Godless Democracy

The wisest of the Greeks knew that in order to be a good ruler, one must be a good man. Morally good. Well ordered. They were not, of course, describing their own rulers when they said this. They were laying down criteria whereby to assess them.

Why does this sound smug to us? Who are Plato and Aristotle to say what is good? Aren’t they simply imposing their opinion of human goodness on others who manifestly do not share it? One man’s morality is another’s fuddy-duddiness. You cannot legislate morality, because if you do you are a tyrant who wishes to make your opinions prevail. Something like that underlies our fear of smugness.

When I was young one heard the phrase Godless Communism used in such a way that it was meant to contrast with our own way of life, a way of life that was not just our private view, but in accord with the way society ought to be ordered.

Communism is a kind of dogmatic atheism. We cannot understand Marx and Engels and Stalin and all the others unless we see how they came out of Feuerbach. The latter’s The Essence of Christianity is an amazing work, a twisting of the dogmas of Christianity in the direction of the primacy and autonomy of man. Divine attributes are merely the alienation of what is properly human, an extrapolation that must be overcome so that these attributes can be assigned to their rightful subject, man. Marx, with his usual bluntness, saw that this entailed that philosophy must be atheistic, a Promethean rejection of any deity who assigns guidelines for human fulfillment. Take away God, and there is only man, a man who is his own measure, in possession of what the Book of Genesis calls the knowledge of good and evil. That is, man will decide what is good and evil.

Which man? Humanity is not an individual any more than the team is a twelfth player on the field. Humanity cannot be predicated of man any more than team can be predicated of the quarterback. The rhetoric of Marxism is full of appeals to humanity, to Man, as to some quasi-individual beyond the zillions of persons who have been, are, and will be until the final apotheosis in generic man when all human attributes will be lodged in each man. After which, according to Engels, there will be nothing. The end of communism is the end of humanity.

If there is a God, man is a creature who has been given a nature which provides criteria for his flourishing or its opposite. That is the root of what is called natural law whose principles are not my opinion or yours. Arrogant? But what is the basis for the lingering realization that there is something wrong, simply wrong, about taking innocent life? Is that just the dominant opinion? Could it be replaced? Hasn’t it been replaced in the good old USA?

Justice Kennedy’s opinion in the Casey decision proclaimed that each of us has a constitutional right to define life, the universe, good or evil, as we wish, and any attempt to abridge that right has to be struck down. This is often called the “mystery” passage. There is nothing at all mysterious about. It is, of course, incoherent. Could there be a society in which some approved of murder and others condemned it as if this were merely a clash of free and equally tenable opinions? If there were, it could be called Godless Democracy and there isn’t a dime’s worth of difference between it and Godless Communism.

Ours was meant to be an ordered liberty, one governed by the way things are, not the liberty of anything goes. The gap between the residual religious beliefs of Americans and the assumptions of too many judicial and legislative acts grows wider. Brash and breezy atheists assure us that God must go. The sentiment appears on bumper stickers and bill boards. It is easy to understand impatience with some believers, perhaps many, maybe most of us, whose actions are scarcely in line with our creed. The remedy is conversion, not rejection.

The pathetic dream of the Enlightenment was that, absent the restraints of prince and peace, mankind would experience an undreamt-of progress. The result was the bloodiest wars and most unimaginable slaughter of peoples that the world has ever known. A self-defining freedom becomes tyranny. Principles which are merely free opinions require force for their application. The only adjudication of differences is made by the more powerful.

We are in the season when those avid for office adopt the lingo of belief. In some cases, let us hope, sincerely. In others it seems the tribute that vice pays to virtue. There is some consolation to be had from the fact that such quadrennial religiosity still plays well with the electorate. One hears that Americans are the most religious people in the world. Would that it were so.

Ralph McInerny (1929-2010)

Ralph McInerny was a writer of philosophy, fiction, and cultural criticism, who taught at Notre Dame from 1955 until his death in 2010. He was among the founding contributors to The Catholic Thing.