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November 15, 2004

A Power Capable of Contending with Human Passions

This post is rather long, so it might make for easier reading to click "Turn Light On" at the top of the left-hand column.

By now, everybody has — or should have — read Wretchard's famous post on Belmont Club about morality/ethics/religion and democracy. In my case, it has seemed as if everything that I've read over the past few days has related in some way to the topic. The post is framed in response to some questions from the Catholic Archbishop of Sydney, George Pell:

But think for a moment what it means to say that there can be no other form of democracy than secular democracy. Does democracy need a burgeoning billion-dollar pornography industry to be truly democratic? Does it need an abortion rate in the tens of millions? Does it need high levels of marriage breakdown, with the growing rates of family dysfunction that come with them?

Does democracy (as in Holland's case) need legalised euthanasia, extending to children under the age of 12? Does democracy need assisted reproductive technology (such as IVF) and embryonic stem cell research?

Does democracy really need these things? What would democracy look like if you took some of these things out of the picture? Would it cease to be democracy? Or would it actually become more democratic?

The basic question before us is whether a democracy must give people complete freedom to behave immorally within bare-minimum ethical constraints, or whether a higher degree of morality — a statement of belief and understanding of humanity's purpose that some people might challenge — can be structured inherently, asserted within the law. Wretchard argues that the first possibility is only feasible if it can be taken for granted that citizens will far exceed the bare-minimum:

When the Founding Fathers created the framework for procedural democracy it was unnecessary to spell out its ends because those were largely provided by the moral, ethical and religious consensus of the underlying society.

Indeed, a commenter at Belmont Club quoted some statements from Founding Fathers to that effect. Among them, as it happens, is the very quotation from John Adams that eluded me just the other day:

We have no government armed with power capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion. Avarice, ambition, revenge, or gallantry, would break the strongest cords of our Constitution as a whale goes through a net. Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.

And here's George Washington:

And let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.

Note the reference to religion as distinct from morality and used in lieu of such words as "reverence" or "piety" or (in modern lingo) "spirituality." Charles Hill captures the distinction that I mean to convey:

I might add that this disdain for the divine does not equal an insistence upon the concrete: it's perfectly respectable to concern oneself with, even to obsess over, the supernatural, so long as it's clearly divorced from that icky "religion" stuff.

The distinction between religion (or, worse, organized religion) and the vague spirituality that has been increasingly favored in the United States over the past few decades is important. With the admission that a moral foundation is vital to the health of the nation, we must ask how best to answer Jonah Goldberg's counsel to "be very, very concerned about the sorts of citizens [our society] creates." In short, what sort of religion do we need? The challenge is to ensure a moral citizenry without overstepping the bounds of freedom. The answer comes as an inverse echo of the call to ground our government structure in religious morality.

Religion must be built around a structure of its own. Describing the civic realm, the secularist insists that no man can place purely moral restrictions on another; each must have maximal space to define his own morality within the law. The assertion of the freewheeling spiritualist, similarly, is that people must have free range to explicate God and His will for themselves. Even Catholics hold that the Spirit informs the individual's conscience, but a pervasive resistance to the claims of any religious authority to offer interpretation has reached its logical end in our culture. And it has its roots in a fecund bed of Protestant silt; as Wildiris contends, approvingly, in a lengthy comment on Belmont Club:

A second observation about Protestant Christianity is that along with its emphasis on one's personal relationship with God also comes the additional requirements, "burdens", of personal responsibility and personal accountability to God. As a result, societies with a Protestant Christian cultural/religious heritage tend to be self-regulated at an individual level, with strong traditions of giving to charities and voluntarism.

And as a further footnote, the only reason that we in the United States today can talk about the concept of "separation of church and state" is because of our Protestant Christian cultural/religious heritage. A constitutional democracy is a plant that only grows and flourishes in a few select cultural "soils" and one of those "soils" being the cultural heritage of the Protestant Christians.

