Why America Can’t Do Without Religion

Does America really need religion? I believe this question is of supreme importance for our country as we begin the 21st century. We live in a time of unprecedented prosperity, with our material wealth unquestionably at an all-time high, while the morals of our nation show signs of serious erosion. And, even as the majority of our citizens openly acknowledge the importance of faith in their individual lives, a minority are equally openly assaulting the idea that religion has any place in our national life.

It is both the best of times and the worst of times. Many of us could easily bear witness to the importance of faith in our individual lives—and I count myself among them. Similarly, many of us could argue strongly for the importance of faith for society at large—such as its role in strengthening marriage and family and inspiring voluntarism, as well as in reducing crime and drug usage. These points have been well-documented.

But I want to focus on an even broader and deeper role for religion, one embraced by the framers of our Constitution: namely, that faith and freedom are indissolubly linked in a way that is critical for the welfare and endurance of our country.

Let me start far from the present-day world. One of the most poignant stories of ancient times is the account of the Roman general Scipio Africanus weeping over the burning of Rome’s great rival, Carthage, in 146 B.C. Asked why, Scipio said he felt terror at the thought that someday someone would give the same order to destroy Rome too. How extraordinary, said his tutor, Polybius, to whom Scipio was speaking, that on the day of his greatest success he should have been aware of his own mortality and the transience of life. Scipio was a rare conqueror who needed no slave to whisper in his ear: “This, too, shall pass.”

That same sense of transience lies at the heart of Polybius’s own work, the Histories, which Thomas Jefferson and James Madison studied and knew so well. All republics had risen, prospered, and fallen. Indeed, there was a “regular cycle of constitutional revolutions” and a process of “ordained decay and change.” The most important of the three great sources of decay was what Polybius called “the corruption of customs.”

The framers of the Constitution sought to avoid the previously inevitable “corruption of customs” and to set up a “new science of politics” as a direct answer to the fatalism of, Polybius’s analysis. As men of the Enlightenment, they were optimists but also realists. The American republic was the first great republic since the fall of Rome. It was to be the “new order of the ages.” But while the founders of our, republic were revolutionary, they were also rooted in history.

It is clear from their writings that they had carefully studied political systems of every type. They sought to use history in order to defy history. More specifically, they had a clear and ingenious idea of how the American republic could break the inevitable cycle and beat the historical odds.

A Great Experiment

The United States was to be a “great experiment,” in George Washington’s oft-repeated words. Their way, the Founding Fathers believed, was the way not only to win and order freedom but also—and equally importantly—to sustain freedom. The United States would therefore be a free republic that would remain free.

But what was their solution? What was the basis of their optimism? It was certainly not a belief in democracy. John Adams pointed out that “there never was a democracy yet that did not commit suicide.” James Madison was equally gloomy: “Democracies have always been spectacles of turbulence and contention, and as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths.”

If you ask most Americans today, including many scholars, to spell out the framers’ solution, the answer would lie in the separation of powers, and our system of checks and balances. A strong constitution, they would say, is the sole necessary protector of freedom, the only necessary antidote to the corruption of customs. This reliance on the Constitution alone, however, is flawed and not consistent with thousands of years of history.

It is true that our constitutional separation of powers is an essential as well as distinctive feature of our American government. But it is not unique; the Swiss republic adopted it before America. Polybius expressly says, and the framers repeated, that a strong constitution is not enough because human nature left to its own devices would eventually subvert any constitution. Polybius wrote that “when a commonwealth, after warding off many great dangers, has arrived at a high pitch of prosperity and undisputed power…the manner of life of its citizens will become more extravagant; and…the rivalry for office and in other spheres of activity will become fiercer than it ought to be. And as this state of things goes on more and more…this will prove the beginning of a deterioration.”

So, if the framers’ reliance either on democracy or on the separation of powers was not absolute, what is the missing piece of the puzzle?

It was a concept sometimes referred to as “the eternal triangle of first principles”—a set of three interlocking and interdependent ideas that were viewed as absolutely foundational for sustaining freedom. The three legs of this triangle are liberty, virtue, and religion, and the premise is that each leg requires the other. Simply stated: Liberty requires virtue, virtue requires faith, and faith requires liberty. With this concept in mind, we can clearly see the heart of the framers’ brilliant view of the indissoluble link of faith and freedom.

