The Foundations of American Government

Are people good or evil? Your answer probably depends on how you have seen people around you behave. If you have studied history, the answer might further depend on what you think of past wars, as well as how people manage to live alongside one another in peace. People can be both hateful and noble, can’t they? James Madison, an ardent student of political philosophy, put it this way:

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. In framing a government which is to be administered by men over men, the great difficulty lies in this: you must first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself. A dependence on the people is, no doubt, the primary control on the government; but experience has taught mankind the necessity of auxiliary precautions. (Federalist No. 51)

Madison, along with others who had experienced the British government’s violation of the traditional rights of Englishmen in the years leading to America’s independence, looked to the lessons of human nature and history to determine how best to structure a competent government that would promote liberty.

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James Madison, along with others who had experienced the British government’s violation of the traditional rights of Englishmen in the years leading to America’s independence, looked to the lessons of human nature and history to determine how best to structure a competent government that would promote liberty.

If you were asked to establish a new government for you and your neighbors, the rules you would make—and the amount of power you would give to future government officials—would probably depend on how much you trust people to behave well. The problem is that people are capable of doing many wonderful things, but history also shows that otherwise peaceful citizens can be persuaded to allow—or even join in—the use of government to abuse others. For example, after five centuries of British monarchs (mostly) recognizing such traditional rights as protection of property rights and trial by jury, the three King Georges in succession began to rule the colonies by fiat. The Declaration of Independence listed specific violations committed by King George III. Among other abuses, he dissolved colonial legislatures, depriving colonists of the right of representation.He made judges dependent on his will alone, leading to the corruption of justice.He deprived Americans of fair jury trials.He stationed standing armies in the colonies in times of peace and required colonists to provide room and board for them.He imposed taxes without representation.He cut off their trade with foreign countries.The majority in Parliament approved these policies. Seeking to offset the debt accumulated during the French and Indian War, Parliament passed a number of measures which the colonies viewed as blatant violations of traditional liberties of Englishmen.In his 1776 pamphlet, Common Sense, the British revolutionary Thomas Paine wrote, “We have it in our power to begin the world over again.” The time had come to cut ties with the mother country and become free and independent states. How to design a system that would “first enable the government to control the governed; and in the next place oblige it to control itself” was the challenge the American Founders faced.

The prevailing view through times past had been that powerful rulers of noble upbringing were needed to keep people from falling back into the tribal warfare that stains much of human history. They believed not only that kings were fit to rule people, but also that God himself gave monarchs that authority—a concept known as “divine right of kings.”The reasoning was that God could have given anybody the right to rule, and He selected the specific people who should govern others.

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In his 1776 pamphlet, Common Sense, the British revolutionary Thomas Paine wrote, “We have it in our power to begin the world over again.”

The American Founders—and the American people generally—did not trust a king. They had seen kings behave like spoiled children, destroying businesses they disliked and imprisoning people without just cause. The world was changing, with new inventions making it possible for more and more people to work their way out of poverty. People needed not only to be free from fear of what kings might do to them, but to engage in commerce. The Founders believed that liberty was essential to human progress, and that we all have inherent rights to make decisions about ourselves and our property—rights that not even a king has the authority to take away. As John Locke explained in his Second Treatise of Civil Government, the only legitimate government was one to which the people had given consent. The people themselves have a voice, and need not simply submit to rulers who violate their liberties. If there were no king, could the Founders settle on a pure democracy, in which the majority gets whatever it wants? The Founders rejected this solution, too. They believed history proved that democratic majorities often end up behaving like tyrants—abusing minorities, starting wars, and running up huge debts. As children they had learned about persuaders like the Greek orator and general Alcibiades, who enticed Athenians to wage a disastrous war with Sparta, and Gaius Flaminius Nepos, who violated the Roman constitution to win popularity with the masses. The tyranny of the majority, expressed through corrupt politicians, can happen anywhere, anytime.

History, the Founders believed, showed how otherwise decent people can be swayed by emotion, selfish impulses, and corrupt leaders to do terrible things to one another. The Founders worried that a democracy would become just another version of tyranny.

The point of government, as the Founders saw it, was to enable a people to live without fear of having their persons or property violated, to cooperate to govern themselves peacefully, and to repel foreign threats. Without government, the powerful would rule, and nobody’s rights would be secure. Philosophers like John Locke, who strongly influenced the Founders, argued that citizens form for themselves a “social contract” in which they sacrifice a small amount of their natural freedom to a government whose protection makes them more free to live their lives than would otherwise be possible. When government repeatedly violates this contract by taking more freedom than is necessary—and especially when it violates the rights that it was created to protect—the Founders believed that people have a right and duty to abolish and replace it with something better.That is precisely what they did when they declared independence from Great Britain.