I consider it obvious that a person is ultimately accountable to God for his own actions, his soul ultimately being a private concern in coordination with Him. But the pitfall is to think of "state" purely as another word for "structured authority" and therefore to reject out of hand the body of Catholic Christians as a pseudo-state that interferes with personal spirituality.

I submit that the distinctive and defining quality of a "state" is its coercive power; one cannot walk away from a state unless explicitly permitted to do so. (Although one may be able to escape it.) In contrast, one can walk away from a church. That doesn't mean that the church cannot declare believers and non-believers to be in the wrong, or that it can't proclaim what adherents must do or say to be right. It means simply that a church cannot force a person, through threats to life and property, not to choose to be wrong.

It would be ridiculous to claim that any religious organization, generally, or the Catholic Church, specifically, has never crossed into the role of the state. Not only is corruption to be expected among human beings, but these societal categories have been millennia in development. However, Wildiris's assessments — and I think they have wide currency among non-Catholics — aren't restricted to a particular historical time and place. Rather those who propound such things mean them to describe the very nature of Catholic Christian beliefs — in this case, allegedly contrasting with Protestant Christianity as follows:

It is interesting to note that along with Christianity, Buddhism and Hinduism also share this property of separability of "church" and state. So it is no coincidence that the most successful democracies in the eastern world occur in countries like Japan and India, while the least successful democracies in the western world occur in countries whose cultural heritage goes back to pre-reformation Catholicism or to the Eastern Orthodox Church.

Even if we could follow this writer in ignoring other factors that affect a nation's success (e.g., Eastern Europe's proximity to both Nazi Germany and the U.S.S.R.), we cannot declare the comparative analysis of the religions complete. History, as I'm sure all of my fellow Christians will agree, has not run its course. Therefore, in discussing the future of our own nation and the way in which it ought to handle religion — and the model of religion that civic policy will imply — we must come back around to the events and questions that sparked this entire conversation. How healthy are the "most successful democracies"?

Two common, and related, warnings are moral depravity and ideological weakness. With the first, Western society will collapse under the accumulated demands for license among its inhabitants. With the second, a stronger, more concrete ideology — typically, radical Islam — overthrows the passive order. Writing about the assassination of Dutch moviemaker Theo van Gogh, Michael Ledeen traces these intertwined dangers back a little more than a century:

The process by which the Europeans arrived at this grave impasse has been going on ever since the late 19th century, when the intelligentsia revolted against "bourgeois society" and its values, and sought for deeper meaning in acts of nihilistic violence, in fascism and communism, and in vast wars that engulfed the rest of the world. The Europeans might have confronted their spiritual crisis after the Second World War (some brave souls, like Albert Camus, tried), but the Cold War tamped it down. With a huge enemy on their borders, the Europeans finessed the issue, opted for a soulless materialism (that has given them a nanny state and a birth rate that promises to extinguish them in relatively short order), and pretended that the core of Western civilization was irrelevant to their lives.

Although one can become mired in the tumultuous cultural currents of Europe, let's consider that Ledeen picked an arbitrarily recent era in history to which to ascribe the beginning of this process. It would be plausible, at least, to argue that atheistic relativism represents a progression along philosophical strains in Protestantism. It's possible, then, that the "soulless materialism" that threatens to undermine those more "successful democracies" — now that they've survived a century of world wars — has been highly likely, even inevitable, for centuries.

If I am correct, a broader historical view suggests that some of the very qualities that make Protestant countries "the most successful" at this time might ultimately make them extinct. In this vastly oversimplified picture, Catholic countries, restrained by the gravity of the Church, didn't run full tilt toward the progressive future, and that might prove to be their salvation. In the context of government, Wretchard asks:

When that underlying [moral, ethical and religious] civilizational consensus has been destroyed or diluted, as is the case in Western Europe and to a lesser extent the United States, what intrinsic ends does a value-neutral democratic mechanism serve?

