Michael recently sat down for a conversation with Rev. Robert Sirico, President of the Acton Institute, at the annual Acton University conference.
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.
Development of Doctrine in IslamAfter-Dinner Remarks at the Witherspoon Institute Princeton, New Jersey May 6, 2011
After-dinner talk must be lighter, especially after so rich, deep, and complex a conference. Congratulations to our leaders. It has been wonderful.
Still we need a breather, no? ... Well, wise men say that in Japan every talk must begin with an apology, but in the United States every talk must begin with a joke. Tonight I have to begin with an apology, because I do not have a joke. Well, yes, there is actually a good one.
Have you heard the story about Bin Laden’s three surprises on arriving at the Gate of Paradise? Alas, the surprise was not that he was not met by seventy-two sloe-eyed virgins; he had had his suspicions about that for a long time. Rather, his first surprise was that the Gatekeeper of Paradise was St. Peter. His second was that Peter cleared Bin Laden for immediate entrance into Paradise.
The third surprise awaiting him was an impressive but angry man with a powdered white wig, 6’4” tall, with long arms and large hands, who took Bin Laden by the throat and said, “I am the father of this country – and those Twin Towers you ignited in a great orange flame – you can’t do that to my people!” Lanky, auburn-haired Tom Jefferson knelt down behind Bin Laden, then Washington pushed Bin Laden over him.
Heavy little Jimmy Madison sat on Bin Laden’s belly, and pounded him with two hands. Patrick Henry stepped up and beat Bin Laden’s face with the leafy branch of a willow tree. George Mason and John Randolph joined in. James Monroe spat on Bin Laden.
Bin Laden staggered away. “Allah, Allah! This is not what you promised me at all!” Then a voice from the heavens boomed, “I said, seventy-two sloe-eyed Virginians. What did you think I said?”
I have chosen for tonight’s talk one of the most important themes of this new century, Religious Liberty – in particular, the Development of Doctrine in Islam. For this theme, it would be much better to hear from a deep, learned, widely experienced and wise scholar-statesman. But our organizers made one little mistake. For this dinner, they invited someone who is, let alone on Islam, not an expert in anything. You all know that I have written a lot of books and papers on a lot of subjects having to do with culture, politics, and economics. You know I have a wee bit of experience, too, in getting a declaration on religious liberty through the Human Rights Commission of the United Nations in 1981, after 37 years of futile attempts.
My one claim to a tiny bit of fame is that over the last 50 years I have made a few discoveries in several fields that much better scholars had missed, from “nonhistorical orthodoxy” at the Second Vatican to a theology of sports, and the creative role to be assigned to capitalism in Catholic social doctrine. You can see from the record that it has been hard for me to concentrate in any one area.
Ever since my first years in college, the vocation that seemed to be handed to me was to be a kind of pioneer, an explorer, in many fields on the boundaries of (Jewish and) Christian faith and reason, on the darkness of the experience of nothingness, and the joy in helping at least a little to build up a new civilization on the ashes left by World War II. And so it is with tonight’s topic: No expert, but with a tiny bit of experience in several fields.
At Catholic University in grad school I had the privilege of taking a course from Msgr. Joseph Fenton, the tough but unpopular antagonist to John Courtney Murray on religious liberty, one of those who alerted Rome of the “dangers” of Murray’s teachings. Msgr. Fenton knew I sided with Murray – I had already published on that. But he enjoyed repartee with me, and rather favored me in class, even giving me a book to review for the journal he edited on pastoral theology. So I was very early at the center of the American Catholic argument on religious liberty.
Reporting from Rome during the Second Vatican Council, I recorded the first passionate stirrings of the discussion of religious liberty at the Council, and followed the backstage private debates at individual episcopal conferences. That is where I first heard the name Karol Wojtyla, the new and youngest ever cardinal of Krakow, and his fresh insistence that the episcopal conferences of Central and Eastern Europe must have a declaration of religious liberty from the Council. Some say his cool intellectual passion did more than anything else to sway Paul VI to throw his weight in favor of bringing that issue to a vote, even though powerful forces (especially but not only) in the Latin world feared greatly that it would lead to relativism and religious indifferentism.
