Goodbye, Judge Bork—Goodbye, My Friend

As it happened, I was able to spend a couple of hours between flights with Bob Bork just ten days before he died, and I got to tell him of my gratitude for so much friendship and laughter over the past quarter-century, of my admiration for his depth, and—embarrassing him, as I knew this would—of my love for him. Bob was of the strong stock that keeps emotions such as love to himself. That’s one reason I loved him. Robert_Bork_20121219103236_320_240On such occasions—his many friends loved him mightily and showed it in many angular ways—one could see him squirm with conflicting emotions. He certainly must not accept that, and yet a smile at the corner of his lips and a rising blush up his very white cheeks betrayed his pleasure. His method of fleeing from admiration and (God forbid) love was normally a scoffing rebuke, behind which came a wee smile.

His friends loved him because he was brilliant, always ready with witticisms and lightning insights, and altogether warm of heart himself. It was a joy to watch him with his children and Mary Ellen. Several of those around him thought his was the most radiant intellect they knew: The most famously bright people in Washington always deferred to him. His mind was radiant on things vast—and also domestic. We smiled at the way he and Mary Ellen joshed each other constantly, in the glow of unmistakable union.

Bob was a serious man about his deepest convictions, uncommonly self-aware down to a very great depth. For years there was no sign that he was even thinking of becoming a Catholic, as Mary Ellen was; he sometimes pretended to be an unshakably severe and reserved Pittsburgh Presbyterian—almost never explicitly religious at all. Of course, when he did seek instruction in the Catholic faith, he did so publicly during one of the worst possible and most humiliating years in the history of the American Church, 2003, just as the painful clergy sexual abuse scandal was at the height of exposure in the media. It was just like Bob’s courage (in his great intellectual courage) to go ahead in that unpropitious period.

It was just like his unfailing wit that it had not escaped his notice that baptism in that advanced year of his life carried a double blessing: It washed away all his prior sins, and arrived just when his seniority rendered unlikely all those that had brought the most pleasure.

Bob and Mary Ellen first met at a party of mine and Karen’s—a book party—and shortly afterwards Karen and Mary Ellen drove many hours together out to Notre Dame. Bob had lost his first and deeply loved wife to cancer some years before, and it had seemed to some unlikely he would remarry. On that car trip, Karen picked up signs that, given some time, it just might happen. We were glad.

We also had the immense privilege of taking Bob and Mary Ellen to dinner on the eve of his much-embattled confirmation vote in the Senate. (I always thought that Senator Ted Kennedy’s demagogic, malicious, and falsehood-ridden assault on Judge Bork, at the very beginning of the confirmation process, was the foulest deed of Kennedy’s leadership in the Senate—it properly won its own disgraceful public epithet.) After this dinner, Karen mentioned to me Bob’s astonishing equanimity.

Late in the dinner, he said something like: “At one time, I would have given my right arm to become a justice of the Supreme Court. But now, if I don’t, I will write more freely—not just in legalese—of ideas necessary to the republic in these years.”

At another point, he said something like: “I know some wanted me to kiss babies, and cut off my beard, and appeal more to public sentiment. But that’s not me. That’s how politicians behave. It is not how justices behave. I couldn’t possibly do that. It would have betrayed everything I believe about the law.”

Concentrating on friendship, we laughed a lot at that dinner. In the car, Karen admitted that she admired the inner spirit of Robert Bork more than ever. She herself was well experienced to the steel of spirit (and humor) needed in dark times.

Others may write better on Judge Bork’s pre-eminence among jurists of his generation, and the capaciousness of his mind in the history of law. Today I mourn, and want to honor a man great of spirit.

Michael Novak, one of the founders of First Things, was for more than two decades a colleague of Judge Bork at the American Enterprise Institute.

Published at First Things on December 21, 2012


For Karen, As Two Years Arrive

As two years arrive before your anniversary Mostly I think of you, my darling, With love and gratitude Yet sometimes I am overwhelmed with sorrow. I am so sorry, darling. I am so sorry. I regret every word that caused you pain. I know I did. Three times those last few years you dissolved In desperate tears.

I regret the full weight of my personality That sometimes fell on you My moods, my melancholy, silence, and withdrawal, Sometimes preoccupation, dark concern. You knew sometimes what I was feeling But sometimes not And you always blamed yourself For everything. All things wrong under the fierce and burning sun (As in your prints “Ash Wednesday”) You took upon yourself. Yet it was I so often wrong.

While you – You so successfully kept from me your sufferings Your “bleak clouds,” your dark discouragements, Your self-blame. You never wanted me to feel the slightest weight, You tried so hard never to complain Never to burden any other with your inner pain. You almost never did. And then you blamed yourself for that.

Regrets are useless, dear, I know, You can no longer brush away my own With warm and living fingers I cannot kiss away your salty tears. And yet I remember all the shy smiles you gave to me The awe you sometimes showed in coming to me The way you held me close.

I used to love so much the ducking of your chin When you spoke to others fondly Of me You tried to hide that sly smile of yours. Sometimes then your head tilted back upon my shoulder.

Two years! It cannot be that long, it can’t!

Will you wait for me, my love? Will you wait?

How long it is, How far the road Stretches out ahead.

—Michael (April 13, 2011) Published in First Thoughts July 27, 2011

The Myth of Romantic Love

A young Catholic today inherits a long, long tradition of reflection on love that is unmatched in any other culture in the world, beginning with the sublime “Song of Songs” of the Jewish Testament, and the many sections of the Christian Testament dedicated to the theme. In more recent times, if I may include that great writer in the English Catholic tradition, The Allegory of Love (1936) by C.S. Lewis. In that dazzling history Lewis traces the invention of the story of romantic love—now the most standard of all loves recognized in the Western world. Romantic love is a Western invention, a near-obsession, supposedly the key to all happiness. For Lewis, the invention of romantic love in the age of the troubadours (the age of the Crusades) was far more momentous for the development of the West, and far more broadly influential than, say, the Protestant Reformation. Lewis compares the Reformation to a ripple on the vast ocean of romantic love. As a result of this invention, we Westerners have come to think that the central fire of human happiness is romantic love, love forever and ever (love “happily ever after”). Imagination ends with the romantic couple walking hand in hand across the fields toward the sunlight. Many people spend their entire lives looking for such love, wanting to feel such love, wondering, when they are first attracted to another, if that’s what they’re now feeling. Above all, most people love being in love, love the feeling of loving, love even the mad passion of being in love.

Denis de Rougemont’s Love in the Western World (1940) first opened my eyes to the phenomenon of romantic love. In pointing out several features of romantic love he offered a useful vocabulary for analyzing the meaning most often attached to the term “love” in literature, theatre, and cinema today. Central among these is the fact that it consists in falling in love with love, not with a concrete person. In its pure form it scorns mere bodily, erotic, sexual love. It prides itself on being “above” the biological love that is satisfied by pornography or by groping interaction with another human being. This ill-starred higher love entails

a factor having the power to make instinct turn away from its natural goal and to transform desire into limitless aspiration, into something, that is to say, which does not serve, and indeed operates against, biological ends.

