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If Men Were Angels…

“But what is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature? If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary.”  James Madison in Federalist No. 51(1787/2011, p. 168)

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On September 17, 1787, founding members of this nation, who had huddled together for months, produced a document unlike any this world has ever known.  The U.S. Constitution, subsequently ratified by the states and people for whom it was made to serve, secures our unique freedom among the nations of the world. In his book A Free People’s Suicide, Os Guinness refers to this moment in our history as one of ordering freedom, following a revolution when freedom was won(2012, Kindle location 611).

But the real question, according to Guinness, can freedom be sustained?  He points out the paradox that, of all of freedom’s enemies, the greatest enemy is itself.  He contends:

Free societies must always maintain their freedom on two levels at once: at the level of their nation’s constitution and at the level of their citizens’ convictions. The formal structures of liberty and the informal spirit of liberty—or the fundamental laws and the fundamental “habits of the heart”—are both essential to freedom… (Guinness, Kindle location 226).

It’s obvious our founders were aware of human tendencies toward depravity. Whether they embraced the Christian doctrine of human depravity or simply considered thousands of years of empirical data supporting the concept – or both – brilliant guardrails were implemented to create a system that serves the governed.  Most students of American history are now aware of James Madison’s distinguished line, “If men were angels…”  If we’re honest we must confess, along with Madison, that we are not.  

If Guinness is correct, and I believe he is, we need more than a document to ensure a sustainable future.  A covenant requires two parties.  Without the faithfulness of both, the covenant collapses.  

The radical individualism and pursuit of freedom without constraint in modern-day America is an insufficient foundation for this system that has been called a great experiment.  For the sake of its sustainability we must engage the enemy – ourselves.  Let’s not forget that politics is downstream from culture.


Guinness, O. (2012). A Free People’s Suicide: Sustainable Freedom and the American Future [Kindle Edition]. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.

Hamilton, A., Jay, J., & Madison, J. (1787/2011). The Federalist Papers   


Edward M. Smith, Ph.D.

Ed Smith is President of Williamson College in Franklin, TN.   Founded in 1998, Williamson College (WC) is a non-profit, Christian liberal arts college that welcomes students of all ages and cultures, including non-traditional learners who are already in the workforce. WC offers associate and bachelor degrees, a master’s degree and is accredited by the Association for Biblical Higher Education (ABHE) and the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability (ECFA).