Wednesday, July 06, 2011

American morals in a secular republic

Red Cardigan recently posted a July Fourth essay entitled Oh America at her acclaimed site, "and sometimes tea". Out of sheer preference for having a relaxed holiday with her family, rather than have to police who said what, she shut down comments the moment she posted it. Accordingly, I will post the thoughts her essay inspired in my muddled mind here, and graciously absorb whatever anyone wanted to say about it, trolls and all. (Caution, we eat trolls for breakfast here).

I have no reason to doubt that the quotes she refers to are accurate and properly attributed. Yes, John Adams believed in the essential values of morality and religion. Abraham Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address had more "profound theological content" (as Supreme Court Justice William J. Brennan described it) than even the words attributed to him in Red's essay. George Washington certainly believed in security for property, for reputation, for life, and the sense of religious obligation that made oaths to tell the truth binding.

But all of these individuals had seen the horrific results of trying to impose an institutional morality by close cooperation of The State with an Established Church. Adams and Washington, and their contemporaries had had the experience of delegates from thirteen different colonies with far from homogenous cultures trying to form a federal union. They knew that, in the words of James Madison, the better part of showing respect for the sacred name of Jesus was NOT to insert it into a legislative enactment. They inaugurated a Constitution that, again turning to Madison, protected religion from the profane hand of the civil magistrate.

It didn't happen all at once. Most of the original thirteen states had state-supported churches at the time of the Revolution. In New England, all but Rhode Island were Congregational. In Virginia, the Carolinas, and Georgia, it was Anglican. New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania were too polyglot to have a single official church, even though a Quaker elite dominated Pennsylvania. Maryland, established as a refuge for Roman Catholics, had long since, rather bloodily, been taken over by Puritans from Virginia.

Baptists and Methodists were running amuck in most of these places, to the scandal of the more established clergy. Together with the Presbyterians, they made sure that the new states entering the union were firmly committed to no established church. Virginia, among the original 13, let the way in providing for complete religious liberty. When the Fourteenth Amendment laid the groundwork for making religious liberty an individual right, which could be asserted against any state, most states took it as a matter of course.

It is true that some Roman Catholic immigrants to America fled persecution for their Roman Catholic beliefs... mostly the Irish, who were oppressed by the English. But Italians, Portuguese, southern Germans, Belgians, hardly fled from lands where their church was oppressed as such. The Czar didn't try to make Poles convert to Russian Orthodox either, nor did the (Catholic) emperors of Austria.

And it is equally true that the founders of the USA had, or heard from their recent ancestors of, Roman Catholic oppression of Protestants, for their faith. French Huguenots, central European Baptists, not to mention the cruel wars between England and Spain. But the framework for putting all that behind us, once and for all, extended full religious freedom to Roman Catholics as much as to any Protestant sect, or indeed any faith, including Jews, most immediately, and Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, implicitly, when immigration made any of these faiths a practical consideration.

Is the price of not killing each other in mass slaughter over competing religious doctrine that we abandon all sense of morality, or all foundation for morality in religious teaching? I don't think so.

Where our CULTURE has gone wrong, is the notion that if it is legal, it's got to be good, and if it's bad, there oughta be a law against it.

We can see that, for example, in the abortion debate. The Supreme Court ruling in Roe v. Wade was a sound, conservative application of well-established law to a new set of facts, never before presented to the court. But the response on the streets was, in many ways, obscene.

Justice Harry Blackmun wrote a sober decision protecting the right of an individual woman to make a medical decision in consultation with her primary care physician and/or her gynecologist. What we were treated to was a loud public scream "It's legal, have one any time! Kids are a drag! Biology is not destiny!"

I'm sorry Virginia, biology IS destiny. We may tamper with it a bit, but we are what we are. I, born a male, can never carry a child in my abdominal cavity, and a woman can never impregnate anyone. If some women don't have children, all questions about how human society should be organized will soon be moot. Quite naturally, many women find child-bearing fulfilling.

But getting back to morality. The founders of our nation, and the framers of our Constitution (not identical statistical universes), relied on morality to be inculcated by voluntary insitutions and associations independent of the state, because no state can impose morality without hopelessly corrupting every vestige of moral standards.

One might argue that our culture is weak on this point right now. I agree. I am as culturally conservative in my tastes as I am libertarian in my politics and socialist in my economic views. But both the amoral and oppressively moral factions in our nation rely on the same faulted premise: that morality only exists to the extent it is established by law.

The most passionate profusions of religious faith in history have spread in direct opposition to the existing state (e.g., the early Christians vs. the Roman Empire, the Protestant Reformation vs. the feudal order in which the Pope was nominally superior to kings and emperors, the Great Awakening vs. the Congregational and Anglican establishments). All these faiths became corrupt as they acquired some sort of state power, or conventional acceptance that translated into political influence.

If the constitution is the framework of our republic, one might draw an anology to the outer walls of a biological cell. By this analogy, morality is part of the rich fluid of complex chemicals which fill the cell and make it a vital, living, organism. If the cell wall is breached, the essential chemistry is scattered, and life ceases to exist. If the fluids all dry up, then the cell also dies.

Don't aim for triumphalism, either moral or amoral. Sustain the equilibrium.