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Religion, Morality, and the United States: A Nuanced View

A human person is a complex being, and human communities are very complex phenomena. When discussing religion, morality and politics it is necessary to keep this in mind. I write this as a response to what others have recently written about the United States as a “Christian Nation,” and the links between belief in God and ethical behavior. May we all humbly admit that we cannot in a short article or one long letter settle this issue definitively?

The Russian-American philosopher Ayn Rand wrote that Aristotle was the true father of the United States. Though this is not entirely correct, there is some truth that can shed light on our debate. Aristotle believed in God, but he was not Christian. According to Aristotle, God is the Contemplation of Contemplation (Metaphysics 1074b30). Aristotle’s God loves Himself because He is perfectly loveable. Love of self, according to Aristotle, is a mark of goodness. A good person loves himself infinitely more than a bad person (cf. Nichomachean Ethics).

The United States is, according to the Dutch social psychologist Geert Hofstede, the most individualistic nation in the world. We inherited our individualism from the English (cf. The Origins of English Individualism by Alan MacFarlane). Christianity was a cause of Anglo-American individualism (cf. Inventing the Individual by Larry Siedentop), but the fact that other nations adopted Christianity without becoming individualistic proves that Christianity does not necessarily lead to individualism.

Adam Smith, who like his close friend Benjamin Franklin believed in God but was closer to stoicism than to Roman Catholic Christianity, applied Aristotle’s doctrine of love-of-self to the economic realm in his book The Wealth of Nations, published in that great year for America 1776. According to Smith, if each person pursues his own self-interest in an enlightened way, with a view to his own long-term happiness, then the whole society will benefit. The butcher, the baker, and the brewer make and sell good meat, bread and beer not because they are charitable, but because they want their customers to buy their products repeatedly and thus make their businesses prosper. In this way, people will get high-quality products at reasonable prices. If this is true, then religion seems unnecessary, because enlightened self-interest would be enough to guide our conduct. The economic system advocated by Adam Smith, known today as Capitalism, was possible because Anglo-Americans were, and still are, very individualistic. Capitalism, in turn, made feasible the separation of Church and State advocated by the founders of the United States.

The meanings of certain terms need to be clear. Individualism is defined as “a (1): a doctrine that the interests of the individual are or ought to be ethically paramount; also: conduct guided by such a doctrine (2): the conception that all values, rights, and duties originate in individuals b: a theory maintaining the political and economic independence of the individual and stressing individual initiative, action, and interests; also: conduct or practice guided by such a theory,” (Merriam-Webster On-line Dictionary). Capitalism is defined as “an economic system characterized by private or corporate ownership of capital goods, by investments that are determined by private decision, and by prices, production, and the distribution of goods that are determined mainly by competition in a free market,” (ibid.). The contraries against which individualism and capitalism are opposed are collectivism, in which each individual has value only insomuch as he or she benefits the community, and communism, which is an economic system in which the government decides what is best for the nation and directs the people in such way as to achieve what it has decided to be best.

The United States was founded upon Judeo-Christian morality as understood by men who were neither pious Roman Catholics nor Fundamentalist Protestants. An Aristotelian belief in God, Anglo-American Individualism, and Capitalist economics, influenced their interpretation of the Christian religion. It might surprise many Christians today to learn that the belief in miracles was not strong among them; and the belief that we should be guided by our religious feelings was anathema. The founding fathers of the United States (in general with some exceptions) probably read the writings of John Locke much more than those of Catholic Saints or those of Bible-thumping Protestant preachers. John Locke wrote that “we are furnished with faculties (dull and weak as they are) to discover enough in the creatures to lead us to the knowledge of the Creator, and the knowledge of our duty; and we are fitted well enough with abilities to provide for the conveniences of living: these are our business in this world,” (An Essay Concerning Human Understanding). They believed that God had done well when creating the universe, and when creating us, and therefore it was not necessary for Him to continuously interfere in miraculous ways. They believed that we can and should use our human intelligence, unaided by Faith or the Church, to discern between right and wrong. This implies a rejection of the doctrine of Original Sin, recounted in chapter three of Genesis.

Anyone who has lived long and observed the way most folks actually live knows from sad experiences that enlightened self-interest is inadequate as a guide for behavior. There is something wrong with men and women which pushes all of us, more or less, to act in unreasonable self-destructive ways. Christianity has an explanation for our strange condition: the consequences of Original Sin. Ayn Rand vehemently rejects the doctrine of original sin because her opinion of human potential was too high to admit this defect. There is something noble and therefore attractive in her view of man, but it is contrary to experience. Contrary to experience, also, is the belief that society as a whole would be better without religion. Though some individuals profess Atheism and yet live ethical lives, no society has long endured without religion. If someone objects by stating that Western Europe has practically rejected religion and is yet progressing well, I answer that the vestiges of Judeo-Christian morality are still dominant there, even though Christian faith is fading. There are strong signs, to which Niall Ferguson points in his recent book The Great Degeneration, that Western Civilization has begun to decline and will probably not long outlast the remnants of Christianity. What is more, the rise of China coincides with a growing percentage of Chinese professing the Christian faith.
At the political level, the United States was founded as a country in which each individual was free to practice whatever religion she or he wanted, or none at all. I believe that it should stay as it was; religious individuals and families should be respected, without society or government hindering the practice of any religion. If a law is violated in the name of religion, as happened in France last month, then the criminals should be punished for breaking the law, without religion playing any part in the enforcement of justice.
At the personal level, this whole debate is academic. The question of religion’s effect on morality is secondary; and its effect on politics is tertiary. More important than those questions is the following: Is it true? If a religious belief is not true, then it should be rejected, even if it contributes to good moral behavior; if a religious belief is true, then it should be embraced no matter what its impact on morality or politics.