The closeness of this last election, and the divisions among us that it revealed over the course of many months, proves something we all have known instinctively for a long time now: we live in dangerous and immoderate times, and we have been caught up in an enlarging cycle of immoderation, at home and abroad, for most of the last two decades since the fall of the Soviet Union and the end of the first Gulf War. We have learned to our chagrin, and at great human cost, that we can not cure the immoderation of our enemies, and we may, indeed, be facing a continuing long fight abroad whether we want it or not. But we can, and must, overcome our immoderation at home. We must remember, as Shakespeare noted, “[i]t is not in the stars to hold our destiny, but in ourselves.”
Let me be clear: being partisan in a democratic society is not the same as being immoderate—and in confusing these concepts, I believe one of my heroes, Barry Goldwater, did a great disservice to conservatives and conservatism. Representative government works best when competing ideas about the principles and specifics of public policy are debated and tested vigorously. But, at some point, debate must lead to compromise and consensus over the specifics of public policy (without compromising principles), or else debate devolves into mere noise and stalemate. Moreover, endless, partisan argument over issues that government has little or no ability to resolve, or has no business being involved in, creates needless discord that impairs our ability to find consensus on those matters that government can handle. It is not that such issues should not be debated, but continually injecting such issues into debates over governmental policy distracts our attention away from those issues that are properly within the government’s scope of responsibility, and eventually stretches the reach of government into matters that it is incompetent to resolve.
Unfortunately, the cumulative noise created by endless arguments over the last few decades has become a nuisance to good government—and both sides of our politics are equally guilty for creating this situation. Our immoderation has evolved from our unwillingness to acknowledge those vast areas of public policy goals with which we agree, and then, to listen to, and frankly debate those issues on which we actually disagree. At the most basic level, regardless of religion or politics, virtually all Americans agree that individually, and as a community, our most important aspiration is to care for each human being as we would care for ourselves, and we want our government to reflect that goal in its policy choices. Virtually all of us agree that we want a secure and peaceful relationship among nations, and we share an aspiration that the blessings of liberty, and of individual participation in the political determination of nations, be a right of all people. Even on a specific domestic issue like energy independence, we agree on so much of what needs to be done even though we come to our positions from different perspectives as to the cause and effect of the problem. Why, then, has it been so hard for us to acknowledge these agreements and arrive at a consensus as to how to write them into public policy?
When you strip away all of the demographic and educational variables that exacerbate our divisions, I think our differences are grounded in two fundamental sources: our different view on the proper sphere of responsibility of each level of government and the proper allocation of responsibility between the public and private institutions in our country at every level from the neighborhood to the nation; and our different view on the meaning and role of morality in the shaping of individual behavior and public policy.
The basis of our differences over the responsibilities and roles of government are pretty well understood, even if they are mischaracterized in the media and by partisan spin. But I have come to the conclusion that we stopped listening to each other over moral issues a long time ago, and so a whole generation has grown up without understanding the different perspectives that have created the great divide in this country—or without fully understanding the basis for their own perpsective. If we are ever to bridge this divide, we must first understand it—not just demagogue it, but understand it.
So, the rest of this post is intended to offer insight into the nature of our differences on the second issue from an admittedly conservative perspective. But, rather than argue over who is right or who is wrong, I am just going to lay out the conservative perspective. To do that, I am not going to re-invent the wheel, but instead, I am going to provide you with C.S. Lewis’ description of the role of Morality in our society, from his book Mere Christianity:
God cannot give us a happiness and peace apart from Himself, because it is not there. There is no such thing. That is the key to history. Terrific energy is expended–civilizations are built up–excellent institutions devised; but each time something goes wrong. Some fatal flaw always brings the selfish and cruel people to the top and it all slides back into misery and ruin. In fact, the machine conks. It seems to start up all right and runs a few yards, and then it breaks down. They are trying to run it on the wrong juice.
