Renewing the Great Experiment

Michael Metzger

“America is the most grandiose experiment the world has seen, but, I am afraid, it is not going to be a success.” Why was Sigmund Freud so pessimistic about our nation?

Freud recognized what most folks in the faith community do not. In his fatherly Farewell Address of 1796, George Washington referred to the new republic as an “experiment” in self-government. Can a nation’s people can be self-governed? The Founding Fathers felt they could, devising a “most nearly perfect solution.” It included religion. Freud was no fan of religion but recognized it was central to the experiment.

The framers’ solution looks like a triangle with three interlocking points. The first says liberty requires virtue. “Only a virtuous people are capable of freedom,” wrote Benjamin Franklin. “Freedom is not a permission to do what we like,” Lord Acton noted, “but the power to do what we ought.” A self-governed people have to be a virtuous people.

The second point says virtue requires religion. “If men are so wicked as we now see them with religion; what would they be without it?” asked Franklin. For the framers, virtue required religion—not necessarily Christianity. The Latin religio means to rebind. Without exception the framers believed that religion was essential to rebind people to virtue.

The third point in the triangle says religion requires freedom. In his Memorial and Remonstrance, Madison argues that the Christian faith does not need establishing. “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.” Only a freely chosen, disestablished faith can ground the virtue that guarantees freedom.

Freud recognized religion’s role but noted that the Christian faith was waning, becoming a privatized affair. So while he felt the experiment was great and grandiose, he doubted it was going to be a success. He may have been right.

In Coming Apart, Charles Murray recaps the great experiment. He hopes it will succeed but recognizes that the Christian religion has been relegated to the periphery of society. Over 80 percent of America’s elites are “balkanized” in 882 U.S. zip codes and most of them “do not have a close friend who is an evangelical Christian.”

But Murray has hope. He believes genetic and neural science will replace privatized religion as a way to instill virtue. Furthermore, “the more we learn about how human beings work at the deepest genetic and neural levels, the more that many age-old ways of thinking about human nature will be vindicated.” The Christian faith doesn’t need to be vindicated, but recent discoveries on how human nature works at the deepest neural levels do align with the early church’s anthropology.

Murray believes the institutions aligning with neuroscience “will be found to be the critical resources through which human beings lead satisfying lives.” In a post-Christian world, this could be a way for the church to return to renewing the great experiment.

That’s worth remembering tomorrow as we celebrate our great experiment tomorrow. Unless churches return to a wise, public faith; Freud might very well prove to be right.


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  1. Great stuff Mike. Just stumbled upon your past few posts and will be processing for a while.

  2. Strong leadership, a return to the values carried over by the Mayflower Pilgrims, and rejection of the current movement to capitalist greed will be needed to make America great again. We have none of this. “The Great Experiment” has shown the predatory side of human nature to be stronger than its humanitarian side. We are destroying the earth and ourselves, and our leaders are grabbing all they can while encouraging courageous young people to go into space to devour other planets and their resources. Perhaps neuroscience can point out that we need humility for a satisfying life, but who is going to listen?

  3. And the governance that existed prior to the Pilgrim Fathers?

    Where does the UN fit in this analysis, in particular the new sustainable development goals ?

  4. Am recently reflecting on and experiencing consternation regarding how our European fore bearers displaced Native Americans in pursuit of this great experiment … not to mention the enslavement of Africans


  5. This may be a side trip but…..I heard from Jack Hibbs just this morning on Christian radio that 52 of the pilgrims on the Mayflower were Christian believers but 50 more were not. That has me thinking. The Mayflower Compact still makes a great statement about the established colony’s goal of putting forth the Faith and its virtues. The Plymouth colony people had to live in community or die. Our culture does not force us to live in community to our great detriment.

  6. One of the issues of modern day that has me contemplating your article, is Apple vs. Microsoft.

    Microsoft seems to want to control all aspects of the use of the computer, and , even to the point they make it easy for viruses to attack your computer, and then charge you out the kazoo to fix the virus.

    Apple, on the other hand, uses the cloud, and encourages the use of same.

    Seems to me, we could make a dumb terminal out of our devices and use the cloud for everything.

    My point, modern Christianity, like our forefathers, needs community to survive. Therefore, the cloud creates an opportunity for a universe community that has virtue, and overcomes greed by offering the unique experience to every user.
    We can work on the viruses without having a greedy technician promise to fix them!

    Outside the box, but centered on how we communicate our message in this fast paced world.


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