In a word, I saw firsthand how the Catholic Church needed a “development of doctrine” – and quickly – on religious liberty. As an American, I was acutely aware of how late it was in coming. I could not help rejoicing, later, at the powerful similarities between key passages of the Council’s Declaration on Religious Liberty and central lines of argument in James Madison and Thomas Jefferson. A line-by-line comparison makes stunning reading.
1. A Not-So-Bold Prediction
Tonight, however, my brief talk is about an analogous development of doctrine. This is the development that is already happening in the dozens of Islamic countries, especially in the 18 key ones of the Middle East. We watch the news and see it happening – every night since January in Egypt, then exploding in Libya, and then back the other way into bloody Syria. And who can forget last autumn’s heroic rebellion in Iran, in the name of liberation from the cruel tyranny of the Mullahs, a rebellion crushed without mercy.
So far in 2011, we have lived through a sudden and startling rebellion against tyranny all along the southern and eastern rim of the Mediterranean, once the stronghold of the early Christian church from Antioch to Alexandria to Hippo. Some have objected that these battles today are rebellions against tyranny, but so far not for democracy nor human rights nor religious liberty. That may be true.
Yet Benjamin Franklin did say in 1776, “Rebellion against tyrants is obedience to God.” Rebellion against tyrants is not a sufficient vision, but it is a necessary and even great step on the way – the positive way toward religious liberty and respect for all other human rights. And this small step, combined with other background factors, does allow us to make what some will regard as a bold prediction, although I do not consider it bold at all.
My prediction is this: By the year 2020, rough and painful human experience will lead the Islamic nations of the Mediterranean Basin to resound with positive cries for Democracy, Human Rights, Individual Liberty, and the Dignity of Every Muslim Man, Woman, and Child. By 2020, Islamic peoples will be crying out publicly in favor of regimes that allow men and women to act from reflection and choice, and to live as peoples who are free and adult and responsible, and are eager to show initiative and unprecedented creativity.
Even if you don’t believe me, mark my words, please. There are a great many reasons, not often brought to light, that suggest that this prediction is likely to come true. “Come on!” some of you may say. “There is no tradition for these developments in the Islamic Middle East.” In Islam, it is true, there are only weak traditions about the very possibility of a “development of doctrine.” Still…
Ever since 1991, a large number of shrewd Arab observers have noted that the progress of one partially successful election after another, and the quick and successful removal of Saddam Hussein, the megalomaniac and sadistic tyrant of Iraq, stimulated the publication of far more books and articles published in the Arab world on freedom, human rights, and democracy than during the preceding five hundred years. It is as if millions, watching these events unfold on television, suddenly asked themselves, why can’t we govern ourselves by our own consent? Why can’t we reach our own constitutional accommodation between Islam and the state, each one preventing the other from totally dominating our societies?
Further, I want to predict two broad paths up which this development of doctrine, both in religious and in political thinking, will slowly but inexorably gain power in the Arab states. The first path is the long, slow development of five or more principles rooted deep in Islamic theology and concrete practice for many centuries now.
2. The First Path Propelling Development
Since tonight’s occasion is an after-dinner talk, it would be wrong to develop in detail the many factors operating in the faith and practice of Islam today. These political and historical experiences have unfolded across three great continents from the Far East to the Middle East to Africa, in dozens of different Muslim lands, in many climates, in a rich geographical and topographical variety, within vastly different cultural and political histories. The body of practical experience lived through by Islamic cultures for more than a millennium is vast and diverse. Whoever speaks today of Islamic culture as though it is only one thing is committing an enormous intellectual error.
