Democracy without transcendent truth

Recently I had a discussion with a fellow Catholic regarding the founding of the United States. Her feeling was that the Founding Fathers introduced political ideas that were new and had never been thought of or implemented before, for example that all men are created equal and that our rights come from our Creator, and these ideas make or system the best that ever was. I questioned whether these were really new ideas. I’m suspicious of the idea of rights being given by God, yet remaining undiscovered by Christ’s Church for over 1,700 years, and then finally figured out by Protestants.

Depending on what you mean by “equal”, I think it can be argued that all men being created equal is an old idea. Obviously we’re not all equal in terms of height, weight, strength and various talents. We’re not equal in terms of our individual traits. What we’re equal in is our nature: we’re all human beings. As such, we’re equally obliged to obey God’s commandments. We’re obliged not to steal from each other, lie to each other, kill each other, be unfaithful to each other, etc. The flip side of these obligations is that we have a right not to be stolen from, lied to, killed, etc., on the basis of our human nature. Thus, we have always had rights that were given by God.

Of course, she was referring to political rights. And it may be true that political equality was a new idea at the time of the Founding. But are there sufficient grounds for saying that political equality is a God-given right?

In any event, I argued that the Founders made a critical error in asserting that the authority to govern comes from the people and not from God. If authority comes from the people, and I’m one of the people, then there is no authority above me, and I can think and do as I please. Obviously the laws (in theory) are imposed by the majority, and in that sense I am restricted by the majority view. But the point is that I have the right to try to persuade others to my view rather than the existing majority view, in the hope of creating a new majority view – and nothing and no one has the legal right or power to stop me. This right is vested not only in individuals but also in rich, powerful organizations such as corporations, foundations and universities, entities which have no obligation to base their views on divinely revealed truth, and are often active in opposing it.

Making the Constitution religiously neutral may have seemed like a good idea at the time, when the Founders could count on the country being predominantly Christian; or at least, possessing the Christian underpinnings of public morality. Maybe they thought the checks and balances built into the Constitution, and the rights guaranteed thereby, were sufficient: No one is powerless, but neither is anyone so powerful as to be a tyrant. But is that enough? Giving people the power to act as they see fit is good as far as it goes, and preventing domination by any one person or group as well. But none of this says anything about what people should or shouldn’t do with their rights or their power. The answers to those questions, at the time of the founding, were provided by centuries of Christianity being embedded in the culture. But how about now, when that is becoming less and less the case? I think this is a situation they utterly failed to foresee.

My interlocutor doesn’t see this as a problem. Apparently in her view, it’s best that the government have no say in what people should believe about the purpose of our lives and the best way to live them. I think she would say that if we want a Christian society in a democracy, then we need to work for the evangelization of individuals until we have a majority of converted Christians in society. A democracy will be good when the people in it are good, and it will be friendly to Christianity when most of the people are Christians. But I don’t believe that a converted Christian majority can happen. I don’t mean that God couldn’t convert a majority of any given country if he chose to, but that the scriptures clearly teach that the majority of the world will always be “of the world”, in other words opposed or indifferent to the Gospel.

Historically, the influence of Christian ideas on a society was not a bottom-up process wherein the society was changed because a majority of individuals had experienced a personal metanoia. The majority in these societies, at the time of their conversion to Christian countries, were illiterate. The Christian influence was imposed from above, starting with the conversion of Constantine, but in a process that was repeated over and over, when the ruler of a place was converted to the Christian religion, and as a result Christian ideas were taught to the literate, mainly the wealthy and the clergy, and then passed on to the masses via churches and schools.

The idea of the United States being converted by a bottom-up process involving mass conversions, does not seem realistic to me. I’m not saying I have a better idea for remedying our situation; I don’t. I just think the Founding Fathers blew it. They set up a very good system for their time but one which, in our time, has become hostile to Christian faith and morality, and in all likelihood will only become more so. The fear is not only that public morality suffers in our time, but I believe the Christian understanding of God, creation and human nature is what led to the establishment and success of stable democracies. The undermining and loss of that understanding, I fear will ultimately undermine the feasibility and success of democracy itself.

