In my last post I tried to start a discussion about the role of morality in our society and politics, knowing that it is one of the areas of profound misunderstanding and disagreement between the political camps, and has been a constant source of agitation and division within the conservative political camp, since at least the 1960s. I was not going to return to this topic now, but was going to move ahead with a post about our party’s future, and then return to the series on Education—but then the growing story about General Petraeus dovetailed with Veteran’s Day weekend. So, I want to share some additional thoughts with you as this story unfolds. To do so, though, I need to digress for a moment.
A few years ago, while my oldest daughter was still in college, she called me one morning in tears. She had just come from a freshman political science course about U.S. Government. The class discussion had turned to political/social issues, and then to the politics of abortion. The professor apparently ridiculed the conservative position on this issue, and in the process, ridiculed the intelligence of conservatives generally. When my daughter tried to defend conservatives, she was personally ridiculed and laughed at by the professor, and by the students in the class. As she recounted this story, I tried to console her, but in my mind I was saying to myself, “welcome to my world.”
Now, let’s fast forward to just a few weeks ago. I was working one afternoon on a legal brief in my office in my home, when my oldest daughter came into my office and started to chat. After college she had lived and worked for a couple of years in Los Angeles, and then moved back to Houston at the end of 2011. I had thought for a long time that the experience in LA had changed her perspective on a lot of things, but as she started this conversation, some of my worst fears were confirmed. She sat down and said to me, “Dad, did you know that a lot of the people I know think you and your Republican friends are fascists? Are you a fascist?” Of course my first, silent reaction was, “as if I hadn’t heard this unoriginal and superficial accusation before;” but, then I realized that this was coming from my own daughter, and I needed to address it seriously.
I first asked her to define what she understood the word “fascist” to mean, and then to explain to me the reasoning her friends were giving to describe Republicans as being fascists. Then, as I had done as she was growing up, I pulled down a few dictionaries and reference books and explained to her what fascism really was, what Nazism really was, and why that label has no valid application to either political party in the United States. In the end, what her friends’ uneducated criticism boiled down to is that they believe Republicans are hateful for pressing their moral views on others.
I am now going to share with you, in a little more analytical detail and language, what I tried to explain to my daughter in response to this “revelation.”
The primary definition of “society” is the “totality of social relationships among humans.” Based on this definition, you can’t have “society” without having human relationships; and man, being a social being, has never long survived without being a part of a society (remember Donne’s admonition: “No man is an island”?). “Government” is a tool we create and use to protect and preserve the society we have created through human relationships. But without relationships, nothing else is possible.
Some societies arise geographically from relationships that are imposed on people by others through outside institutions—tribes, clans, families, and religions—and that are then fostered and maintained by governments that preserve the institutions, and the ordered relationships such institutions impose. Some of these societies, over time, replace the outside institutions all together with government. In fact, it is this model of imposed relationships, which has formed and maintained most societies throughout human history—and seems to be the model to which we humans continue to default over time.
But, a society of free people, who form relationships freely, and whose society organically grows from such free relationships, is a unique and exceptional model in human history—it is the model our settlers created as they came to North America, and it is the model our Founders tried to preserve and protect when they formed our federal structure of government after the American Revolution. As with any society, though, this model doesn’t work or last without those freely-formed and maintained human relationships.
As I started to explain in my last post, our Founders, and other later men and women like C.S. Lewis, understood that the rules of morality we inherited through our Judeo-Christian heritage provided the directions with which we could build and maintain these human relationships in a free society. American Conservatives believe that if you abandon these rules, the ultimate result will by a default to a society of imposed relationships run by government—like fascism, socialism, communism, Nazism, radical Islam, etc. So, rather than trying to foster and advance fascism, American Conservatives are devoted to averting a process that would lead to a future fascist regime in America.
For instance, when our Founders told us that “it is the mutual duty of all to practice Christian forbearance, love, and charity towards each other,” they were talking about a rule for maintaining those “relations between man and man,” through “fair play and harmony between individuals” that Lewis described as the first “department” of morality.
When Mason, Madison and Henry then told us that “no free government, or the blessings of liberty, can be preserved to any people, but by firm adherence to justice, moderation, temperance, frugality, and virtue, and by frequent recurrence to fundamental principles,” they were reminding us of the central importance of individual morality and behavior to the maintenance of the “relations between man and man”—what Lewis said was the second “department” of morality. The importance of individual morality was central to maintaining our free society, because “[y]ou cannot make men good by law: and without good men you cannot have a good society.”
