On page 563 of his latest biography — John Quincy Adams: American Visionary — author Fred Kaplan (biographer of Abraham Lincoln, Charles Dickens, Mark Twain, and Gore Vidal among others) cites this insight of the sixth president:
Christianity had, all in all, he believed, been a civilizing force, “checking and controlling the anti-social passions of man.”
That insight is pretty much all an American needs to know in order to understand why the American Founders considered religion — specifically ethical monotheism rooted in the Hebrew Bible — indispensable to the American experiment; and why the America we have known since 1776 is in jeopardy.
It is easy to respect secular Americans who hold fast to the Constitution and to American values generally. And any one of us who believes in God can understand why some people, given all the unjust suffering in the world, just cannot believe that there is a Providential Being.
But one cannot respect the view that America can survive without the religious beliefs and values that shaped it. The argument that there are moral secularists and moral atheists is a non sequitur. Of course there are moral Americans devoid of religion. So what? There were moral people who believed in Jove. But an America governed by Roman religion would not be the America that has been the beacon of freedom and the greatest force for good in the world.
In order to understand why, one only need understand John Quincy Adams’s insight: How will we go about “checking and controlling the anti-social passions of man” without traditional American religious beliefs?
There are two possible responses:
One is that most Americans (or people generally, but we are talking about America here) do not have anti-social passions.
The other is that most Americans (again, like all other human beings) do have anti-social passions, but the vast majority of us can do a fine job checking and controlling them without religion as it has been practiced throughout American history.
These are views with which virtually every American who attends secular high school or university is explicitly and implicitly indoctrinated.
Both are wrong. And not just wrong, but foolish — and lethal to the American experiment.
To deny that human beings are filled with anti-social passions defies reality and betrays a lack of self-awareness. One has to be taught nonsense for a great many formative years to believe it.
If we weren’t born with anti-social passions — narcissism, envy, lust, meanness, greed, hunger for power, just to name the more obvious — why the need for so many laws, whether religious or secular, that govern behavior?
The second objection is that, even if we do have anti-social passions, we don’t need a God or religion in order to control them. Only moral primitives, the argument goes, need either a judging God or a religious set of rules. The Enlightened can do fine without them and need only to consult their faculty of reason and conscience to know how to behave.
Our prisons are filled with people whose consciences are quite at peace with their criminal behavior. As for reason, they used it well — to figure out how to get away with everything from murder to white-collar crime.
But our prisons are not filled with religious Jewish and Christian murderers. On the contrary, if all Americans attended church weekly, we would need far fewer prisons; and the ones we needed would have very few murderers in them.
Meanwhile the record of the godless and non-Christianity crowd is awful. I am not simply referring to the godless and secular Communist regimes of the 20th century that committed virtually every genocide of those hundred years. I am referring to those Americans (and Europeans) who use reason to argue, among other foolish things: that good and evil are subjective societal or individual opinions; that gender is purely a social construct and therefore the male and female distinction is of no importance; that marriage isn’t important and is just a piece of paper invented by the religious to keep women down; that a human fetus, even when it has a beating heart, a formed human body, and a conscious brain, has less of a right to life than a cat; and that men, let alone fathers, aren’t necessary. (Think no one really believes the latter? See, for example, The Atlantic’s “Are Fathers Necessary?” and the New York Times’s “Men, Who Needs Them?”) And that is a short list.
For proof of the moral and intellectual consequences of the secularization of America, look at what has happened to the least religious institution in America, the university. Is that the future we want for the whole country?
— Dennis Prager is a nationally syndicated radio talk-show host and columnist. His most recent book is Still the Best Hope: Why the World Needs American Values to Triumph. He is the founder of Prager University and may be contacted at dennisprager.com.