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Friday, 23 October 2015 16:25

Liberty Revisited

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Liberty Revisited

John Howard

John Howard is a highly decorated veteran of WWII (two Silver Stars, two Purple Hearts, battlefield commission). He served in the Eisenhower administration, as President of Rockford Colleg,e and founder of the Rockford College Institute, and co-founder (with Allan Carlson) of The Howard Center for Family, Religion & Society.

Liberty Revisited. A little story will be a helpful lead-in to this theme. It's about a medieval knight. Late one afternoon, he was returning to the castle, and he was a pitiful sight to see. His horse was limping and he was skewgee in the saddle. His armor was dented, his lance was broken and the proud plume on his helmet was crumpled and hung down over his face. The Lord of the castle saw him coming and rushed out to meet him. "What terrible thing has befallen you, Sir Percy?" he asked.

"Oh, sire," he said, "I have been laboring all day in your service, robbing and pillaging your enemies to the West.

"You've been doing what!!" exclaimed the nobleman.

Thinking he was hard of hearing, the knight replied, much louder, "I have been robbing and pillaging your enemies to the West."

"But I haven't any enemies to the West," was the horrified reply.

"Oh!" said the knight. And then, "Well, I think you do now."

There is a moral to this story. Enthusiasm is not enough. You have to have a sense of direction.

For a long time, Meg Greenfield wrote the editorials on the last page of Newsweek. On December 14, 1998, when she knew she didn't have long to live, she wrote a chilling wake-up call to America. It seems to have disappeared down the memory hole without causing even a sigh from the dormant conscience of the readers.

Her opening statement was:

You look around political Washington for a public figure in an important position of power who also has moral authority, and you will find none. Those in the leadership of both parties who have not been dirtied up in their own political scandals have leapt eagerly to the defense of those on their side who have, shamelessly justifying every kind of sleaziness committed by their party on the ground that the other side does it, too . . . or that the campaign needed the money . . . or that the other side overreacted . . . or something.

The situation she describes is, itself, cause for dismay, but the shattered principle it reflects foretells grave and lasting troubles for us. We need to know that morality is the essential and irreplaceable foundation of a free society. For several generations Americans have not known how precious freedom is to the human soul. The harrowing tales of the Cubans risking, and sometimes losing, their lives as they tried to reach freedom in the United States, and the comparable reports of East Germans gunned down as they tried to scale the Berlin Wall, and of innumerable boat people drowned or captured as they fled from Communism in Southeast Asia -- all these were for us just tragic stories in the news, seemingly unrelated to life in America. The absolute and ultimate importance of liberty to all those refugees simply didn't register with us.

Furthermore, Americans haven't a clue as to what liberty is, or how to sustain it. The British statesman Edmund Burke was a wise and eminent political philosopher and an ardent and articulate champion of liberty. He stated that extreme liberty, which would seem to be perfect liberty, is instead its fatal flaw. Perfect liberty doesn't exist anywhere and shouldn't exist anywhere because, he said, "liberty must be limited to be possessed."

It is startling for us that he should speak of a fault of liberty, for liberty in our minds is a pure unencumbered blessing with no room for anyone to say, "Yes, but." It jars us to be told that there must be limitations. Actually, the limitations he had in mind were not primarily legal restrictions.

Manners are more important than laws. Upon them, in a great measure, the laws depend. Manners are what vex or soothe, corrupt or purify, exalt or debase, barbarize or refine us . . . According to their quality, they aid morals . . . or they totally destroy them.

Burke's declaration that political liberty cannot exist unless it is sustained by moral behavior was a truth thoroughly known to and embraced by our Founding Fathers.

President John Adams' Second Inaugural Address was the first one given in the new Capitol Building. He urged:

May this be the residence of virtue and happiness. Here and throughout our country, may simple manners, pure morals, and true religion flourish forever.

President James Madison wrote:

We have staked the whole future of American civilization, not upon the power of government, far from it. We have staked the future of all our political institutions upon the capacity of mankind for self-government; upon the capacity of each and all of us to govern ourselves according to the Ten Commandments of God.

President John Quincy Adams wrote:

The highest glory of the American Revolution was this: It connected in one indissoluble bond the principles of civil government with the principles of Christianity.

The solemn, religious character of these quotations reminds us that the first New England colonists uprooted their families to brave the perilous ocean voyage and the appalling dangers and difficulties of establishing a settlement in the wilderness for one purpose only -- to attain freedom, a special kind of freedom, religious freedom. To be free to practice their religion was their only objective. That was the beginning of a new civilization of Christendom. That term does not imply that everyone was a Christian. Rather it denotes an area where the people, whatever their beliefs about God, live according to the tenets of Christianity. It was 170 years after the Plymouth Colony was established, that the American nation was founded as a political entity of Christendom.

