A Long-Forgotten World?

Michael Metzger

Does July 4th represent a long-forgotten world?

I like July 4th. It’s family, flags, parades, floats… and far more than the daily recommended amount of sugar for children. It’s fun, but I wonder how many of us recall that before independence was declared, many entertained doubts about a new society.

John Adams for instance. He doubted whether Americans understood human nature well enough to eliminate selfish desires and passions. “How long then will their Virtue last?” Adams asked Mrs. Mercy Warren in October 1775.[1] He later answered, noting that “there is so much Rascality, so much Venality and Corruption, so much Avarice and Ambition… among all Ranks and Degree of Men even in America, that I sometimes doubt whether there is public Virtue enough to support a Republic.”[2]

A republic is a form of government in which the people hold power, but elect representatives to exercise that power. Adams was a Congregationalist in 1775, later becoming a Universalist. But throughout his life, he described the Bible “as the most republican book in the world.”

This is why the Founding Fathers included religion in ordering our new freedom. They sought to establish a republic formed by a golden triangle: Religion is necessary for Virtue which is necessary for Liberty which is necessary for Religion. It’s a never-ending cycle from which we form “a more perfect Union,” as the Preamble of the US Constitution puts it.

And if we don’t form it? Legend says a woman asked Benjamin Franklin a question as he exited Independence Hall after the Constitutional Convention. “Doctor, what have we got? A republic or a monarchy?” Franklin supposedly replied, “A republic, if you can keep it.” Franklin’s qualifier—if you can keep it—suggests July 4th is part of a long-forgotten world.

Augustine represents this world. In his book The City of God, he wrote how virtue is conscientiously performing the moral obligations and duties that come with freedom. Conscience “stood at the very heart of the Judeo-Christian ethic” in the old western world.[3] Maintaining a good conscience yields the virtue of hope, helping us resist two vices of disorder: presumption and pessimism. Presumption tends to afflict the “haves,” giving them an air of superiority. Pessimism tends to afflict the “have nots,” leading them to sloth, what Aquinas defined as “a sluggishness of the mind which neglects to begin good.” In both cases, presumption and pessimism, citizens are no longer willing to pursue difficult virtues.

This understanding of human nature held until around 1791 and the Bill of Rights. The First Amendment: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion..” In other words, there is no established church in America. And while this has benefits, consider what came next: Evangelical revivalists who preached a truncated gospel appealing to individualism. This was an Enlightenment take on human nature. By 1844, Ralph Waldo Emerson characterized Evangelicalism as “the protestant has his pew, which of course is only the first step to a church for every individual citizen.” Start your own church—or no church at all!

Emerson opted for no church. He sought to cast off “organized religion,” saying churches were no longer useful. It was better to follow your own private conscience, to “go alone… without mediator or veil.” He felt evangelical revivalists did this best, working “directly in the spirit and genius of the age.”[4] Emerson defined the age as Enlightenment individualism.

That age was short-lived and certainly no genius. The Enlightenment in America was over by 1815. This accounts for why, according to Tim Keller, “the high point of evangelicals’ greatest influence in American society was in the 1830s.”[5] After that, they began to mainly operate outside the arenas in which the greatest influence in culture is exerted. This is why Emerson praised evangelicals in 1844. They taught a faith that was privately engaging but publicly irrelevant.

I know something about a publicly irrelevant faith. My wife, Kathy, and I planted an evangelical church in 1987. It boomed numerically but something began to gnaw at me. I could give the opening prayer in the Senate, but was politely asked to leave as legislators got down to business. My faith was privately engaging but publicly irrelevant. I hated it.

So I resigned from the pastorate in 1995. I soon met Dallas Willard and began returning to the old western world that Augustine and Aquinas embodied. I found it wondrously beautiful. It’s helped me to see events as they unfold, as well as see through them to what they depict. For me, July 4th has come to represent a long-forgotten world.

Which has unfolded for me a calling requiring a long runway: reviving an ancient understanding of the gospel and human nature. This involves reviving an ancient understanding of conscience. Out of this might come people who conscientiously perform the moral obligations that come with freedom.

It can be done. It must be done, for I fear Franklin was right: we can lose our republic.

[1] John Adams to Mercy Otis Warren, October 19, 1775 and January 8, 1776, Warren-Adams Letters (Boston, 1917-1925), Vol. I, 222, 146, 202.

[2] Adams to Warren, April 16, 1776, in ibid.

[3] Paul Johnson, Modern Times: The World From the Twenties to the Nineties (HarperCollins, 1991), 11.

[4] Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803–1882): The Complete Works, Vol. III. Essays: Second Series, 1904.

[5] Tim Keller, “Cities and Salt: Counter-Cultures for the Common Good” (October, 2008).


Morning Mike Check


The Morning Mike Check

Don't miss out on the latest podcast episode! Be sure to subscribe in your favorite podcast platform to stay up to date on the latest from Clapham Institute.


  1. Wow Mike! You nailed it!….No Conscience, No Virtue, No Moral Compass is what is becoming more prevalent in our society, because no one is being taught “right from wrong” according to our faith and the Bible. And the consequence of this lack of teaching is no one is being held accountable for their actions. I saw this first hand, at the end of my tenure, in the public school system where I taught for 25 years. In many ways, if you listen to the media, our country has lost its way, but I believe there is still more love & goodness to come.

  2. I often wonder in our western post-modern world if the average person has an operable awareness of their own soul. That is, the part of who they are that will endure after our bodies give out. It seems that a heightened awareness of our internal soul is essential to the development of a virtuous conscience. Yet much of our world acts as if it doesn’t exist and that we are merely highly evolved parts of the animal kingdom. I wonder if the church today does enough to affirm the existence of our souls and to heighten our soul’s awareness of the ongoing presence of God in the here and now. I am not suggesting a dualism between body and soul, but merely putting a stake in the ground that our souls are the essence of our very being. Any thoughts how churches and para-church organizations can effectively reinforce the recognition that we are beings with souls?

  3. Tim:

    You might consider the many books of historian Christopher Dawson (including “Religion and the Rise of Western Culture”). Dawson would say the recognition that we are beings with souls was most deeply ingrained in the former territory of the Catholic church; the thing that used to be called ‘Christendom,’ and which now mostly calls itself ‘liberalism’ or ‘modernity’ or ‘the developed world’ or ‘progress’ or ‘individualism.’

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *