Religion, democracy and the family – Sutherland Soapbox, 12/30/14

"Going to Church," by William H. Johnson, Smithsonian American Art Museum.

“Going to Church,” by William H. Johnson, Smithsonian American Art Museum.

This post is a transcript of a 4-minute weekly radio commentary aired on several Utah radio stations. The podcast can be found at the bottom of this post.

Reflecting recently on a discussion some years ago with an associate from Asia who had come to the United States to study capitalism and democracy, Harvard business professor and internationally respected author Clayton Christensen was struck by his colleague’s observations about religion, democracy and free markets. Of particular note was the fundamental significance of honesty, commitment and respect for other people’s property – that “their right to freedom is as valuable as yours.” In other words, that capitalism requires willingness voluntarily to follow the rules. (“Clayton Christensen on Business and Religion,” April 23, 2012)

Quoting Dr. Christensen,

Some time ago I had a conversation with a Marxist economist from China. He was coming to the end of a Fulbright Fellowship here in Boston. I asked him if he had learned anything that was surprising or unexpected and without any hesitation he said, “Yeah. I had no idea how critical religion is to the functioning of democracy. ‘The reason why democracy works,’ he said, ‘is not because the government was designed to oversee what everybody does, but rather democracy works because most people most of the time voluntarily choose to obey the law. And in your past, most Americans attended a church or synagogue every week and they were taught there by people who they respected.’ My friend went on to say that Americans follow these rules because they had come to believe that they weren’t just accountable to society; they were accountable to God. My Chinese friend heightened a vague but nagging concern I’ve harbored inside that as religion loses its influence over the lives of Americans, what will happen to our democracy? Where are the institutions that are going to teach the next generation of Americans that they, too, need to voluntarily choose to obey the laws? Because if you take away religion, you can’t hire enough police. (“Clay Christensen on Religious Freedom,” March 5, 2014)

Underscoring these compelling observations from Professor Christensen are insights shared by Neal A. Maxwell in his classic “The Prohibitive Costs of a Value-Free Society,” other excerpts from which I shared in last week’s message. Notably,

Our whole republic rests upon the notion of ‘obedience to the unenforceable,’ upon a tremendous emphasis on inner controls through self-discipline. The historians Will and Ariel Durant observed that ‘if liberty destroys order, the hunger for order will destroy liberty.’ But keeping liberty and order in tension balance requires tremendous self-discipline in the citizenry of a nation.

Can we really afford the ultimate costs of governments which, in lieu of self-discipline, impose more and more outer controls?


If our society’s success depends on having a critical mass of citizens with a sense of fair play and justice, and with love and concern for others, where do citizens usually acquire those crucial virtues, if we acquire them at all? We usually acquire them first and best in the family. The family garden, as has been said, is still the best place to grow happy humans. Society already pays terrible costs for the products of tragically flawed families, but if our nation further undermines the average family, the costs will be catastrophic.

What we do with the family is going to determine what happens to our whole society. The wise Catholic writer, G.K. Chesterton, observed years ago that only men to whom the family is sacred will ever have a standard by which to criticize the State, because ‘they alone can appeal to something more holy than the gods of the city.’ (Everlasting Man, Image Books, 1955, p. 143)

“Obedience to the unenforceable”; “inner controls through self-discipline” – cornerstones of functional culture, learned best in the home. Further evidence that family is the fundamental unit of society.

For Sutherland Institute, I’m Stan Rasmussen. Thanks for listening.

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