Maybe not. This situation is unprecedented. It’s never happened before that a society was Christianized, then became post-Christian. We don’t really know what comes next. Maybe the Christian principles that undergird our democracy will remain, even if no longer recognized as Christian. But I think Pope St. John Paul II might say otherwise. He seems to teach that there need to be overt governing moral principles that transcend mere human opinions, in order for a democracy to survive and thrive:

96. The Church’s firmness in defending the universal and unchanging moral norms is not demeaning at all. Its only purpose is to serve man’s true freedom. Because there can be no freedom apart from or in opposition to the truth, the categorical–unyielding and uncompromising–defense of the absolutely essential demands of man’s personal dignity must be considered the way and the condition for the very existence of freedom.

This service is directed to every man, considered in the uniqueness and singularity of his being and existence: only by obedience to universal moral norms does man find full confirmation of his personal uniqueness and the possibility of authentic moral growth. For this very reason, this service is also directed to all mankind: it is not only for individuals but also for the community, for society as such. These norms in fact represent the unshakable foundation and solid guarantee of a just and peaceful human coexistence, and hence of genuine democracy, which can come into being and develop only on the basis of the equality of all its members, who possess common rights and duties. When it is a matter of the moral norms prohibiting intrinsic evil, there are no privileges or exceptions for anyone. It makes no difference whether one is the master of the world or the “poorest of the poor” on the face of the earth. Before the demands of morality we are all absolutely equal [God-given equality].

97. In this way, moral norms, and primarily the negative ones, those prohibiting evil, manifest their meaning and force, both personal and social. By protecting the inviolable personal dignity of every human being they help to preserve the human social fabric and its proper and fruitful development. The commandments of the second table of the Decalogue in particular–those which Jesus quoted to the young man of the Gospel (cf. Mt 19:19)–constitute the indispensable rules of all social life.

… Even though intentions may sometimes be good, and circumstances frequently difficult, civil authorities and particular individuals never have authority to violate the fundamental and inalienable rights of the human person. In the end, only a morality which acknowledges certain norms as valid always and for everyone, with no exception, can guarantee the ethical foundation of social coexistence, both on the national and international levels.

* * *

99. Only God, the Supreme Good, constitutes the unshakable foundation and essential condition of morality, and thus of the commandments, particularly those negative commandments which always and in every case prohibit behavior and actions incompatible with the personal dignity of every man. The Supreme Good and the moral good meet in truth: the truth of God, the Creator and Redeemer, and the truth of man, created and redeemed by him. Only upon this truth is it possible to construct a renewed society and to solve the complex and weighty problems affecting it, above all the problem of overcoming the various forms of totalitarianism, so as to make way for the authentic freedom of the person. Totalitarianism arises out of a denial of truth in the objective sense. If there is no transcendent truth, in obedience to which man achieves his full identity, then there is no sure principle for guaranteeing just relations between people. Their self-interest as a class, group or nation would inevitably set them in opposition to one another. If one does not acknowledge transcendent truth, then the force of power takes over, and each person tends to make full use of the means at his disposal in order to impose his own interests or his own opinion, with no regard for the rights of others… Thus, the root of modern totalitarianism is to be found in the denial of the transcendent dignity of the human person who, as the visible image of the invisible God, is therefore by his very nature the subject of rights which no one may violate, no individual, group, class, nation or State. Not even the majority of a social body may violate these rights, by going against the minority, by isolating, oppressing, or exploiting it, or by attempting to annihilate it”.

Consequently, the inseparable connection between truth and freedom–which expresses the essential bond between God’s wisdom and will–is extremely significant for the life of persons in the socio-economic and socio-political sphere. This is clearly seen in the Church’s social teaching–which “belongs to the field… of theology and particularly of moral theology”–and from her presentation of commandments governing social, economic and political life, not only with regard to general attitudes but also to precise and specific kinds of behavior and concrete acts.

