent foreign entanglements as he recognized the danger in excessive military commitments. He also was extremely concerned about the power of political parties, as he saw them as detrimental to healthy political discourse and public decision making. He was convinced that both of these issues would hamper the nation’s potential for growth. To him, choosing the right course in these areas would be essential to the future of a healthy, vibrant, and prosperous American democracy.

Yet he gave a third warning that has proven even more significant than the aforementioned. Washington offered a piece of advice about religion that is seen as increasingly controversial in America’s current political climate. He called religion and morality “indispensible supports” of “political prosperity”. He believed that they represented the primary foundation on which a free society must be built. Moreover, he was concerned about attempting to sustain national morality without religion as its chief guide. He said, “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.”[1]  He warned Americans about accepting the kind of ethereal and non-specific morality that is commonly promoted today. Furthermore, his successor, John Adams asserted that “The constitution was made for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”[2] Both gentlemen, along with most of the nation’s framers, recognized the potential instability of a society built on mutable and secular definitions of morality. They recognized that this phenomenon would require the government to play a greater role in the lives of its citizens. If people were unable to exercise self-government, the state would necessarily need to compensate.

America’s recent cultural shift towards secularism threatens the foundations of a free society whose survival depends on a consistent, collective, and self-constraining moral ethos. Freedom itself is predicated upon the notion that individuals have the ability to erect moral boundaries that protect them from the destruction of themselves and others. For the nation’s founders, this was the only path to true liberty. As we can clearly see, our nation’s current incarceration rates (we have the largest prison population in the world) and heavy dependence on governmental social services to counter deficiencies in individual and family behavior (the nation’s largest employer is the federal government), are clear results of this dynamic. We also bear the unenviable distinction of leading the world in cocaine, marijuana, and alcohol use, in addition to having the highest teen pregnancy rate in the industrialized world. Furthermore, only a handful of places in the world, all developing nations, have higher rates of gun violence than the US. Leaders of every community must understand the crucial role that faith can play in solving these dilemmas. Yet much of America’s current culture sees religion’s role as ancillary at best, and antithetical to American progress at its worst. However, religion’s critics have no viable alternative solutions to changing the culture of selfishness, despair, and irresponsibility that is at the core of issues like violence, out of wedlock births, and drug use. Unless leaders recognize this truth, they are in danger of working to destroy the very nation they claim to defend. As Washington reminded us about religion and morality… “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.”[3]

A vibrant religious community has the power to protect the nation from itself. Working at a college on Chicago’s Southside, I am often asked about the causes behind the violence in our city. While a variety of factors play a role, including economic circumstances, access to weapons, and media images, violent behavior is ultimately an internal issue. When people act violently, out of frustration or aggression, these choices represent individual rather than collective decisions. Consequently, while our efforts to impact vulnerable communities from a collectivist, institutional perspective are laudable, they are only as effective as our ability to reach the individual heart and mind. There can be no external change without internal change.  I have witnessed, firsthand, the power of individual transformation on a community. I have seen a number of men who were involved in gang activity, drug use, and promiscuous sexual behaviors change their lives when faced with the power of the Christian message. Many of these men, after beginning with an individual conversion experience, have gone on to transform their families and the greater community as well.

A prosperous American democracy requires the guardrails that religion, piety, and the subsequent protected family life provide. Without them, we are headed for the same abysmal fate as the Romans. The Roman Empire’s demise was self-imposed and largely the result of embracing an immoral political and social ideology.  Unless we acknowledge the distinctive role that the faith community can play in promoting values like sacrifice, peace, delayed gratification, humility, and responsibility to family and community, America’s demise will be similar. Changing the political discourse to respect the historic position of religion in free societies, and understanding its unique place in solving our current dilemmas, is America’s only way forward. Just as George Washington recognized this, we would be wise to do so as well.


[1] George Washington's Farewell address, New York Public Library, 1935. pg. 105; 136. Courtesy of the Milstein Division of United States History, Local History & Genealogy, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations.

[2] The Works of John Adams, Second President of the United States: With A Life of the Author by Charles Francis Adams, Volume IX, Boston: Little Brown and Company, 1854.

[3] George Washington’s Farewell Address. 

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