At the Federalist Society Convention I had a debate with my friend, Professor Robert George, on a famous quote by John Adams: “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” In the next three posts, I will excerpt my speech. And then I will add a postscript on Washington’s Farewell Address. Here is the beginning:
John Adams famously said “Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” His claim assumes that we can afford to have the limited government created by the Constitution because the people are already possessed of an abundance of virtue—indeed crucially virtues fortified by religion. But the Constitution itself reflects a very different faith: that a people blessed with a constitution like our own are likely to develop the virtues of self-restraint and social trust needed in order to thrive.
Religion can certainly help actualize virtues but so can other kinds of culture and practices. And the Constitution is premised on the enlightenment view that its very design can create the necessary virtues for civic life from elements of human nature, including raw self-interest. The constitutional structure thus maintains itself and does not necessarily depend on any religious system.
Roe v. Wade remains, for us, the most contentious decision of our Supreme Court. Here’s the advice of our Supreme Court: The opponents of Roe should get over it. In its opinion in Planned Parenthood v. Casey (1992), the Court explained:
Where, in the performance of its judicial duties, the Court decides a case in such a way as to resolve the sort of intensely divisive controversy reflected in Roe and those rare, comparable cases, its decision has a dimension that the resolution of the normal case does not carry. It is the dimension present whenever the Court’s interpretation of the Constitution calls the contending sides of a national controversy to end their national division by accepting a common mandate rooted in the Constitution.
The rare, comparable case that the Court highlights in Casey is Brown v. Board of Education. Reversing Brown and restoring the constitutionality of segregation would throw the nation into confusion and chaos. And that means that Brown has “rare precedential force.” The burden of proof that could lead to its reversal is more severe than other precedents. It would require “the most convincing justification.” The Court claimed to authoritatively resolve the controversy that produced a national division by binding the country together through a common constitutional mandate.