Without Secure Moral Identities No Democratic Republics Will Survive

Remarks prepared for Hudson Insitute/Bradley Foundation conference on "Democracy, Identity and the Nation State" See full video of the conference here. June 2, 2011


Democratic republics with creative economies have not proved easy to defeat in war. But more than any other regime they are vulnerable to internal self-destruction. The entire foundation of a republic is moral or not at all.

Republics of the American type depend upon citizens who maintain a firm understanding of certain foundational ideas – “a frequent recurrence to first principles,” as various of our framers put it.

They simultaneously depend upon citizens who maintain a certain rigorous moral character, citizens well aware of things the law permits them to do but which on account of their own moral commitments they will not do: they will not lie, nor betray their friends, nor abandon their stated moral principles, nor shirk their duties. They will try to live worthy of the freedom endowed in their own souls, and entrusted to their own responsibility – inalienably. One of the foundational principles required for the survival of republics is the clear recognition that there is enough good in human beings to allow republics to work, and also enough evil in human beings to make republics necessary. In one dimension, republics depend on the ability of citizens to trust one another to hold firm to moral principles. In another dimension, republics dare not trust in perfect moral probity, for every man sometimes sins against his own principles, and for this basic reason all public powers must be divided, and all exercises of public power in the republic must be checked and balanced by other powers, as well as by other auxiliary methods. “In God we trust,” yes, but for all human beings there must be checks and balances.

There are at least a dozen other foundational principles that citizens must understand and give flesh to in daily practice, to allow republics to function at all. So far as I know there is no single book listing and explaining each of these indispensable ideas. It would seem highly useful for republics to prepare many such books. Let even one single generation forget, or turn its back on first principles, and a republic turns out its own lights. That is why of all regimes the regime of liberty is most precarious, and requires eternal vigilance. Its transmission from one generation to another is fraught with peril. This transmission dare not be taken lightly, as it has been in this country since the 1960s. You cannot teach two generations to be ashamed of their own national principles, and expect those principles to endure. Principles do not endure in some empyrean, but in fleeting, historical human persons of flesh and blood, with all their frailties and still their capacity for noble action. You cannot teach youngsters to delight in vulgar, uncouth, and violent language, without reaping a whirlwind of domestic mutual contempt and violence. The connection between speech and action, gentleness of soul and gentleness of action, is precious.

Natan Sharansky hits the bull’s-eye when he points out that a collection of personal relativists dissolves instantly into individual atoms, each of whom is enormously outmatched by totalitarian power. This is particularly true of those dictated to by rulers who declare themselves atheists, because they have turned their backs on their own civilization (Benito Mussolini, Adolph Hitler, Josef Stalin, Chairman Mao). Such rulers enforce atheism coercively, and soon produce many specialists highly skilled in breaking down the logic and psychology of atomized individuals whom they hold in isolation.

The difference between a mob and a people is that a mob is composed of a multitude of atomized individuals, whereas a people is composed of persons who have roots and connections with many associations that are intermediary between the state and the individual. A people is composed of persons who have social identity. [See Tocqueville on the French before the Revolution as a mob, without associations.] A person who has a firm identity does not sit before an interrogator as a lonely subject, stripped naked and shivering with fear. A person belongs to a proud people with a sometimes heroic (sometimes not so heroic) past, and sits before his interrogator not alone but in a communion of souls stretching back far into antiquity and far ahead into a potentially better future – when his interrogator will have been swept into the dustbin of ugly history. Sharansky’s pages on this fact of experience are luminous, among the greatest in world literature.

Not only do republics rest on many communions of souls among their people – upon peoples, not upon naked individuals in mobs – but they each also have an identity of their own, different from that of other republics. John Paul II often concentrated on this characteristic of peoplehood, with its concrete historical destiny. Communism tried to isolate all individuals into sealed compartments, unable to trust even members of their own families, even their own beloved children. The overcoming of fear required that such individuals remember their own peoplehood, their own concrete history, their own quiver of arrows of strength and of weakness. In nine days in 1978 that changed history, he awakened the people of Poland to the memory of their own particular past and future destiny, and allowed them to see that there were many more of them than there were Communist apparatchiks. In Cuba, he again stressed the Cuba of history and particular future calling. Wherever he went, he first knelt and kissed that particular soil. He reminded the world that in identity there is strength, there is communion, there is a record of heroic actions to inspire one’s own soul and hold it firm. Such an identity forbids anyone from feeling alone and ungrounded and weak. Pope John Paul II, Karol Wojtyla, called this phenomenon the subjectivity of societies and made it a first principle of Catholic social thought.

There he paired it with that other foundational principle: the responsibility of each person to reflect and to choose, to appropriate (to make his own) his own personal future, to take up responsibility for his own destiny. Each person is made in the image of God, not only called to understand and to choose and to act in history, but to become provident for his own future. Wojtyla called this principle the subjectivity of the human person. It is the foundation of republics, the seat of individual rights and dignity and responsibility. The subjectivity of the human person, the subjectivity of societies – they go together.