Romantic love loves the higher passion, the spiritual ecstasy of love, not the body. A woman in romantic love loves being swept off her feet, longing for more, to the point of death. “I would rather die” than lose the feeling of loving him and being loved by him.

Passion means suffering, something undergone, the mastery of fate over a free and responsible person. To love love more than the object of love, to love passion for its own sake, has been to love to suffer and to court suffering, all the way from Augustine's amabam amare down to modern romanticism.

To feel the ecstasy of passion, romantic love entails a boundless desire, a longing for the infinite, a longing to “slip the surly bonds of Time,” to escape from bodily limitations into the realm of the forever and the infinite. De Rougemont describes it as “complete Desire, luminous Aspiration, the primitive religious soaring carried to its loftiest perch. . . . a desire that never relapses, that nothing can satisfy, that even rejects and flees the temptation to obtain its fulfillment in the world.” It is a revolt against mere flesh, against the limits of the human condition. The body, it finds gross. What it loves is the rarefied spiritual passion that only romantic lovers know. It loves feeling lifted “above the herd,” into a higher sphere. Romantic love is “a transfiguring force, something beyond delight and pain, an ardent beatitude,” purer, more spiritual, more uplifting than physical “hooking up.” It is not a sated appetite, but in fact quite the opposite. It loves the feeling of never being satisfied, of being always caught up in the longing, of dwelling in the sweetness of desire. It feels a kind of murderous hostility toward rude awakenings.

This is why romantic love desperately needs obstacles. If romantic love were to lead too quickly to physical consummation, it would cease being romantic. For then it would require dealing with clothing in disarray, a mess to clean up, bad breath, and hair all disheveled. Then there would be a meal to fix, and—bump!—romance has fallen back to the lumpen earth. No, for the sake of romantic love, it is much better for fulfillment to be delayed, for obstacles to be put up, for a sword to be laid down between the longing couple, or a curtain drawn between them. For their romantic passion to persist, lovers must be kept away from one another. De Rougemont comments on romantic lovers: “Their need of one another is in order to be aflame, and they do not need one another as they are. What they need is not one another’s presence, but one another’s absence.” This is the story of love perennially facing obstacles, never having to get down to the nitty-gritty of daily life.

If and when eros does vanquish all obstacles, it ceases to be romantic love. It now must choose between commitment to a concrete other with all the limitations of that other, or a once-and-for-all break-up. For with consummation, illusion is shattered. Flesh meets flesh. The reality of the human condition sets in. As a result, the most satisfactory ending for the tale of romantic love is not, as one would think, physical consummation or even “growing old together.” It is, actually, death, while longing still pierces the heart. For then the living member of the couple can go on loving infinitely, forever, above the ordinariness of mere earth. Or else, if that empty fate is simply unbearable, the remaining beloved can also meet a tragic death. Now that is really satisfying: when a man and a woman continue in romantic love eternally, by means of the untimely death of both. That is real tragedy, a real arrow of love to the heart, the best of all Western tales.

Do not too many of the young persons you know believe that true happiness is to be found in true romantic love? (They may not know how to distinguish true romantic love, but they seek desperately to try it out, so that at last they can become “happy.” For so many, “happiness” means romantic love.) Do not many long to be “swept off their feet”? Be honest, you almost certainly remember this wistfulness in yourself, long ago. Perhaps, still, even at your present age, you tend to think that romantic love, a true passion as the French used to call it, was once, or still is, the highest, sweetest peak in your life. We all know people who refuse to be bound by an earthly commitment to any one concrete, imperfect human being. Instead, they fall in love with love, over and over again. Until death brings them rest.

Romantic love is to be contrasted with the Christian vision of human love. Unlike romantic love, it is plain from scripture that God expected—nay, commanded—his followers to consummate their relationships: “Increase and multiply and fill the earth.” Sexuality is a crucial part of human life, both for deeply personal growth and, second, for the continuance and prospering of the human community as a whole. The Christian (and emphatically the Catholic) view of the human being is that sex is a natural expression, not only of the body, but of the soul. In fact, the Christian faith does not hold to the view that the body is separate from the soul. On the contrary, in the Christian view, the human person is one, not two: an embodied spirit, a spirited body—one. The notion that there is an errant body (like a wild steed) to be disciplined by a superior soul (the charioteer) is from Plato, not from Judaism and Christianity.

A very good recent study of love in all its many different varieties has been bequeathed to us by Dietrich von Hildebrand’s The Nature of Love. Von Hildebrand sees all the many varieties of human love—he distinguishes eight or nine different loves, each with its own proper name—as designed to fold into each other, all converging upwards into a rich, symphonic unity. This unity culminates in that greatest of all gifts, the caritas which is proper only and solely to the Persons of the Trinity for one another. The caritas that makes them one. This caritas is also the force which impels the Lord to overflow his identity, diffusing caritas throughout the human race, inspiriting the race, raising its sights and aspirations, transforming the world like yeast in dough, or the heat of white-hot ingots glowing in the night.

Von Hildebrand’s distinctions between agape and caritas are especially brilliant. His vision of the love of a man and woman bounded in matrimony is both very high and beautiful, and quite down to earth. Married love is not that of angels. It is that of sweating bodies, disheveled sheets, unruly hair, bad breath, scraggly beards, dirty diapers, and, outside the door, clamoring little ones hollering for their breakfast. Christian love is this worldly and realistic. Resistant to romantic illusions, feet-on-the-ground. Realism supreme. Reality is always better than illusion. And in regard to marriage, especially so.

But the love of man and wife is also very high and beautiful, precisely insofar as it may be penetrated by supernatural caritas. As Von Hildebrand writes: “It is caritas that empowers those who are animated by it to enter the kingdom of holy goodness, and it is caritas that brings about the dominion of the humble, reverent, and loving center in them over the center of pride and concupiscence.” Not a bad statement of the fulfillment of spousal love.

Michael Novak has recently retired from the George Frederick Jewett chair in Religion, Philosophy, and Public Policy at the American Enterprise Institute and is a member of the editorial board of First Things.

Publisned on First Things On the Square February 14, 2011

'I Row, God Steers'

By Michael Novak and Elizabeth Shaw Andreas Widmer doesn’t know what God has in store for the future, but he sees the marks of God’s providence all over his past. “God is constantly giving us a surprise party,” he muses, “and He’s saying, ‘Just wait and see what wonders I have in store for you next!’”

Andreas is a cradle Catholic, but he really did not make the faith his own until early adulthood. The post-Vatican II religious instruction he received growing up in the 1970s was not very rigorous. By the time he finished school, Andreas jokes, “I probably knew more about Buddhism than Catholicism.” But he does recall his First Communion as a significant event in his early life—the moment when he first sensed the palpable impact of the sacraments.

Through adolescence into early adulthood, Andreas was never hostile toward the faith. It just wasn’t a big deal to him one way or the other. At 18 he applied to be a member of the Swiss Guard, the elite group charged since the sixteenth century with the duty of protecting the pope. Anyone who has been to the Vatican knows their colorful striped uniforms and distinctive headgear. Andreas was accepted by the Guard and moved to Rome at age 20.