Let me expand briefly on these three enduring principles. But first let me stress that I am not arguing that all the framers were people of faith, let alone orthodox faith, or that they agreed on the precise place of religion in public life. Clearly they demonstrated great diversity on both these issues. But on the underlying relationship of faith and freedom, they showed remarkable unity, almost without exception.

Liberty Requires Virtue

The first leg of the triangle is the principle that liber requires virtue. For the framers, liberty was not just a form of negative freedom—a freedom “from.” Rather, it was positive freedom—a freedom “for,” or freedom “to be?”

In Lord Acton’s famous formulation, freedom is not the permission to do what we like but the power to do what we ought. In a similar vein, Benjamin Franklin once said, “Only a virtuous people are capable of freedom.” James Madison observed (and here we see clearly that “the father of the Constitution” did not rely on the Constitution alone), “Is there no virtue among us? If there be not, we are in a wretched situation.” No theoretical checks—no form of government—can render us secure: “To suppose that any form of government will secure liberty or happiness without virtue in the people is a chimerical idea?’

John Adams was equally blunt: “We have no government armed with powers capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion. Avarice, ambition, revenge, or gallantry would break the strongest cords of our constitution as a whale goes through a net?’

The second leg of the triangle is the principle that virtue requires religion. For the framers, virtue was more all-encompassing than what many view as virtue in today’s society. For one thing, it included strong features such as excellence and courage. For another, it had to be grounded and rooted. It was not a cliché that floated in thin air. Religion provided virtue with its content, its inspiration, and its sanction.

As George Washington said in his farewell address, “Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports.” Or as the more skeptical Jefferson asked equally clearly, “Can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis? A conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are a gift of God? That they are not violated but with His wrath?”

Religion Requires Liberty

The third leg of the triangle is the principle that religion requires liberty. Here, and not in the separation of powers, is where our framers were perhaps most original and most daring. Indeed, it could be argued that the first 16 words of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution—”Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof”—are the most daring and distinctive part of the entire American ordering of public life. This was an unprecedented departure from 1,500 years of political history after Constantine converted to Christianity in 312 A.D. and set the stage for Christianity becoming the official religion of the Roman Empire.

As Madison argued so powerfully in his Memorial and Remonstrance, “torrents of blood” have been spilt in the name of established religion in the Old World, but we now have “the true remedy in the separation of church and state:’ Its underlying principle? “That religion, or the duty which we owe to our Creator and the manner of discharging it, can be directed only by reason and conviction, not by force or violence.”

Madison further argues that the establishment of religion is both unnecessary and unwise. It is unnecessary because religion flourishes best on its own strength. It is unwise because when religion becomes established, it becomes oppressive and coercive.

No fair-minded reader of the writings of the framers can possibly miss their extraordinary chorus of agreement on these issues. So it seems beyond dispute that faith or religion occupied a preeminent place in the foundation of our republic.

Skeptics, however, might ask: Was it religious hype, or as John Adams once said, “pious cant”? The framers expressly said it was not.

Were they merely children of their times in giving such a place to religion? Far from it. Nowhere is the difference between the founders and their contemporaries in France starker than in their positive attitude to religion. The cry of the French republican revolutionaries was, “Let us strangle the last king with the guts of the last priest!”

Skeptics might say that there is some new solution to the menace of the corruption of customs that the framers didn’t know of. If anything, modern society proves the opposite point.

What is, however, all too plain is that many Americans today have abandoned or are unmindful of the framers’ position. Certainly it is not taught with any regularity in our schools. In fact, many of our liberal thinkers have adopted a position much closer to that of the French radicals than to that of our American framers. Even some conservatives have become so caught up in the importance of economic issues alone that they have neglected the framers’ position and its prudent realism.

What has happened? What is behind the sea change separating the framers’ world and ours? One factor is exploding pluralism. The story of America is the story of a steadily expanding pluralism, but the expansion in the last 50 years to include almost all the world’s religions has put a new strain on our traditional ordering of religion and public life. One obvious example is the public schools. In Los Angeles, where I live, we have a district with over 90 different religions in its schools. A politically correct holiday program could last a month.

Expanding Statism

Another factor is expanding statism. When the First Amendment was enacted in 1791, religion was central and powerful in most people’s lives, whereas the federal government was distant. Today, the situation is reversed: The federal government is strong and central, whereas religion for many is marginal and weak.

