In 1798, John Adams, while serving as President of the United States, wrote a letter to the First Brigade of the Third Division of the Militia of Massachusetts. In this communique, President and Founder Adams wrote, “…We have no government, armed with power, capable of contending with human passions, unbridled by morality and religion. Avarice, ambition, revenge and licentiousness would break the strongest cords of our Constitution, as a whale goes through a net. Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”
John Adams knew that a Republic that emphasizes a limited government requires people who self-govern. When the people don’t self-govern, limited government is virtually impossible—since nature abhors a vacuum. Adams basically acknowledged that self-governing people are largely religious people—and therefore what he would call “moral” people.
To clarify, when Adams and the bulk of our founders spoke of religion, they were referring to Christianity by and large; it was by anyone’s standard the dominant religion in the nation. Christianity is particularly good at helping people self-govern because it is a faith that is about others, about self-control, about obedience and submission to Christ, who exemplified how to treat, how to care for and to relate to others.
For the most part here in America, religion, in particular Christianity was and is imparted to a community, a state and a nation by churches. In years past, churches were not just the largest buildings in a community, they were the community. They were the hub of activity, the place of community gatherings, the source of teachings about the Bible and its relationship to everyday life and the issues of the day. From the church came the moral direction—the Biblical teachings that aided entire communities in being able to have limited government because the people limited themselves.
We’ve moved away from the centrality of the church in many communities. Oh, in some Wisconsin cities, churches still dominate the geographic landscape, but I’m not so sure they always dominate the moral and ethical landscape. If they did, I think many of our communities and, hence, our state would be quite different.
Even while I hold this opinion, I found a recent poll quite interesting. A Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey found in June of this year that just 34% of American adults believe it is possible to have a healthy community with absolutely no churches or religious presence. Fifty-seven percent disagree and say it is not possible to have a healthy community without churches.
From the poll, it appears that most people agree that it is good for churches to provide services such as food banks, disaster relief, schools and hospitals. Even those who don’t believe churches are indispensable to a healthy community believe churches should be able to provide these services, even while holding to their unique beliefs.
While it is true that historically, everywhere Christianity has gone the poor and the sick have been cared for, women have been elevated, and children have been educated, it is also true that the presence of a church in a community should give more than these tangibles. Dynamic, on-fire churches—in particular Bible-preaching and teaching churches—should be providing the majority of the salt and light in a community.
They should be standing up for and educating people on the sanctity of human life, teaching people by word and example about what good marriages and strong families look like and how they function. They should warn about the evils of pornography and provide a strong voice against sexually oriented businesses coming into the community. They should be knowledgeable about and involved in the influence and presence of alcohol and gambling on a community. They should be a voice for abstinence until marriage for the teens of the area, whether they are in public or private schools. And, of course, they should be evangelizing—bringing people to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ. All of these work towards teaching people to self-govern.
When churches embrace the totality of what being the church means, then the communities they are in are truly healthy—because they are filled with people who know how to practice self-governing.
I’m encouraged that Americans believe churches are important to communities. I hope churches realize how very important they are as they provide the moral direction and act as the moral gatekeeper in their communities. If John Adams was right, the church is probably the very best hope we have of maintaining this grand experiment we call America.