He describes the decision to join the Swiss Guard as “providential in hindsight.” At home in Switzerland he had been having trouble finding his niche. He was restless. Trying to figure out what he was going to do with his life, he just couldn’t find the right “fit” anywhere. With all the enthusiasm and bravado of a strapping, six-foot-nine young man, Andreas thought being a bodyguard was “the coolest thing in the world.” A glamorous, exciting job. Andreas was searching for his identity when he decided to apply to the Guard. “But,” he recalls, “what I found there, when I was looking for myself, was God.”

While in Rome Andreas had what he calls a conversion. One of the duties he had to carry out as a guard may have helped prepare him for that experience. Every guard has to learn to stand still, silently on watch at his post, for two to three hours a stretch, up to three times a day. Each guard on duty in this manner is accompanied by an older guard companion, who is permitted to move about and talk. Sometimes the older guard will pose thoughtful, probing questions: Have you ever thought about your life? What is your earliest memory? Think of each year… How have you experienced God? Andreas found that he really benefited from this opportunity to pause, both physically and mentally, for introspection. It may be a difficult discipline to master, but an invaluable one for spiritual growth.

As one of Pope John Paul II’s bodyguards, Andreas was in the privileged position to observe on a daily basis the private life of the real man, not the iconic public figure who routinely drew crowds of hundreds of thousands. And what he saw in the pope was so shockingly genuine—the depth and sincerity of his prayer, his words, his feelings, his peace. It did not take long for Andreas to conclude: “Whatever he has, I want it.”

Andreas was amazed by the pope’s very earthly connection to God, his ability to “read” God in the people and circumstances all around him. John Paul II was acutely sensitive to the situations of those in his presence, and he even reached out to Andreas personally. The pope, whom Andreas considers his “spiritual father,” encouraged him to pray the rosary and develop other “Godly habits,” including receiving the sacraments frequently.

Thinking back on his time with John Paul II, Andreas notices that this was his first experience of God’s providence at work in his life. “God really does take care of things; we just need to relax a bit,” Andreas reflects. We try to script our lives carefully, to plan, deliberate, and decide what we will do and when we will do it. But then we see things take a different turn. God intervenes. He calls us to be holy as he made us, not as we wish to be. So we need to be a little more naïve, a little more childlike. We need to stop trying to coax God to give us what we want. We need to start trusting in his benevolence, and cooperating with his will. Andreas uses a metaphor: “God and I are two people in a boat. I row, and he steers. he’s not going to row; I have to do that. But when I row, I have to trust him to steer.”

The pope’s spirituality was refreshing and uplifting, and it awakened Andreas to his first understanding of his vocation. In contrast to the downward-looking, authoritarian sense of God Andreas knew from his Germanic heritage, the God John Paul II showed him was more like a good coach—someone who wants you to be the very best you can be, someone who believes in your potential, has great goals for you and wants to help you achieve them.

From the pope Andreas discerned that God creates each of us the way he does for a reason: to be happy. We need to trust that, and to pursue our happiness by using our God-given gifts and talents. For each of us our vocation is something very real, very here and now, not something faraway or exotic. It’s not doing the most difficult thing you can think of. “God made me a hammer,” says Andreas, “so I have to look for nails!” Each of us is on a daily mission from God, and recognizing this fact underlines the dignity of our ordinary lives. Vocation is all about using what we have and acting in the circumstances right in front of us. That’s all God is asking of us, and that’s how we find our fulfillment and happiness.

With the encouragement of John Paul II, Andreas grew more serious in his prayer life, which led to a deepening, profound sense of the presence of God. Andreas began considering the priesthood. Perhaps he would try to become an Augustinian. His constant prayer was: “Lord, what would you have me do?” Then one day he met a young American student, Michelle, who was studying in Rome. Within moments, Andreas recalls, he knew he had met his wife-to-be. But he didn’t speak English, and she lived in America. No matter. Andreas had learned from John Paul II to be more open to God’s will. “God has speaks to me through the events in my life right now. He put this person in front of me and I have sincere feelings and peace about it,” he reasoned. “This is what he is calling me to do now.”

So he left Swiss Guard in order to pursue Michelle. He moved to Boston, and he matriculated at Merrimack College. There he learned English and got a degree in business. Michelle finished college. The two married shortly thereafter.

Andreas was cooperating with God’s plan for his vocation. Along the way he discerned a new “Godly desire”—a good desire, implanted in him by God—to provide for his wife and the family they might have together. He also heard God’s providential voice speaking to him through Michelle. In the months before they married, she counseled Andreas to take an unpaid internship. “Don’t worry about money,” she said. “If you do good work you’ll get paid in due time.”

Andreas followed her advice and took an unpaid internship at a high-tech firm in the Boston area. He didn’t have much expertise on the tech side of things, but his language skills made him invaluable to the firm. (Andreas speaks German, English, Italian, French, and some Spanish.) Here he was applying the lesson on vocation he had learned from John Paul II: “All I need to do is to pursue excellence at work—at what I know and can do well.” Just trust in God, who made me this way for a reason, and who made me to be happy. This gave him confidence and a sense of peace.

Over the next several years Andreas found enormous success at a handful of other tech companies. His vocation in business was wonderfully fulfilling. He loved the creative process of building and growing a company. But he found out the hard way that business can be very powerful and very dangerous. It’s an environment all too hospitable to the deadly sin of pride. “When you’re successful, it’s so easy to start thinking it’s all you—you’re the man,” says Andreas. He didn’t stop going to church, but his spirituality waned. Other things became more important to him.

In business there is always the risk of being subsumed by profit. Short-term goals and the bottom line take precedence over the company’s original vision. “When that happens, you cut the soul out of the thing,” Andreas reflects. It turns out that’s not good for business, either.

One of Andreas’s firms achieved great success—75 percent of the market share worldwide—developing and marketing a new speech recognition interface for computers. When Andreas and his colleagues decided to sell the company, they went with the highest bidder, a competitor they had always thought of as unethical. “For money, you get blinded,” he explained. The deal was executed, and Andreas and his colleagues were paid not in cash but in the purchaser’s stock. With that deal, Andreas had made more money than he could ever have imagined.

As is common in such transactions, Andreas and his colleagues were subject to “golden handcuff” rules—certain time restrictions on how soon they can cash out the stock that’s been paid. When a short window opened up, and Andreas had a day or two to cash out, Michelle encouraged him not to hold on to the stock in hopes that its value might rise even higher, but to sell it right away. “How much money do you need? Sell it!” was her reasoning. Andreas brushed off her advice. The value of this stock could skyrocket, and they’d be even better off! When Michelle persisted, Andreas sold “just enough to have a nest egg.”

Not long afterward, odd reports began appearing in the news. Something fishy was up. Criminal violations—the purchasing company was pulled from NASDAQ! Andreas’ company had been sold, the stock he got in exchange was worthless, and the money they could have had—all gone.

A dark, depressive period followed for Andreas. How could he ever recover? It was hard on Michelle, and on their marriage, too. But Andreas now sees the episode as a “tap on the shoulder” from God. It was a crash course in humility. “It’s not all you; you’re not the man”—that message came through loud and clear. “You cannot hear God unless you are humble,” Andreas reflects. Maybe God humbles us to make us ready to listen.

