Ethics & Public Policy Center

Ruin or Renewal? Thoughts on America’s Third Century

Published in Law and Liberty on September 3, 2019


Our political contests are increasingly bitter and render normal political decision making impossible. It is tempting to assume that past will be prologue, that our current divisions are temporary and will fade in short order. Tempting, but wrong.

This essay briefly describes the primary natures of our political divisions. It explains why our Constitutional order has failed to prevent these divisions from becoming so potent. Finally, it explores the possibility of forging a renewed American identity that might offer a hope of preserving our ancient institutions and underlying beliefs.

Our primary political divisions are now over values. One set of Americans want to live in one manner while another wants to live in another. Moreover, the types of values over which we differ are very difficult to compromise. As such, both sides in this dispute fear the victory of the other, thereby imbibing political disagreements with the language and attitudes of war.

There are two axes in this conflict. The first we can label a battle over the values of conscience; the second we can label a battle over the values of action.

The battle of conscience divides those who think that the state has a duty to protect the ability of any person to live as he or she wants from those who think the state should encourage people to live a type of life believed to be conducive to individual happiness and civic virtue. The former group emphasizes individual self-determination in matters like abortion, sexual behavior and identity, and suicide, contending that individuals are not free unless they can choose without stigma or penalty when to confer life, when to confer death, and how to relate their lives to matters of procreation. The latter group contends that both history and our religious traditions demonstrate the value in limiting individual choice in these and related areas in the interest of social order and living a life likeliest to produce individual happiness.

The battle over actions is really a dispute over the morality of private, unsanctioned activity. On the one side lay those who see uncoordinated private activity as primarily productive of evils: economic inequality, social repression, and even the destruction of the planet through climate change. Only through restraining such actions can human happiness, and indeed human survival, be obtained. The other side believes uncoordinated private activity is a source of great human goods: wealth, privacy, human individuation. They do not believe that those who wish to restrain private action can be trusted to act disinterestedly and, as a result, fear the grants of power needed for the first group to achieve its ends.

In the terms of the day, the first group embrace democratic socialism, the second what President Trump called “American freedom” in his most recent State of the Union address. Our political system has always revolved around two and only two significant political parties. Our conflict, therefore, has obtained partisan coloring. Those advocating to amend or replace traditional American freedom are Democrats and those who seek to conserve it are Republicans.

Those who study politics have long observed how a binary conflict over values gives rise to bitter, warlike politics. The authors of the Constitution were aware of these tendencies. They were only a century away from the end of the bloody Wars of Religion that tore apart almost every European nation. In the Federalist Papers, Alexander Hamilton and James Madison explained how the new Constitution would minimize the dangers by removing religion from national politics altogether. As a result, the Constitution forbids the institution of a religious test for holding public office and the First Amendment prevents Congress from “making any law respecting the establishment of a religion, or the free exercise thereof.”

Today’s conflict, as we have seen, is neither simply religious, in that the dispute is over the truth of one form of Biblical revelation over another, nor economic. In this respect, the Founders’ protections have held. But today, binary conflicts over values need not necessarily concern only religious doctrines.

Battles over conscience are politically crucial nowadays because America’s Constitution has, through decades of Supreme Court rulings, made them the subject of national political debate. The traditional understanding that the federal Constitution, and especially the First Amendment, did not apply to the states was overruled in a series of cases between 1925 and 1947. Since then, virtually every major issue concerning traditional Christian views of morality has been decided via a Supreme Court decision, not by legislation. As a result, cultural questions have been nationalized in a way the Founders sought to prevent.

The religious wars were similarly fought over the right way to live, each side deeming its own interpretation of Christianity as the one true one. Only the stalemate produced by over a century of warfare, culminating in the Treaty of Westphalia, ended the bloodshed. The Westphalian solution—each state determines its own religion—could be an answer to America’s woes. If applied today, it would mean that Baptist Alabama could have one set of laws concerning abortion and homosexuality, while progressive California could have another. Each side could believe zealously in its own views but, by removing the conflict from the national sphere, the nation itself could be preserved.

