“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.