Later Andreas and Michelle went to confession, as they try to do every three months. Andreas entered the confessional first, told his sins and in the process spoke about the awful preceding months, the unkindness toward his wife, and all the rest. The priest gave him absolution and a run-of-the-mill penance. Then it was Michelle’s turn. Not surprisingly, the details of her confession overlapped quite a bit with the one Father had just heard. It didn’t take long for him to figure out the situation. He gave Michelle absolution, and then considered her penance. “Did you come here by car today?” he asked. They had. “As part of your penance, you must talk to your husband about all this – before you get out of the car on your way home today.” The graces of the sacraments, both penance and marriage, were poured out to Andreas and Michelle that day.

Since they married Andreas and Michelle had always been open to having children. For years their attitude was, “if it happens, it happens”—but it hadn’t happened. Doctors were recommending various infertility treatments, but Andreas and Michelle weren’t game. They left the matter in God’s hands.

Then they had what Andreas calls a “Road to Emmaus epiphany.” They had driven out to Albany to attend the wake of a woman who had died far too young. They were deeply moved by the young woman’s mother, so upset and grieving by the casket. Afterward, on the long and somber drive back to Boston, Andreas and Michelle had been silent for a while. Then one of them broke the silence. Should they adopt? In the past, they discussed the idea but decided against it—they had too many concerns about it. But now, as if by direct revelation, they both realized this was what they were meant to do. It was one of those situations where suddenly you “just know,” according to Andreas. Shortly thereafter, the couple began the process and about a year later they welcomed a six-month-old son into their home.

Following a series of professional ups and downs, Andreas took a six-month sabbatical at age 40. Drawing on the economic thought of John Paul II, he spent some time writing about creativity and entrepreneurship as vital solutions to poverty. But after six months he was itching to get back into the high-tech world.

While he was busy trying to get a new firm off the ground, the Templeton Foundation approached him. They were interested in his ideas on entrepreneurship and poverty. They asked him to write a business plan for them, which he did. His mind and efforts then focused on his own start-up, until it became clear that his new firm wasn’t going anywhere. Looking back, Andreas sees the disappointment in a positive light—it was another needed dose of humility, helping him to hear God’s voice and cooperate with his will.

As it turns out, Templeton was keen on Andreas’s plan, but unwilling to move forward on their own. Today he and Michael Fairbanks are the co-founders of the SEVEN (Social Equity Venture) Fund, a non-profit promoting research and models of enterprise-based approaches to wealth creation and poverty reduction.

“When we work, we don’t just make more—we become more,” Andreas reflects, echoing a key element of the economic thought of John Paul II. In this regard, he sees his work in business as intimately bound up with his vocation, his calling from God. Enabling people to be creative and to work, Andreas points out, both underscores their dignity as persons and opens up seemingly limitless possibilities for human development.

In addition to his work at SEVEN, Andreas writes on the intersection of faith and entrepreneurship at his blog, Faith & Prosperity Nexus. He also lectures, and has contributed to a volume titled In the River They Swim: Essays from Around the World on Enterprise Solutions to Poverty . His book on what he learned from John Paul II during his two years as a Swiss Guard and how it applies to business life is due out in the fall of 2011 from Emmaus Road Publishing.

Looking back on his first 45 years of life, Andreas sees his vocation as a lay person as “a process with many stages.” Swiss Guard, entrepreneur, husband, father, writer, lecturer. Vocation is all about meeting God in the twists and turns of our lives. And trusting in his will along the way. As Andreas puts it: “The older I get the more I realize how little I know. But one thing I am more and more certain of is that God exists and that he cares. God is accompanying each one of us on the marvelous journey that leads to him.”

Published in First Things Online December 6, 2010

A Tribute to Michael Novak

By Christopher DeMuth (These remarks were given at a retirment party for Michael Novak, who had worked at AEI for 32 years.) Michael Novak and his work during the past thirty-five years have been abundantly feted. Celebrants have expounded on his brilliance, his prolificacy, and his influence. But brilliance and industriousness, although highly important virtues, are not nearly as rare as the total Novak phenomenon. And influence, although highly admired, is not a virtue at all—it puts Michael in the company of Eliot Spitzer and Peter Singer. So I would like to take a different tack and remark on Michael’s character, in particular his ambition and his bravery.

He spent the first twenty years of his professional life in academics. To the brilliant and industrious, university life offers wonderful opportunities for achievement and fulfillment. Michael could have continued to hold the best chairs at the best schools and to win all the teaching awards. But the academy favors work on discrete, manageable problems “in the literature” and can punish departures from certain orthodoxies. At some point in the 1970s Michael decided that he would go after bigger game.

I have often marveled that, in the midst of the Jimmy Carter administration, the hard-headed businessmen on the America Enterprise Institutes’s Board of Trustees would countenance the appointment of a theologian, and moreover a theologian with a colorful paper trail in left-wing politics and Democratic Party electioneering. But it was Michael who took by far the greater risk in accepting the offer—throwing away tenure and respectability for God knew what (but He wasn’t talking, not even to Michael.)

Since then his vocation has been the conquest of momentous, difficult, contentious problems. Problems with large practical and political components, where his philosophical learning provided a foundation but everything else was left to his own wits and experience. Today we recognize the moral architecture of democratic capitalism because Michael built it for us—even the terms were unknown before he and Irving Kristol started their work.

And he has provided many elaborations and applications: the moral architectures of economic development, of escape from the welfare trap, of nuclear deterrence, of the corporation and business-as-a-calling, of the income tax, intellectual property, mediating structures, ethnic politics, and even sports (the last however limited to Notre Dame football). If you listen in on Michael debating the progressive income tax with a professional economist, you will get an idea of the moral clarity he has brought to questions that everyone knew to be terribly complicated and endlessly nuanced.

Along the way he has dispatched many cherished liberal shibboleths and theological wrong-turns. In recent years has grafted back the second wing of faith onto the long-prevailing narrative (even at AEI) of the American founding as a secular exercise in institutional ingenuity. Bravest of all, he has provided religious instruction to Ayaan Hirsi Ali.

What Michael’s greatest projects have had in common is audacity. In taking them on, he was committing himself to originality, which risked failure, and to unflinching truth-telling, which risked elite derision if he succeeded. His brilliance may have given him the confidence to take the big risks; his industriousness may have been inspired by fear of failure. But they alone cannot explain what Michael achieved. They had to be coupled with guts—sheer obstinate confrontational Johnstown guts.

Michael’s toughness is often masked by his sweet, magnanimous disposition. Don’t be fooled. If you have watched him make a big concession in a debate, or respond sympathetically to a hostile questioner, or provide a generous account of an opposing view in a book or essay, then you know that his kindliness is often the sign that serious intellectual vivisection is about to commence.

And then there’s his vast philosophical mastery: he already knows Argument No. 27 better than the other guy, and he also knows that it is conventionally trumped by Argument No. 8—but he also knows that it is completely annihilated by Argument No. 131-C, which he derived himself fifteen years ago.