Yet another factor is emerging separationism. This is the view pushed openly by groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU): that the separation of church and state must be strict and absolute. Religious freedom then becomes freedom from religion instead of freedom for religion. Public life becomes a “religion-free zone,” so that religion is considered inviolably private and public life inviolably secular. I wonder what motto would be on our currency now if that were a subject of discussion. I highly doubt that “In God We Trust” would pass muster. Similarly, I wonder whether the Pledge of Allegiance would include the phrase “one nation under God.”

This view of a religion-free zone is a radical departure, because, for the greater part of its history, America adhered closely to the framers’ understanding of the First Amendment. Great leaders such as Theodore Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower, and Ronald Reagan, following in the footsteps of the framers, continually reminded us that faith and religion are not just important to the character of our people and nation, but, also, to repeat Washington’s words, “indispensable” to the preservation of our democratic institutions.

In 1917, Roosevelt wrote, “In this actual world, a churchless community where men have abandoned or scoffed at or ignored their religious needs is a community on the rapid downgrade”. Nearly half a century later, Eisenhower said, “Without God, there can be no American form of government, nor an American way of life.” And, most recently, Reagan warned that “if America ever ceases to be a nation under God, we will simply become a nation gone under.”

It would be easy to lament the present situation. We have gone from an animating vision that safeguards religion to one that systematically sabotages religion and undermines its revered traditions, honored place, and acknowledged importance in American society. Ironically, farsighted framers such as Adams foresaw this very outcome. Looking down the years, he mused on the clear threat of future generations’ losing their freedom if national leaders ever came to believe that human beings were no higher than animals, and that the cosmos was “without a Father!’

Clearly, we have reached the point where the civil rights of those who preach and practice the most radical lifestyles or who insist that all public places be a “naked public square” trump the religious liberties of anyone who disagrees. We even have a new case where the ACLU is defending a group whose literature advocates sex between adult males and children—the same ACLU that works so hard to remove religion from our lives. We are living in an upside-down world of Alice in Wonderland brought to life.

When the conservative Catholic intellectual Michael Novak addressed the Library of Congress in 1998, he was asked, “Can an atheist be a good American?” His answer was, yes, “that has been done, many times.” But, he continued, can American liberties survive if most of our nation is atheist? “The most common, almost universal judgment of the founders was that it could not,” he concluded.

The Civil Public Square

I believe the time has come for men and women to join together to build a new consensus around religion’s proper place in the public square. But the answer to the folly of the naked public square is not a reassertion of any “sacred public square”—such as the domination of Protestantism in the 19th century. Those of us who are Catholics or Jews know too much about that. In the pluralistic society of today, neither of those options—the naked public square or the sacred public square—is just or workable. Rather, let us begin moving toward a civil public square, in which citizens of all faiths and none are free to enter and engage in public life within constitutional first principles and a common vision of the common good.

For example, if we are not to be an endlessly litigious people and seek all our solutions through law, we need to ask as a matter of routine what is just and free for people of all faiths. And we need to rebuild a consensus in our communities based on what is just and free for people of all faiths. That eminently achievable consensus can be reached by citizens who are steeped in the strengths of their freely chosen religious beliefs, as well as the other two legs of the eternal triangle of religion, virtue, and freedom—people who do their best to live responsibly, provide for their families, and respect the liberties and rights of their fellow citizens.

In other words, at a time when morality and virtue are in short supply, religion must play a greater, not a lesser, role in our national life. If it does, the future for America is as bright as the framers’ hopes and dreams. If it does not, the consequences might be summed up in three words as familiar to the framers as to Polybius and the ancients: decline and fall. The noble expethnent that is America remains by its fundamental structure undecided in outcome from generation to generation. We the people must therefore fight to return religion to its proper and foundational place in our country as the essential companion to liberty. In so doing, we must return our country to the vision our Founding Fathers not only held dear, but for which they risked everything—their lives, their property, and their sacred honor.

Religious liberty is far more than lust liberty for the religious. It is vital for all citizens. Putting religion back into the place where the framers intended it is not just a policy item on the order of tax cuts, health care, and missile defense. It is taking care of our foundation. Religion in America is far from an inviolably private issue. Essentially, it is a national issue. So—why does America need religion? It is not too much to say that as faith goes in America, so goes freedom.


  • William E. Simon Jr.

    William Edward Simon, Jr. (born 1951), is an American businessman and politician. In 2002, Simon campaigned unsuccessfully for Governor of California as a Republican against Democratic incumbent Gray Davis. Billed as a "conservative Republican," the virtually unknown Simon's campaign was significantly boosted by support from better-known Republican officeholders from outside California, including former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani.

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