* * *

101. In the political sphere, it must be noted that truthfulness in the relations between those governing and those governed, openness in public administration, impartiality in the service of the body politic, respect for the rights of political adversaries, safeguarding the rights of the accused against summary trials and convictions, the just and honest use of public funds, the rejection of equivocal or illicit means in order to gain, preserve or increase power at any cost–all these are principles which are primarily rooted in, and in fact derive their singular urgency from, the transcendent value of the person and the objective moral demands of the functioning of States.

When these principles are not observed, the very basis of political coexistence is weakened and the life of society itself is gradually jeopardized, threatened and doomed to decay (cf. Ps 14:3-4; Rev 18:2-3, 9-24). Today, when many countries have seen the fall of ideologies which bound politics to a totalitarian conception of the world–Marxism being the foremost of these–there is no less grave a danger that the fundamental rights of the human person will be denied and that the religious yearnings which arise in the heart of every human being will be absorbed once again into politics. This is the risk of an alliance between democracy and ethical relativism, which would remove any sure moral reference point from political and social life, and on a deeper level make the acknowledgment of truth impossible. Indeed, “if there is no ultimate truth to guide and direct political activity, then ideas and convictions can easily be manipulated for reasons of power. As history demonstrates, a democracy without values easily turns into open or thinly disguised totalitarianism“.

Pope St. John Paul II, Veritatis Splendor (1993).


Modern, First World problems

From a commercial I’ve seen many times on TV lately:

[A young woman in a job interview, with regard to her problem-solving skills:] “I got through high school without a car, a phone, or a computer.”

I too got through high school without any of those things. In all likelihood, the grey-haired man interviewing her also lacked a phone and a computer in high school. The same could be said of virtually everyone born in the United States before 1970 or so (not even mentioning those from countries less fortunate).

Expertise and fallacy

The knowledge possessed by a medical doctor is fine as far as it goes, but is not much good without the ability to draw valid inferences. This is why you need to be involved in your own healthcare and not just do whatever the doctors say. Sometimes they don’t listen to you or hear what you have to say, and other times they draw conclusions that aren’t warranted, or fail to draw ones that are.

It’s a good illustration of why proponents of liberal education say that a non-expert in a particular field can judge the findings of experts if he is educated in the liberal arts, because he is capable of detecting invalid inferences; and also why being educated in a scientific or technical field exclusively is an incomplete education. And why we should not trust experts to rule society merely on the ground of their expertise in a narrow field of knowledge.

Why I don’t watch the news

I have been abstaining from watching any news coverage (except as related to college football — go Trojans!) for several months now. I don’t know if this is the right thing for everyone, but I find that my life is better this way. I worry less and am less angry.

I read once that there’s a problem with news in the modern world, which is that it makes you concerned with statewide, nationwide and even worldwide issues, in the same way that people used to concern themselves with neighborhood problems or village problems. In other words, at one time the widest exposure one had to news was to local news, and this was news that one would have had a natural and personal interest in: A neighbor who was harmed or suffering in some way would naturally call forth our concern and willingness to help in a direct and personal manner.

We might also hear news from neighboring villages through gossip from those who had gone visiting or had business there. That kind of news could hold some interest, and we might feel some obligation to be concerned and obliged to help, but less so than we would towards our immediate neighbors; on the assumption that the neighbors of that locale would be helping, and would request additional assistance from us if needed. (I’m more or less making up these scenarios in an effort to convey the idea of the article I read, of which I can no longer identify the author or title.)

More rarely we might hear news of more distant towns or villages, since the more distant the location, the more seldom would we encounter travelers from that area; and even less would we feel any obligation to feel personally concerned or obliged to help.

But in our time, it seems like we hear news from more distant locations faster than local news. When you turn on the TV or radio, or go on the internet, it’s world or national news that immediately grabs your attention, whether political news or some major catastrophe in a distant state or nation; whereas you must go hunting for news that specifically relates to your own town or neighborhood (unless some major news, such as a natural or manmade disaster, happens to be occurring where you are).

As a result, we may feel obliged to help people we’ve neither met nor previously heard of, on almost a daily basis — at least the more sensitive or scrupulous among us. A hurricane in Louisiana, a mass shooting in Virginia, a proposed law in Washington, not to mention a famine in Africa or a tidal wave in Japan, all make calls upon us to help, to send money, to pray, to sign a petition or write our congressman — to be concerned. Have you no sympathy for the less fortunate? Are you not praying for this or that group of people, for the President, for our troops, for the Pope? Won’t you send money? After all, for the price of a cup of coffee …

(As an illustration, while writing this I received an email with the subject line, “ALERT: Save California!!” Alas, I’m only a man ….)

But we’re not equipped to deal with this level of disaster, all the time. In the old days our actual neighbors might have required our help once in a while — once in a great while for major catastrophes or illnesses, but most of the time for routine tasks. Someone might be chronically ill or aged, so we might work a weekly visit into our schedule, taking turns with others to get the person’s cows milked, clothes washed, or what have you. But not every day a hurricane, an explosion, a mass killing, crying out for our sympathy and assistance. We might worry about local politics, like who would be on the town council and how that might affect when the new schoolhouse gets built. But we wouldn’t have been expected to deal mentally and emotionally with major, society-wide issues like systemic and institutional racism, the effect of Federal Reserve Board policy on interest rates on the national economy, foreign policy towards Russia and North Korea, and so forth.

The idea of a republic is to elect people whose job it is to handle these things for us, leaving us free to handle the day-to-day tasks of living our lives. If we must spend all our free time monitoring the issues to make sure our representatives are doing what we want, then aren’t we basically doing their job for them, figuring out what should be done and demanding that they do it?

But the point is that most of us were not made to process the massive amounts of information, and still less the massive doses of catastrophe and disaster, and political concerns with national and global implications, which present themselves to us daily via the mass media. We’re naturally equipped to deal with what concerns us locally: Our families primarily, and then our neighbors, with only an occasional and relatively vague awareness of people and events in distant places. Some people may feel a need or an interest in keeping up with national and worldwide affairs, and that may be fine as a hobby. But I think we should recognize that we only have so much intellectual and emotional capacity, and not try to take it all in and process it as if it concerns us personally. It doesn’t, because it can’t.

“LORD, my heart is not haughty, nor my eyes lofty: neither do I exercise myself in great matters, or in things too high for me.” Ps. 131:1.

Assorted quotes

It was the girls’ state championship track meet in Connecticut. A Cromwell High School freshman who calls himself Andraya Yearwood and “identifies” as female sped to victory in the 100- and 200-meter races. The 2016 winner, Sarah Hall, now a junior, came in second. She had this to say to reporters after being vanquished by a male runner that the State of Connecticut calls a female runner: “I can’t really say what I want to say, but there’s not much I can do about it.” Her succinct words capture the depth of the perversion that transgender ideology will impose upon us all. We will have to accommodate ourselves to lies, knowing that truthful words will be punished.

R.R. Reno, “The Public Square,” First Things magazine, August/September 2017, p. 67.

We need to get our heads on straight about all this. Political correctness and campus protests are not threats to elite institutions and their promise to the young that they guarantee success. The radical ideologies are part of a choreographed dance. “Unlike the campus protestors of the 1960s, today’s student activists are not expressing countercultural views. They are expressing the exact views of the culture in which they find themselves (a reason that administrators prove so ready to accede to their demands). If you want to find the counterculture on today’s elite college campuses, you need to look for the conservative students.”

R.R. Reno, “The Public Square,” First Things magazine, August/September 2017, p. 68 (quoting William Deresiewicz).

Part of that imperial arrogance in our own day, I believe, is the insistence that we, the empire, the West, America, or wherever, are in a position to tell the societies that we are already exploiting in a thousand different ways that they should alter their deep-rooted moralities to accommodate our newly invented ones. There is something worryingly imperial about the practice itself and about the insistence on everybody else endorsing it. It is often said that the poor want justice while the rich want peace. We now have a situation where two-thirds of the world wants debt relief and one-third wants sex.