It might be nice if human ethical life dwelt in an empyrean of abstract universal principles, as in some empty-headed song by John Lennon. In fact, human ethical life is always incarnated in living persons, who are nourished by different historical communions. Human babies are not dropped down chimneys by some Universal Stork who has no particular history. No, each is born from the womb of one concrete woman, one “mother,” with one pair of radiant eyes brimming with love. One woman, nourished in one people, in one primary language, in one set of stories told again and again, to inspire both whole peoples and noble individuals in every generation. It is an essential part of human nature, like it or not, to be finite, rooted, non-universal, formed in one particular primary communion of souls. That is why individuals not knowing their own actual identity seem shallow, weak, unreliable in a crisis – they are all alone, pretending to be universal, but full of hot air, in balloons easily popped by skillful interrogators, who show them how they are trapped in webs of their own easily confused, ungrounded logic.

2. The Identity of Citizens of the United States

Alexis de Tocqueville, like any other visitor from abroad, could not help noting how different America is from Europe along the fault-line of religion. In America, he wrote, religion and liberty go together. There was no ancien regime to overthrow, no need to jettison religion in order to make room for freedom. On the contrary, Benjamin Franklin proposed as the motto of the United States this maxim: “To rebel against tyrants is obedience to God.” Thomas Jefferson knew that to express the full sentiment of the American people he needed to word the section of the Declaration of Independence dealing with rights in this way: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal, and endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights...” The authors of the French Declaration of Human Rights thirteen years later, by contrast, abjured any connection between rights and the Creator; rather, they defined rights in opposition to any belief in a Creator. Well, that is the subjectivity of French society, and the firm connection between religion and liberty is the subjectivity of the United States. To understand either nation fairly is to understand this radical difference, and to grasp this strong identity of Americans as committed to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob – the God our founders so clearly appealed to. For good reasons, as I explain in On Two Wings: Humble Faith and Common Sense at the American Founding, they wrote and spoke of “the Creator,” not “the Redeemer.”

Of course, no American citizen has to profess faith in this Creator, or to belong to a synagogue or church professing such faith. The public self-understanding of America affirms (look at the documents, particularly Jefferson's Bill for Religious Liberty and Madison's Remonstrance) that to choose whether or not to do that is one of the inalienable rights this particular Creator has endowed in us. One does not have to profess this express sense of identity for oneself, but one does have to understand that this connection between the Creator as described by Judaism and the American conception of liberty is part of the American identity. It is part of the identity even of the unbeliever, not as a personal commitment but at least as a historical reality locked in the identity of being an American. One might think of it as mythical, and as a quaint way of speaking of the simple, plain “reality” of individual autonomy. But it would be a self-mutilating denial if one were to deny that this way of identifying the American community is firmly embedded in countless official, public, founding documents (and in statements expressing a virtually unbroken public self-understanding right into our own time).

An authentic American identity does not command a personal affirmation of a faith one does not hold. All that it asks is intellectual honesty about one’s own public history. One may find a different, perhaps unique, way of explaining this history, or even explaining it away. But there it is. Eppur, si muove.

Moreover, this “self-evident truth” put into a credible Declaration by Jefferson (and many writers of earlier local Declarations around the nation) carries with it a coherent vision of the human being, his or her relation to the Creator, and his or her relation to all other civilizations, peoples, and individuals. “One” Creator means one whole human family, in which every human person without exception is worthy of respect. Before time was, that individual person was known to the Creator, and allowed to be born among the particular people and in the distinctive civilization in which she now lives and moves and has her being. The narrative of the Jewish God offers a coherent vision of individual rights, honorable and plural social subjectivities, a whole universe of free societies mutually appreciative of each other, and yet each committed to arguing its own vision in the public square, and competing to generate humane cultures worthy of the greatness and goodness of the Creator who envisioned them from all eternity.

It is one of the virtues of the Jewish view of human nature and destiny (which is also in crucial respects the Christian view) that it ties together both the subjectivity of each human person and the subjectivity of societies. Moreover, it does not command homogenization, and certainly not coercion. On the contrary, its intellectual leitmotif (if not its constant historical practice) is the primacy of human liberty. “The God who made us, made us free at the same time,” Jefferson wrote. Exactly right. And therein lies both the tragedy and the glory of human life, and the amazingly rich variegation of human history.

To deny the creative power and rock-bottom truth of human identity, and to see it outside the context of the one Creator who made us to be free, are both great errors in human self-understanding. The Creator made the whole human race at one and the same time both different from each other (in our individual persons and in our social identities) and yet participants in the common human destiny of liberty.

Sharansky avers that he trusts enemies self-consciously secure in their own identity more than he trusts those riddled with confusion and a muddled self-understanding. He finds more in common with persons whose views are radically different from his, but who try to live worthy of their own identity, with fidelity and courage, than with those who know not who they are, nor what their foundational commitment is. The latter are infinitely manipulable. The former have a compass, and between him and them there is an analogous story of fidelity and courage worthy of admiration.

Without strong moral identities, no republics will long stand. For if any republic is muddled about its own identity, or caught in paroxysms of self-hatred, its individual citizens will come to pieces, both with one another and deep in their own self-consciousness. Neither the republic nor its citizens have anything morally firm on which to stand. They are begging the strong to come and abuse them.