The French historian Alexis de Tocqueville visited America in the 1830s. His book, Democracy in America, is a classic description of the government and of the life of the people in America. Here are a few excerpts.

Christianity directs domestic life. Of all the countries in the world, America is the one in which the marriage tie is the most respected and where the highest and truest conception of conjugal happiness has been conceived. . . . Christianity reigns without obstacles by universal consent . . .

In another chapter he writes:

In the United States, the Motherland's presence is everywhere. It is a subject of concern to the village and to the whole union. The inhabitants care for each of the country's interests as if it were their own.

And later:

By their practice, Americans show they feel the urgent necessity to instill morality into democracy by means of religion. What they think of themselves in this respect enshrines a truth which should penetrate deep into the consciousness of every democratic nation.

Instill morality into democracy by means of religion -- De Tocqueville saw this as the only means by which liberty can be perpetuated in all democratic nations.

In the First World War, every doughboy going overseas received from the government a New Testament for his knapsack. Christendom still prevailed.

Fast forward now to 1939. That was the year of the New York World's Fair. In the early 1930s the Great Depression had been a disaster so severe it is today unimaginable. Millions of people had no jobs and millions lost their homes to mortgage foreclosure. Still the Christian decency of Americans remained solid. Rates of robbery and theft did not skyrocket. People did what they could to help relatives and neighbors. The real America of pre-World War II was captured in a book entitled 1939, The Lost World of the Fair by David Galernter. It offers a portrait of the people, their character and their sentiments. Here are a few glimpses:

New York's Mayor LaGuardia was a legendary, honest servant of the people. "And by the way," a guidebook cautioned, "Don't try any funny stuff. New York was the best policed city of the world . . ."
At popular Jones Beach State Park on Long Island, the flag was lowered by a uniformed staff to the strains of the National Anthem every evening while every bather, picnicker, stroller, game player, and onlooker stood at attention . . .
In 1939, men wore suits or occasionally sports jackets to a fair. Women wore dresses or sometimes a blouse and skirt. Most adults wore a hat.
An American of this era freely accepts certain obligations . . . He lives by the rules because they are the rules, because they give a community a shape, coherence and a shared viewpoint. Thirties America is a rules-following society, an "ought" culture.

At the time of Pearl Harbor, the standards of Christendom were still generally observed, but as David Galernter implied, that condition resulted more from the momentum of long-established custom than from the dominance of religion in daily American life.

Manners and morals do not come naturally to a human being. The acculturation of the young for life in Christendom is carried on by religion, by the families, by educational institutions, by literature and other cultural influences. And the support of these codes of conduct had to be continually reinforced by the culture. Here is one small example of that reinforcement at work.

When our son was baptized in 1956, the clergyman, a much-loved pastor nearing the end of his career, asked the family members to gather around the altar. The minister, having received the baby from my wife, said slowly and quietly:

What I hold in my arms, good friends, is God's greatest gift, a new life. This child at this time is a wonder of potential. How that potential may develop, for better or worse, will mainly be determined by the people gathered at this altar, his family. I charge you to remember that the shaping of this life is in your hands, and I pray that with God's help you may encourage and cultivate that which is good and kind and wholesome, and I pray that you will discover and shield him from that which is self-centered, corrupt, and cruel.

Such ceremonies were reminders to all in attendance of their on-going responsibilities to their children.

The role of literature in nurturing the character of the people was brought into focus half a century ago when the Saturday Review of Literature published an editorial denouncing an award bestowed by The Library of Congress on Ezra Pound for a book of poetry.

While one must divorce politics from art, it is quite another matter to use the word "politics" as a substitute for values. We do not believe that art has nothing to do with values. . . . We do not believe that a poet can shatter ethics and still be a good poet. We do not believe that poetry can convert words into maggots that eat at human dignity and still be a good poet.

The problem is certainly not how to prevent an Ezra Pound, or anyone else, from writing whatever seems important to him. The magazine's editors were concerned with what the community shall prize and praise. What shall be the values and ideals that shape the life of the society, and how can those ideals be perpetuated. The editors were insisting that those who hold major responsibilities in the realm of public beliefs are inexcusably delinquent if they contribute to the destruction of standards of civilized conduct. An echo of Edmund Burke, a century and a half later.

One more illustration of cultural influence. Up until the middle 1960s all the coeducational colleges and universities of America had parietal rules which set an hour at which all women students visiting in a men's dormitory and all the men in a women's dormitory had to leave. Here was the entire majesty of higher education by policy supporting the standards of sexual morality essential for sustaining the institutions of marriage and the family. The rescinding of those parietal rules in the late sixties harpooned sexual morality in America, perhaps fatally.

