The era we live in today is amazing. The freedom our national creed provides coupled with technological advances in everything have made life convenient, abundant, enjoyable, and in many areas, less stressful. The traditional “American Dream” has never been more attainable than today. However, this free and fruitful time in our history has brought about divisiveness in many areas of our democratic society that has not been seen since the events leading to the Civil War.
The rise of social media has given everyone in the world with internet access a soapbox on which to stand. Everyone in the world is connected by keyboards and computer screens, ready to give their two cents on any topic. In many ways, this American trait of discussing issues and voicing their opinions on everything is something that has always been with us ever since the taverns where Colonial Americans discussed political opinions that eventually dissolved our ties to Great Britain through war.
This is not a bad thing; however, elements of our society that once were and that are no longer have evolved our nation into a nation that is no longer united but divided. In a sense, our country is currently undergoing an identity crisis of sorts. This crisis has been brought about through prosperity, scientific progress, religious and cultural shifts, and the suspect of our traditional means.
Setting the Groundwork
In the days of the founding of our country, our government was designed with checks and balances. As we all learned in school, these are made up of three branches of government: executive, legislative, and judicial. Each branch has different powers of management of our government, and many aspects are divided between different branches as not to give full responsibility and power to one branch. This division was an intelligent design with the purpose of preserving freedom for every American from every American. By no means is this design perfect, but it is the best design man can come up with to limit the natural human inclinations of self-interest, or what the Founders referred to as “the passions of the people.”
Freedom For and Freedom From
The limitation of corruption in government was a huge driving force in the conception of our form of government. The founders constantly wrestled with the philosophical elements of the human mind and the natural ambitions of humanity. The self-interest desires of our design that eventually result in corruption, greed, etc., were threats to freedom and the “pursuit of happiness” proclaimed in our Declaration of Independence. James Madison put it like this in Federalist 51:
"If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself."
Religion in Early American Government
One component of our society that was looked at as a check on the element of our human design was religion. 99.9% of the time, religion, no matter what it is, carries with it a version of morality and ethics that, at its most basic form, are shared with all religions. All these religions teach of what is good and what is evil, and, at their most base roots, those ideas are shared.
The difference in each religion lies with cultural additions to that basic form. In essence, people all over the world know what is acceptable in a society because of the innate ideas within each individual and the religions that incorporated those universal feelings and ideas.
In the United States, our understanding of good and evil came from the largely Judeo-Christian population that settled and founded our country. The laws, regulations, and culture in our country are all operated under Judeo-Christian precepts. Those that created our country's framework used their experiences, understanding, and perspectives about the world to design our country’s government and governmental processes. These elements, which included Christian perspectives, wove their way through the fabric of our society, and this thread was seen as checks and balances on the populace. Fisher Ames, Congressman and framer of the 1st Amendment, stated it like this:
“Our liberty depends on our education, our laws, and habits … it is founded on morals and religion, whose authority reigns in the heart, and on the influence all these produce on public opinion before that opinion governs rulers”.
It was believed that religion set the standard for morality among the nation’s population and that influence would ensure the preservation of our form of government and thereby also preserving our freedom by quelling the passions of the people.
In a free state, the perfect amount of freedom is important. Too much freedom leads to anarchy and too little leads to tyranny. To allow a free nation where the people did not take advantage of their liberty, that people would need to be a people of one united under a moral compass of religion. In a letter to a family member in June 1776, John Adams reinforced this logic stating, “religion and morality alone which can establish the principles upon which freedom can securely stand. The only foundation of a free constitution is pure virtue.”
In addition, Benjamin Rush, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, also reinforced this way of think by stating, “the only foundation for a useful education in a republic is to be laid in religion. Without this there can be no virtue, and without virtue there can be no liberty, and liberty is the object and life of all republican governments.” George Washington even chimed in with his opinion writing, “Christians and good citizens by your prayers and exertions to preserve that harmony and good will towards men which must be the basis of every political establishment; and I readily join with you that while just government protects all in their religious rights, true religion affords to government its surest support.”
It is blatantly clear that the Founders believed that a religious fabric weaved through our society was necessary in our form of government in order to bring up a moral and ethical people in a form of checks and balances to preserve our freedom and prevent its abuse. In the words of our second president, yet again, “We have no government armed with power capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion … Our constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other”.
It must be understood that in no way was (or is) our country a “Christian Nation.” It was (is) instead a nation of a majority Christian population that was (is) diverse in different beliefs but has the same common ethos. This makes it necessary for a separation of religion from the government.
Separation of Church and State
This Separation of Church and State has been an important part of our nation’s foundation. This idea was first adopted by the House of Burgesses in Virginia when it was proposed by Thomas Jefferson in 1777 when he drafted the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, which was passed in 1786. Later, this similar idea was adopted nationally by its insertion into the Bill of Rights as the First Amendment to the constitution of the United States.
