(RNS) — In the early 19th century, during America’s first era of infrastructure development, Christians were some of the country’s strongest supporters of what were then known as “internal improvements,” and its political leaders were quick to cite moral imperatives for the country’s development.
In his first annual message to Congress, published on Dec. 6, 1825, President John Quincy Adams laid out a bold plan for infrastructure development. He refused to separate the nation’s communication and travel networks from what he called “moral, political, and intellectual” improvements.
Adams believed that advancements in these areas were social “duties” and “obligations” assigned to all Americans by the “Author of Our Existence.” As president of the United States, he believed that he had a “sacred and indispensable” responsibility to “the progressive improvement of the condition of the governed.” Anything short of exercising this responsibility was “criminal and odious.”
For Adams, God was on the side of infrastructure.
He concluded his speech by announcing that the same “Creator” responsible for the “superior excellence of our political institutions” also called citizens to use their liberty “to ends of beneficence, to improve the condition of himself and his fellow men.” To do otherwise, Adams warned, would be “to cast away the bounties of Providence” and “doom ourselves to perpetual inferiority.”
Today, the need to restore America’s infrastructure goes beyond protecting our place in the world. We need to protect our people.
In June, a pedestrian overpass fell on Route 295 in Washington, D.C., injuring several people. It was in poor condition.
In July, a power cable on a Portland, Oregon, bridge warped under 112-degree heat, forcing the city to temporarily close its streetcar system.
More than 77 million Americans do not have access to adequate home internet connections, a reality that came to light during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Urban schools are falling apart and struggling to find teachers. Some Americans don’t have clean water to drink. The cost of childcare, prescription drugs, and health care is soaring.
Joe Biden wants to do something about these problems. If we care about life, we should, too.
Yet, Democrats in Congress cannot seem to agree on two of the most significant pro-life bills Congress has ever considered. If they cannot get together and pass Biden’s bipartisan infrastructure bill and a version of his Build Back Better plan, it will be a massive moral failure. This should concern all Americans, but especially Christians.
The moral imperative behind Biden’s bills is more urgent precisely because internal improvements of the 19th century didn’t reach all Americans. On May 24, 1844, Samuel B. Morse, a devout Calvinist and the son of a famous clergyman, sat in the chamber of the U.S. Supreme Court and sent the first transmission across the telegraph. The words he typed came from the Old Testament book of Numbers: “WHAT HATH GOD WROUGHT?”
As historian Daniel Walker Howe has noted, Morse’s choice of phrase could not have been more appropriate. He believed that his invention, and by extension all internal improvements and technological advancements, furthered divine purposes in the world. He would later say that the biblical verse he sent across the wires that day “baptized the American Telegraph with the name of its author”: God.
In the early years of the American republic, it was understood that God’s blessings on the United States went together with scientific progress and the expansion of the nation’s transportation and communication infrastructure. Telegraphs, roads, bridges, canals and railroads would help build America and, at the same time, help the Gospel spread to every corner of the continent and beyond.
These efforts to expand across North America, giving people the option to rise above the tyranny of place, would make the nation exceptional and its people free. This was what God had wrought for the United States.
The pursuit of progress often led Morse and his generation to dark places. For Morse, progress meant keeping Catholics out of the country. In 1836, he mounted an unsuccessful bid for mayor of New York City on the Nativist Party ticket.
Progress, as Morse understood it, also led him to defend slavery. He infamously said: “Slavery per se is not a sin. It is a social condition ordained from the beginning of the world for the wisest purposes, benevolent and disciplinary, by Divine Wisdom.”
Morse’s God did not provide the same opportunities to poor Irish and German immigrants that he did to white middle-class Anglo-Americans. Under the banner of “Manifest Destiny,” his God purged the continent of the Indigenous people who stood in the way of progress.
Morse’s life and career remind us that 19th-century infrastructure development opened the American Dream for some but not all Americans. Biden’s infrastructure proposals, on the other hand, represent an investment in the lives of Americans who were left out of previous internal improvement efforts.
Not only will the president’s plans create jobs, but they will improve public schools in poor neighborhoods, connect less-privileged Americans to the information superhighway, integrate urban neighborhoods segregated by interstate highways, strengthen public transit, repair broken roads and bridges in urban areas and make a significant investment in historically Black colleges and universities.
Christianity teaches that human beings are created in the image of God and thus called to exercise creativity in the world. Improvements in transportation and the communication of knowledge (whether through a telegraph or the internet) open significant possibilities for such work. They provide a scaffolding that enables women and men to flourish.
Biden’s infrastructure plans represent a significant break from Morse and his fellow worshippers of the God of progress. We should commend Biden for looking squarely into the past and fixing what is broken.
It’s time to add infrastructure to the pro-life agenda.
(John Fea teaches American history at Messiah University in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania, and is the executive editor of “Current.” The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)