But most of all, Michael’s sweet magnanimity is genuine and in fact reflects the ambition and bravery of his intellectual position. For it expresses his certainty that there is good in human nature—good that calls for earnest entreaty on its own terms. Among career pundits and haut thinkers, nothing could be more politically incorrect, more embarrassingly naïve. Yet in Michael’s choices of projects, and in the particulars of his arguments, one sees three overarching propositions constantly at work.

First, that man for all his failings is ardently concerned to know what is right and just. Second, that politics for all its flaws is capable of pursuing social betterment and sometimes finding it. Third, that reason for all its frailties can help us find our way. To dedicate a lifetime to such propositions in late twentieth-century America one had to be not only brave but downright reckless. That the endeavor has proven so astoundingly fruitful is reason to doubt the cynicism of the age and to work, as diligently as he has, for a return of the better angels.

Let us then drink to Michael’s continuing good health, good spirit, and good works.

Christopher DeMuth is D.C. Searle Senior Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and was AEI’s president from 1986 through 2008. These remarks were given at a retirment party for Michael Novak, who had worked at AEI for 32 years. Michael Novak is a long-time member of First Things editorial and advisory board.

Published in First Things Online October 6, 2010

The Liberating Balance

In his great book The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism, Daniel Bell argued that capitalist systems are composed of three complementary but distinct social systems: the political, the economic, and the moral/cultural. That their values are mutually complementary makes their unity possible. That they are distinct institutions with competing interests enables them to act as checks and balances upon each other. But sometimes one system becomes too strong for the other two. When this happens, the poor are the primary victims. We see something of the effect of this new imbalance in the current economic crisis. There seems to be virtually universal agreement that the crisis began in the U.S. housing bubble. But what caused the housing bubble? Which of the three systems overpowered the other two?

My economist colleagues at the American Enterprise Institute predicted this collapse nearly a decade before it happened. They identified one immensely destructive Congressional policy: promoting mortgage lending to people of very low income through off-budget guarantees and lax lending standards (rather than explicit, on-budget subsidies), which disguised the substantial risks to the financial system as a whole.

The two giant “GSEs” (government-sponsored enterprises) Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac supplied hundreds of billions of dollars of government-guaranteed loans for “subprime” mortgages, while the bank regulators pressured banks to relax traditional lending standards dramatically and to increase their mortgage lending. Much public praise (including, alas, from me) was lavished on “Fannie and Freddie” for making millions of poor families the owners of their own homes. What was overlooked was that the homes were really owned by the banks and other lenders—and that the families had been loaded with far more debt than they could afford when and if housing prices fell, as of course they did.

Government policy was not alone responsible for the current crisis, but it did play an originating part. And the poor were, as I said, the primary victims of the unintended consequences of government’s good intentions, good intentions that would not have had such effect if the balance between political and economic had been maintained. During the first thirty years of the new millennium, the main moral task is to reduce the numbers of the world’s poorest persons drastically. There is no reason written in the stars why this earth should have so many poor people. Poverty is directly linked to poorly designed human systems for creating new wealth, and an abysmal failure to teach all peoples how to shape their habits and daily practices to become creators of new wealth. Sound economic habits and skills of enterprise and invention are quite natural to the human species, and only need to be taught and encouraged in order to blossom, if external restrictions and impediments are removed.

“If you had your way, what programs would you propose in order to end poverty such as we recently saw in Bolivia and Brazil?” Pope John Paul II asked me more than once at the dinner table in his apartment. I always made three simple yet basic recommendations. The effect of these is to restore the balance Bell described, in a way that frees the natural energy and creativity of people to create wealth and improve their lives.

First, since the most dynamic form of capital is human capital, give priority in social spending to expand and improve education. Along with that, put new emphasis on economic creativity, enterprise, wit, and invention, which in Centesimus Annus the Holy Father identifies as the chief cause of the wealth of nations today.

Second, in order to supply the millions of new jobs desperately needed among the unemployed and underemployed in many poor countries, make it easier for poor persons to form economic associations such as small businesses, under the protection of limited liability, so that they do not put at risk the whole well-being of their families in their new ventures. Most new jobs are created by new small businesses employing three to twenty-five persons, and the rate of small-business formations is the best indicator of progress against unemployment and underemployment. Without rapidly increasing employment in the private sector, a nation is unlikely to grow out of poverty.

Any nation wishing to escape poverty must help unleash the economic creativity of the poor. Human beings have a natural right to association (first vindicated by St. Thomas Aquinas in Contra Impugnantes Religionem), and it is virtually criminal to exclude the poor from the right to form business associations, and to form them quickly and cheaply.

Third, since poor people lack the personal capital to buy materials or to pay collaborators before they begin operations, governments must establish small credit bureaus in every locality. These will offer practical advice because they want their lenders to succeed, and thus to pay back in a regular stream the moneys they have borrowed. These mini-loans, once successfully paid back, can then be recycled to still other entrepreneurs.

Such progress at the bottom is the best method for bringing the fruits of new wealth to the grassroots of society, where in a relatively short time (as we learn from all the “Asia tigers”) persons of considerable economic genius will begin to emerge. For the Lord has spread economic talents abroad like the sower sowing his seed.

The usual motivation for denigrating capitalism has been to collect more power in the hands of the State. The usual rationalization has been to “regulate,” “correct,” and “direct” the market, which would otherwise malfunction, to the advantage of the rich and the continued oppression of the poor. Myths such as “global freezing” in the 1980s and “global warming” since the 1990s have stimulated new lusts for government control over economic activism and economic creativity, for motives held to be intrinsically pure and good. The lust of political elites for more and more control over economic activity is always a danger against which wise societies take strong precautions.

Up to a point, regulation is advantageous to the economy itself. Businesses often ask for regulation, in order, for example, to protect patents or ensure fair markets. But carried too far, regulation injures the economy and the people it is supposed to protect. There seem never to be lacking those who would suffocate economic activists and creators of new wealth in the name of “helping” them. But experience shows us wise ways to regulate as well as unwise ways, ways that actually liberate the poor from poverty and unemployment by liberating them to be creative economic activists.

This we have seen played out in the real world (the world of actual experience), where the policies and practices just described have quite recently worked wonders in freeing from poverty an immense proportion of the world’s population, even while the world’s population has doubled three times since the year 1800. The system sometimes denigrated as “capitalist” is a system with many serious faults. It is a poor system, until compared to all the others. It has no peer in lifting the world’s poor out of poverty.

It was only about two hundred years ago that the Christian West moved (against Malthus) to lift the cruel burden of poverty from the whole human race, when the dream of “universal affluence” was first voiced by Adam Smith in tiny and then not very wealthy Scotland. The persisting aim has been to help today’s poor to live at standards of living unattainable by even the wealthiest persons in 1776 by freeing their economic drive and creativity. His language was not Bell’s, but he would have agreed with the need to balance the political, economic, and moral/cultural for the good not of the wealthy but of the weakest and most vulnerable.

For example, in China and India alone, since 1980, more than 500 million of the world's poorest people have now moved out of poverty. Never have so many poor people moved out of poverty in so short a time. Deliberate encouragement of economic creativity among the poor led to these sterling successes, along with new access to open markets in parts of the West. Let us hope that poor nations do at least as well in liberating their poor in the next twenty years.

