On the Fourth of July (even “as celebrated” on the 5th, as today), we all ought to be grateful for the freedoms of our American Revolution, imperfect though our history has been. Those freedoms have a certain shape: religion, speech, property, assembly, equality before the law, the right to bear arms – the stuff of the first Constitutional amendments and of older high-school civics classes. They made this country great, and can again.
The Founders were no fools, however, and warned frequently, lest “liberty” degenerate into “license.” Given human nature, that has happened over time, and to no small degree. But recently we’ve witnessed a shift to something much more subtle and radical. It’s not only ideologies like Critical Race Theory (CRT). We’ve replaced the old focal points of liberty – personal integrity, faith, family, community – with a trinity of postmodern substitutes: race, class, and gender.
Why, you might ask, did the Supreme Court in Fulton have to get involved a few weeks ago in a Catholic adoption agency’s following its own moral principles instead of bowing to LGBT dogma? After all, religious liberty appears in the First Amendment. It’s because many people now have been indoctrinated into thinking that sexual self-assertion is more fundamental than religious liberty, i.e., than beliefs about our duties to the Creator.
Or that a “woman’s right to choose” is more sacred than human life. Viewed clearly, such pretensions are implausible, to say the least. Their widespread acceptance reveals how powerful and pervasive the indoctrination has been while most of us were not paying attention.
Even some Christians, including quite a few religious, priests, bishops, and cardinals, seem to believe that God’s mercy means basically indulging human wishes. They’ve all but erased the specific indications in the Gospels of just why God needs to be merciful towards us. You get the impression that many people now, if they could go back in time, would tell Jesus not to bother with all those hard sayings and that Crucifixion thing. God already forgives everyone anyway. No need to go to all that trouble.
I’ve been trying for decades to follow efforts to establish a basis for our rights other than the straightforward words of the Declaration:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness .—That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.[Emphasis added.]
John Adams famously explained later: “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” Even Jefferson, least orthodox among the Founders, said: “no nation has ever yet existed or been governed without religion. Nor can be.”
Modern and postmodern philosophers have been quite intrepid in seeking a credible alternative to such plain statements. But they haven’t found one. Because there isn’t one. Our president said the other day that you have rights simply by being born. True in a way, but only in societies firmly under the sacred canopy of the Bible, where we are all made in the image and likeness and God, and therefore get such respect. That wasn’t true of the Middle Eastern Empires surrounding ancient Israel, or the Greco-Roman culture into which early Christianity was born.
As real Christianity recedes, the old pagan ways of dealing with commoners, unwanted pregnancies, the elderly, and the incapacitated are clearly reasserting themselves.
Tom Holland, a non-believer and author of the powerful book Dominion, has rightly said of our civilization: “When we condemn what Charlemagne’s soldiers did to the Saxons, or what the Spanish Conquistadors did in the New World, or what English slavers did when they were taking people from Africa to the New World – when we see that, by our standards, these are all crimes, we are judging them as Christians would. Earlier civilisations would have seen nothing wrong with this behaviour.”
In the 1960s, Fr. John Courtney Murray could argue that, though the natural law element in America’s self-understanding was incomplete, the words of the Declaration quoted above express important principles, especially in modern times: there are truths, we can know them, and we – we Americans – hold them – i.e., we’re committed to them.
More recently, Patrick Deneen, Michael Hanby, and others have argued that the Founding was fundamentally flawed and, therefore, our decline into the current chaos was basically inevitable. Our sometime contributor Robert Reilly in America on Trial has offered a powerful rebuttal.
That debate is worth having, particularly at this moment, when the poet’s words were never truer:
we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.
But so is the effort to make the America we have work, whatever its flaws. There’s even a place for debating race, class, and gender (in the proper sense of how men and women relate). The problem with ideologies like Critical Race Theory is not only that they view social complexity through a single lens – whatever their intentions – but as Tom Holland discovered, they don’t appreciate their debt to Christian and American traditions. And the dangers – to CRT theorists as much as anyone else – in attacking the very foundations of our moral and social life. Earlier civil rights leaders like the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. knew better.
I’ve been on the road lately in unfamiliar places. I found a great deal of the old America still lives: basic friendliness, respect between races, help for someone lost. Troubled cities dominate the news and our thinking. But the older, basic liberties are still instinctive for most Americans.
If a civil public square is to exist for us, especially now, it will take a rediscovered gratitude for the foundations that made life here exceptional in human history – and, for ever more of us, reasonably good.
*Image: George Washington by Gilbert Stuart, 1796 [Museum of Fine Arts Boston]. A 19th-century European visitor to the United States noted that for many Americans it was a “sacred duty to have a likeness of Washington in his home, just as we have images of God’s saints.” Although unfinished, this was the most popular portrait of the president, and became the basis for the image on our $1 bill.