Well, to redirect the question, what intrinsic ends does an individually self-regulated religious ethos serve? Recalling the above quotation from John Adams, it is susceptible to serving selfish ends — greed, vanity, the reckless, immoral quest for immortality — because it undermines external authority. And, being fallen slaves to our sin, we will find ways to justify our selfishness.

I should stress that I don't intend to badmouth Protestants (and I don't think I have). Various sects have constructed citadels in which to house authority — sometimes elsewhere in the society (e.g., social stigma). And without doubt, Catholic Christianity is susceptible to human corruption and has, in its history, been too inclined to behave with an emphasis on political, rather than spiritual, power. It would serve us well, all of us, to pull back a bit and investigate how each side has been important to the other in a process of mutual formation. The circumstances that sparked schism won't always apply, and an area of thought that allowed schism can slip into its own excesses.

As Wretchard suggests, in different (more evocative) words, humanity seeks a guide — a lord. (I believe it is part of our drive to seek God.) Without a beacon we know not the direction of truth; without authority we forever lack confirmation that our own thinking is reliable. With no one on a raised pulpit, we turn wide-eyed and credulously either to charismatic deceivers or to the deception in our own emotions and desires.

I'm not saying that everybody must become Catholic. But I am suggesting that we require a sort of catholicity in our approach to religion in the West. We need to resolve spiritual and moral questions in the appropriate setting — religion — and then, with confidence, conform our law to the conclusions. Not legislating every particular — that's not what I'm talking about. Rather, I'm suggesting that moral debates must be pursued in religious/moral terms, and that it is entirely legitimate (and often crucial) for the law to reflect the debates' conclusions.

Even those who believe that a moral foundation is necessary for the United States' health tend to think in terms of individuals voting according to a politically developed moral platform. We must reconceptualize the great aggregate Church of our nation — encompassing all religious moral views, from Catholic to Buddhist to Atheist — as a tacit institution, wherein to address matters with civic implications within a religious context. We need to create a moral structure with enough general religious authority that those who disagree could address the difference in moral terms, rather than political ones.

Paul Cella quotes from a Patrick Henry Reardon piece with a novel way of instilling a sense of how far we've slipped in this regard:

The prohibition that restricts Congress from interfering with the press has never been regarded as some kind of "wall of separation" between government and the press. We do not expect to find on the editorial page of the Chicago Tribune a statement that says, for example, "Although we ourselves personally approve a woman's right to choose, we refrain from pushing the point in these pages, lest we appear to be imposing our own moral persuasion on the normal workings of the courts and the legislature. The traditional wall of separation between Press and State must be maintained at all peril."

Cella and Reardon are viewing Church from the position of State, but I think it equally valid to apply the clever juxtaposition from the perspective of Church on State. A person who disagrees with policy-related reportage doesn't declare its evidence invalid in the eyes of the law and irrelevant to his own belief about the facts. He investigates — confirms or refutes journalism with journalism.

The necessary change will be largely cultural, but as the argument over the First Amendment suggests, there is a civic, legal barrier to break down in bringing the law back toward a realm of moral consensus. Most folks involved in this debate will acknowledge that something ineluctably arises to fill the void of a directionless governmental mechanism. To be sure, segments of society have recast the State itself as the embodiment of the sought-after deity. For them, the law declares right and wrong and, furthermore, if we change the law, we change that judgment. The intellectual ease of this standard creates a dangerous temptation to agree.

But such a sacralized state simply rings hollow. People sense that it is false; religious people hold a Truth that only exacerbates the falsehood by comparison. We who see all things earthly as mere shadows can only watch as the gap is filled either with the deification of the self, and the self's lusts, or the authoritarianism of a religion that gives the self profundity by making it the instrument by which a larger god suppresses non-believers.

In our over-confidence in self-directed spirituality and morality, we've blocked the healthy, democratic mechanism that should allow the people to apply religious conclusions to public policy. Removing that blockage won't cause democracy to be submerged; it will allow it to sail.

