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Squires: John Adams told us the US Constitution is ‘only designed for a moral and religious people’

Op-ed
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The mass shooting at an elementary school that claimed the lives of 19 children and two adults in Uvalde, Texas, was the second killing in less than two weeks carried out by a disaffected, disconnected teenage male. The nation grieved together and tried to process the unspeakable pain of grieving parents, families, and school staff in Uvalde.

It is hard to understand why the shooter, Salvador Ramos, would kill innocent children at school. Unlike the Buffalo shooter, Ramos did not attempt to justify his actions in a political manifesto or seem to be motivated by any racial grievance.

Based on firsthand accounts from family and others who knew him, Ramos was a high school dropout with anger issues, an unstable family life, and few friends. In the absence of a clear motive or politically beneficial racial dynamics (e.g., white shooter and nonwhite victims), the national conversation has quickly shifted to guns.

There have been calls to ban "assault weapons" and pass stronger background checks. Ramos had no criminal history and legally purchased his AR-15-style rifles after turning 18, which required a background check. It is hard to say what, if any, specific changes to our current laws would have prevented this tragedy. The demand for new laws after every mass shooting and viral street crime reveals a much deeper issue that goes back to our nation’s founding.

John Adams, a leader of the American Revolution and our second president, was clear about the limitations of state power.

We have no government armed with power capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion. Avarice, ambition, revenge or gallantry would break the strongest cords of our Constitution as a whale goes through a net. Our Constitution is designed only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate for any other.

Adams’ words reveal a belief that morality and self-government are preconditions for liberty and freedom. People who cannot control their own feelings, passions, and behaviors require control from external sources. This is why some families can’t have a holiday dinner without a visit from the local police department.

Our nation feels increasingly unstable because we have no moral center. The Founding Fathers had diverse beliefs about religion, but they never saw themselves as omniscient mini-gods able to control an entire nation. This was a thoroughly Christianized nation for much of our history. Several states had established churches at the time the U.S. Constitution was ratified, and prayer in public schools was common until the 1960s.

Some people see these types of overt religious expressions as a slippery slope to theocracy, but a separation of church and state does not necessitate the separation of faith and public life. The truth is that we are no less religious now than we were in previous generations. The only difference is that we have a new source of faith and outlet for spiritual fervor.

Joe Biden said he saw his campaign for president as a “battle for the soul of the nation,” but the replacement of religion with politics is a bipartisan symptom of cultural sickness.

There are people on the right who hold to the words of the last president as if he were a pope endowed with infallibility when making political claims ex cathedra. True believers on the left prefer a flavor of political protestantism that is always ready to take to the streets. Their souls will never rest as long as there is some issue to protest, whether racism, sexism, homophobia, and transphobia or abortion, climate change, and sexual modesty.

A nation that lives by the tenets of the Ten Commandments, including prohibitions against stealing, murder, and adultery, will produce a more stable, orderly culture than one that attacks God’s design for the family, calls killing the unborn “reproductive justice,” and promotes the mutilation of adolescents as “gender-affirming care.” The leaders who run our largest cities are much more supportive of tax dollars funding drag queens teaching children about preferred pronouns than pastors reading from the book of Proverbs.

We often hear about the dynamics of a big fish in a small pond. That metaphor speaks to the size of the surrounding environment. We should think about what happens to a big fish in a polluted pond. Air and water quality are not just issues pertaining to our physical environment; they also apply to culture.

As is often the case, the spread of immorality and dysfunction ultimately lead back to the first institution created by God – the family. The decline in marriage and two-parent homes has had a significant impact on the health and wellness of American children. Absent and uninvolved parents – especially fathers – often lead to unprotected children who struggle with feelings of unworthiness and abandonment. Even parents who are physically present but preoccupied with work, their own relationships, or social media can be completely unaware of all the forces attempting to ensnare their children.

Children – especially boys – need a sense of identity and purpose. They need close relationships, a meaningful mission, and goals that orient them toward the future. This is why the “success sequence” – finishing high school, working full-time, and marrying before having children – should be the foundation of all policy discussions about young adults. Young people need to know they have agency, despite the circumstances of their birth and the families into which they were born.

The Bible teaches that the institution of government was created by God. Problems arise when civil magistrates think they are the highest authority and arbiter of morality. Governing officials who believe they can single-handedly control entire economies, save the planet, and eradicate sin have delusions that eventually lead to despotism, the very outcome the founders wanted to avoid. Like the false gods described in the scriptures, their viciousness is a function of their impotence. Anger results when people realize the chasm between their perceived power and their ability to actually change the world around them.

Laws are important, but they must be kept in their proper perspective. Without an objective, external standard of morality, they devolve into an expression of the majority’s perceived virtues and preferred vices. They demonstrate our values, but they cannot make us moral.

Previous generations spoke of the world in transcendent terms, openly acknowledging a Creator and the fallenness of human nature. Leaders today speak in transactional terms, framing the presence of evil as a reflection of unmet material needs.

The most unique element of the American experiment isn’t the racial and ethnic diversity of our country; it’s the twin concepts of self-government and individual liberty. People who use their liberty to kill innocent children, abuse the elderly, steal from hard-working neighbors, promote drug use, degrade the human body through sex work and pornography, and deny human biology are in deep spiritual bondage. No amount of money or power can purchase freedom from the shackles of sin. Only repentance and faith in Jesus Christ can change a man’s heart and deliver freedom from sin to pursue good works. That kind of liberty lasts for eternity.
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