The idea is important because it prevents the government sponsorship or support of a specific religion or sect and it allows for free exercise of any religion without discrimination. In addition, this idea prevented the polluting of religion in the country by government. If government had say in religion, government could force the people to follow a certain religion and influence the doctrine and practice of the religion. This idea of separation was highly supported by the Founders however, they understood that people conduct themselves based off of their experiences. Every decision a person makes is filtered through the lens of personal experiences in which we form our opinions. That said, they also understood that in order to have proper checks and balances on the people, religion must be separate in practice and support to avoid the poisoning of the nation’s moral compass.
Connecting the Dots
Having given the history of the formation of our system of government and its relationship to religion and the Founder’s intent, it must be explained as to the relevance of the background and its connection to today's divisiveness.
In our current time, religion, science, and what once was is questioned. Religion, regardless of what it was, united us under a common set of morals. These morals were taught to us from our humble beginnings and passed down to us with each generation. Our laws, social customs, social interactions, holidays and our overall understanding of how a society should function is based on principles, values and a certain inkling of what it is to be American. This understanding, until now, has included Judeo-Christian precepts.
Departure from Judeo-Christian Ideals
The questioning of these precepts is really the root of our division. The many common elements of what it is to be an American have all been questioned. In the process of questioning, different groups within the country create their own idea of what justice is and what is moral. When there is a common idea of justice and morality and each entity questions that common idea and comes up with their own, this creates many entities with different ideas on what is just. With that, we lose our unity and create irreconcilable differences.
Most of the questioning that started this division begins with the idea of religion. This starts with the questioning of God’s existence. This is nothing new. The Founder’s questioned this as well. However, the difference lies in the fact that regardless of whether God exists, the moral code still stands. God’s existence has nothing to do with it. Thomas Jefferson, for example, questioned the divinity of Jesus but, also stated, “I concur with the author in considering the moral precepts of Jesus as more pure, correct, and sublime than those of ancient philosophers” when discussing a sermon that was forwarded to him. Despite Jefferson’s questioning of Jesus’s divinity, he went so far in his belief that Jesus’s ideas on morality were so pure, he created a Bible that included none of the miracles of Jesus and only his teachings.
Another reason for this questioning of religion is the Bible. Many question the (over 600) laws of Moses in the old testament. However, this is questioning of cultural laws from an ancient time that have no relevance for the vast majority of those that follow the Bible in the United States and believe in a new covenant. The primary moral code for those that follow the Bible in the United States is the new testament which has influenced the basis for all our understanding of justice, moral code and national ethos.
As stated earlier, the United States has grown to provide a higher level of lifestyle for its citizens. This lifestyle has given several generations the norm of having everything available to them. This has created a buying a selling atmosphere that is at the expense of everyone. Our citizens grow unhealthy, physically and mentally, in abundance and grow complacent in this lifestyle.
As they demand more within the abundance, they begin to reach outside of the realm of traditional American morals and values while questioning those values legitimacy. Whatever brings pleasure, regardless of its traditional moral standing, is a cause to fight for. The country, including the government is all about individual self-interests. As it was stated earlier, when everyone has their own idea of what is right, just and moral, and what it means to be an American, we lose our unity and are no longer the “United” States.
The government’s response to this situation is natural and dangerous. Many look for legitimacy in their actions so they petition the government. The Federal government then begins creating laws that regulate the lifestyle of each citizen in an effort to protect the rights of the petitioners. As a result, more and more laws are created that limit the freedom of Americans. The more laws that pass regulating your personal lifestyle, the less liberty you have. Once there was a set moral and social code one would follow, and if you didn’t follow, you did that in privacy, now, all must be open, spoken, tried and legitimized. This activity slowly closes the door on liberty. A famous quote of Ben Franklin’s that falls along the lines of this situation is, “Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety”.
The division in our country currently is simply caused by the lack of a unifying code of conduct. As stated, this code has been the Judeo-Christian component to our society. Today, with the current challenging of past traditional values, the moral code of conduct has been pushed away to make room for ideas and activities that have been outside the realm of traditional moral methods in the pursuit of pleasure.
To fix our nation would mean to unite under a unifying factor yet again and reevaluate what it truly means to be an American. Our country has traditional been a home to many of different cultures all Americanizing. What does that mean today? It used to mean that each citizen, no matter the background (religion, sex, race, etc ), would adapt to a civil religion that encompassed a moral and social code of conduct. Today, we face an identity crisis that tears our United States apart and leaves behind a shattered and rejected American ethos, lost to its own self-centered ambitions and acquisitive desires.
I leave you with the advice of the 3rd president and drafter of the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson.
“Give up money, give up fame, give up science, give the
earth itself and all it contains rather than do an immoral act. And never suppose that in any possible situation, or under any circumstances, it is best for you to do a dishonorable thing, however slightly so it may appear to you. Whenever you are to do a thing, though it can never be known but to yourself, ask yourself how you would act were all the world looking at you, and act accordingly. Encourage all your virtuous dispositions, and exercise them whenever an opportunity arises, being assured that they will gain strength by exercise, as a limb of the body does, and that exercise will make them habitual. From the practice of the purest virtue, you may be assured you will derive the most sublime comforts in every moment of life, and in the moment of death.”