For Americans of the Framing generation, it was axiomatic that religion–which, for them, meant Protestant Christianity–was essential to the functioning of a republic. Without Christian morality, they believed, self-government would be impossible. They worried about establishments, of course, but very few would have argued that a republic could survive without a religious citizenry. Indeed, even with a religious citizenry, they thought restraints were necessary. As Richard Hofstadter famously argued, the Constitution’s structure of checks and balances owes much to Calvinist conceptions of Original Sin and its consequences. The conviction that people are ultimately flawed and self-seeking explains the intricate mechanisms for impeding the will of democratic majorities. The Framers were not utopians.
One doesn’t hear these sentiments expressed too much nowadays. Many more Americans are atheists, and non-Christians, than at the Framing, and everybody knows believers have no monopoly on ethical behavior. That may be why this recent column by Walter Russell Mead has hit such a nerve. Mead argues, in a way that would have been very familiar to Washington, Hamilton, and their contemporaries, that the fading of Christianity among America’s elites has had a very bad influence on national life, and that America must recapture a sense of Christian humility if it is to meet its current challenges. The whole thing is worth reading, but here’s a representative sample. CLR Forum readers, any thoughts?
I do not say that a “Christian” or theistic meritocracy would work where a secular one must fail. (We had a Christian meritocracy in Puritan New England. The best, brightest and godliest hanged Quakers and witches.) And I repeat what I wrote earlier, to avoid misunderstanding: Christianity is not the only religious or other source of the kind of moral insight and spiritual depth that can mitigate the problems of a meritocratic society. It is the one I understand best and the one that, historically, has played the most important role in American life. I leave to others the task of describing other resources and traditions by which other Americans whose talents have brought them into important and powerful positions in our society can be guided and checked.
But with those appropriate reservations appropriately taken, I do say that the fading of serious Christian commitment in the sleek and successful ranks of America’s meritocracy plays a significant and damaging role in our national life. The renewal of Christian commitment among a significant sector of America’s elite is, I think, a necessary condition of continued American progress and success. If we get this, we will still need social reforms and social change . . . . But if we don’t get that kind of renewal and commitment, no program of reform, however wisely engineered, can keep our liberty, our prosperity and our democracy safe, much less transform them into something richer, deeper, greater and more widely and fairly shared than anything we have yet seen.