Michael Novak is the George Frederick Jewett Scholar in Religion, Philosophy, and Public Policy at the American Enterprise Institute and is a member of the editorial board of First Things. “The Liberating Balance” is adapted from a talk he gave to the Pontifical Association of Social Sciences in Rome on May 1, 2010.

Published in First Things Online blog On The Square May 4, 2010

Imagine the Loss of the Christian Holy Places

On Easter Sunday, I was able to sit in prayer for a while at the Shrine run by sweet Italian nuns on top of the Mountain of the Beatitudes, the most famous of Sermons. It was infinitely peaceful, and I needed it. Later it hit me: What if the mad leader of Iran fulfilled his pledge to wipe Israel from the map with the Iranian nuclear weapon, coming soon? What would we Christians do without the Mount of the Sermon?

Without Capernaum? Without Nazareth? Without Cana?

Without the lovely and mystical city of Jerusalem–without Golgotha, and the Mount of Olives, the Garden of Gethsemane, and the Tomb?

Without Bethlehem?

Without the Sea of Tiberius (the Sea of Galilee), where Jesus after his Resurrection had Peter and the others cast their net on the other side of their boat?

Back in the 1940’s, when Reinhold Niebuhr started Christianity in Crisis to support the war against Nazism, he abandoned his earlier pacifism, and his earlier too-simply pious way of wishing evil away, and called for a new tough-minded Christian realism.

He rooted this realism in the writings of St. Augustine on the observable presence of sin wherever men live and act – even in the courts of law, even in marriage, to name two of the better human institutions.

Augustine voiced the awful conclusion that there will always be wars, despite the pious dreams of many. For wars flow from the inner heart of the City of Man, its egotism, pride, ambition, and other sins–that is, distorted acts of all kinds.

Because he rooted his new political realism in his own theological conversion–his new meditation on the wisdom and trustworthy observations of Augustine–Niebuhr called the new movement he called for by the theological name, Renewed Orthodoxy or Neo-Orthodoxy.

We again need such Christian realism. Such tough-mindedness. The most dreadful war of all time is just ahead of us, is already well begun. Many of us want to save the Christian Holy Places, and Israel, too–our best ally in the world, the creator of the most economically creative and democratic society in its region.

Fulfilling this desire will not be easy in the next twelve months, fateful months, clock-ticking months. If the nuclear capacity of Iran is not destroyed before functioning nuclear weapons are in their silos or other weapons platforms, the whole world will experience blackmail.

To make an object lesson, one nation in particular is on notice that it is listed as first for destruction.

How will we live with ourselves if Israel is annihilated with nuclear bombs? How will we survive? How will our understanding of the Word of God survive, if the fleshly, tangible heart of Jewish and Christian faith is obliterated?

Yes, we need a new, tough Christian Renewal of Orthodoxy, Neo-Orthodoxy, Christian realism. We face tough actions in the next month and the months after. In the next month, because Congress is about to work out a reconciliation of its two strong bills (in the Senate and in the House) setting in place very threatening sanctions against Iran’s capacity to function.

That bill then will go to the desk of President Obama, who may or may not sign it. Great pressure will have to be exerted, life-or-death pressure, to guarantee that that bill is signed. Our future depends on it.

If sanctions do not work, it will not be moral simply to take the easy road of allowing the Iranians to outwit us and outlast us. They intend to go ahead with their mad scheme. They calculate that we lack the moral strength to stop them.

Who is ready to say that as the last of all resorts the Iranian nuclear effort must be destroyed by force before it comes to term? I for one do say it. Maybe some can show that Christian realism, Neo-Orthodoxy, can be satisfied by an easier path. I do not think so, but I am open to argument.

What are the reasons against? What are the reasons for?

We do not have much time to wait before getting that argument going. We must get it done soon, in order to be able to act in time.

What is at stake is whether any future Christians will be able to sit and pray where Our Lord Jesus once preached the unforgettable Sermon. And much else besides.

Published in the First Things blog First Thoughts April 19, 2010

On Loving Karen

Karen Laub-Novak

Karen Laub-Novak 1937-2009 Portrait by Igor Babailov

Thank you, lady, for reminding me what it was like To fall in love with Karen Fifty years ago. It was her eyes that did me in, Blue as the sapphire stones She bought along the Indian Ocean. Blue, with sadness deep behind them, And merriment like candle's flames on golden foil.

Eyes incapable of malice, Radiant from her heart. We talked and talked, newly met, Though we had known Each other ever since forever.

We knew the darkness and the night — That may have been our deepest bond. We weren’t afraid of night. A woman who has suffered much, as Tolstoi wrote, Inflames a lover's heart.

I cannot say if Karen loved me. That was a word she rationed, As if in uttering it she lost her self – Which fighting to hold safe so many years, Impressionable and unconflictive (As she wished to be) she could not give away.

To say would utterly destroy her, poof! Like dust she’d blow away. No, it was crucial that she act with love But seldom say the word. Crucial that she trust. Crucial to stay the Self She had, so much embattled, won.

But oh! I loved her And loving her burst into joy, An oven suddenly ignited.

Who could not love her shyness, Her evasive smile of pleasure. Her self-dramatizing humor about herself? Her idle dream had been to be an actress A comedienne of dance and music, Light of heart and blithe. What she really wanted Was to be the next Picasso. Kokoschka had told her that she could.

She was self-mockingly insistent That her I married, for her mind, To which I readily agreed Although not wholly true. Yes, Without her darkness of experience, Without her wit, Without her flashes to the heart of things, My soul could not have been so deeply wounded. But I was stricken also by her figure And her shy, shy smile.

Still later, then, her works of art I saw, Which took my breath away. A woman always struggling, Always suffering, Conflicted, active, bold. Uncompromisingly, She stripped away the skin from straining sinews And showed live bones in pain (Or maybe only tension) And underneath each face the mask of death. She saw life truly In its awfulness and joy.

Fiercest angels did she wrestle. “Every angel,” her Rilke wrote, “is terrible.”

Parting (in 1962), I handed her my novel, About a soul stripped down to nothingness Yet rejoicing in the dark (Where alone God can be found). Her favorite books were Avila’s, And The Dark Night of the Soul. Mine, too.

She thought I'd been pretentious, She later wrote, For handing her my book. But she read it on the plane One end to the other. She slyly hinted that she liked it.

So we were free to love like children Who had learned to trust, Yet knew the fingers on the windowpane, In darkness and in rain. We were made to meet. Or so I felt in thirty minutes Across the booth from her in Harvard Square.

Most extraordinary thing: I had described her in my novel Two years before we met. Lovely girl, an artist, Upon Bernini’s bridge at midnight When the Tiber turned to silver Beneath a silver moon.*

So I knew that I had known her And would marry her. Knew, but didn’t say a word. For four days we did nothing But go out together. She was fearless driving Boston streets. That was what convinced me She was tough. More tough than I. Which was in my dream.

