Benjamin Rush was one of America’s most influential Founding Fathers, signing the Declaration of Independence and serving in the presidential administrations of John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, and James Madison. Furthermore, he helped found five universities, authored numerous textbooks, and was one of the first Founders to call for free, national public schools. He understood the instability of a democracy; he also understood that if our people ever lost their knowledge of the Bible and its rights and wrongs, then we would lose our republican government. As he explained:
[T]he only means of establishing and perpetuating our republican forms of government . . . is the universal education of our youth in the principles of Christianity by means of the Bible.
Regrettably, America has forgotten many of these principles of government and has moved away from what the Founders so clearly articulated. This seems amazing considering the lengths to which they went to ensure that we would always know and understand those principles. How did we forget? How did we depart from those teachings? The movement away from those principles came as a result of destructive teachings introduced and widely disseminated during the last half of the nineteenth-century by men such as Colonel Robert Ingersoll, one of America’s first openly avowed and proudly self-proclaimed militant secular humanists. He aggressively attacked both Judaism and Christianity in order to remove the Judeo-Christian ethic from America. He wanted a different religion to be the foundation of government, explaining:
We are laying the foundations of the grand temple of the future . . . wherein . . . will be celebrated the religion of Humanity. . . . We are looking for the time when . . . REASON, throned upon the world’s brain, shall be the King of Kings and God of Gods. Ingersoll advanced two teachings to help achieve that goal:
(1) compartmentalizing the “religious” from the “secular,” and (2) excluding a candidate’s religious and moral beliefs from consideration of his competency for office (that is, to ignore a candidate’s private life and character). Tragically, these two teachings, although revolutionary at the time, have now become widely accepted, even among many in the God-fearing community. Concerning the latter teaching, Ingersoll asserted: The religious views of a candidate should be kept entirely out of sight. . . . All these things are private and personal.
However, such a policy is illogical. That is, it might be advisable to separate a candidate’s religious views from his run for office if citizens could be guaranteed that no public policy touching religion would ever arise while he was in office; but this has never happened and never will. In fact, in any given session of Congress today, from 10,000 to 13,000 bills are introduced, scores of which specifically address religious issues and values. The same is true at the state level (although fewer bills are introduced) and at the local level. Therefore, since a public official at every level of government will in some manner address religious issues, it is advisable to inquire into a candidate’s personal religious views.
To ignore a candidate’s religious views is as irrational as ignoring his economic views. It is certain that he will enact policy on economic issues, so it is important to know his economic views; the same is true with a candidate’s religious views. Unfortunately, however, too many today separate a candidate’s views on religious issues from his candidacy, fueling the notion that private life and views are irrelevant and have no bearing on professional public service.
Americans long believed that one’s private life and beliefs were an important indicator of the type of leader a candidate would make. In fact, the conviction of this truth was so strong that for generations it formed a core element in classroom instruction. One famous text incorporating this teaching was so popular that after being first published in December of 1800, it went through over 200 reprints, even being a favorite of President Abraham Lincoln. That text taught students that they must always examine the private life and character of a leader, explaining:
[P]ublic character . . . is no evidence of true greatness, for a public character is often an artificial one.
The textbook illustrated the truth of this axiom with the example of Benedict Arnold. In his public capacity, Arnold was a General in the American Army, an early leader in the American Revolution, and a war hero in the momentous battle of Saratoga in 1777, with monuments having been erected to honor his military exploits.
However, during the same time that he was being publicly lauded as an American patriot, in private he was embezzling supplies destined for the starving troops at Valley Forge, selling the supplies on the black market, and then pocketing the profits – all while American soldiers were dying for lack of those supplies. So greedy was Arnold that he even betrayed West Point to the enemy for money. Clearly, he was a traitor to his country. So was his public life or his private life a better indicator of his true character? Obviously, his private life. The textbook thus concluded:
It is not, then, in the glare of public, but in the shade of private life that we are to look for the man. Private life is always real life. Behind the curtain, where the eyes of the million are not upon him . . . there he will always be sure to act himself. Consequently, if he act greatly [in private], he must be great indeed. Hence it has been justly said that “Our private deeds, if noble, are noblest of our lives.” . . . [I]t is the private virtues that lay the foundation of all human excellence.
Schoolbooks long taught Americans to examine the private life; but from what source did they derive that teaching? From several sources, including experience and common sense, the Scriptures, and the Founding Fathers.
