Two experiences converged lately to remind me we’ve lost faith in what works. First, in Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010, Murray argues the institutions that encourage and embody the primary values of our culture are purposeful work, a trust community, a strong family, and felt faith. Belonging to these and building the virtues they demand, we consider ourselves “happy.” That’s not new. Franklin describes “felicity” as fulfillment of our nature in productive work, the pleasure of self-respect and the respect of others. That such commitments bring peace doesn’t surprise, but is seldom considered in our cultural conversation. Ignoring these virtues – even as we find the consequences of our cavalier treatment of the old standards – indicates we no longer accept the centrality of human nature. Shucking off millennia of traditions may be our nature – especially our adolescent nature, but history has lessons, voiced by family and faith, the discipline of work and community. It warns that willful pride may lead us to adolescence, but seldom leads us out.
The famously diverse founders got a lot right. So, I welcomed a second intrusion upon my little world: a talk by the charming Os Guinness, brought by our local Christian faculty group (friends who have given me community as well as collegiality). They discussed his The Case for Civility: And Why Our Future Depends on It. He delights (as perhaps only an immigrant can) in discovering how our founders at once encouraged and dis-established religion. Their genius was the belief man reasons his way to truths; more importantly, perhaps, that convinced belief was stronger than coerced.
Nonetheless, Guinness’ argument seemed plaintive – can’t we all get along. And banal. He defined the “in-between” – above our deepest held (differing) religious beliefs, a meeting ground for civil exchange. His is a politically correct vision (Fred Phelps represents his “religious right”, for instance). But seeking such ground is important. And Guinness is right; for religious thinkers, faith and its tenets are foundational as temporal society is not. Conversation, however, requires a shared vocabulary.
A vague wish for civility just kicks the can down the street. Our context is more freighted than Guinness acknowledged. True, our founders derived peace from centuries of bloody fighting: they forged tools from the bloody spears of long wars. For this group, compromises were influenced by both the Scottish combative spirit of the borderlands and its open marketplaces of the ports. But they shared an understanding. The best mouse trap, the truth about any conspiracy, the facts of science – all, eventually, triumph. Of course, this leads to an unsettling tradition which is always rejecting tradition, institutions. Recognizing the process is endless even if not futile, these men accepted flux, rejected the static. We never arrive but are always headed toward that city on a hill.
Sure, we should all get along. And shared secular assumptions, as the Founders demonstrated, let quite different belief systems speak to each other. But if we do not believe truth can be found (not quickly nor easily, perhaps, but that it exists) nor that man’s reason is capable of evaluating and understanding that truth, what is our purpose in assembling “inbetween”? The ideologically committed who shout down a political speaker or those inspired by their religion to fight over words – theirs are not vocabularies that mediate. Those who believe there is no truth to be known or those who believe there is no more truth to be known don’t welcome discussion. They ask “What’s the point?” and mean it. Whether a post-modernist or a suicide bomber (or, in Solzhenitsyn’s dichotomy, a communist or a fascist), discussion will be an empty exercise, not entered authentically but only to exercise power.
When Guinness arrived, the controversy over Obamacare, its mandate, & religious convictions had just begun. This was not discussed. If our assumptions (about human nature and natural law, the rights of man and those of government) differ greatly, such a debate wanders about in a feckless, if occasionally bombastic, way. But few controversies bring out the banality of the “let’s all get along” meme more than the current one. Perhaps the government will “let” the church “out” of its obligation to provide a service it finds not just distasteful but sinful. This can be spun as those for and against birth control, but we slowly realized that was not the point. Power is implicit in Obama’s arguments (in our grand plan, he says, smoke and mirrors will “allow” the church its exception). Suddenly, those of us with no dog in the fight realized we have one – that is, if we want still think in terms of freedom of conscience. The plane Sibelius described was neither religious nor civil, but an intersection – cramped and hierarchical. Political power “allows” space, but, we argue, that misses the founders’ assumption that that very space was pre-existing.
Edwards and Franklin agree often. Fundamentally they disagreed – one believed in the revealed word of God and the other didn’t, one believed we sinned and the other that we were prone to mistakes, one wanted to lead souls to salvation and the other bodies to political freedom. But, they agreed human nature existed and both believed in natural law; both believed in the importance of work, of community, of family, and of church. If Franklin was famously not spiritual, he gave the church, repeatedly, its due. And if Edwards was less active in the world, he understood well the call of community and practical action (worrying his congregation lost its sense of proportion in slighting daily duties enthralled by the passions of the “awakening”). Consequences happen when we violate our nature. Mere theory? Well, it is not ineffectual because it hasn’t sheriffs The consequences are no less real because we don’t acknowledge them. And we don’t. Murray’s “Belmont,” from an instinct toward felicity (or, we suspect, self-preservation) returned to the fifties, having seen the consequences of the sixties’ upheaval. But if they recognize the consequences, it remains impolitic to acknowledge causes. Murray’s statistics remind us of what Guinness’s generalities obscure. The Founders weren’t just tolerant – they also shared and valued certain traditions.
That children are best brought up in a home with both biological parents and likely to do better if those parents have committed themselves to each other and their community may be obvious. But it is not reinforced by our institutions – entertainment, news, or government. Often, indeed, not by our churches. That meaningful work gives a sense of satisfaction and fulfillment is a fact – underreported perhaps, but real; the softness of our institutions doesn’t acknowledge the virtue of self-discipline, of the discipline that comes from acknowledged consequences. We forget (at our and society’s peril) that faith that requires much of us and that work that challenges us are not only good for society, but for us. Our founders took lessons from history. Forgetting the nature of our nature squanders a great and useful heritage. Ever surprised, we rediscover the wheel.