I knew I loved her, almost bam! It took her longer: Three close suitors in hot pursuit, Each one aspiring lawyer as if In answer to her lawyer father’s prayers. One did love her mightily, I later learned. Thank God she took a leap toward me.

We were apart all summer, She at the Worcester School of Art, And I in Europe, steadily describing to her All I saw, and quietly insinuating... We were meant to meet. A hundred letters sent in all-- Desperate to hold her heart.

Just last month, My sister found her photo, Sitting on my parents’ lawn In September, 1962. My brother Dick (whom K. had met at Harvard) Was on his way to Bangladesh, And Karen planned her drive from Iowa To pick me up, both Harvard-bound, To bid dear Dick farewell. (Little did we know it was forever.)

She sits upon the lawn her knees drawn up In short black shorts, a Vee-striped blouse Of orange and brown, and on her head A turban striped the same. A skinny, gawky kid in shell-rimmed glasses Sits as close to her as decency permits. Can that be me? Even then I asked myself, Can this be me? How can that fellow sit with such a one In total inner peace?

Our honeymoon some ten months thence, On Minnesota’s Forest Lake-- My beloved walked into the bath, A towel on arm but not a stitch of clothes, And closed the door. Let out a piercing shriek, fell back, Slid downward noisily onto the floor. Had burglers broken in?

Leaping to the door, I saw a bat attacking her. I pulled her out, and stepped inside To face the bat, and illumination struck my mind: “So this is what a married man is for?” Gulping folded up a towel to swing And watched its swoops As closely as a pitcher’s wicked curve When it buzzed in and dove at me. I caught it fairly, brought it down But in the motion felled myself.

Here Karen showed her wit, Broke in, a basket in her hands Which she slapped down upon the now-dazed bat. “How do we get it out of here?” I asked with weak male reason. She answered me with motion, Returning with a cardboard square To slip beneath the basket. Cool as a cop she marched it to the darkened door And flicked it up into the night. What a cool, cool girl, I marvel, Then and now.

She also showed me what a coward I could be When once at dinner little three-year-old Began to choke, in desperation turning red. I froze. Not K. She leapt across the kitchen Plunged her finger down the throat, Pulled out the villainous blob. Not the first or only time She moved with wit and bravery While I sat panicked, turning pale.

St Thomas (Aquinas) wrote, “Of all friendships, Marriage is by far the greatest.” I used to tell my classes that, And say that it is true. The only thing – I used to warn – is this: If you don’t like the truth about yourself, Then don’t get married. When you live close in, Illusions are expensive. So once the honeymoon is over, Your lover's duty is To puncture every one of yours -- One by painful one. My lover pricked an awful lot of mine. Especially my conceits.

Annoying faults my lover also had, So I did edit them, much to her pain. She had a low opinion of herself, So one more fault was more than she could bear. I added to her pain. I'm sorry that I did.

Oh, Glory! I loved Karen, Love her still. Irradiant soul. Valiant, courageous, strong, Yet soft and vulnerable. Beautiful with full and loving sensual beauty. Funny, amusing, telling tales about herself – Confessing all her silly faults Before I found them out.

She was wonderful to hug. She loved to hug. She needed many hugs – Or maybe I did.

And now she seems so close to me. I commune with her incessantly Since now she sees me even to my inner self. I hear her laughing quite a lot As I go bouncing light to light And wall to wall, a pinball In a slanted box. She enjoys My blunders. Always has.

It seems she has told everyone (Before she died) I worried her-- “He doesn’t know a thing around the house. “He cannot do it for himself.” It isn’t true, of course. I do okay. But in an obvious sense, b'god, The girl was right.

There is no other like her. She is unique. I was lucky, lucky, lucky, To be with her for nearly fifty years. That is why I look at photos, Read old letters, and let the burning Burn my soul.

Published in First Things Online February 14, 2010

* I here compress the actual plot.

On Christmas, For Karen

Full of grace!Full of grace. Full of grace... !

Mother, who this day brought us Our Love and our Redeemer Take into your care a mother like yourself, Our much loved, so-loved Karen. Honor her for her self-sacrifice Who gave her life for us And especially for me She gave up too much art So dear to her for mine She did not count on dying first But left so much she longed to do unfinished.

Please embrace her and comfort her And speak to her with love Remind her of her words of you As she watched “The Passion,” Scrubbing harder with her tears The dearest blood of your dear Son. And how she loved your “Magnificat.”

Please, Good Lady, Mother, Speak to her with tender love As for ages you have been known to do, Take her by the hand to those she loves, John Paul the Second, Father Richard, Irving, Bill, Clare, Avery and Eunice, And, God willing that he’s there, Oskar Kokoschka, who called her “My little darling Karen,” and singled out Her talent and her promise for all to hear.

Take her, too, to all the others whom she loved. Sts. Thomas, Teresa, John o’ the Cross, And John of the Apocalypse, T.S. Eliot, Rilke, Dostoevsky, And all of those with whom she long communed. Take her around, dear Mother, honor Her self-sacrifice.

If Heaven is a conversation, dearest Hostess, Take her kindly where she will be happiest – For her, that is, where she can learn the most. Shepherd her, protect her, But do not think she is too shy– Give her your smile and let her go her way.

Published in First Things Online January 13, 2010

The Truths Americans Used to Hold Part III: 'Confirm Thy Soul in Self-Control'

The Dietrich von Hildebrand Legacy Project recently sponsored an extraordinary conference on philanthropy and the importance of fundamental ideas. In the keynote address, Michael Novak urged the many philanthropists present to attend urgently to the grievous failure of our cultural institutions to teach the young (for the first time in American history) the basic principles of the American Republic—the ten, twelve, fifteen new propositions without which American Exceptionalism cannot be understood and without whose personal appropriation by each generation in succession this exceptional republic cannot stand. That Dietrich von Hildebrand was held up as a model for this conference seemed appropriate. He was a young man so grounded in “first things” that he was one of the very first—often alone—to stand publicly against the Nazi movement. If ever a demonstration were needed of the importance of rock-bottom ideas in times of ideological confusion, hardly a better model that von Hildebrand can be found. Here, in the third of three installments, Novak reflects on “The Truths Americans Used to Hold”—and why it is crucial now to take emergency steps to teach them to the young. Several of the founders, most notably Benjamin Rush, were fond of displaying the interdependence of liberty and virtue and the interdependence of virtue (at least in most people) and religion (or at least such a religion as Judaism and Christianity) that nourished America’s new conception of liberty. Here, in essence, is the way the maxim went: There can be no liberty without virtue, and no virtue (at least for most people, most of the time) without God. George Washington picked up this familiar theme in his Farewell Address:

Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports. In vain would that man claim the tribute of patriotism, who should labor to subvert these great pillars of human happiness, these firmest props of the duties of men and citizens. The mere politician, equally with the pious man, ought to respect and to cherish them. A volume could not trace all their connections with private and public felicity. Let it simply be asked: Where is the security for property, for reputation, for life, if the sense of religious obligation desert the oaths which are the instruments of investigation in courts of justice? And let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.

It is substantially true that virtue or morality is a necessary spring of popular government. The rule, indeed, extends with more or less force to every species of free government. Who that is a sincere friend to it can look with indifference upon attempts to shake the foundation of the fabric?

