It’s God or the Gulag

“There is more that unites us than divides us. Let us move forward to find common ground. There are not red states and blue states, only the United States” This is the kind of saccharine syncretism that so often passes these days for sober political commentary. Such maudlin, muddled expressions paper over the moral fault lines that, perhaps irretrievably now, deeply divide our country.

A nation is doomed when it celebrates diversity while denying – either explicitly or implicitly – the enduring truths that, at least once upon a time, united that nation. Not for nothing did Lincoln famously embrace the wisdom of Mark 3:25 that a house divided against itself cannot stand.

As the Trump Administration starts to take shape, it does so against the horizon of profound national division. The principal element of that division is, of course, theological. Americans now sharply disagree about the existence – to say nothing of the nature – of God.

This divisiveness plays out in the abrasive controversies of our day, mistakenly labeled social issues when, in fact, they are overarching theological and moral concerns: the beginning and end-of-life issues, the nature of marriage, the content and character of public (and Catholic) education.

At their core, the moral issues are debates about the Law of Love. If you want to see such a debate, ask an informed Muslim about divine love and then ask an informed Catholic. They will be speaking, it seems, about very different “Gods.” Despite the feel-good claims in Vatican II’s “Declaration on the Relations of the Church with Non-Christian Religions” (Nostra Aetate) that Christians and Muslims work “together [to] preserve and promote peace, liberty, social justice and moral values,” reconciliation between Islam and Christianity is, to say the least, unlikely.

Punishment by Mosquitoes by Nikolai Getman, c. 1970 [Heritage Foundation – Mr. Getman was a gulag survivor]
Punishment by Mosquitoes by Nikolai Getman, c. 1970 [Museum on Communism – Mr. Getman was a gulag survivor]

Devotion to the Law of Love (as found, for instance, in Matthew 22:34-40) was never easy. But it’s become even harder in a society that regards ethical judgment as a self-referential right. Our national moral sense – sometimes, it seems, even the moral sense of the Church – is governed by the “Magisterium of the Mirror,” in which conscience is formed by consulting personal wishes.

The theological debate over the Law of Love confronts the political debate about the Fact of Sin. Sin is no longer much considered in society, but without it our public institutions are not fully dealing with reality. “What is government itself,” asked Madison in Federalist 51, “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 internal nor eternal controls on government would be necessary.”

The founders, as well educated men of their time, had doubtless read Jeremiah and Paul. They would not have ignored, as we tend to do, the human wisdom in the admonitions of Jeremiah :“Cursed is the man who trusts in man and makes flesh his arm, whose heart turns away from the Lord.” [17:5] Or the words of Paul: “The works of the flesh are plain: immorality, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery.” [Gal 5:19-20]) From such biblical and historical warnings arose the structures we call Separation of Powers, which wisely aim at preventing consolidation of political strength in and by any agency of government.

The great Catholic historian Lord Acton (1834-1902) famously warned: “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men.” Though public figures repeatedly try to convince us otherwise, a quick look at the news will confirm this truth.

In so many quarters today, the very idea of wisdom is consigned to the past along with notions such as character and virtue. One of the cardinal virtues is prudence. Lose that virtue – it has been missing in action for some time now – and we lose the very sense that tells us a good social order is always founded upon a cultivated and common understanding of human nature, and the foolishness and perils of trusting human nature too much.

The first political act was the desire to be “like God.” [Gen 3:5] The Fact of Sin trampled the Law of Love: “Ignorance of the fact that man has a wounded nature inclined to evil gives rise to serious errors in the areas of education, politics, social action, and morals.”[Catechism of the Catholic Church, 407] If, in the name of diversity, we jettison this hard truth about our nature, we court the catastrophe of a Leviathan State that promises heaven and delivers hell.

“There still remains only God to protect Man against Man,” observed Etienne Gilson, “Either we will serve Him in spirit and truth or we shall enslave ourselves ceaselessly, more and more, to the monstrous idol which we have made with our own hands to our own image and likeness.”

Deny or misconstrue the Law of Love; ignore the tough truth of the Fact of Sinand you build not a humanist Utopia, but the Gulag.

Deacon James H. Toner, Ph.D., is Professor Emeritus of Leadership and Ethics at the U.S. Air War College, a former U.S. Army officer, and author of numerous articles, books, essays, and reviews. He has taught at Notre Dame, Auburn, and Holy Apostles College & Seminary. He has also served as “Distinguished Visiting Chair of Character Development” at the U.S. Air Force Academy. He is incardinated in the Diocese of Charlotte.