The Founders knew that legitimate governing authority must be just.This did not mean that everybody gets an equal share of everything, but that everyone has the right to be treated equally and fairly by their government. While earlier generations defined nations by the power it takes to rule, the Founders were thinking about a nation of citizens, born with inalienable rights, who should only be governed by virtuous representatives accountable to the people. Earlier philosophers believed ruling authority came from an aristocracy, a military power, or from God.

The Founders believed legitimate ruling authority only comes from the citizens themselves.
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Philosophers like John Locke, who strongly influenced the Founders, argued that citizens form for themselves a “social contract” in which they sacrifice a small amount of their natural freedom to a government whose protection makes them more free to live their lives than would otherwise be possible.

But the Founders faced a dilemma: How to give people the power to control their government while also denying to them the power to use government to violate the rights of others. People, even though they frequently live and work alongside one another in harmony, can behave selfishly. It is human nature to pursue what we believe will make us wealthy, powerful, or popular—even to the point of harming others.

Worse still, we can convince ourselves that our bad behavior is actually virtuous. A thief, for example, might tell himself he has no choice, even as poorer people work to survive without stealing. A powerful politician may tell herself that slandering her opponent is excused by all the good she will do once she is elected. People are clever. We are good at justifying our actions—especially to ourselves

The Founders’ challenge, as they built on their experience with a national government under the Articles of Confederation, which many considered too weak, was to establish a government that was not so powerful that people could use it to pursue their own interests at the expense of other people's rights. As a result, they settled on what is called a constitutional republic.

It was an ingenious solution. Our Constitution’s authors sought to leverage for the common good people's natural inclinations toward ambition and self-interest. That is why they divided our government’s power between executive, legislative, and judicial branches. It is also why they split Congress into two bodies. They gave members of the House of Representatives smaller districts and shorter terms so they would keep the desires of their constituents first and foremost. But they balanced this more democratic body with Senators who represent entire states, for longer terms, with the expectation that they would therefore have the freedom to make decisions that they considered right even when they were not popular. The Founders gave this Congress the power to make laws, but gave the power of administering those laws to the president and the executive branch. Separate from these was the Supreme Court, its members appointed by the president but with the Senate’s approval. In addition to splitting government power among three branches, the Founders also guarded against a concentration of power by dividing governing authority geographically.The national or central government would have carefully enumerated and limited powers, and all other functions that the people wanted their government to have would be left to state and local decision-making. The significance of state authority is reflected in the manner by which the Constitution was ratified. It did not take effect until approved by nine of the thirteen states through conventions called specifically for that purpose. The Constitution was engineered so that the competing ambitions of government officials—as well as the competing ambitions of different branches and levels of government—would work to form a system of checks and balances.

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It was an ingenious solution. Our Constitution’s authors sought to leverage for the common good people's natural inclinations toward ambition and self-interest.

If all government power rested with just a few people, these few might begin to abuse other's rights. But because the Constitution spreads government power among many people, and sets up those powers so that they are “checks” on one another, natural self-interest works in favor of "We, the people." In this way, ambition—properly exercised—becomes a useful tool for the preservation of rights.

Equally important with these checks and balances, however, is the principle expressed in the Preamble of the Constitution itself. “We the People…do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.” The Founders knew that all legitimate government authority comes from the citizens. That is why the Constitution is written as a narrow list of government powers. The first eight amendments, meanwhile, make especially clear the kinds of things the federal government is not allowed to do. The Ninth and Tenth Amendments emphasize that rights and powers not listed remain with the states and people.

The Founders tried to design a government that would protect citizens from tyrants and from the tyranny of unrestrained democracy, but they knew that a clever design would never be enough. They counted on citizens to embrace virtues like honesty, respect, humility, and personal responsibility. The American republic was designed to encourage and depend on those citizen virtues.

They also counted on people to be tolerant of one another’s differences and to act justly, standing up to attempts to violate people's liberty or their right to their own property. Even though the Founders designed a government that harnesses human self-interest to check itself, they knew that freedom will always depend, ultimately, on the willingness of citizens to defend it. While the Founders expected government officials to keep an eye on one another, they knew it was even more important for citizens to keep an eye on government and to vote for capable and trustworthy officers.It is our responsibility to exercise vigilance and to refuse power to anyone who behaves as if the Constitution is not the law of the land. Effective government requires that the governed choose well.

