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Moral foundations: John Adams, religion, and the American ethos

There is both historical context and current relevance for a statement made by President John Adams in 1798. He emphasized the necessity of morality and religion for the effective functioning of the U.S. Constitution.

Adams’ perspective is contrasted with the more secular outlook of the Constitution’s framers, who largely avoided intertwining religion and governance, as evidenced by the absence of religious tests for office and the lack of a divine reference in the Constitution’s preamble.

Additionally, the French Revolution and its anti-religious zeal influenced a shift in attitudes toward religion in public life among some of the United States’ founding figures, including Adams and George Washington.

The political climate of Adams’ era was influenced by events of the time, particularly the controversies surrounding the Alien and Sedition Acts, which were seen as overreaches of government power and counter to the spirit of the First Amendment.

These historical insights connect to contemporary American politics, specifically the “MAGA” movement and its moral concerns. The current political divisions and moral panics mirror past struggles over the role of virtue, morality, and religion in public life.

The Religion News Service reports:

At the end of his latest lament for the MAGA makeover of American evangelicalism, New York Times columnist David French turns to President John Adams’ 1798 letter to the Massachusetts militia, which he calls “a critical founding document.”

That’s because it contains some lines that, French notes, evangelicals (including him) love to quote.

“Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious People,” wrote Adams. “It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” Was he right?

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