The Public Humanist

Religious Roots of Liberal Ideas

Religion is obviously important to the political ideas of the Christian right. But political liberals might be surprised how many of their ideals have deep religious roots. John Adams is a good example of this connection that historians have long recognized. Adams was a religious man, a church-going animal (his words) all of his life. His religious views affected all aspects of his life and politics. But his religious views were not static; he moved from Puritanism toward a tolerant Unitarianism.

Religion was so important to John Adams that he seriously considered becoming a minister. His father sent him to Harvard with that career in mind. After much soul searching, he rejected the ministry; in his Autobiography, Adams stated that dogmatism and bigotry were the major factors leading him to reject theology and to study law instead. He changed his career but religion still was fundamental to his political ideas.

For the founding generation, rights were grounded in religion. What were these rights? One right was the religiously grounded right to resist tyranny. The founders believed that leaders had moral obligations to rule for the public good. John Adams argued that all rulers, no matter the form of government, were bound by the moral obligations inherent in the golden rule. If the rulers did not fulfill their moral obligations to their people, he believed that armed resistance to such usurpation was sanctioned by the law of God. And Adams repeatedly stated that New England churches (along with schools, militia, and town meetings) had a central role in the American revolution.

Most Americans know that, according to the Declaration of Independence, we are endowed by our Creator with equal rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. For Adams these important ideals of the revolution came from his religion.

By the laws of God and nature, the meanest person is born equal to nobles and monarchs. But that meant equal in rights, not abilities. However, Adams softened that qualification by arguing that the real equality of Christianity is in the precept “do as you would be done by.” His invocation of the golden rule moves the concept beyond mere equality of opportunity. It becomes not just an inalienable right but an active principle; individuals have a responsibility to treat others equally.

We have a right to liberty, derived from our creator. But Adams’s definition of liberty would not sit well with many people today. He clearly distinguished between liberty and licentiousness. Not surprisingly, considering his fear of licentiousness, Adams feared the impact of a thirst for luxury. A letter to his wife from his diplomatic post in Paris on June 3, 1778, illustrates his concern that luxury would undercut religion: “My dear Country men! how shall I perswade you, to avoid the Plague of Europe? Luxury has as many and as bewitching Charms, on your Side of the Ocean as on this–and Luxury, wherever she goes, effaces from human Nature the Image of the Divinity. If I had Power I would forever banish and exclude from America, all Gold, silver, precious stones, Alabaster, marble, Silk, Velvet and Lace” (Adams Family Correspondence, III, p. 32). John Adams was still a wee bit Puritanical in 1778.

On the pursuit of happiness, Adams wrote in 1765 that “The Happiness of a Million is in the sight of God, and in the Estimation of every honest and humane Mind, of more importance, than that of 20 or an Hundred.” In his 1776 essay, “Thoughts on Government,” Adams wrote that “the happiness of society is the end of Government…. From this principle it will follow, that the form of government, which communicates … happiness to the greatest number of persons, and in the greatest degree, is the best.” The pursuit of happiness was an egalitarian, and thus a radical con­cept. In America, all people, not just the rich, had a right to seek happiness.

Rights come from religion. A republic should protect those rights for all. But the founders thought that citizen virtue was absolutely necessary for the success of the new republic. George Washington repeated what many believed when he included this concern for citizen virtue in his Farewell Address (September 19, 1796). John Adams, who assumed indi­vidual human imperfection, agreed that virtue, morality, was necessary in republics. They feared that any type of democracy, not just the republican variant, could be destroyed if the moral support structure of government were undermined. That moral support structure would be provided by the churches and by women.

The role of churches is clear in Adams’s draft of the 1779 Massachusetts Constitution: “Good morals being necessary to the preservation of civil society, and the knowledge and belief of the being of GOD, His providential government of the world, and of a future state of rewards and punishment, being the only true foundation of morality, the legislature” should support the worship of God.

Another Adams comment on virtue and religion has particular resonance during this recession. In an October 8, 1776 letter to Abigail Adams, October 8, 1776, he wrote: “The Spirit of Venality, you mention, is the most dreadfull and alarming Enemy, that America has to oppose. It is as rapacious and insatiable as the Grave. … This predominant Avarice will ruin America, if she is ever ruined. If God almighty does not interpose by his Grace to controul this universal Idolatry to the Mammon of Unrighteousness, We shall be given up to the Chastisements of his Judgments” (Adams Family Correspondence, II, p. 140).

In addition to the church, women had a role in promoting virtue; Adams’s letters are replete with references to the importance of chastity and virtue in the women of the republic, so the women could teach virtue to future (male) citizens.

Justice was one virtue churches and women should teach. This ideal was crucial to John Adams but not simply because he was a lawyer; it also came from his religion. In 1775 he wrote of justice as a Christian duty. Forty years later, in a letter to Thomas Jefferson, December 12, 1816, he stated that his religious creed was, for fifty or sixty years, “contained in four short Words ‘Be just and good.’”

Allow me one concrete example of Adams’s application of justice to the political economy of the American revolutionary era: the existence of slavery in all thirteen colonies. Peers in Massachusetts politics, such as James Otis and John Hancock, owned slaves; Abigail’s minister father did, too. But when John and Abigail inherited that slave, they immediately set her free and helped her get on her feet economically. Also, Adams thought that he would have saved money had he bought slaves instead of using hired labor, but he refused to do so because of his Christian beliefs.

The Christian right would probably accept most, if not all, of the religiously based political ideals discussed above. One suspects that the same people would not appreciate his journey from Puritanism to tolerance. Adams’s journey to tolerance will be the subject of my next blog.

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