… I am afraid that … the word Morality raises in a good many people’s minds: something that interferes, something that stops you having a good time. In reality, moral rules are directions for running the human machine. Every moral rule is there to prevent a breakdown, or a strain, or a friction, in the running of the machine. That is why these rules at first seem to be constantly interfering with our natural inclinations. When you are being taught how to use any machine, the instructor keeps on saying, ‘No, don’t do it like that,’ because, of course, there are all sorts of things that look all right and seem to you the natural way of treating the machine, but do not really work. …
… Perfect behavior may be as unattainable as perfect gear-changing when we drive; but it is a necessary ideal prescribed for all men by the very nature of the human machine just as perfect gear-changing is an ideal prescribed for all drivers by the very nature of cars. …
… There are two ways in which the human machine goes wrong. One is when human individuals drift apart from one another, or else collide with one another and do one another damage by cheating or bullying. The other is when things go wrong inside the individual—when the different parts of him (his different faculties and desires and so on) either drift apart or interfere with one another. …
… Morality, then, seems to be concerned with three things. Firstly, with fair play and harmony between individuals. Secondly, with what might be called tidying up or harmonizing the things inside each individual. Thirdly, with the general purpose of human life as a whole: what man was made for: what course the whole fleet ought to be on: what tune the conductor of the band wants to play. …
… You may have noticed that modern people are nearly always thinking about the first thing and forgetting the other two. When people say in the newspapers that we are striving for Christian moral standards, they usually mean that we are striving for kindness and fair play between nations, and classes, and individuals; that is they are thinking only of the first thing. When a man says about something he wants to do, ‘It can’t be wrong because it doesn’t do anyone else any harm,’ he is thinking only of the first thing. … And it is quite natural, when we start thinking about morality to begin with the first thing, social relations. …But though it is natural to begin with all that, if our thinking about morality stops there, we might just as well not have thought at all. Unless we go on to the second thing—the tidying up inside each human being—we are only deceiving ourselves. …
… I don not mean for a moment that we ought not to think, and think hard, about improvements in our social and economic system. What I do mean is that all that thinking will be mere moonshine unless we realize that nothing but the courage and unselfishness of individuals is ever going to make any system work properly. … You cannot make men good by law: and without good men you cannot have a good society. That is why we must go on to think of the second thing: of morality inside the individual.
But I do not think we can stop there either. We are now getting to the point at which different beliefs about the universe lead to different behaviour. …
Again, Christianity asserts that every individual human being is going to live for ever, and this must be either true or false. … If individuals live only seventy years, then a state, or a nation, or a civilization, which may last for a thousand years, is more important than an individual. But if Christianity is true, then the individual is not only more important but incomparably more important, for he is everlasting and the life of a state or a civilization, compared with his, is only a moment.
It seem, then, that if we are to think about morality, we must think of all three departments: relations between man and man: things inside each man: and relations between man and the power that made him. We can all co-operate in the first one. Disagreements begin with the second and become more serious with the third. It is dealing with the third that the main difference between Christian and non-Christian morality come out.
And, it is dealing with our different perspectives about the second and third aspects of Morality, as well as about the extent to which government at each level ( or at any level) should be involved with the first aspect, that is so vexing to us today; and it is these differences that are fueling such continuing political and social immoderation across the partisan camps. I don’t have an answer as to how to build a bridge between these camps, except to start to understand the source of the divide between us, which is why I presented Lewis’ writing on the subject at length. Maybe by presenting this side of the debate, we can start a better, more constructive—dare I say, more moderate—dialogue for the future.
In closing, let me punctuate what Lewis wrote with the final passages from the Virginia Declaration of Rights of June, 1776, which were written by George Mason, with the help of James Madison and Patrick Henry:
…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…..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 that it is the mutual duty of all to practice Christian forbearance, love, and charity towards each other.
Let’s keep this passage in mind as we try to find the right path ahead.