Whatever the outcome of this year’s election, conservatives and other friends of American constitutionalism have our work cut out for us. The Republican candidate for president has not shown much familiarity with or interest in the workings of our constitutional system. And the Democratic candidate (as usual) has evinced a desire to continue, with judicial backing, a transformation of that system—one that further enhances executive and regulatory power while weakening the powers of Congress.
At the Federalist Society Convention I had a debate with my friend, Professor Robert George, on a famous quote by John Adams: “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” In the next three posts, I will excerpt my speech. And then I will add a postscript on Washington’s Farewell Address. Here is the beginning:
John Adams famously said “Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” His claim assumes that we can afford to have the limited government created by the Constitution because the people are already possessed of an abundance of virtue—indeed crucially virtues fortified by religion. But the Constitution itself reflects a very different faith: that a people blessed with a constitution like our own are likely to develop the virtues of self-restraint and social trust needed in order to thrive.
Religion can certainly help actualize virtues but so can other kinds of culture and practices. And the Constitution is premised on the enlightenment view that its very design can create the necessary virtues for civic life from elements of human nature, including raw self-interest. The constitutional structure thus maintains itself and does not necessarily depend on any religious system.