Could America survive without religion? This is the question posed by Catholic philosopher and lawyer Robert George at Public Discourse.
That this question can even be posed is a measure of how greatly our culture has changed. As George points out, the leading American founders took it for granted that political institutions like America’s–that is, free political institutions in which the people govern–could only be sustained by a religious populace.
This understanding was probably still pretty strong as recently as a generation ago. The Americans of that time had their political thinking shaped by the big political conflicts of the middle of the twentieth century: namely, World War II and the Cold War. In World War II the leaders of the western democracies–men like Churchill and Roosevelt–sometimes characterized the war as a fight against forces that intended to destroy Christian civilization. That kind of rhetoric reinforced the sense that the democratic, free west was somehow still an outgrowth of the older Christendom. And during the Cold War it was obvious that communism was atheistic and hostile to the west not only because of its economic system but also because of its religion. And, again, western leaders emphasized these things. President Eisenhower supported adding the words “under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance because, he said, it was important to distinguish America’s way of life from atheistic communism.
This kind of thinking is much less prevalent today, but George’s essay invites us to reconsider it. And in fact he reminds us that it is not quite right, as I said above, to say that the founders took it for granted that religion was essential to democracy and freedom. Rather, they openly argued for that proposition. They did not argue for it at length, but there are passages in the writings and speeches of the leading founders where they indicate that they believe that religion is necessary to sustaining the morality that leads people to respect each other’s rights.
Of course, the modern person who is not so interested in religion might respond that it does not matter what the founders thought. They might, after all, be wrong about democracy’s dependence on religion. It is true that they might be, but that possibility does not excuse us in dismissing their thoughts on this question. It instead invites us to reconsider their arguments. This is precisely what George does in his valuable article.