Finally, the Founders expected citizens to be educated, to understand why freedom is important, and to have the wisdom to recognize when laws or ideas that sound good at first might cause long-term harm. John Adams noted that wisdom, knowledge, and virtue are essential to preserving freedom. Each generation must help cultivate these qualities in the next.

Explore Readings

Law of Demand
As prices decrease, the quantity demanded increases or as prices increase, the quantity demanded decreases.
Natural rights
Rights which belong to us by nature and can only be justly taken away through due process.
Inalienable rights
Rights which belong to us by nature and can only be justly taken away through due process.
Liberty
Except where authorized by people through the Constitution, government does not have the authority to limit freedom.
Popular sovereignty
The power of government flows from the people.
Separation of powers
A system of distinct powers built into the constitution, to prevent an accumulation of power in one branch.
Checks and balances
Powers distributed among the branches of government allowing each to limit the application of power of the other branches and to prevent expansion of power of any branch.
Federalism
The people delegate certain powers to the national government, while the states retain other powers; and the people, who authorize the states and national government, retain all freedoms not delegated to the governing bodies.
Justice
Fairness or reasonableness in the way people are treated or decisions are made.
private property
The natural right of all individuals to create, obtain, and control their possessions, beliefs, faculties, and opinions, as well as the fruits of their labor.
limited government
Citizens are best able to pursue happiness when government is confined to those powers which protect their life, liberty, and property.
representative government
(or republican government) Form of government in which the people are sovereign (ultimate source of power) and authorize representatives to make and carry out laws.
republican government
(or representative government)Form of government in which the people are sovereign (ultimate source of power) and authorize representatives to make and carry out laws.
civil discourse
Reasoned and respectful sharing of ideas between individuals is the primary way people influence change in society/government, and is essential to maintain self-government.
Constitution
The fundamental principles by which a state or nation is governed. The United States Constitution, written in 1787, lays out the roles and powers of each of the three branches of government (legislative, executive, and judicial), the protections of due process and rule of law in the states, a republican form of government, and the manner in which to amend the document.
Thomas Jefferson
Jefferson was a Virginia plantation owner who was the principle author of the Declaration of Independence. Jefferson served as a legislator and governor in Virginia, as well as an ambassador to France, Secretary of State under George Washington, Vice President under John Adams, and the third President of the United States. During his political career, Jefferson founded the Democratic-Republican Party with James Madison, and he bought the Louisiana Purchase from France. After his presidency, Jefferson started the University of Virginia near his home, Monticello.
Bill of Rights
The first ten amendments to the Constitution, ratified in 1791, which limit government power and protect individual liberties, including the freedoms of speech, press, religion, petition, and assembly, as well as protections against cruel and unusual punishment, unreasonable search and seizure, and other due process rights.
Second Amendment
Ratified in 1791, it protects citizens’ rights to create a militia and to bear arms. “A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.”
Due Process
The government must interact with all persons according to the duly-enacted laws; applying these rules equally among all persons.
Equality
Every individual is equal to every other person with respect to natural rights and treatment before the law.
Consent of the governed
The authority of the government must come from the people through elections and through the people’s interaction with government.
Individual responsibility
Individuals must take care of themselves and their families, and be vigilant to preserve their liberty and the liberty of others.
Rule of law
Government officials and citizens all abide by the same laws regardless of political power.
Declaration of Independence
The document written in 1776 by the Founders to send to Britain’s King George III in which independence from Britain was declared and the reasons for the separation were explained.
Articles of Confederation
The first national government document developed in 1781 by the Founders. The Articles created a federal legislative branch, but there was no executive or judiciary. The states retained most of the governmental powers.
Founders
The group of people who wrote and influenced the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation, the United States Constitution, and the United States Bill of Rights. These men were instrumental in establishing the nation and its governmental documents and practices.
Federalist Papers
A series of 85 essays written to convince the people of New York to ratify the Constitution. The authors were James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, and John Jay. These documents are considered to be the most authoritative explanation of the political theory of the Constitution.
First Amendment
Ratified in 1791, it protects the freedom of speech, the freedom of religion, freedom of the press, freedom to assemble, and freedom to petition the government. “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”
Law of Supply
As the price drops, the quantity supplied also drops.
Fourth Amendment
Ratified in 1791, it protects citizens’ rights against unreasonable searches and seizures of property and explains that warrants must be issued with probable cause. “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”
Fifth Amendment
