The title to this article may be puzzling, but it is meant to point to a dark reality that ought to be puzzling to anyone having a mind to think. America today is racing – I use the word carefully – racing toward a complete reversal of the ideals of her youth, to embrace the very ideology she rejected in her beginnings. She proclaimed herself a Republic; she grows and she grows toward self-surrender to dictatorship.
An ominous comment from Benjamin Franklin came at the close of the Constitutional Convention of 1787. A woman asked him, as he left Independence Hall on the final day of its deliberation, “Well, Doctor, what have we got—a Republic or a Monarchy?” It is recorded and reported that he responded, simply, “A Republic, if you can keep it.” (Link: http://www.bartleby.com/73/1593.html)
It is a common way of speaking to say, “I am afraid” of this, or “I am afraid” of that. In one sense I am afraid that we are losing our republic, at a rate that is accelerating – racing – us toward “no choice but to end choice.” We seem to be losing the moral strength and competence to have freedom. We cannot be trusted with freedom any more; our society shows itself unworthy of freedom. We lack the moral vision, fortitude, virtue and character to live freely with one another.
America has changed – radically – in my own (it seems so brief!) lifetime. We have lost the sense of “one-anotherness” that allows peace and social cohesion. We have allowed ourselves to be fractured, separated into special-interest groups at odds with one another – victims versus victimizers, perpetually in a stance against one another, pawns on a chessboard of politics. In the reign of our first post-racial President we see not the “one America” that the whole country hoped for, and voted for. We see instead the fracturing and dividing, increasing – and the racial hostility only spreading, multiplying and intensifying. Under a president promoted as a constitutional scholar, we have seen the upending of constitutional process – now distorted almost beyond recognition. Executive-branch, unelected, executive-appointed “Departments” rule over many by Office edict – in mandatory “regulations” imposed without any formal need to be voted into law – while the two elected houses of Congress are frozen in inaction and/or irrelevance.
I came across a simple analysis by a notable preacher and educator – a powerful evangelist – of the 19th century, Charles Finney. (Links: Charles Finney, Human Governments from Systematic Theology. 1851. ) I cannot endorse his theology, but I appreciate some of his insights. He wrote this of government:
“The particular forms of state government must, and will, depend upon the virtue and intelligence of the people.
(1.) Democracy is self-government, and can never be safe or useful except so far as there are sufficient intelligence and virtue in the community to impose, by mutual consent, salutary self-restraints, and to enforce by the power of public sentiment, and by the fear and love of God, the practice of those virtues which are indispensable to the highest good of any community.
(2.) Republics are another and less pure form of self-government.
(3.) When there are not sufficient intelligence and virtue among the people to legislate in accordance with the highest good of the state or nation, then both democracies and republics are improper and impracticable, as forms of government.”
This last comment is particularly piercing to the heart, concerning the prerequisites of a democracy or a republic (we in America have – or had) a democratic republic. In our morally impoverished culture – that St. Pope John Paul II called a “culture of death” – both intelligence and virtue have been assaulted, attacked, warped, redefined and painted over with the thin watercolors of a new morality. What is this new morality? It is simply today’s political correctness, today’s political needs, tailored to the political advantages needed at the moment. There is an even darker force and presence at work here, however. To that I will return shortly.
Mr. Finney continues his analysis of political systems, and the correlation of form of government needed with the moral stature of the people governed. He writes, concerning societies that do not have “sufficient intelligence and virtue among the people”:
(4.) When there is too little intelligence and virtue in the mass of the people to legislate on correct principles, monarchies are better calculated to restrain vice and promote virtue.
It is ironic that in the case of America, the framers of the constitution giving us a democratic republic, were breaking us free precisely from a monarchy in England. Thus the question having an unclear answer was, does this society/nation being formed as separate from England in fact have the “sufficient intelligence and virtue among the people” to sustain a democratic republic? Dr. Franklin answered that the fathers did set such a government in place – but adding, “If you can keep it.” That Convention was in 1787 – almost 230 years ago. Are we now in need of a monarchy? Or is there a trustworthy monarchy possible? Where would we get such a monarch? Or is the possible replacement for a failed republic, here in America, likely worse a possibility than that? Mr. Finney then continued moving down, on his scale of societies:
(5.) In the worst states of society, despotisms, either civil or military, are the only proper and efficient forms of government. It is true, indeed, that a resort to despotic government is an evil, and all that can be truly said is, that in certain states of desperate anarchy, despotic government is the less of two evils.
The national debt of the U.S. is now over 18 trillion dollars. America is living on borrowed money and borrowed time. The interest alone on such debt could cripple the nation, especially given our current demographics, entitlement costs and economic foundation. The greatest threat to our society, however, is not economic nor is it racial nor ethnic nor any other merely human condition. It is not the growing animus around the world against the U.S. generally, nor radical Islamic terrorism nor a resurgent Russia nor an emerging China. Rather, I say in agreement with Charles Finney, it is the collapse of “sufficient intelligence and virtue among the people,” in America. Possession of those qualities alone, Mr. Finney wrote, can insure stability for a democratic or a democratic-republic form of government. I completely agree. He wrote:
(6.) When virtue and intelligence are nearly universal, democratic forms of government are well suited to promote the public good.
(7.) In such a state of society, democracy is greatly conducive to the general diffusion of knowledge on governmental subjects; and although, in some respects, less convenient, yet in a suitable state of society, a democracy is in many respects the most desirable form of government.”
America has lost her “nearly universal” agreement in principle with the Judeo-Christian ethic, and sense of virtue. America has lost her “nearly universal” sense of what “intelligence” means – what is intelligent in matters of moral conduct, in matters of what ought to be unlawful and what ought to be legally protected, in what is just and what is unjust, in what is socially beneficial and what is socially harmful, in what is socially expected of a citizen and what is irrelevant and no one’s business but the individual, and so on and on. The foundation has been lost, and nothing but political correctness and the power of might to define right, remains.
When anarchy erupts in a nation, many are willing and glad to hand over individual freedom – so abused in eruptions of anarchy, riot and lawlessness – to an entity with the power to restore order. Thus enters a dictator, and thus ends freedom – the end of freedom, freely chosen in the terror of anarchy and lawlessness. There is a dictator waiting in the wings, and his heart is of evil.
Is there another end to this awful scenario? Is there another option? Another answer for us?
The answer ought to be the Church, witness and sacrament in the world to God’s way, for societies and nations, for virtue and intelligence, for the way for human persons to find and to keep one-another relationships. Jesus Christ entrusted His Church with the way, the truth and the life that brings human personal and social harmony and peace! Jesus showed us virtue! He showed us right knowledge, wisdom and understanding! Why does the Church say so little, as the society around us grows in degradation, corruption, lies and deceit? Why does the Church offer so little to a world starving for lack of truth, virtue, and understanding?
Parishes continue with their programs, their fund raisers, their financial appeals for the status quo, their dinners, their socials, their new pipe organs, their school trips and and their committee meetings. Where is the outreach to the world in the name of Christ? Where is the evangelization, the making disciples, the proclamation of the Word with burning and urgent zeal? Where is the life, in the midst of this culture of death?
The answer to the darkness ought to be the light entrusted to the Church. Too many in the Church continue asleep, taking their ease.