One Founder outspoken about this teaching was John Witherspoon, a signer of the Declaration who served on over 100 different committees in Congress. He was also the President of Princeton University and is considered the educational father of many Founding Fathers, having personally trained one U. S. President, one Vice-President, three Supreme Court Justices, thirteen Governors, and at least twenty Senators and thirty Congressmen – not to mention several Cabinet Members 29 (and this does not include the numerous individuals he trained for state, local, and municipal offices). What did this prominent Founder teach his students that caused so many to rise to high levels of leadership? Among other things, Witherspoon taught them the three basic traits of an American patriot:
That he is the best friend to American liberty who is the most sincere and active in promoting true and undefiled religion, and who sets himself with the greatest firmness to bear down profanity and immorality of every kind. Whoever is an avowed enemy of God, I scruple not to call him an enemy to his country.
According to Witherspoon, the first trait of an American patriot – the first indicator of a true leader – was that he be an active and sincere promoter of “true and undefiled religion.” Second was that he “set himself with the greatest firmness to bear down profanity and immorality of every kind.” Why would this trait be necessary for a good leader?
Because with America’s republican form of government, if the people became profane and immoral, then the government would also become profane and immoral; and since history proves that profane and immoralgovernments do not endure, then if someone loved America and its form of government, he would bear down on the enemies of good government: profanity and immorality. Witherspoon’s third characteristic was that whoever was “an avowed enemy of God” was “an enemy to his country.” Why? Since the American republic was firmly built on the principles of God’s Word, if an individual opposed what God stood for, he opposed the very foundation on which America had been built. How, then, could he be a true patriot?
(Abigail Adams agreed with John Witherspoon, explaining: “[A] true patriot must be a religious man. . . . [H]e who neglects his duty to his Maker may well be expected to be deficient and insincere in his duty towards the public.” )
Notice that two of Witherspoon’s three characteristics focused on private life – one on private religious life, and one on private moral life. Private life was very important to the Founders. Therefore, the textbooks in part derived their teaching on private life from great leaders such as John Witherspoon; however, they also derived that teaching from the Bible.
One clear Biblical passage espousing this position was Matthew 7:16-20, in which Jesus explained that a tree’s roots determined the character of its fruit – that if its root was corrupt, then its fruit would also be corrupt. As he reminded His listeners, grapes could not be picked from briar bushes, or figs gathered from thistle plants; what one was at his roots – at his core – would determine what eventually would manifest itself in public.
Nonetheless, many today absolutely refuse to consider one’s “roots” – one’s private life; they want to ignore private character and believe that the one they elect will somehow produce good results simply because he promised to do so during his campaign. This is an unsound approach, based on unrealistic, fanciful thinking. To find out if there will be good fruit in a leader, first examine his roots – his private life and character. As John Witherspoon explained: Those who wish well to the State ought to choose to places of trust men of inward principle, justified by exemplary conversation [lifestyle]. Is it reasonable to expect wisdom from the ignorant? fidelity [faithfulness] from the profligate [unfaithful]? assiduity [diligence] and application to public business from men of a dissipated [careless] life? Is it reasonable to commit the management of public revenue to one who hath wasted his own patrimony [inheritance]? Those, therefore, who pay no regard to religion and sobriety in the persons whom they send to the legislature of any State are guilty of the greatest absurdity and will soon pay dear for their folly.
In short, to know what fruit an individual will produce, check his roots – don’t expect public faithfulness from one who is privately unfaithful, or public frugality from one who is privately extravagant, etc. Always investigate a candidate’s private religious and moral beliefs and behavior.
According to John Adams, it was the presence of private moral and religious beliefs that produced trustworthy public officials and thus provided a security for government and its citizens. In fact, in his diary entry for February 9, 1772, he discussed “that struggle which I believe always happens between virtue and ambition,” insightfully noting that an individual in office who lacks virtue will “appl[y] himself to the passions and prejudices, the follies and vices of great men in order to obtain their smiles, esteem, and patronage, and consequently their favors and preferment.” This is an accurate description of what today may be termed a “politician” – an individual who willingly compromises principles in order to maintain favor with his party and constituents and thus win reelection. A statesman, however, will not compromise principles, regardless of the cost. What makes the difference between a politician and a statesman – what makes one willing to compromise principles and the other one not?
According to Adams, it was embracing the Biblical conviction of the reality of future rewards and punishments. That is, a statesman realizes that he will stand before God and account to Him for what he does in private as well as in public; this awareness of imminent accountability to God serves as a restraint on personal misbehavior. Such a restraint is especially important for office-holders, for although they are termed “public officials,” most of what they do in their official capacities actually occurs in private. Therefore, if there is no self-imposed restraint on a public official’s private actions stemming from a sense of his accountability to God, then that public official is a danger to good government because of the compromises he invariably will make.
Was John Adams a politician or a statesman? – was he willing to compromise principles, or was he determined to stand firm even though it might cost him the next election? Adams was definitely a statesman,explaining, “The duration of future punishment terrifies me.” Because he understood that he would answer to God for his every action, John Adams guarded his private behavior and carefully weighed his public policy decisions before God; as a result, his reputation for public integrity remains untarnished to this day.