Posted by Justin Katz at November 15, 2004 1:10 AM

I would submit that Christ was interested in handling most moral and spiritual questions through persuasion and witness rather than through the law.

Where I live, alcohol and dancing are considered immoral by most churches. It seems a tremendous waste of energy and ultimately spiritually divisive to try to come to an agreement with other religious folks on those issues in order that there then be a uniform law on the matter.

It should also be noted that Bush's stated goal for Iraq is a "secular Democratic state."

Posted by: Joel Thomas at November 15, 2004 10:25 AM

Interesting post. I might have more to say about it later. Warnging: Some of the quotes that you linked to are false.

Your G. Washington quote is accurate. And, I think the Adams is true as well (I am going to double check). This quote is false:

"We have staked the whole future of American civilization, not upon the power of government, far from it. We have staked the future of all of our political institutions upon the capacity of mankind for self-government; upon the capacity of each and all of us to govern ourselves, to control ourselves, to sustain according to the Ten Commandments of God."

James Madison

The Washington quote is most interesting. This is what I find most interesting about it:

"And let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure...."

Two things. First, he's not saying that morality cannot be maintained w/o religion. He implies that "minds of a peculiar structure" (i.e., the well educated elites) may be able to be moral through irreligious philosophy. He's saying that we must proceed with caution, however, if we think that philosophy can do for the masses what it can do for the elites.

Nor in that passage does he ever say that the Christian religion is true (Washington, even though he nominally belonged to the Anglican Church, most likely, was a deist). He's basically saying that the masses need their religion to make them moral.

It's a very Straussian argument (or since he came first, we can say that the Straussians make a Washingtonian argument). They are atheists who believe that philosophical Truths are not fit for mass consumption, that the masses need religion as a "noble lie" because the Truth (that God doesn't exist, that the natural law is a fiction, and that rights aren't grounded in nature), is an unlovable and inherently destablizing and destructive Truth.

Posted by: Jon Rowe at November 15, 2004 10:39 AM


I don't mean to suggest that morality in every particular ought to be legislated. Rather, if we don't endeavor to bolster religion as a non-governmental pillar of our society, the law will become our moral guide. The point is to place moral discussions in a religious/moral context, and where the consensus is strong enough and the need great enough, there ought to be no qualms about conforming the law to that consensus (e.g., forbidding cloning).

(I've made some minor changes to the post to clarify.)



Well, I only used Founder quotations that I'd read before.

Incidentally, note how you've changed the tenor of Washington's comments. "Minds of a peculiar structure" becomes elites who know what the masses cannot be trusted to know. There's a common flaw inherent in that view (whether Straussian or not). (I think I've made this point before, but I can't find it, at this moment.)

The elites hold that there is no Truth. At best there are strategic moral boundaries that must be maintained if we wish (somewhat arbitrarily) to perpetuate our society (even our species). The masses can't be trusted to know this, because they might not have either the desire or self-restraint to make the correct arbitrary choice. Now, sort of like Bill Murray in What About Bob? shouting curses because if he does so voluntarily he can't have tourettes, the elites think the conscious requirement that they behave (in public view) as if God is real counts as evidence that He is not.

But that's not how evidence of God works, in my view. At worst, the social necessity to perpetuate the idea of God has no relevance to whether He actually exists; at best, it is evidence that He does.

With a laugh, I'll take it another step: From a Constitutional perspective, it is necessary that the elite believe that the latter is true, even if it is not. Otherwise they'll convince themselves that "all men are created equal" is an obvious falsehood, and that the masses can and should be manipulated when their betters conclude that they are wrong.

It doesn't surprise me, by the way, that the elites of the Eighteenth Century held early versions of these errant beliefs. Transcendentalism, after all, appeared in the Nineteenth Century. Brilliant as all relevant historical figures may have been, however, that doesn't mean they were correct. No matter how finely educated, human beings can't transcend their humanity — as we (arguably) spent the Twentieth Century learning.

