“Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” These are among the most famous words of our second president, John Adams. It gets to the heart of what many see as a crisis in the so-called American Experiment, and it places any discussion of the deep fissures present in our culture and society within a context of morality and religiosity.
Considering the wall that has been built between Church and State over the past century and a half, this statement by one of the Committee of Five who wrote what would become the Declaration of Independence seems a bit misplaced. How can a man who helped found a nation that champions the belief that religion belongs to the realm of private taste and conviction also claim that without religion, and an accompanying morality, that nation cannot succeed?
Well, in a very important sense, it could not be otherwise. Human beings are built – or, to be more modern, are hard-wired – for religion and morality. Even those who eschew formal religion – like so many of the Founding Fathers – believe in an objective morality, despite what they might say. So many people who claim that morality is subjective reveal their true feelings when they remonstrate against the actions of those with whom they disagree.
If morality comes down to me doing what I think is best – the essence of subjective morality – then no one has the right to complain when I think it best to smash private or government property. The utter illogic of this position is revealed when those who riot are asked why they rioted: they were angered by the actions of others, actions that they felt were immoral.
Our country is in crisis – from the Greek word that means to separate, judge, or choose – and it is primarily a moral crisis. Those on both sides of the chaos have more in common than they know or would be willing to admit. Chaos is the opposite of logos whether it is the chaos of the left or the chaos of the right, and it is a key indicator of the breakdown of rational thought and civil discourse. Without those, a nation like ours – built not on cultural, religious, and ethnic solidarity, but on the rule of law – cannot flourish, and most probably is already on life-support.
Despite the diversity of religious views in our land there has, until very recently, been an almost universal acceptance of what some have called the Judeo-Christian moral code. C.S. Lewis, in his brilliant work The Abolition of Man, calls this moral code The Tao. The Tao, or The Way, is illustrated by Lewis in his compilation of the moral rules and laws of every ancient civilization and religion. His purpose is to show that, even when religions differed in hugely essential matters, moralities in every time and place were basically the same. Virtues have always been virtues and vices have always been vices.
But in these chaotic times – times that extend back at least to the 1960s – we are experiencing what Nietzsche called the “transvaluation of all values.” Nietzsche and those who followed after him, people like Michel Foucault and Antonio Gramsci, have helped to bring about this change in the values that America formerly held in common with every earlier civilization. Nietzsche’s hatred of Christianity – the “religion of pity” as he called it in his work The Antichrist – has not gone to the grave with him. Nietzsche is dead, but his Űbermensch or Superman, who embodies the will to power and who obeys no boundaries, is very much alive and well.
When Thrasymachus told Socrates that justice was "nothing other than the advantage of the stronger" and when King Arthur noted that the powerful believe that "might makes right" they were both expressing what would become the philosophy of Nietzsche. We should not be surprised when that outlook sees the destruction of life in the womb as health care or sees the citizen as enemy through knee-on-neck law enforcement.
The need for rational thought and civil discourse has seldom been as necessary as it is today. Those who are rational and civil are tired of “mostly peaceful” (meaning, “they didn’t get violent until they got violent”) protests. Those who are rational and civil want a return to a nation of logos – whether the secular logos of reason, logic, and order; or, and this would be the earnest hope of every Catholic, the Logos revealed in the Incarnate Word, Jesus Christ.
John Adams may not have been all that religious himself, but if he were with us today it is a pretty sure bet that he would rather see a nation of people who follow the religious morality of the Gospel instead of the anti-religious immorality of the Űbermensch. And he would certainly tell us that in order to get through this crisis, this fork in the road, we must choose wisely and without delay.