Ratified in 1791, it protects the right indictment by a jury, against double jeopardy, self-incrimination, loss of life, liberty, or property without due process, and just compensation for private property taken for public use. “No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a grand jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the militia, when in actual service in time of war or public danger; nor shall any person be subject for the same offense to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb; nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself, nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.”
Tenth Amendment
Ratified in 1791, it states that the powers not enumerated or delegated in the Constitution are reserved for the states and the people. “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the states, are reserved to the states respectively, or to the people.”
Eighth Amendment
Ratified in 1791, it protects against excessive bail and fines and cruel and unusual punishments. “Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.”
Ninth Amendment
Ratified in 1791, the listing of certain rights protected by the Constitution cannot be used to deny rights not enumerated in the document. “The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.”
Alexander Hamilton
One of the Founding Fathers of the United States, Alexander Hamilton served as General Washington’s chief of staff, promoted the ratification of the Constitution in the Federalist Papers, and founded the nation’s financial system and first political party.
James Madison
Madison was a Framer who was instrumental in writing the Constitution and Bill of Rights. He is known as the “Father of the Constitution.” Madison partnered with Alexander Hamilton and John Jay to write the Federalist Papers in support of the ratification of the Constitution. He also served as a member of the Virginia House of Delegates, the United States House of Representatives, Secretary of State under Thomas Jefferson, and the fourth president of the United States.
George Washington
First President of the United States, George Washington served as commander-in-chief of the Continental Army during the American Revolution and was one of the Founding Fathers of the United States.
John Locke
An English philosopher and physician, John Locke was one of the most influential Enlightenment thinkers and is known today as the Father of Classical Liberalism.
Continental Congress
The Continental Congress, comprised of delegates from 12 of the 13 American colonies, represented the colonists during and after the American Revolution. The Continental Congress issued the Declaration of Independence and ratified the Articles of Confederation.
King George III
King George III was the King of Great Britain at the time of the American Revolution. His actions towards the American colonies, outlined in the Declaration of Independence, spurred the American Revolution.
Great Depression
Spanning ten years from 1929 to 1939, the Great Depression was one of the longest-lasting economic downturns in the history of the United States affecting the U.S. and most of the world.
Preamble
An introductory statement, preface, or introduction.
Tyranny
Cruel and unfair treatment by people with power over others.
Tyrannical
Using power over people in a way that is cruel and unfair.
John Adams
Before becoming the second President of the United States, John Adams served as the country’s first Vice President under George Washington. Adams was an advocate of American independence from Britain and a Federalist.
John Jay
Founding Father John Jay was one of the signers of the Treaty of Paris and served as the first Chief Justice of the United States. He was also one of the authors of the Federalist Papers.
Third Amendment
Ratified in 1791, it protects citizens against the quartering of soldiers in private homes without their approval. “No soldier shall, in time of peace be quartered in any house, without the consent of the owner, nor in time of war, but in a manner to be prescribed by law.”
Sixth Amendment
Ratified in 1791, it protects the rights of impartial jury trials, the right to be informed of the accusations against you, the right to be confronted by witness, and the right to be assisted by counsel. “In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the state and district wherein the crime shall have been committed, which district shall have been previously ascertained by law, and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor, and to have the assistance of counsel for his defense.”
Seventh Amendment
Ratified in 1791, it protects the right of jury trials in law suits dealing with more than twenty dollars and protects against reexamination of the trial in any court if decided by a jury. “In suits at common law, where the value in controversy shall exceed twenty dollars, the right of trial by jury shall be preserved, and no fact tried by a jury, shall be otherwise reexamined in any court of the United States, than according to the rules of the common law.”
Alexis de Tocqueville
French political thinker and historian, Alexis de Tocqueville is best known for his works Democracy in America and The Old Regime and the Revolution. He visited the U.S. in the 1830s and wrote admiringly about many aspects of American law and society.
Democracy in America
Written by Alexis de Tocqueville after visiting the United States, Democracy in America contains de Tocqueville’s analysis of and reflections on the United States’ democratic system and society. The first volume was published in 1835 and the second in 1840.
Magna Carta
Written in 1215, it is the oldest document in the British and American heritage of rights. Contributed to the adoption of the First, Third, Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, and Eighth Amendments of the Bill of Rights, and speaks of these rights as ancient.
Two Treatises of Civil Government
Written by John Locke in 1690, the Two Treatises of Civil Government criticize absolute power for kings and outline Locke’s suggestions for a more civilized society based on natural rights and the social contract.
Thirteenth Amendment
The Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution abolished slavery and involuntary servitude, except as punishment for a crime. “Section 1. Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction. Section 2. Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.”
Framers
The group of people who actually attended the Constitutional Convention and participated in writing the Constitution.
