Harvard Business School professor Clay Christenson tells of having a conversation with a Marxist economist from China as the man was finishing his time as a Fulbright Scholar at Harvard. Christenson asked him what had surprised him about his time studying in the US. Without hesitation, the man said, “I had no idea how critical religion is to the functioning of democracy. The reason why democracy works is not because the government was designed to oversee what everyone does. Rather, democracy works because most of the people, most of the time, voluntarily choose to obey the law.”
The US was the first nation in history formed on the idea that people could govern themselves. On Independence Day, it’s good to remember how radical an idea that is. What made the founders think that self-government might work?
The founders understood that the Christian faith had created a shared sense of personal and public responsibility among the people of the colonies. They understood they could never pass enough laws to get people to act responsibly. Rather, people had to act on their own out of a shared sense of the greater good.
In his short book, If You Can Keep It: The Forgotten Promise of American Liberty, Eric Metaxas summarizes the career of preacher George Whitefield, the most important founding father you’ve never heard of. The short, cross-eyed Whitefield was the first truly international celebrity. His commanding sermons made the wealthy and the worker weep. When Whitefield died in 1750, an incredible 80 percent of the people in the colonies had heard him in person. Like no one before, Whitefield proclaimed the Gospel directly to the people, showing how all people, rich and poor alike, were sinners, but sinners beloved by God.
Whitefield had created the shared understanding of public virtue that made democracy possible.
So how does a democracy function without this shared understanding?
As Christenson concludes, “If you take away religion, you can’t hire enough police.”