January 24, 2015


THE GREAT CHARTER AT 800 : WHY IT STILL MATTERS (Charles J. Chaput, 1 . 23 . 15, First Things)

Here's my premise. Our political system presumes a civil society that pre-exists the state. It's an idea that is already emerging in Magna Carta's demand for recognition of the rights of the Church, and the rights of persons in their legal relations with one another and with their rulers. In the American model, the state is meant to be modest in scope. It's constrained by checks and balances. Mediating institutions like the family, churches, and fraternal organizations feed the life of the civic community. They stand between the individual and the state. And when they decline, the state fills the vacuum they leave. So protecting these mediating institutions is vital to our freedoms. The state rarely fears individuals. Alone, individuals have little power. They can be isolated or ignored. But organized communities--including communities of faith--are a different matter. They can resist. They can't be ignored. And that's why they pose a problem for social engineers and an expanding state.

We need to remember that democracy is not an end in itself. Majority opinion doesn't determine what's good and true. Like every other form of power, democracy can become a means of repression and idolatry.

The scholar Robert Kraynak argues that democracy--for all its strengths--also carries the seeds of its own kind of social tyranny. The reason is simple. Democracy advances the forces of mass culture. Those same forces tend to narrow the aims of life from beauty, heroic virtue, and transcendent meaning to the pursuits of work, material consumption and entertainment. Human life settles into "a one-dimensional materialism and [a diminished moral] existence" that undermine human dignity and eventually tend to a withering of the spirit.

To put it another way: The right to pursue happiness does not include a right to excuse or ignore evil in ourselves or anyone else. When we divorce our politics from a grounding in virtue and truth, we transform our country from a living moral organism into a kind of golem of legal machinery without a soul.

This is why working for good laws is so important. This is why getting involved politically is so urgent. This is why every one of our votes matters.We need to elect the best public leaders, who then create the best policies and appoint the best judges. This has a huge impact on the kind of nation we become. Democracies depend for their survival on people of conviction fighting for what they believe in the public square--legally and peacefully, but zealously and without apologies. That includes all of us.

Critics often accuse religious believers of pursuing a "culture war" on issues like abortion, sexuality, marriage and the family, and religious liberty. And in a sense, they're right. We are working hard for what we believe. But of course, so are the people on the other side of all these issues--and no one seems to call them "culture warriors." In any case, neither they nor we should feel bad about fighting for our convictions. Democracy thrives on the struggle of competing ideas. We steal from ourselves and from our fellow citizens if we try to avoid that struggle. Two of the worst qualities in any human being are cowardice and acedia--and by acedia I mean the kind of moral sloth that masquerades as tolerance but leaves a soul so empty of courage and character that even the devil Screwtape would spit it out.

In real life, democracy is built on two practical pillars: cooperation and conflict. It requires both. Cooperation, because people have a natural hunger for solidarity that makes all community possible. And conflict, because people have competing visions of what's right and true. The more deeply they hold their convictions, the more naturally people seek to have those convictions shape society.

We have a duty to treat all persons with charity and justice. We have a duty to seek common ground where possible. But that's never an excuse for compromising with grave evil. It's never an excuse for being naive. And it's never an excuse for standing idly by while our liberty to preach and serve God in the public square is whittled away. We need to work vigorously in law and politics to form our culture in a godly understanding of human dignity and the purpose of human freedom. Otherwise, we should stop trying to fool ourselves that we really believe what we claim to believe.

There's more. To work as the Founders intended, America needs a special kind of citizen. It needs mature, well-informed men and women able to reason clearly and rule themselves prudently. If that's true--and it is--then the greatest danger to our liberty today is not religious extremism. It's a culture of narcissism that cocoons us in vulgarity, distraction, and noise, while excluding God from the human imagination.

Kierkegaard once wrote that "the introspection of silence is the condition of all educated intercourse," and that a culture of constant chattering "is afraid of the silence which reveals its emptiness." Silence feeds the soul. Silence invites God to speak. And silence is exactly what American life no longer allows. Securing the place of religious freedom in our society is therefore not just a matter of law and politics, but of prayer and our own interior renewal.

What I'm suggesting is this. The America of memory is not the America of the present moment or the emerging future. Sooner or later, a nation basing itself on a degraded notion of liberty, on license rather than real freedom--in other words, a nation of abortion, confused sexuality, consumer appetites, and indifference to immigrants and the poor--will not be worthy of its founding ideals. And on that day, it will have no claim on the virtuous heart.

Posted by at January 24, 2015 4:23 PM

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