Finally, when these Virginians told us that “the duty which we owe our Creator, and the manner of discharging it, can be directed only by reason and conviction, not by force or violence; and therefore all men are equally entitled to the free exercise of religion, according to the dictates of conscience,” they were describing what Lewis would later call the third, and possibly most controversial “department” of morality in our society: “relations between man and the power that made him.”
What liberals or progressives have refused to acknowledge over the last few decades is that the free relationships upon which our society of free people depends, cannot survive without adherence to these rules of morality; that perfect behavior “is a necessary ideal prescribed for all men by the very nature of the human machine,” and this ideal should not be discarded simply because actual perfection is unattainable; and that imposing rules through government to replace these moral rules is antithetical to the foundation of our society. What liberals or progressives most forget is that by seeking to maintain and apply the rules of morality, we conservatives are trying to preserve liberty by preserving the free relationships upon which our society is based; we are not trying to destroy liberty and impose a “fascist” state.
At the same time, we conservatives often forget that these rules of morality are voluntary; that, though these rules of morality have remained pretty constant throughout Western history, their application can, and sometimes must, change as the human condition changes (and understanding the difference between a moral rule and an application of that rule is a continuing source of tension among conservatives, and between conservatives and progressives); and that the promotion of these rules necessarily requires patience to endure the different choices, and the unintended consequences from those choices, that flow from adherence to voluntary rules—because, as C.S. Lewis correctly noted, no rules of morality or calling in life—not even the calling of “an officer and a gentleman”—can make us, or expect us, to be perfect human beings.
And, so this leads me to the sad shame of the growing story of General Petraeus and his wife of 38 years, Ms. Broadwell and her family, Ms. Kelly and her family, a shirtless FBI agent, General Allen, and who knows who else and what else. Some might throw up their hands and say that this story is proof that our society is too prudish, and we need to get over it; others would correctly point out the harm that may have been done to national security from the such conduct and impose punishments on those involved and new laws to try to stop such conduct in the future.
But an American Conservative knows that no matter what happened here, imperfect people made choices to not follow the rules of morality that are needed to maintain a society of free people, and there are always consequences—most never intended—that flow from such choices. Usually, those consequences are more isolated with smaller ripple effects into the larger community than is the case with this story; but, there are always consequences. It is that second department of morality—the morality inside each of us—that failed here. And it is the morality inside each of us that needs to be continually rekindled in order to maintain a free society.
No more appropriate words have been spoken in the English language over the last half century about what it takes to rekindle such inner morality, than those spoken by General MacArthur at West Point in 1962. Because those words are so relevant to the story that is unfolding in the news, I’ll leave you with that passage to think about:
Those three hallowed words reverently dictate what you ought to be, what you can be, what you will be. They are your rallying points; to build courage when courage seems to fail; to regain faith when there seems to be little cause for faith; to create hope when hope becomes forlorn. …
They build your basic character; they mold you for your future roles as custodians of the nation’s defense; they make you strong enough to know when you are weak, and brace enough to face yourself when you are afraid. They teach you to be proud and unbending in honest failure, but humble and gentle in success, not to substitute words for action, not to seek the path of comfort, but to face the stress and spur of difficulty and challenge; to learn to stand up in the storm but to have compassion on those who fail; to master yourself before you seek to master others; to have a heart that is clean, a goal that is high; to learn to laugh yet never forget how to weep; to reach into the future yet never neglect the past; to be serious yet never take yourself too seriously; to be modest so that you will remember the simplicity of true greatness, the open mind of true wisdom, the meekness of true strength.
They give you a temper of the will, a quality of the imagination, a vigor of the emotions, a freshness of the deep springs of life, a temperamental predominance of courage over timidity, and appetite for adventure and a love of ease. They create in your heart the sense of wonder, the unfailing hope of what next, and the joy and inspiration of life.
They teach you in this way to be an officer and a gentleman.
In a society of free people, can we maintain the free relationships we need if we don’t each strive to be “an officer and a gentleman”?
Sally Belladonna Baggins Stricklett says
Another excellent article that tops the last. I hope everyone reaqds this, when I pass it on.