Although briefly, I have treated of many of these differences in The Universal Hunger for Liberty.  Please allow me to paraphrase or quote from two or three passages from that book, through which I must linger on two abiding characteristics of Muslim thought. The first is the unusually high version of transcendence which Muslim theology has long reverenced in Allah; and, second, is the profound assumption buried in the ethic of Islam: the assumption that the fundamental fact in Islamic religious and moral life is personal liberty.
On the first characteristic: Allah is so great, so beyond measure, so beyond compare, that his greatness is a warning to any mere mortal spokesman about his own shortsightedness and inadequacy in the face of Allah. The greatness of Allah relativizes all human pretensions. No matter how wealthy or powerful a human being is, in comparison with Allah, this is as nothing. “Allahu Akbar!” opens the mind to the possibility that only Allah knows all the paths that lead to him, and that women and men would do well to respect the freedom of religious conscience of all persons. For Muslims, Islam is the one true religion, but no single Muslim can claim to know all the mysterious paths along which Allah leads all the other peoples of the earth. Historically, the super-transcendence of the Islamic doctrine of God has not been made as prominent as it might be. But perhaps it has lain fallow these many years so that its true beauty might flower in, as it were, a delayed springtime for Islam worldwide.
In this respect, let me cite just one impressive scholarly observation:
If God had willed, He could surely have made you one people, professing one faith, but He did not do so. He wished to try and test you. So try to compete with one another in good deeds. Unto God you shall return, all together. And He will tell you the truth about what you have been disputing.
Islam speaks constantly of rewards and punishments not only after death but also in this life. Such assertions make no sense at all if Muslim theology does not assume personal choice, on which such rewards and punishments are meted out. The doctrine of personal liberty and responsibility may remain largely implicit, not nearly often enough explicit, in Muslim tradition and catechesis. But without it as a foundation, the central preaching of Islam about reward versus punishment makes no sense whatever. For example, as Ismail al-Faruqi wrote in 1992:
Fulfillment of his vocation is the only condition Islam knows for man’s salvation. Either it is his own doing or it is worthless. Nobody can do the job for him, not even God, without rendering him a puppet. This follows from the nature of moral action, namely, it is not itself moral unless it is freely willed and undertaken to completion by a free agent. Without the initiative and effort of man, all moral worth or value falls to the ground.
Though they are diverse, Muslim cultures worldwide share a dozen or so characteristics rooted in their theological and scriptural tradition – cultural resources that make these settings hospitable to democratic transformations. A number of scholars have identified and written on these.
Bernard Lewis, for example, points to five features of the Muslim culture. First: “Islamic tradition strongly disapproves of arbitrary rule.” Lewis adds that in Islamic tradition the exercise of political power is conceived of “as a contract, creating bonds of mutual obligation between the ruler and the ruled.” Other writers emphasize at this point the great efforts that Muslim rulers are expected to go through to achieve consensus among all branches of society.
The second resource Lewis notes is the need for continuing consent: “The contract can be dissolved if the ruler fails to fulfill or ceases to be capable of fulfilling his obligations.”
The third is the Islamic notion of civil disobedience, namely, that “if the sovereign commands something that is sinful, the duty of obedience lapses.” One Hadith says: “Do not obey a creature against his Creator.” Another adds: “There is no duty to obedience in sin.”
The fourth resource is the principle of accepting diversity. As the Prophet says, “Difference of opinion within my community is a sign of God’s mercy.”
The fifth resource is the traditional stress on the dignity and humility of all citizens. Dignity gives all citizens a place and a right to be taken seriously. Humility applies to the great and the mighty as well as to the ordinary person. The transcendence of the Almighty Creator is an efficient equalizer.
Similarly, in an essay on “Reviving Middle Eastern Liberalism,” Saad Eddin Ibrahim points to a hundred-year period between 1850 and 1952, when there flourished in Egypt a liberal age that was the light of the modern Muslim world. During that time, civil society was defined as “a free space within which people can assemble, work together, express themselves, organize, and pursue shared interests in an open and peaceful manner.”
