“But the gallant struggle … on the Continent of North America is founded in principles so indisputable in the moral law, in the revealed Law of God, in the true Constitution of Britain, and in the most apparent welfare of the British nation, as well as of the whole body of the people in America that it rejoices my very soul. … If ever an infant country deserved to be cherished, it is America: if ever any people merited honor and happiness, they are her inhabitants. … [T]hey have the tender feelings of humanity, and the noble benevolence of Christians. They have the most habitual, radical sense of liberty, and the highest reverence for virtue. They are descended from a race of heroes who, placing their confidence in Providence alone set the seas and skies, monsters and savages, tyrants and devils, at defiance for the sake of Religion and Liberty. And the present generation have shown themselves worthy of their ancestors. … The people, even to the lowest ranks, have become more attentive to their Liberties, more inquisitive about them, and more determined to defend them than they were ever before known, or had occasion to be. … [T]heir merchants have agreed to sacrifice even their bread to the cause of Liberty, their legislatures have resolved, the united colonies have remonstrated, the presses have everywhere groaned, and the pulpits have thundered.”
– John Adams: “Clarendon” to “William Pym” No. II; Jan. 20, 1766
Does any of this sound remotely familiar? Did any of us ever learn this in school? And yet, what a great example for us in our own day of liberty’s struggle. There’s so much truth, but also practical know-how: know the truth, study the truth, live the truth, for Liberty is tough business.
The temptation will likely be to take notice of some of the smaller (but no less important) details: Adams refers to the “moral law” and the “revealed Law of God” (the Bible), the “true Constitution” and the “most apparent welfare” of the colonies, language remarkably clear and indisputable for us, a culture in disarray about the definitions of everything. These are in fact shocking statements given our own context, but they are still not, in my view, the main revelation of this quote.
He describes Americans as bearers of “the tender feelings of humanity, and the noble benevolence of Christians.” CHRISTIANS!? Clearly Adams never heard of separation of church and state (at least what it has become today), and didn’t get the memo that we are not a Christian nation (or at least were). He goes on to say Americans have “the most habitual, radical sense of liberty, and the highest reverence for virtue,” and that “they are descended from a race of heroes” (referring primarily to the Pilgrims and other Puritan dissenters who settled New England). He even says Americans have “become more attentive to their Liberties, more inquisitive about them, and more determined to defend them than they were ever before known.” If only he had written this today.
While there is a lot of gold to be mined from passages such as these, I believe there is one primary lesson we should take from it: America’s problems are not the result of no longer believing a set of isolated beliefs (morality, the Bible is a good book, liberty should be defended, etc.) but rather the fact that our culture – including even many of us who call ourselves “Christians” – no longer upholds a unified system of truth. Truth itself has become relative to the individual, and this, by nature, divides individuals and nations and peoples against each other because their claims of what is “their truth” naturally puts them at odds with their fellows.
But the the beliefs that served as the foundations of the American Revolution are not simply relativistic claims of “well, this is what we believe, and if you don’t agree, then that’s all right.” On the contrary, Jefferson instead wrote, “We hold these TRUTHS to be SELF-EVIDENT (obvious to all) that all men ARE created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Our national creed is a statement of TRUTH meant to be applied to all men and all times, one which our inability to live up to perfectly in no way dims its brilliance or loosens the obligatory restraints and enlightened nobility it imposes upon us.
No country can withstand the forces that are unleashed by the disintegration of truth. Again, I am not referring necessarily to a set of beliefs in particular (although some beliefs are true and others false), but rather to the notion of truth itself, the idea that truth is not dependent on the individual, but on something that transcends the individual. Our country is floundering not primarily because of a lack of true beliefs, but a lack of belief IN the true, that truth actually exists and is obligatory on all of us. Many of our founders believed the ultimate source of truth, and hence its boundary lines, was defined by God and his Creation, nature. So in this sense, the “disintegration” of truth is really the dis-integration, or the tearing up of the undivided and integrated whole idea of truth.
Bear in mind: believing truth is integrated is not a claim to know it in its entirety, but rather to acknowledge that despite our cognitive limitations, the truth does exist. It is this idea that undergirds the university: uni (one) versity – unity in diversity, meaning that while there are many disciplines, they are all bound together by truth, which, for the Christian founders of the earliest medieval universities and into the modern era, was defined by a Creator God, not narcissistic humans each with their own separatist claims on “truth.”
Until we and our fellow countrymen are again convinced of this epistemological reality, that truth exists and can in one degree or another be objectively known by man, then no amount of courses on the Constitution or the history of America will help. None of it matters unless the idea of truth remains alive and well.