Every year (and sometimes more often) we read about the increasing speed of glacial melting, more species becoming extinct, square miles of the Sahara desert advancing and how many trees have been lost to deforestation. Along with those reports there is an annual study that records how many congregations have closed in the past years. The most recent Lifeway Research survey of 34 Protestant denominations suggests that more Protestant congregations have closed than opened. The 2019 pre-pandemic study found that 4,500 churches closed that year, while about 3,000 new congregations were started. There seems to be a climate change in church affiliation with fewer than half of Americans claiming membership in a church, synagogue or mosque, down from 70% in 2000. Can we call it a deforestation of congregations?

If what John Adams said is accurate this is not good news for the country. “Our constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” Many of the Founding Fathers said much the same and while church membership (as in Virginia) was sometimes required by law, there was an assumption that people of character were also voluntarily frequent church attenders. The practice of religion was central to the lives and beliefs of our Founders.

But, there is more to the Adams quote that is important to remember. “Liberty can no more exist without virtue and independence than the body can live and move without a soul.” Time and again the founders refer to virtue as the single most important pillar of this new country. Thomas Jefferson, George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, and James Madison all wrote extensively on the necessity of virtue. Without virtue there would be no hope for liberty. Virtue is more than practicing religion. Virtue is more than church attendance or even the identification with a particular faith. In a letter to Mercy Warren, Adams writes, “The Form of Government, which you admire, when its Principles are pure is admirable…But its Principles are as easily destroyed, as human Nature is corrupted. Public Virtue cannot exist in a Nation without private, and public Virtue is the only Foundation of Republics.” 

Right Reason

While religion and church affiliation were important, they were often considered means to a greater end – Virtue. Joshua Charles wrote in Epoch Times, “The Founding Fathers believed one thing was absolutely essential to a free society: virtue. Sometimes the term they used was “self-government. What did it mean? Informed by thousands of years of philosophy and theology, first with Greeks like Aristotle, and later by Christian theologians such as Augustine of Hippo and Thomas Aquinas, the Founders understood “virtue” to be behavior in accordance with the good — which both Aristotle and Aquinas, among others, defined as behaving according to “right reason.” Virtue was thus the willing sacrifice of one’s passions to a higher good, namely “right reason.”

In a very real sense the most significant role of churches and other institutions was producing virtue. The lasting fruit of any institution was virtue and an educated man without virtue was a self-contradiction. The same would be true for a religious man. If his religion did not result in virtue it was without substance. In fact, there was no possibility for the successful pursuit of happiness without virtue as the foundation. In his first Inaugural Address, George Washington said, “There is no truth more thoroughly established, than that there exists in the economy and course of nature, an indissoluble union between virtue and happiness, between duty and advantage, between the genuine maxims of an honest and magnanimous policy, and the solid rewards of public prosperity and felicity:”

As I read the studies on the decline of congregations these words are in the back of my mind. We might say the role of religion and congregations is much the same as that of trees. Trees take carbon dioxide and through photosynthesis convert it to life sustaining oxygen. Congregations were the new nation’s “trees” that converted not just hearts but turned the poisons and pollutants of the world into virtue. That was a major part of their role in society – to create life and liberty sustaining virtue. Of course, there were the by-products of community and other services just as there are with trees but without the consistent production of virtue they were not living up to their full purpose. Yes, the size of a tree is a measure of growth but it is the production of oxygen that matters.

Have expectations for the church and institutions changed? Do we still expect them to produce virtuous men and women whose behavior and habits are marked by right reason? Clearly, we are experiencing the loss of glaciers, tillable land, and species, so while I am concerned about that I am also anxious about the loss of those factories of virtue without which we cannot long survive.