Worth Continuing?

Michael Metzger

Continuing an experiment.
Does anyone remember how trumpets playing from a passing train save lives? When Christian Doppler arranged this experiment in 1845, he discovered that the trumpet pitch was higher when the train was approaching and then lower as the train passed and moved away. It’s called the Doppler Effect. His experiment is the science behind Doppler radar, an advance in saving lives by predicting the approach of dangerous storms.

A dangerous storm over religion in American society seems to be brewing. Yet the Founding Fathers devised an experiment long ago that addressed this question and is the science behind our society. Does anyone remember it? Or is the experiment over?

To create a free American society that would remain free, the Framers used history in order to defy history. They recognized that Greece declined, Rome fell and most governments eventually failed.1 The Framers devised an experiment in self-government that James Madison called a “new and more noble course.” They imagined the Great Experiment as a triangle with three interlocking points beginning with virtue and liberty.

“Only a virtuous people are capable of freedom,” wrote Benjamin Franklin. James Madison, the father of the Constitution, said: “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.”

Where does this virtue come from? The second point was uniquely American: virtue requires religion. Franklin again spoke for many of the Framers: “If men are so wicked as we now see them with religion; what would they be without it?” Now the Framers were not all people of orthodox Christian faith. They represented a wide range of positions. Yet without exception they believed that religion was essential to virtue. In George Washington’s words, “Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, Religion and morality are indispensable supports.”

The third point in the triangle was the most daring and most original: religion requires freedom. The Framers were not shoving religion down anyone’s throat. They called it “freedom of conscience.” We have to be accountable to something or someone beyond self, state and statutes. The Framers believed only a freely chosen, disestablished faith can ground the virtue that guarantees freedom.

The American Experiment required virtue which required religion which required liberty. George Washington referred to it in his fatherly Farewell Address. Alexis de Tocqueville researched it thirty years later. The Frenchman wanted to know why the French “experiment” had failed so miserably. “We must strangle the last king with the guts of the last priest,” was the cry of the radical French Jacobins. This view led to the invention of the guillotine and why almost 170 million people worldwide were murdered by governments in the 20th century.2 The French “experiment” collapsed into anarchy because it required virtue but rejected religion. The American Experiment differed because it viewed religion as an “indispensable support” for virtue and liberty.

Many Americans sound more like Frenchmen these days. We talk about freedom of speech and freedom of the press yet view religion as intrusive and intolerant. We attribute American vitality to our entrepreneurialism – the effect of free-market capitalism. The Framers would have seen this as the approach of a dangerous storm.

The Framers believed we prize freedom of assembly and speech if we can include those things that are the dictates of conscience. Freedom of conscience is religious liberty, the First Amendment to the Constitution. It offered a framework for religious liberty in public life that made it free and fair for people of all faiths and none. We’re not talking about returning prayer to the public schools. That would be coercive. We’re talking about including religion as an “indispensable support” of virtue and liberty. As the Williamsburg Charter states, “The result, is a civil public square in which citizens of all religious faiths, or none, engage one another in the continuing democratic discourse.”

Second, American entrepreneurialism and free-market capitalism is the fruit, not the root of American vitality. Modern day capitalism blossomed in the early 19th century. “The First Amendment was ratified in 1791. The First Amendment preceded free-market capitalism” and is the root.3 The science behind free markets is that they are grounded in free speech that is grounded in freedom of conscience or religious liberty.

Asked what the Constitutional Convention had achieved, Benjamin Franklin replied: “A republic, Madame, if you can keep it.” Preserving our unique form of self-government requires knowing the science behind our society. The Founding Fathers devised an experiment. Is it worth continuing? Or is the experiment over?

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1 Some of this material is taken from “The Great Experiment: Faith and Freedom in the American Republic,” a publication of The Trinity Forum, 1623 28th Street NW, Washington, DC 20007.
2 See Bruce Falconer, “Murder by the State,” Atlantic Monthly, November 2003, which uses data compiled by University of Hawaii professor R.J. Rummel, today’s leading student of war and civil strife who has counted the number of people killed in the twentieth century by “democide,” a term he coined to describe government’s intentional killing of its own people because of ideas.
3 Os Guinness, “Islam and the Challenge of a Civil Public Square: Living With Our Deepest Differences When the Differences are Absolute,” The John Jay Institute for Faith, Society and Law, Vol. 04, 2007, p.14

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