The underlying idea here is that to act as a free woman or man, a person must have several antecedent capacities. He or she must have some governance over the passions of desire, on the one side, and fear, on the other, so as to be able to reflect calmly and make good practical judgments with clear-eyed deliberation. Thus the need for such classical virtues as temperance and courage, practical wisdom and judiciousness. To be free as a human being ought to be is to be able to discern, not only what one desires to do or is impelled by passion to do, but also, and even more clearly, what one ought to do. To be free in this way is to have the honor guard of virtues that are necessary to bring such a choice into clear focus and give one the courage to act on such discernment. In short, in the American ideal—which is modeled, to some degree, on the ancient and medieval ideal—liberty is not the capacity to do what one wishes but the capacity to do what one ought. It is, in short, to be capable of self-government, self-mastery, and self-control.

A very good image of this liberty was fashioned by the small band of French liberals who designed the Statue of Liberty that was put up in New York Harbor in 1886. This image was intended as a rebuke to the image of liberty put forward in the French Revolution of 1789: a prostitute atop the altar of the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris. This new symbol of liberty is far from that of the prostitute. It is a statue of a woman of stern features, gazing ahead purposefully as if she knows where she is going (and maybe where you are going; the face is that of a second-grade teacher). In her right hand is a torch, held aloft against the darkness of passion and ignorance. In her left arm, clutched to her breast, is the book of the law. And there she stands today: Liberty under the light of reason and under law, just as in the memorable lines from “America the Beautiful”:

America! America! God mend thine every flaw, Confirm thy soul in self-control, Thy liberty in law!

Or, as James Madison asked, many decades earlier, How can a people who do not practice self-government in private life possibly practice it in their public life? The particular kind of liberty required for republican self-government requires a fairly high degree of virtue in at least a critical mass of a nation’s citizens. A democratic republic is moral, or it is not at all. The citizens of a vital republic do not have to be saints. In fact, any practical design of government ought to anticipate many moral failures and weaknesses and against them provide such safeguards as divided government, checks and balances, and many other auxiliary precautions. A democracy that relies on “a new type of man,” wholly virtuous and unlike the men of the past, will sink into tyranny.

Thus, it is not so difficult to see how liberty in a republic requires moral self-government. But why does virtue require God? As George Washington pointed out, it may be true that an educated mind “of a peculiar structure” does not need religion (editorialists at the time suggested that he meant Jefferson), but “reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.” Washington even suggested that a person who tries to subvert these necessary props of government ought to be regarded as treasonous. The question becomes, then, Why did virtually all of the founders hold that God is necessary for morality—not strictly necessary, but necessary for most people, most of the time?

First, it is through the stories of the Bible and the history of reflection on them that most Americans learned—and still learn—ethics. Besides, mere philosophers always disagree. Very few citizens, if any, learn ethics from philosophy. Second, religions such as Judaism and Christianity teach people that sin is not simply a matter of not following rules, nor of erroneously calculating utilitarian costs and benefits. To sin is to disappoint the creator and to wound the father to whom one owes everything. He has proffered his friendship freely; he has not imposed it, and he knows that some large number may reject it. As leaders such as William Penn often observed, without liberty there can be no friendship. Our creator did not want the subservience of coercion, but the friendship of free women and free men, freely responding to his invitation.

This sort of background vision provides the strongest motive for moral conduct—the conduct becoming one who is made in the image of God. General Washington often challenged his army: How could they have confidence in a good Providence if they did not live in a manner worthy of the protection of that Providence?

God affects moral behavior further by supplying an additional motive. Why should one paint the bottom of a chair? No one else may ever see it, and perhaps the paint provides no utilitarian benefit. But God sees it. Many people will want to do the job as perfectly as they can just for that reason. Because a republic depends on its citizens’ many acts of fidelity in even the smallest things, having this motive available to large numbers of citizens strengthens the moral coherence and cohesion of the republic.

One example: One night in 1972 a guard at the Watergate complex in Washington, D.C., alertly detected a bit of tape that had been placed over the latch of a door that ought to have been locked. It would have been easy for the weary guard to shrug, forget about it, and not trouble himself to report it. But he didn’t take this easy route. Instead, he did his duty, with momentous consequences for the United States, its government, and its laws.

Another example of fidelity in small things—and immense bravery—occurred in 1942 at the Battle of Midway, a decisive naval engagement of the Second World War. The clouds parted around some American bombers just as their fuel tanks reached the point at which the aviators knew they had to turn back or else almost certainly run out of fuel on the return to their carriers. There below, aircraft carriers and other vessels of the Japanese fleet sat serenely in the water, their protective airplanes out on bombing missions of their own. To attack meant highly probable death for the Americans. But not to attack would be to let down their nation terribly, to fail to give the last full measure of devotion, and—at least for some—to refuse to lay down their lives for others. Without exception, each of the aviators made his decision, dived down, and bombed the carriers—and with devastating effect. The attack altered the balance of naval power in the Pacific and changed the outcome of the war. The men had made their fateful decisions in a few short moments of extraordinary fidelity.

A problem for all democracies is the passage of time from generation to generation, as personal ardor for the nation inevitably cools and the zest for heroic virtue flees. Moral relativism slowly seeps into private conduct and then into the wider drift of things. The only known force for countering this predictable path of decadence is a perennial conversion of heart among the nation’s citizens—an awakening of conscience and moral striving.

Against the tide of moral relativism, the one God—he who has total insight into all the details of all that he has created—stands like a mighty fortress, a mountain, a rock. A name for that rock is the regulative principle of truth. No one human being anywhere can grasp the exact contours of truth even in little things—and certainly cannot in the totality of things. But issuing forth from the creator there is truth, howsoever unknown today, to be eagerly sought. Each human being can have confidence that matters obscure to him or her may be clearer to others. Thus, there is much to be gained in conversation with others. Much is also to be gained by conceiving of the political city as a continuous public conversation about what is actually happening now and what citizens ought to do.

For reasons such as this, Thomas Aquinas wrote that civilization is constituted by conversation. That is to say, civilized peoples persuade one another, and argue about what is true, in the conviction that there is truth in every little event and detail, even though the whole truth is not yet known by any one human being. This belief is the root of intellectual and scientific inquiry and provides the strong motive for enduring many hardships to encounter as much of the truth as one possibly can.

To summarize, religious convictions and metaphysical principles radiate all the way through the founding of our republic, and they will never cease to be the crucial sources for sustaining it. America’s founders (and others, including Alexis de Tocqueville) advanced many other reasons for honoring religion (at least, religion of certain kinds) as the armor and internal dynamism of a free society. Perhaps these four powerful motives, observed by the Founders, that religion adds to mere philosophy are sufficient. For those who seek still other reasons, I have recorded some of them in On Two Wings: Humble Faith and Common Sense at the American Founding (2002), and in the book I wrote with my daughter Jana, Washington’s God (2006).

Michael Novak, a member of the editorial board of First Things, holds the George Frederick Jewett Chair in Religion and Public Policy at the American Enterprise Institute. His most recent book is No One Sees God.

Published in First Things Online December 18, 2009