Fourteenth Amendment
Ratified in 1868, it states that all people born or naturalized in the United States are citizens and ensures that “No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”
Sixteenth Amendment
Ratified in 1913, the Sixteenth Amendment gave Congress the ability to collect income taxes. “The Congress shall have power to lay and collect taxes on incomes, from whatever source derived, without apportionment among the several states, and without regard to any census of enumeration.”
Eighteenth Amendment
atified in 1919, the Eighteenth Amendment introduced Prohibition, the period of United States history when the manufacture, sale, and transportation of alcohol was made illegal throughout the country. “Section 1. After one year from the ratification of this article the manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors within, the importation thereof into, or the exportation thereof from the United States and all territory subject to the jurisdiction thereof for beverage purposes is hereby prohibited. Section 2. The Congress and the several states shall have concurrent power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation. Section 3. This article shall be inoperative unless it shall have been ratified as an amendment to the Constitution by the legislatures of the several states, as provided in the Constitution, within seven years from the date of the submission hereof to the states by the Congress.”
Twentieth Amendment
The Twentieth Amendment was ratified in 1933, and it establishes procedures for presidential succession and the start and end of federal officials’ terms of office. “Section 1. The terms of the President and Vice President shall end at noon on the 20th day of January, and the terms of Senators and Representatives at noon on the 3rd day of January, of the years in which such terms would have ended if this article had not been ratified; and the terms of their successors shall then begin.
Twenty-First Amendment
In 1933, the Twenty-First Amendment repealed the Eighteenth Amendment, ending Prohibition. “Section 1. The eighteenth article of amendment to the Constitution of the United States is hereby repealed. Section 2. The transportation or importation into any state, territory, or possession of the United States for delivery or use therein of intoxicating liquors, in violation of the laws thereof, is hereby prohibited. Section 3. This article shall be inoperative unless it shall have been ratified as an amendment to the Constitution by conventions in the several states, as provided in the Constitution, within seven years from the date of the submission hereof to the states by the Congress.”
English Bill of Rights
Passed by the British Parliament in 1689, the English Bill of Rights limited the power of the British monarch, outlined the rights of the Parliament, and guaranteed Protestants the right to bear arms.
Parliament
The legislative body of the United Kingdom (known as Great Britain or England during the Founding era).
Benjamin Franklin
One of the Founding Fathers of the United States, Benjamin Franklin was a statesman, author, publisher, scientist, inventor and diplomat. He served in the Second Continental Congress during the American Revolution and helped draft the Declaration of Independence. In addition, Franklin helped negotiated the Treaty of Paris which ended the Revolutionary War and later served as a delegate to the convention that produced the U.S. Constitution.
Suffrage
The right to vote.
Republic
A government in which the power belongs to citizens through the right to vote.
Fifteenth Amendment
Ratified in 1870, it states that the right could not be restricted based on “race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” “Section 1. The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude. Section 2. The Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.”
Seventeenth Amendment
Ratified in 1913, the Seventeenth Amendment introduced direct election of Senators. “The Senate of the United States shall be composed of two Senators from each state, elected by the people thereof, for six years; and each Senator shall have one vote. The electors in each state shall have the qualifications requisite for electors of the most numerous branch of the state legislatures. When vacancies happen in the representation of any state in the Senate, the executive authority of such state shall issue writs of election to fill such vacancies: Provided, that the legislature of any state may empower the executive thereof to make temporary appointments until the people fill the vacancies by election as the legislature may direct. This amendment shall not be so construed as to affect the election or term of any Senator chosen before it becomes valid as part of the Constitution.”
Nineteenth Amendment
Ratified in 1920, the amendment stated that a citizen’s right to vote must not be restricted based on gender. “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any state on account of sex. Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.”
Direct Democracy
Direct democracy is a political system in which the people vote directly on policies or laws, as opposed to voting for representatives who enact laws on their behalf.
Arbitrary
Not planned or chosen for a particular reason; done without concern for what is fair or right.
Judicial Review
The process by which courts analyze the constitutionality of an act of government.
Majority rule/minority rights
laws may be made with the consent of the majority, but only to the point where they do not infringe on the inalienable rights of the minority.
Fiat
An arbitrary order or decree.
Property
Something that is owned by a person, business, etc. This includes possessions, beliefs, faculties, and opinions, and the fruits of one's labor.
Democracy
A government in which the power is held by the people.
Electoral College
A body of electors chosen by each state to vote for the president and vice president of the United States.
Virtue
Conduct that reflects universal principles of moral and ethical excellence essential to leading a worthwhile life and to effective self-government. For many leading Founders, attributes of character such as justice, responsibility, perseverance, etc., were thought to flow from an understanding of the rights and obligations of men. Virtue is compatible with, but does not require, religious belief.