N.T. Wright, Pauline Perspectives: Essays on Paul, 1978-2013 (Minneapolis:Fortress Press, 2013) (H/T to The Millennial Star).

A headline I thought I’d never see

From the Washington Post, no less:

Black-clad antifa members attack peaceful right-wing demonstrators in Berkeley

In case it’s not clear, the reason I’m surprised is that a mainstream media organization that isn’t Fox News is clearly stating, in a headline, that the left was the aggressor while the right-wingers were “peaceful.” I would have expected them to either ignore it or somehow portray it as the right-wingers bringing it on themselves, especially in the wake of Charlottesville.

A small sign that the world isn’t completely insane quite yet. Or am I too cynical?

Why do conservatives conserve?

An online acquaintance recommended that I read the book “The Reactionary Mind: Conservatism from Edmund Burke to Sarah Palin” by Corey Robin. This is a book of previously published essays, with an introduction in which the author introduces his thesis. The thesis, basically, is that conservatism/reactionism/rightism (he uses the terms synonymously) is an ongoing effort to stamp out any attempt by the lower orders of society to improve their lot. (Also they’re violent and racist.)

I just finished the (39-page) Introduction of the book, before the essays start. I’m trying to keep an open mind, but find myself calling foul or BS on every other page.

First, his attempt to define the right as the side which always tries to beat down the lower orders, seems like a tautology. Rightists try to beat down the lower orders; those that beat down the lower orders may be identified as rightists. If you define it that way, then any time you see this happening in history you can attribute it to the right. But what if there is an instance where the left does it? Or is that possibility defined out of existence?

Shouldn’t you first define an ideology, and then talk about what its adherents have or have not done historically? That way we can identify the subjects first, and observe how they act afterwards; and not define them by how they act — those who do good on the left and those who do bad on the right.

For example he speaks of the abolition movement as a movement of the left, and the resistance to it as a movement of the right; apparently based on the definition of the right as that which tries to suppress the efforts of the lower orders to better themselves. But the abolitionists were mainly Christians and Republicans. Aren’t modern rightists also mainly Christians and Republicans?

If I’m called a conservative at the present time because I want to conserve certain things, or return them to how they were, that’s fair enough. But I may not be aligned ideologically with someone who wanted to conserve things 150 years ago. Possibly someone who agrees with my worldview would want to change things at one time, and conserve things at another. Shouldn’t our purported ideological affinity depend more on the kinds of things I/they want(ed) to conserve, rather than the desire to conserve per se?

People often say, “But Christians and Republicans weren’t conservatives back then,” as if they had mysteriously switched roles with modern atheists and Democrats. Well, maybe that’s because slavery wasn’t something that they wanted to conserve! If you brought them in a time machine to the present day, do you suppose the Christians of 1860 would be conservative or liberal with regard to the question of, say, gay marriage?

Is it mysterious that devout Christians of today, and devout Christians of 150 years ago, would agree in opposing both slavery and gay marriage? I for one would have expected that, since the motivating factor in both cases is the Christian faith, which remains essentially the same.

Up to now I haven’t had a problem with the labels “conservative” and “liberal” to describe political leanings or identities in the present context. But I’m realizing that it does present problems when trying to tie together people from one era to those of another, based solely on their tendency to want to progress or conserve. It’s often remarked by modern conservatives that “progress” is meaningless unless you have a fixed standard by which to judge whether or not you’re progressing. Simply moving “forward” can be neither good nor bad in itself; it’s only good if you’re moving towards something good. But how is “good” to be defined? To define it as “that which progresses” is to reason in a circle.

Well, the same applies to the word “conservative”. It can’t be a virtue to conserve per se. Whether to conserve or progress must be judged by some standard. That standard is the better criteria by which to group the people of one age with those of another. I happen to be conservative today because I consider some of the values that are being discarded by my society, to be worthy of conservation. It doesn’t follow that I would have considered slavery as being worthy of conservation. I conserve (at the present time) for the sake of what I consider good, in accordance with my faith and not just for the sake of conserving; certainly not for the sake of preventing the “lower orders” from bettering themselves!