Posted by: Justin Katz at November 15, 2004 11:52 AM

"From a Constitutional perspective, it is necessary that the elite believe that the latter is true, even if it is not. Otherwise they'll convince themselves that 'all men are created equal' is an obvious falsehood, and that the masses can and should be manipulated when their betters conclude that they are wrong."

Bingo: The Straussians don't believe that "all men are created equal" is anything but a nice sounding mantra...a 1/2 truth that, if accepted by the masses better able helps them to "love their neighbor," but, if fully embraced leads to radical egalitarianism. And the Straussians do believe in manipulating the masses when their betters (the philosophers) conclude that they are wrong.

BTW: I don't think George Washington was an atheist, and I didn't mean to imply that his thoughts exactly paralleled the Straussians (who do believe that the "elites...know what the masses cannot be trusted to know.)"

But, the evidence of Washington's orthodox belief is sorely lacking. And Washington (and Adams, and to a lesser extent, Jefferson) was very publicly silent about his unorthodox beliefs. He certainly didn't have any desire to see his "deism" replace Christianity. One could interpret this in a variety of different ways. One could conclude that even though he thought orthodox Christianity to be false, he thought it was good for the masses.

Or, the founders silence about their unorthodox religious beliefs, could signify (reasonable) fear of societal or legal retribution for wearing their unorthodox religious beliefs on their sleeve.

I'll give you an anecdote: John Adams denied the Trinity. Although he was a Unitarian (and I think the teachings of such sect deny the Trinity), he wrote very little about his disbelief in the Trinity (not so with Jefferson, who was a little more candid in his anti-Trinitarianism, and the then version of the religious right were merciless in their criticisms of him). I have only been able to track down one quote of Adams's where he denied the Trinity. It was in a letter to Thomas Jefferson (who again, railed about the "insanity" of the Trinity, in his letters to Adams) and the context of the letter was, it was 1813 and denying the Trinity was just DECRIMINALIZED in England that year (that's what they were discussing).

If the recently former "mother country" just decriminalized denying the Trinity, this just goes to show how much trouble, if not legal, then certainly social, one could be in by rocking the boat of religious orthodoxy, back in the day.

Posted by: Jon Rowe at November 15, 2004 1:01 PM

Societies depend not so much on democracy but cultivating a spirit of unselfishness, variously called community, solidarity, or brotherhood.

It's not all about "me".

Folks like the Pharaoh, Hitler, and Mao, understood how to redirect it up the hierarchy.

Jesus redirected it down the hierarchy but not because the poor are deserving -- but for His sake. Which is why societies that really practice Christianity as opposed to merely talking about it seem to do so well. A Catholic calls it a mystery. An anthropologist calls it a paradox: we become greater by doing more for those with the least.

Posted by: Patrick Sweeney at November 15, 2004 2:49 PM

Justin: "From a Constitutional perspective, it is necessary that the elite believe that the latter is true, even if it is not. Otherwise they'll convince themselves that 'all men are created equal' is an obvious falsehood, and that the masses can and should be manipulated when their betters conclude that they are wrong."

Jon: "Bingo: The Straussians don't believe that "all men are created equal" is anything but a nice sounding mantra...a 1/2 truth that, if accepted by the masses better able helps them to "love their neighbor," but, if fully embraced leads to radical egalitarianism."

What do you mean by 'bingo'? That Justin's comment is correct? What is the point of bringing up the Struassians - are they correct in their beliefs or not?

It seems to me the whole thing depends upon what one means by "all men" and "equal". The first decides who will be protected under law (e.g. blacks/women/the unborn), and the second decides the parameters defining what will be protected (e.g. any number of issues, including SSM). It seems to me that the concept being fully embraced only leads to radical egalitarianism under a particular definition of 'equal', which I don't think is inevitable.

Posted by: Mike S. at November 15, 2004 3:22 PM

Justin was saying that if the elite, who support equality, want to make an objective case for equality, b/n, "all men are created equal," they have to believe in God.

