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By Michael Liccione, Ph.D., The Stream, June 8, 2019
We’re facing civil war. The mutual enmity grows daily. Read the news. Listen to party leaders. Just look at your Facebook feed. Where does this come from? Red and blue America no longer agree on what America is about. There’s no consensus about the philosophical and moral premises of the Union.
If that’s true, we can’t just muddle through. We must now ask: What kind of polity are we going to be? What kind of nation? What kind of people? Because if we don’t ask, and answer it well, we may find ourselves fighting each other. Again. And this time, it may be all over for America, whoever wins.
Americans have twice had to answer such questions. How did we answer it those times? By fighting the Revolutionary War and the Civil War.
The Old Answer
In my view, we should return to the old answer. It had two parts. What were they?
The first part shows up in the Declaration of Independence. It said that we all have “inalienable” rights bestowed by the Creator. We all have them just by being human. Such rights used to be called “natural rights.” By having them, you and I are moral equals. The purpose of government is to protect those rights — not to invent new ones.
Reason alone was supposed to show us that God exists and bestows such rights on us.
Reason alone was supposed to show us that God exists and bestows such rights on us. If that’s true, a polity created to secure natural rights needn’t and shouldn’t be sectarian. You don’t need the Bible or a church to tell you what your natural rights are. Our polity’s legitimacy comes from “the laws of nature and of Nature’s God.”
The young United States thus assumed what’s been called “ethical monotheism.” That was religious in a way. It acknowledged a divine source for morality. That morality was a lot like biblical morality. But it was not sectarian.
The second part of the old answer is that we are a nation that empowers the people. “The people” established this republic by ratifying the Constitution. Most of us believe that is how things should be. That’s not because the people are smarter than monarchs or clerics. They aren’t. It’s because “popular sovereignty” seems the best way to secure natural rights. Or did so seem.
So the old answer linked ethical monotheism with popular sovereignty. The people given the right to rule themselves would protect their own and each other’s rights. That was and remains a noble idea.
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Of course at first, Americans lived it only selectively. The second answer did not ensure the first for everyone. Our laws and our culture did not treat African and Native Americans as the moral equals of whites. Most of the former were enslaved. Many of the latter were expropriated and massacred.
The Civil War ended slavery, but it’s taken America longer still to respect the natural rights of African and Native Americans in practice. We will never be perfect. But at least the second answer to the question “What kind of nation are we going to be?” was a just and necessary extension of the first.
The Breakdown of Consensus
The old answer is now losing its hold. The original link between ethical monotheism and popular sovereignty is breaking. Belief in both is disappearing. Several facts show that.
First, our secular, progressive elites have rejected ethical monotheism. They are moral relativists. Why would they care about inalienable rights? They disbelieve in inalienable rights because that idea implies certain moral absolutes. Most see the very idea of “natural” moral law as hopelessly outdated, as is any idea of “Nature’s God.”
Second, they dislike popular sovereignty too. No “deplorables”! They depend upon the courts to give them what they cannot win at the ballot box. They use the power of the federal government to over-ride local choices and force people to conform to the progressive vision.
Clearly, neither development is compatible with the vision of the Founders. The vision of inalienable rights and popular sovereignty allowed our nation to remain united and peaceful across even deep disagreements. Sadly, given the sorry state of civics education, the average American no longer grasps this. And the left hates it.
The Needed Discussion
It gets worse. We expect secularists to reject the old answer that defined the kind of nation America has been. But even some Christians reject the original answer totally.
Catholics who do are known as “integralists.” They embrace the teaching of 19th-century popes that the state is obligated to uphold the true religion, namely Catholicism. The polity should be sectarian in a sense the Founders rejected. Largely because the popes held that view, American Catholics long found themselves discriminated against, even though most embraced the Constitution. Yet integralism is making a comeback among faithful Catholics today.
Some Protestant and Orthodox Christians take a different route to the same destination. They believe that human rights and moral equality come from our having been “made in the image and likeness of God” (Genesis 1:26-28). Reason alone cannot discover that. It can be known only by special divine revelation.
Even if there are “natural” rights, we can identify them only supernaturally. Any polity fashioned to secure human rights must presuppose a biblical account of divine revelation. That view is also sectarian in a sense the Founders rejected.
And that’s just the Christians. Other religious groups insist on a sectarian understanding. Ultra-Orthodox Jews, who are the fastest-growing segment of Judaism here and in Israel, for one. And Muslims, who cannot be counted on to accept the old answer, even though some do.
Where Are We Now?
So where does that leave us? We seem indisposed to embrace the old answer but cannot agree on what a new one should be. That’s why we should worry about civil war. We might find ourselves in one, if we don’t return to the founders’ vision.
Michael Liccione has taught at several institutions, including the Catholic University of America and the University of St. Thomas (Houston). A former editor at First Things, he writes regularly for Mind and Spirit, Intellectual Takeout, and other sites.