Hatch Affirms that Religion is Indispensable to Democracy

Senator Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, the senior Republican in the United States Senate, took to the floor Tuesday to deliver the seventh in a series of speeches on religious freedom.  

In previous remarks, Senator Hatch has addressed the importance of religious liberty and its centrality to our nation’s Founding. He has also detailed the status of religious liberty in public life and the ways this fundamental freedom is under attack—both at home and abroad.

Today’s speech focused on the numerous benefits religion brings to society. “Religion is not simply beneficial to society; it is an indispensable feature of any free government,” Hatch said. “Democracy needs religion to maintain morality so that freedom can flourish. Without religion, liberty itself would be in danger and democracy would devolve into despotism.”  

The full speech, as prepared for delivery, is below:

Mr. President, last week, families across the nation gathered in gratitude to celebrate Thanksgiving—a holiday we commemorate in remembrance of our Pilgrim ancestors. With humble appreciation, we venerate the sacrifice of America’s early settlers. We remember their fortitude in leaving family and home to colonize a new wilderness.  Facing disease, starvation, and even death, these brave men and women endured tremendous hardships to secure the blessings of religious liberty.  Freedom of religion—so precious and so prized by our Pilgrim forbears—is the legacy we enjoy as a result of their sacrifice.  

Today, I wish to honor the Pilgrim’s legacy by speaking once again on the topic of religious liberty. Over the past several weeks, I have addressed this subject at length. In so doing, I have explained the critical importance of religious freedom and its centrality to our nation’s Founding. I have also debunked the erroneous notion that religious liberty is a primarily private matter that has little place in the public domain. More recently, I have detailed the many ways freedom of conscience is under attack—both at home and abroad.

Mr. President, you might wonder why I have devoted so much time and attention to this vital subject. After all, this is the seventh in a series of speeches I have given on the topic of religious liberty. When there are myriad other issues facing our country, why do I feel so compelled to speak out about religious freedom?

Because, Mr. President, no other freedom is so essential to human flourishing and to the future of our nation. Indeed, religion is not only beneficial to society, but also indispensable to democracy.

I begin by discussing the most tangible benefits religion brings to society. History provides many examples. Indeed, many of our nation’s most significant moral and political achievements were grounded in religious teachings and influences.

First, consider the role of religion in the formation of our most basic rights. America’s Framers were well versed in both religion and philosophy, and in drafting our Founding documents, they drew inspiration from both sources. Take for example, the unalienable rights identified in the Declaration of Independence—life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. These rights are a synthesis of both religious and philosophic teachings. The rights themselves stem from the theories of the philosopher, John Locke. But the concept of inalienability—the idea that these rights are inviolable because they are “endowed [to men] by their Creator”—is religious in nature.

By invoking the divine and linking our rights to a moral authority that lies above and beyond the state, America’s Founders insulated our freedoms from government abuse. Philosophy helped articulate our fundamental rights, but religion made them unassailable. Thanks to the moral grounding provided by religion, we exercise these rights free from state control.

In addition to undergirding the establishment of our God-given rights, religion directly benefitted American society by catalyzing the two greatest social movements in our nation’s history: abolition and civil rights.

Abolition traces its roots to the Second Great Awakening, when preachers such as Charles G. Finney and Lyman Beecher rose to prominence with their revivalist teachings on social justice and equality. Many of the earliest pro-abolition organizations coalesced around Christian evangelical communities in the North. Emancipation was a religious cause first and a political movement second.  

Most abolitionists were deeply religious themselves, including two of the movement’s most vocal leaders, William Lloyd Garrison and John Greenleaf Whittier. The Christian doctrine of moral equality was especially crucial in generating the grassroots support that eventually made emancipation possible.

Religion was equally influential in guiding the civil rights movement. We speak today of Doctor Martin Luther King, but we sometimes forget that before he was a doctor, he was a reverend.  In 1967, the year before his death, Reverend King proclaimed, “Before I was a civil rights leader, I was a preacher of the Gospel.  This was my first calling and it still remains my greatest commitment. . . . [A]ll that I do in civil rights I do because I consider it a part of my ministry.”

Reverend King recruited other religious leaders to his cause when he convened a meeting of more than 60 black ministers in what would eventually become the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. This coalition of evangelical leaders was instrumental in organizing both the Birmingham campaign and the March on Washington. For these ministers and many other men and women who participated in the civil rights movement, religion provided the initial impetus for their advocacy.   

Today, religion continues to benefit society by contributing to our nation’s robust philanthropic sector. The importance of charity and helping the poor is nearly universal across all faiths. Every year, religious organizations throughout the United States feed the hungry, clothe the naked, give shelter to the homeless, and care for the sick and afflicted. Without these religious groups, our government welfare system would be overwhelmed.

Charitable organizations are irreplaceable because they often step in where the state cannot. Consider some of the largest, most well-respected religious charities in operation today, such as the Salvation Army, Catholic Charities, World Vision, or LDS Humanitarian Services.  These organizations are motivated by more than a mere humanitarian impulse; they are driven by a sense of duty, both to God and to man. Every year, they lift millions from despair, offering not only material assistance, but also spiritual direction to help individuals lead more prosperous lives. This is a critical service that no government program could ever provide.

Mr. President, it is clear that religion has benefitted our society in several meaningful ways:

First, as a result of religious teachings, we have unfettered claim to the natural rights delineated in our nation’s Founding documents;

Second, thanks to religious leaders from John Rankin to Martin Luther King, we freely exercise civil rights today that were once denied millions of Americans;

And third, by virtue of religious teachings on charity, we have a humanitarian sector that is unparalleled in its ability to respond to crisis, bless the poor, and lift the needy.