There would be difficulties, as the experience of post-Westphalian Europe demonstrates. Religious minorities within states were still subject to persecution. In the contemporary United States, many Americans would be concerned about what would happen in traditionalist states to non-whites, gays and lesbians, and women who sought abortions in other states. And once secured in their own realms, the old claims of the traditionalists, that America requires a uniform, Christian-derived morality to endure and to prosper, would surely recur. The federalist solution sits very uneasily with the ideal of universal human rights or the idea of a cultural Christian underpinning to American freedom.

America faced questions like these during the period of our massive immigration, which was diluting the political power of our original British, Protestant settlers with millions of Catholics and Jews from Ireland and Southern and Eastern Europe. After much trial and error, forged in part through the common experiences of the Great Depression and the Second World War, American identity morphed from that of a British-descended, Protestant country to one of the ‘melting pot’ where people from any background could come, so long as they adopted American values of decency, hard work, and devotion to political liberty. It is possible that this identity can be updated to both include the new, secular or non-Christian American while maintaining the liberties and values of the older stock.

It is commonly believed that love of individual freedom is the indissoluble underpinning of American identity. There is much to commend that interpretation to the mind and to the heart. But it is, nonetheless, inadequate, if for no other reason than that all serious American political movements throughout our history have involved some restriction upon an individual’s freedom. Freedom is a crucial part of our heritage, but its continued restriction in the service of some other good must mean that another part of our heritage is more important still.

That other part, I think, is human dignity. The essential American idea is that each individual has the equal right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” and that can have no other grounding than the idea that each person, as unique as he or she is, is alike in a moral capacity to earn and grant dignity. We are very different in our capacities, our tastes, and our talents, but all of us are equal in this respect.

The solution to our political divisions is, then, theoretically simple. We must strive to renew an American identity that allows people from both sides of each divide the ability to see how they can live dignified, freely chosen lives. This is, to put it mildly, much easier said than done.

Any political act is necessarily partially contingent on the circumstances of the moment. Thus, to speak more specifically about how such a thing can be brought about would itself be a demonstration that the speaker is unfit to accomplish or influence the accomplishment of the task. Today’s specific problem can become tomorrow’s afterthought, while events and personalities currently unknown can rise to become dominant features in a debate.

Who in 1858 could have predicted that in 1859 a man named John Brown would lead a raid on the arsenal at Harper’s Ferry with the intent of distributing the rifles and ammunition therein to foment a rebellion of slaves? Who at the outset of 2018 could have predicted that the dominant intellectual force in the Democratic Party would be a 29-year-old former waitress named Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez whose every tweet makes long-established leaders tremble and contort themselves to adapt to the new playing field? Those who seek to heal our nation must keep their ends firm but their means forever variable.

Some things can be foreseen, however, as the very nature of the end requires the rejection or adoption of certain broad approaches. This effort must have its political expression in a political party; it cannot succeed as a matter of personal attraction. It must strive to win three straight elections with every increasing majorities, as history tells us this is a necessary predicate to redefining the contours of American political debate. It must define an adversary clearly—it must know what is against—and it must define a future state just as clearly—it must know in general terms what it is for. It must be willing to endure times of great stress and uncertainty, as great changes always involve a reaction from others. But it must never be willing to deny the essential element of our institutions, the holding of free and fair elections accompanied by free and fair efforts to influence the outcome of those elections. Except when faced with actual insurrection or rebellion, no effort to secure democratic republicanism can rest upon non-republican foundations.

Lincoln once wrote that “as I would not be a slave, so I will not be a master. This expressed my idea of democracy.” Those who seek to renew American identity must burn this into their memory, as the very nature of our disputes involves fears that one side seeks mastery that will place the other in slavery. The middle ground between the master and the slave is the free person, and to truly make all people free in the only way they truly can be free is ever the aim of an American statesman. Let us hope the person who aims to heal our nation fully understands what a healthy American nation would be.

This essay was adapted from an essay titled “A Culture War the Founding Fathers Couldn’t Foresee” at unherd.com

Henry Olsen is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C.

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