My response was that the Straussian elites (who obviously, differ from the liberal elites) believe neither in God, nor that "all men are created equal"; moreover they do believe that "that the masses can and should be manipulated when their betters conclude that they are wrong."

My point wasn't necessarily that the Straussians were right re: equality, just to shed light on their point of view. BTW: I don't know if I'd call Robert Bork a "Straussian" but he certainly is influenced by their point of view. So is George Will (anecdote: liberal elitist Jack Germond was interviewed on C-Span where he proudly proclaimed to be an atheist. The next interview that day was George Will. Lamb asked will his "religious orientation" and will absolutely refused to talk about it. I'm sure he, like Germond, is either an atheist or agnostic, but doesn't want to influence the masses in that direction).

From Slouching Towards Gomorrah:

"The proposition that all men are created equal said what the colonists already believed, and so, as Gordon Wood put it, equality became 'the single most powerful and radical ideological force in all of American history.' That is true and, though it verges on heresy to say so, it is also profoundly unfortunate."

I obviously don't agree with Bork's sentiment that the Declaration's promise of equality is unfortunate. But it accurately represents a view in intellectual conservatism that one ought to take seriously: That founding this nation on "equality" was in some re: a mistake, because of the way that the principle of equality has "grown" and been applied to new areas of life.

Although Bork despises the 60s, he would caution other social conservatives from charging that the norms the leftist radicals of the 60s posited were wholly novel creations, or that they were created by the "cultural Marxists," (of the Frankfurt school), some time shortly before the 60s (as I've heard it argued).

"[T]he sixties were not a complete break with the spirit of the American past. Rather those years saw an explosive expansion of certain American ideals....That deserves to be stressed because if modern developments are in the American grain, if they grow from our roots, as there is reason to believe they do, they will be much harder to reverse than it is comfortable to think.

"Though the Sixties brought American concepts of liberty and equality to new extremes, that possibility was always inherent in those ideals. Equality and liberty are, of course, what America said it was about from the beginning."

Posted by: Jon Rowe at November 15, 2004 4:38 PM

I have to admit ignorance of Straussians. However, according to your characterization, it sounds as if they fall victim to a similar superficiality as the one '60s egalitarianism so well typifies.

The radicals viewed equality in terms of outcomes and equivalent (contrasted with merely fair) treatment in every circumstance. The Straussians (as you describe them) appear to measure equality by endowments. Person A is smarter than Person B; it is obvious, therefore, that Person B is less than Person A's equal. That's a dangerous attitude, and one that a Constitution does well to forbid from translating into direct action.

That's what I meant when I said that "it is necessary that the elite believe that" the necessary God-construct is evidence of a true God. I wasn't talking about what the elites want (e.g., "an objective case for equality"). I was talking about what the Constitution — or the abstract national entity that society creates — ought to want from them.

Posted by: Justin Katz at November 15, 2004 4:54 PM

"But it accurately represents a view in intellectual conservatism that one ought to take seriously: That founding this nation on "equality" was in some re: a mistake, because of the way that the principle of equality has "grown" and been applied to new areas of life."

Again I think this depends entirely upon how one defines 'equality'. Unless you are more explicit about how the definition has changed, it's hard to understand what you're talking about. I haven't read Bork, or Strauss, but why isn't (or shouldn't) the view (be) that the error was not in the founding, but in the subsequent distortion/misunderstanding of the proper meaning of 'equality'? I still don't understand what the relevance is of bringing this point up in the first place. Any good (or correct) idea can be corrupted to serve bad (or incorrect) ends - so what?

If I don't hold the Straussians or Bork in any particular high esteem (even if I did that wouldn't necessitate agreeing with them on any particular point), how do your posts shed any light on Justin's? It seems like you're just saying "well, other people have different ideas about the role of religion in democracy", without explaining how they arrive at that position or how that position is superior to the one Justin laid out.

Posted by: Mike S. at November 15, 2004 8:48 PM