Can an ungodly society be a free society?
This question has kept busy both philosophers and pastors for ages. Whether the bondage of sin correlates to, or causes, the bondage of statism is a subject of significant importance. How necessary, really, is a belief in God?
Of course, a belief in God is rather irrelevant without corresponding behavior; actionable belief, or in other words faith in God, is what’s important. Too often faith is treated with tunnel vision, whereby people only consider its influence on their individual lives. But just as faith can move mountains, it can shape societies—and a lack of it can likewise leave a noticeable imprint.
It takes effort not to notice the many stains on society that surround us—news reports overwhelm us constantly with tales of government corruption, societal scandal, depravity, or corporate malfeasance. In systematic fashion, people use their rights in an irresponsible way or have them violated by others acting wrongfully. All of this stems from a rejection of our Creator.
The Declaration of Independence rightly recognizes that our Creator endowed us with unalienable rights. This acknowledgement of a pre-existing source elevates our rights over the state and suggests their importance. Can we ignore or outright reject this Creator without disregarding the endowments he gave us?
Closing our eyes to God’s role in our lives does not just impact our belief regarding, and attitude towards, our birthright of freedom. Abandoning a Creator-centric philosophy impacts our every action; if a person is not concerned about being judged for his behavior, then the natural course is to proverbially eat, drink, and be merry despite a higher, ignored life calling.
The Protestant traditions that influenced the foundations of the New World recognized the self-moderating nature of this future judgment and pointed to it often. Many philosophers of the time, along with the politicians that learned from them, understood the role of religion and morality in influencing civil government for the better—including restraining the abuse of power. Thus John Adams’ first draft of the Massachusetts Constitution stated that “the knowledge and belief of the being of God… and of a future state of rewards and punishments [are] the only true foundation of morality.”
Corrupt figures both past and present concern themselves primarily with whatever they think they can get away with. They take no thought of God’s approbation of their activity, but instead conceal their crime from their peers. They “seek deep to hide their counsels from the Lord” and work “in the dark.” When their scandals are made public they consider themselves “caught,” but even then place little importance on the punishment their Creator may have in store for them.
Diminishing our Creator’s role in our lives distorts how we understand, value, and exercise our rights. It also removes this future judgment as a factor in our daily decisions. A person who is considering an immoral action might subconsciously perform a cost-benefit analysis, weighing the pros and cons. Getting caught might entail angering the person’s spouse, jeopardizing employment, or risking social status, fines, or jail time. Pride or simple stupidity might give the person confidence that he can evade detection, increasing the likelihood that the action will be performed.
If this same person had faith in God and placed any sort of importance in His judgment, the Creator’s ever-present knowledge of our activities would surely be an factor in that same cost-benefit analysis. Spouses, friends, co-workers, and reporters may never learn of our behavior, but God sees everything and therefore can hold us accountable. This reality can restrain our individual behavior, but more generally, it “benefits society in a dramatic way when adherents engage in moral conduct because they feel accountable to God.”
President George Washington wrote that “reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principles.” Benjamin Franklin agreed: “Only a virtuous people are capable of freedom.” Patrick Henry listed “virtue, morality, and religion” as the “great pillars of all government.” He continued: “This is the armor… and this alone, that renders us invincible. These are the tactics we should study. If we lose these, we are conquered, fallen indeed… so long as our manners and principles remain sound, there is no danger.”
The reason that many of the studious Founders encouraged faith in God was because they understood this concept: as we alienate ourselves from God, so too do we alienate the liberty He bestowed upon us. Contrary to Cain’s misguided claim, we cannot be free while being evil.
This is not to say that we must all share a common theology, or pay tithes and perform service and otherwise engage in the positive behavior most such religions require. What has long been recognized as important and influential, rather, is an allegiance to God—a recognition of our role as stewards and a belief that we will one day be held accountable.
And it is our deficiency in this regard that has led our society to become as it is; sin has contributed to statism. If we wish to be free, we must understand that a future judgment will hold us accountable for our actions, whether or not those actions are recognized and rewarded or punished by our peers in this life. More importantly, that understanding must lead to self-restraint, personal responsibility, and submission to our King.
Those who do not accept the yoke of Christ, as is readily evident, are led to bear the yoke of Caesar.
Image: LDS Media Library