Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Biblical morality and republican virtue

Benjamin Rush
.... The renewal in 1805 of a 30-year friendship with Doctor Benjamin Rush reinvigorated [John Adams]. Their frank correspondence, touching on all manner of topics, lifted his spirits. “Dr. Rush’s letters are of inestimable value to me,” the former president recalled.

A Philadelphia physician, social reformer, and a venerated signer of the Declaration of Independence, Rush was respected by the leading political figures of the day. ....

In one conversation about the “perfectibility of man” and religion’s role in making “men and nations happy,” both Rush and Adams lamented the moral decay they witnessed in the world around them. “By renouncing the Bible,” Rush interjected, “philosophers swing from their moorings upon all moral Subjects.... It is the only correct map of the human heart that ever has been published. It contains a faithful representation of all its follies, Vices & Crimes.” He then concluded: “All Systems of Religion, morals, and Government not founded upon it, must perish, and how consoling the tho[ugh]t! — it will not only survive the wreck of those Systems, but the World itself. ‘The Gates of Hell shall not prevail against it [Matt. 16:18].’”

John Adams
“The Bible,” Adams promptly responded, “contains the most profound Philosophy, the most perfect Morality, and the most refined Policy, that ever was conceived upon Earth. It is the most Republican Book in the World, and therefore I will still revere it.... [W]ithout national Morality,” he continued, “a Republican Government cannot be maintained.” ....

The political discourse of the founding era is replete with expressions of religion’s vital contributions to a republican regime. This notion was espoused by Americans from diverse religious, intellectual, and political traditions. David Ramsay, a delegate to the Continental Congress and the first major historian of the American Revolution, expressed this idea succinctly in 1789: “Remember that there can be no political happiness without liberty; that there can be no liberty without morality; and that there can be no morality without religion.” Benjamin Rush similarly opined in 1786: “Without [religion], there can be no virtue, and without virtue there can be no liberty, and liberty is the object and life of all republican governments.”

A self-governing people, in short, had to be a virtuous people who were controlled from within by an internal moral compass, which would replace external control by an authoritarian ruler’s whip and rod. The whip and rod were clearly unacceptable for a free, self-governing people. A moral people respected social order, legitimate authority, oaths and contracts, private property, and the like. For these Americans, the Bible was the well-spring of religion, and biblical morality was the source of this essential virtue. Therefore, many founders regarded the Bible as indispensable to a regime of republican self-government and liberty under law. .... [more]