For an alternate viewpoint, see “Point: State of the Republic — Precarious.”
Over the last several decades, a growing number of Americans have abandoned their faith — usually Christianity — to join the ranks of the non-religious. These “Nones” describe themselves as atheists, agnostics or “nothing in particular.” Some may shrug at this, but you don’t have to be religious to know that this shift doesn’t bode well for a nation founded on the principles of self-government.
For most of the 20th century, 70 percent of Americans belonged to a house of worship. As recently as the early 1990s, nearly 90 percent of Americans said they were Christian. But by 2020, Gallup found a mere 47 percent of Americans said they belonged to a church, mosque or synagogue.
By 2021, Pew Research found nearly one-third of U.S. adults were not affiliated with any religion. This share of Nones was ten percentage points higher than a decade earlier. The share of Christians fell from 75 percent to 63 percent over the period. In 2007, there were about five Christians for every one None. Now that ratio is about two-to-one.
This might not seem like a crisis, but the American Founders would have disagreed. These men saw that self-government depended on morality and virtue, which, in turn, depended on religion. As George Washington stated in his Farewell Address, “Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indisputable supports.”
But don’t atheists also know murder is wrong? Yes, the Founders believed in a natural moral law that could be understood by reason. Yet, they insisted that such knowledge was not enough for most people. Washington warned of this in his Farewell Address: “Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.”
John Adams, a Unitarian, stated soon before America declared independence that “religion and morality alone … can establish the principles upon which freedom can securely stand.” James Madison, in Federalist 55, makes explicit that without virtue, republican government will fail.
What happens when this source of public morality starts to erode?
Alexis de Tocqueville observed in “Democracy in America” that religion gives us confidence in an unchanging moral order. Without this moral source, men are “soon frightened at the aspect of this limitless independence.”
The loss of religion often leads to the belief that all are subject to our will and judgment. We become the authors of our own reality. But this is a daunting task for many. So, “they give themselves a master,” writes Tocqueville.
Ironically, this “limitless independence” often leads to a radical dependence on temporal authority. We turn to “experts” who claim to know what’s best for us. The state becomes a substitute for self-government.
It’s no surprise that with the growing number of Nones, younger generations report more confidence in the government to solve problems.
According to a 2020 Pew survey, seven out of 10 members of Gen Z (the cohort born around 1996 onward) said the government should do more to solve problems. Only 29 percent of Gen Zers thought “the government is doing too many things better left to businesses and individuals.”
Even among Republican-leaning Gen Zers, more than half (52 percent) report that the government should do more to solve problems. Compare that with just 38 percent of Millennial Republicans and 29 percent of Republican Gen Xers.
These findings seem to confirm the Founders’ insight that religion is the bulwark of public morality. Without this moral grounding, our ability to govern ourselves erodes, and with that, the foundation for the republic.
In their own day, the Founders saw the empty promises of hedonism and materialism in the French Revolution. They knew the chaos we could descend into in without religion and virtue. The authors of the Declaration of Independence recognized a Creator who made us equal and endowed us with certain unalienable rights. These truths were not assertions of mere human will but expressions of the one Source upon whom we depend.
We would do well to return to this wisdom today.