A guest post by Rep. Mike Johnson (R-Louisiana)…
One day a week ago, my staff handed me a constituent email they thought I might want to answer during the little extra time we had on the House Floor. Because the email asked a question – what’s the most important thing needed for a Republic to survive? – I think EVERY young American should be encouraged to consider, I decided to share the correspondence here.
Subject: Question for the Congressman
Dear Congressman Johnson,
I teach civics in your district. I would love for you to send a response to the following question, “WHAT IS THE MOST IMPORTANT THING NEEDED FOR A REPUBLIC TO SURVIVE?” I will share your response with my students and use it to start the discussion.
James K. McKay
Oakdale High School
Thank you for your dedication to the students at Oakdale High School and for inspiring them to understand and appreciate civics, our Constitution and the exceptional features of our republic. Our nation depends upon well-informed, involved citizens, and we need more of them. As Ronald Reagan famously said, “Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction. We didn’t pass it to our children in the bloodstream. It must be fought for, protected, and handed on for them to do the same.”
I am delighted to answer the question you posed: “What is the most important thing needed for a republic to survive?” In fact, this is one of my favorite topics, as I have debated it at length, and written and lectured on the issue for nearly 20 years. Practicing constitutional law convinced me this central question is no longer a rhetorical one, but one all of us MUST answer today.
I have taught lengthy seminars on this topic, but I can summarize a volume of my thoughts by simply echoing the sentiments of our first two presidents.
In his historic Farewell Address, “the father of our country,” George Washington, provided HIS clear answer to the question, and that sage advice still echoes down through the generations to us today. He said, “Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports.” John Adams came next, and shared the same conviction: “Our Constitution is made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”
In other words, what these two Founders and their fellow patriots all understood from history was that there are many important rules and practices that can help build and sustain a healthy republic. But the key–and the essential foundation–of a republic must be a common commitment among the citizenry to the principles of religion and morality.
The Founders acknowledged the self-evident truths that all men are created equal, and that God gives all men the same inalienable rights. However, they knew that in order to maintain a government “of the people, by the people and for the people,” as Lincoln said, those inalienable rights must be exercised in a responsible manner. They thus believed in liberty that is legitimately constrained by a common sense of morality–and a healthy fear of the God who granted all men our rights.
The Founders understood that all men are fallen and that power corrupts. They also knew that no amount of institutional checks and balances or decentralization of power in civil authorities would be sufficient to maintain a just government if the men in charge had no fear of eternal judgment by a power HIGHER than their temporal institutions. The Founders often quoted the Scripture that admonishes, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.”
The majority of the Founders, having personally witnessed the abuses of the Church of England, clearly wanted to avoid the official establishment of any single national denomination or religion. However, they very deliberately listed religious liberty (the free exercise of religion) as the first freedom protected in the Bill of Rights because they wanted everyone to freely live out their faith–as that would ensure a robust presence of moral virtue in the public square and the free marketplace of ideas.
A free society and a healthy republic depend upon religious and moral virtue–not only because they help prevent political corruption and the abuse of power in that republic–but also because those convictions in the minds and hearts of the people make it possible to preserve their essential freedoms, by emphasizing and inspiring individual responsibility, self-sacrifice, the dignity of hard work, the rule of law, civility, patriotism, the value of family and community, and the sanctity of every human life. Without those virtues, “indispensibly supported” by religion and morality, every republic will ultimately fail.
Inscribed on the third panel of the Jefferson Memorial here in Washington, D.C., is his sobering reminder to every American: “God who gave us life gave us liberty. Can the liberties of a nation be secure when we have removed a conviction that these liberties are the gift of God? Indeed I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just, that his justice cannot sleep forever.”
The experience of history teaches that these principles are universal, and have applied to every republic through the centuries. They certainly apply to our nation today. Alexis de Tocqueville is credited with the keen observation that “America is great because she is good, and if she ever ceases to be good, she will cease to be great.”
THAT has been the key to our exceptionalism. Our republic depends upon it now more than ever, and it is our job to instill and preserve it.
I apologize for the length of this response. (The government shutdown gave all of us a little extra time in the House this Saturday afternoon as we wait here for the Senate to act.)
Thank you again for encouraging your students to carefully consider these important questions. Please give them all my warmest regards.
4th District of LA