There were many causes contributing to the collapse of our "ought" society. Of course, the most powerful one of all, and the one that in recent years has extensively eroded the public commitment to all standards of morality, has been the ever-growing, relentless attack on the Christian religion. The morals and manners of piety, truthfulness, honesty, generosity, faithfulness, kindness, helpfulness, integrity, and conscientious civic duty were aspects of the way of life of the Christians who settled America. Christendom wasn't introduced to them in the New World. It simply described the civilization they brought with them. Until the second half of the Twentieth Century, the individuals and organized groups, wishing to do away with one or more of the settled standards of behavior had an uphill battle because they were challenging conduct prescribed by the Bible.

Solzhenitsyn, in his Templeton Prize speech, provides the Communist example of revolutionaries' inevitable assault on religion.

It was Dostoyevski who drew from the French Revolution and its seething hatred of the Church the lesson that "revolution must necessarily begin with atheism." That is absolutely true. . . . Within the philosophical system of Marx and Lenin, and at the heart of their psychology, hatred of God is the principal driving force, more fundamental than all their political and economic pretensions.

This is not a surprising feature of revolution, for if people have a fixed and cherished allegiance to God, the perpetrators of the new order must destroy, or at least demean and smother that allegiance. They cannot tolerate an authority superior to their own. In America, the cultural revolution being waged by moral anarchists has been gathering steam for four decades, contaminating our social institutions and eating away at the general observance of many standards of Christendom.

A few illustrations of compromised institutions:

Testimony before the Nixon Drug Commission by a university Chancellor revealed that his university's public literature notified students they would be subject to disciplinary action if they had in their possession more than one week's supply of marijuana. All the students of that university were officially informed that it's OK to break the law, if you do it in moderation.
On April 17, 2002, the United States Supreme Court handed down a decision stating which sort of child pornography was legal.
On April 9, 2002, there was a full-page ad in the New York Times urging the legalization of marijuana. It featured a large picture of Michael Bloomberg, the Mayor of New York City, saying about smoking marijuana, "You bet I did and I enjoyed it." Proud and open defiance of the law from one in a position of exalted authority is devastating to civic order.

On July 5, 2002, the Wall Street Journal reported that a new poll by Zogby International found that three quarters of all college seniors believe that the difference between right and wrong is relative. What can one expect when members of the Do-Your-Own-Thing Generation control most of the levers of power and persuasion?

The cultural revolution has been spearheaded by pseudo-civilized agitators who believe human judgment should prevail over God's judgment, if there is a God. They acknowledge no supreme source of moral authority. They have effectively destroyed our free society's system of resolving conflict. Lacking the graces of truthfulness, open-mindedness and restraint -- traits of character essential for peaceably adjudicating disputes -- the moral anarchists have developed great skills in demonizing those who disagree with them, turning their opponents into objects of fear, hatred, and scorn. False witness is their primary weapon in advancing their campaigns. What was once amicable America is now belligerent America.

What has the repression of Christian standards of behavior accomplished? Are children safer and happier? Is the emotional stability of adults in this era of the free-wheeling sexual life-style any greater? Do the citizens have a greater respect than before for the government, the schools, the press, the judiciary, and other social institutions? Do the people trust one another more nowadays? Returning to Edmund Burke's analysis of the impact of manners, we ask if the manners of our time soothe and refine us? Or do they corrupt and barbarize us? Is America's performance on the manners scale what we truly want?

I was once interviewed on a National Public Radio talk show by a bright and articulate college student. I had mentioned that in a properly functioning free society, the people can go about their daily lives trusting each other and not worrying whether someone might harm or cheat them. The young host of the show asked, "Have we ever had a civilization like that?" He surprised me. He was perfectly serious.

I told him when I was a child in the late 1920s my younger brother and I would walk half a mile after dark through a park and across a railroad track to attend a program at the Community House. Our parents had no reason whatever to worry about us. Sometimes our family would drive into Chicago for a day. We parked the car unlocked, often with clothes or packages in it. Even when the keys were left in the ignition, the car and its contents would still be there.

Now it was the talk show host who was startled. He blurted out, "I can't even imagine such a time!" How low have we fallen if the young people, even the highly educated and intelligent ones, haven't a glimmer of understanding about the relatively crime-free, friendly, helpful, "ought" society that used to prevail in their own country?

The absence of moral authority in government, so painfully lamented by Meg Greenfield, now spreads across the whole spectrum of vocations. And liberty languishes.

America has lost its sense of direction. Liberty was once the compass by which America steered its course. Not even knowing now what liberty is, Americans find that no direction is forward. *

"But to manipulate men, to propel them toward goals which you -- the social reformers -- see, but they may not, is to deny their human essence, to treat them as objects without wills of their own, and therefore to degrade them." --Isaiah Berlin

Read 1773 times Last modified on Friday, 23 October 2015 21:25
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