Up the main staircase of my alma mater is a unique and unsigned bas-relief sculpture. It resembles Raphael’s The School of Athens, but with a broader range; it depicts scholars and churchmen from ancient and early modern times. The center doesn’t show Plato and Aristotle. It’s a personified depiction of Religion, enthroned over all the other figures. Beneath is a Latin inscription that means:
Religion: Governor of Talents and Mother and Teacher of the Sciences
Governor, mother, teacher – religion has long played these three roles for numerous civilizations, with our own United States of America its chief beneficiary. Religion serves a mediating role for cultures by directing our disordered passions and wayward minds toward the God who created us and, by extension, toward the good for mankind. Religion, with its connection to God and with the aura of its rituals, can motivate us to pursue wisdom and virtue more effectively than laws can do on their own power.
Our Founding Fathers were keenly aware of this fact. George Washington, in his farewell address, reminded our nascent nation that “[o]f all the dispositions and habits that lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports. . . . [R]eason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.”
John Adams, in his inaugural address, praised the propagation of “knowledge, virtue, and religion among all classes of the people, not only for their benign influence on the happiness of life in all its stages and classes, and of society in all its forms, but as the only means of preserving our Constitution from its natural enemies.”
And, as if there were any doubt as to what religion Adams meant, he felt “it be my duty to add” that “a veneration for the religion of a people who profess and call themselves Christians, and a fixed resolution to consider a decent respect for Christianity among the best recommendations for the public service.”
The Founders knew that to survive, our republic required virtuous citizens. Ordered liberty was the end; religion was the means.
Flash forward to today, when the goal of ordered liberty has been replaced by expressive individualism. The individual is now greater than the republic, which is to cater to each person’s every whim. The individual maximizes his clout by declaring his most coveted desires “rights” over which no person or entity may trespass.
It is little wonder, then, why religion suffers mightily in contemporary America. Today over twenty percent of Americans profess no religious affiliation (they have been dubbed “the Nones”). Shaped into individualists by the culture, these Americans have no interest in a governor to regulate their appetites, nor a mother or teacher to form their minds. They do not need an intermediary to direct them to God when they see their gods whenever they look in the mirror. Hence, they determine what is right and wrong according to their own will, and they act as they see fit.
For some expressive individualists, it is not enough to turn away from religion. They want to destroy it. For it is society’s final reminder that the individual’s will is not the arbiter of existence. With the overturning of Roe v. Wade, attacks (by groups such as Ruth Sent Us) against religious entities and their supporters have increased. The fight for religious liberty is believers’ response to attempts to marginalize and silence religion’s public influence – the same influence that our Founders thought vital to a flourishing republic.
Perhaps it’s not a coincidence, then, that dysfunction in our government, public discourse, culture, and schools has increased as America’s religiosity has decreased.
More urgently, though, how can religion return to its once-vaunted role of forming virtuous citizens for a virtuous republic?
Religion will fail if it becomes more like the world, that is, if it pretends to be the governor, mother, and teacher of expressive individualism. Mainline Protestantism has proven this definitively: its churches’ creeds are now indistinguishable from certain political organizations.
Rather, we find a model in Luke’s Gospel. When the Prodigal Son declared his independence from morality and from his family, his father allowed him to go. The son, like so many others throughout history, was so prideful that he would not serve. Meanwhile, the father remained true to himself and to his role of father, even though he knew his son would sin and bring about his own spiritual death. As much as it must have pained him, in his wisdom he knew that his son would only learn the hard way.
When the son returned after acknowledging his sin, the father was ready.
In the mold of the father, religion must remain ready for the return of Americans from the dead ends to which expressive individualism has already led in horrific quantities – isolation, perpetual angst, depression, addiction, broken homes, mass shootings, nature-thwarting experiments in human sexuality. They need a governor, a mother, a teacher. The Christian religion, when honoring the Triune God at its center, is the greatest governor, mother, and teacher the world has ever known.
Some conservative thinkers have argued that, with America’s increasing secular tilt, it is better today to fight the culture wars without religion. That may be true if halting radical social excesses is our only goal. But if we desire sustainable tranquility of order over short-term political scores, as the Founders did before us, then we need virtuous citizens imbued with the cardinal and the theological virtues.
Religion is for America. Even the land of the free and home of the brave needs a governor, mother, and teacher to shape its pursuits. If Christianity could succeed in subduing the wild west 200 years ago, it can convert expressive individualism from selfishness to virtue.
*Image: The School of Athens (in situ on the right) by Raphael (Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino), 1509-1511 [Stanze di Raffaello, Apostolic Palace, Vatican]
You may also enjoy:
Hadley Arkes’ Steps from God. . .to the Religion of the Self
Francis X. Maier’s Pro Deo et Patria