I commend this talk by AG Barr at Notre Dame. It’s not long, at 34 minutes. (The actual talk starts at 12:43, and hopefully my embed starts playing there automatically.) I debated posting it under our Free Speech discussion, but decided it could use its own topic.
Here are a few highlights in text form:
The central question [according to the founders] was whether over the long haul we the people could handle freedom. The question was whether the citizens in such a free society could maintain the moral discipline and virtue necessary for the survival of free institutions."
Edmund Burke summed up this point in his typically colorful language:
Men are qualified for civil liberty in exact proportion to their disposition to put chains upon their own appetites. Society cannot exist unless a controlling power be placed somewhere, and the less of it there is within, the more of it there must be without. It is ordained in the eternal constitution of things that men of intemperate minds cannot be free. Their past passions forge their fetters.
So the founders decided to take a gamble, and they called it a great experiment. They would leave the people broad liberty. They would limit the coercive power of the government. And they would place their trust in the self-discipline and virtue of the American people. In the words of Madison, ‘We have staked our future on the ability of each of us to govern ourselves.’ And this is really what they meant by self-government. It did not mean primarily the mechanics by which we select a representative legislature. It referred to the capacity of each individual to restrain and govern themselves."
In short, in the framers view free government was only suitable and sustainable for a religious people—a people who recognized that there was a transcendent moral order antecedent to both the state and to man-made laws and had the discipline to control themselves according to those enduring principles. As John Adams put it, “We have no government armed with the power which is capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion. Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people it is wholly inadequate for the government of any other.”
In the past when societies are threatened by moral chaos, the overall social costs of licentiousness and irresponsible personal conduct become so high that society ultimately recoils and reevaluates the path it is on. But today in the face of all the increasing pathologies, instead of addressing the underlying cause we have cast the state in the role of the alleviator of bad consequences. We call on the state to mitigate the social costs of personal misconduct and irresponsibility.
So the reaction to growing illegitimacy is not sexual responsibility but abortion. The reaction to drug addiction is safe injection sites. The solution to the breakdown of the family is for the state to set itself up as an ersatz husband for the single mother and an ersatz father for the children. The call comes for more and more social programs to deal with this wreckage, and while we think we’re solving problems, we are underwriting them. We start with an untrammeled freedom, and we end up as dependents of a coercive state on whom we depend.
Interestingly, this idea of the state is the alleviator of bad consequences has given rise to a new moral system that goes hand in hand with the secularization of society. It can be called the system of macro morality, and in some ways it is an inversion of Christian morality. Christianity teaches a micro morality. We transform the world by focusing on our own personal morality and transformation. The new secular religion teaches macro morality. One’s morality is not gauged by their private conduct but rather their commitment to political causes and collective action to address various social problems. This system allows us not to worry so much about the strictures on our own private lives, because we can find salvation on the picket line. We can signal our finely tuned moral sensibilities by participating in demonstrations on this cause or on that.
Something happened recently that crystallized this difference between these competing moral systems. I was attending Mass at a parish I did not usually attend in Washington DC, and at the end of Mass the chairman of the social justice committee got up to give his report to the parish. And he pointed to the growing homeless problem in DC and explained that more mobile soup kitchens were needed to feed them. This being a Catholic Church I expected him to call for volunteers to go out and provide for this need as volunteers. But instead he recounted all the visits that the committee members had made to the DC government to lobby for higher taxes and more spending to fund mobile soup kitchens.
Ground Zero for these attacks on religion are the schools, and to me this is the most serious challenge to religious liberty today. For anyone who has a religious faith, by far the most important part of exercising that faith is teaching that religion to your children—the passing on of the faith. There is no greater gift we can give our children and no greater expression of love. And for the government to interfere in that process is a monstrous invasion of religious liberty. Yet this is where the battle is being joined, and I see that is being waged on three fronts. The first front relates to the content of public school curriculum…
The second axis of attack in the realm of Education are state policies designed to starve religious schools of generally available funds and encouraging students to choose secular options rather than religious schools…
The third kind of assault on religious freedom and education have been recent efforts to use state laws to force religious schools to adhere to secular orthodoxy."
We must be vigilant to resist efforts by forces of secularization to drive religious viewpoints from the public square and to impinge upon our exercise of our faith