But my purpose in speaking today is not merely to recite a list of blessings brought about by religious liberty.  Religion is not simply beneficial to society; it is an indispensable feature of any free government.  Without religion, liberty itself would be in danger and democracy would devolve into despotism.

The nexus between religion and democracy involves the relationship between morality and freedom.  Freedom is a double-edged sword—it can be used for good or for evil.  Statesmen may use freedom to defend justice, but tyrants can abuse it for their own corrupt ends. Morality is necessary to ensure that individuals exercise their freedom responsibly.

Religion provides free individuals with the moral education necessary to exercise freedom responsibly. It instills the very virtues that lead to an engaged citizenry, including a concern for others, the ability to discern between right and wrong, and the capacity to look beyond the mere pursuit of present pleasures to the good of society.

President George Washington identified the link between morality and religion. According to Washington, “Reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.” For Washington, morality presupposed religion, and both virtues cultivated a healthy society. Perhaps this is why he said that “[o]f all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports.”

John Adams was of the same mind. He argued that without religion and morality, our government could not stand because “[a]varice, ambition, revenge, and gallantry would break the strongest cords of our Constitution, as a whale goes through a net.” Hence his famous observation that the Constitution “was made only for a moral and religious people.”

For Washington, Adams, and many others who helped establish our constitutional system of self-government, religion, morality, freedom, and democracy are necessarily interlinked. Without the moral sensibilities that religion can provide, freedom is all too easily corrupted, endangering the very foundation of democracy.

Our Founding Fathers were not alone in calling attention to the inextricable connection between religion and a healthy democracy. The renowned political philosopher Alexis de Tocqueville offered his own analysis on the subject. After spending several months observing American government and society, Tocqueville wrote his famed Democracy in America in an attempt to explain American political culture to his French counterparts.

When Tocqueville published his work in the early 19th century, the United States was a burgeoning democracy and unique as one of the only countries in the world that guaranteed religious liberty to its citizens. At this intersection of democracy and religion, Tocqueville made his most compelling observations.

Like Washington and Adams, Tocqueville believed that religion was essential to the success of the American political experiment. Without the moral strictures of religion, the nation’s democracy would collapse on itself. In Tocqueville’s own words, “Despotism may be able to do without faith, but freedom cannot …. How could society escape destruction if, when political ties are relaxed, moral ties are not tightened? And what can be done with a people master of itself if it is not subject to God?”

In other words, Tocqueville asked how the experiment of self-government could succeed if individuals refuse to submit to any moral authority beyond themselves. By posing this question, Tocqueville argued that democracy needs religion and morality to ensure that citizens exercise their freedom responsibly. Democracy needs religion to help refine the people’s moral sensibility and instill the virtues of good citizenship that make democracy possible in the first place.

Tocqueville also taught that democracy needs religion to temper the materialistic impulses of a free-market society. By setting our hopes and desires beyond imminent, temporal concerns and turning our hearts instead toward those in need, religion engenders charitable behavior and saves democracy from its own excesses.

In Tocqueville’s view, the free exercise of religion is not just a condition of liberal society; it is a precondition for a healthy democracy. Without religion and the moral instruction it provides, freedom falters and democracy all too easily dissolves into tyranny.

In this regard, religion is not merely a boon to democracy, but a bulwark against despotism.  Laws alone are incapable of instilling order and regulating moral behavior across society. As LDS Apostle Dallin H. Oaks has observed, “Our society is not held together just by law and its enforcement, but most importantly by voluntary obedience to the unenforceable and by widespread adherence to unwritten norms of right…behavior.”

Of course, religion and a basic sense of morality help induce such voluntary obedience to the unenforceable that Elder Oaks describes. George Washington conceded that individuals may find morality without religion, but political society needs the spiritual grounding that only religion can provide. In this regard, religion complements law in cultivating a moral citizenry.

Both law and religion are necessary to engender good citizenship. As the influence of religion diminishes, governments must enact more laws to fill the void and maintain a moral citizenry. So the consequence of less religious activity is not greater human freedom but greater state control. Religion, then, acts as a check on state power. It cultivates morality so governments don’t have to through the cold, impersonal machinery of law.

By acting as a shield against state overreach, religion is a friend to both democracy and freedom. Expanding religious freedom empowers democracy. But limiting religious freedom weakens our democratic institutions. In the most extreme case, eliminating religious freedom altogether results in tyranny and human suffering on a massive scale.

Consider the catastrophic state of affairs in countries that have explicitly outlawed religion. The Soviet Union, communist China under Mao, the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, and North Korea are prominent examples. In each of these countries, leaders committed unspeakable atrocities to enforce their own godless morality. In the absence of faith, there was no religious horizon to keep political ambitions within limits. Unencumbered by the moral restraint of religion, dictators systematically killed millions of their own people to establish their own secular vision of heaven on earth. These illustrations of totalitarianism, torture, and genocide demonstrate that a society without religion is a society without freedom.

Mr. President, I raise these grievous examples to reiterate my initial point: Religion is central to human prosperity. Society needs religion to keep political ambitions in check. And democracy needs religion to maintain morality so that freedom can flourish.

In closing, I urge all of my colleagues to consider the state of religious liberty in the United States today. Only by strengthening this fundamental freedom can we secure the future of our own democracy.