Finally, one of the most important of the young Muslim scholars in the United States, Dr. Khaled Abou El Fadl of the UCLA School of Law, has summarized many of his writings on Muslim developments in religious liberty, democracy, and human rights in a fairly succinct paragraph that deserves quoting in full:
My argument for democracy draws on six basic ideas: 1) Human beings are God’s vicegerents on earth; 2) this vicegerency is the basis of individual responsibility; 3) individual responsibility and vicegerency provide the basis for human rights and equality; 4) human beings in general, and Muslims specifically, have a fundamental obligation to foster justice (and more generally to command right and forbid wrong), and to preserve and promote God’s law; 5) divine law must be distinguished from fallible human interpretations; and 6) the state should not pretend to embody divine sovereignty and majesty.
The materials embodied so briefly here are very rich, and largely unplumbed by thematization and careful theoretical development. A huge amount of work in accomplishing this theoretical exploration and formulation lies before this and the next generation. But let us now return to the second propellant of a rapid development of doctrine.
3. The Second and Overwhelming Propellant: the Via Negativa
The second path is what I call the Via Negativa, which is constituted by intense persecution, violence, and suffering. It is probably true that during the last 60 years, ever since the end of World War II, the human rights of few peoples on earth have been so neglected by the larger world as those of the Muslim Middle East. The Soviets could not credibly defend the rights of the peoples of the Middle East, while abusing so badly the rights of their own people. The Western nations did not wish to create social and political turmoil in a region whose oil and strategic position at the crossroads of three great continents were of such delicate importance to free societies. The peoples of the Arab societies were left to suffer alone from cruel and merciless leaders, close scrutiny of their private persons by the secret police of the regime, the security agents of local jurisdictions, and the religious police. The liberties of whole peoples were tightly restrained. Muslim suffering went without empathy, without notice, and above all without relief from outside.
To be yet more specific, millions of Arabs have died by violence (mostly at each other’s hands) during the last 60 years. Hundreds upon hundreds of thousands have rotted in ghastly jails. In some places, nearly all signs of independent civic life have been smothered out.
The pressure of this intense suffering will probably be the most powerful incentive for finding a new politics of liberty and dignity in the Middle East. The Via Negativa will teach irresistible lessons that no development of abstract doctrine can match, just as often before in history, intense suffering has led to rapid development of religious and political doctrine. So it will here. Human nature itself will support it.
 Alongside Dignitatis Humanae, see the texts from Madison’s Memorial and Remonstrance against Religions Assessments and Jefferson’s Bill for Establishing Religious Freedom. See Appendix I.
For some official Declarations issued by the U.S. Congress and the President of the United States, which exemplify how religious the official reasoning of U.S. political authorities at the Founding were, see Appendix II.
 See chapter 9, “Can Islam Come to Terms with Democracy?” in The Universal Hunger for Liberty (New York: Basic Books, 2004).
 Mumtaz Ahmad, “Islam and Religious Liberty,” quoted in The Universal Hunger for Liberty, 212.
 Ismail al-Faruqi, Al Tawhid: Its Implication for Thought and Life (Herndon, Va.: The International Institute of Islamic Thought, 1992), 7.
 Cf. David Smock, “Islam & Democracy,” Special Report 93 (Washington: D.C.: United States Institute of Peace, 2002), 4.
 Saad Eddin Ibrahim, “Reviving Middle Eastern Liberalism,” Journal of Democracy 14, no. 4 (October 2003): 8.
 Khaled Abou El Fadl, “Islam and the Challenge of Democracy,” Boston Review (April/May 2003). http://bostonreview.net/BR26.6/elfadl.html (accessed April 29, 2011).
On October 11, 2009, at the invitation of former President of the Czech Republic Václav Havel, Michael Novak delivered the following keynote address at Forum 2000, an annual conference held in Prague to map the globalization process and to note its positive results as well as the perils encountered by an increasingly interconnected world. This year’s theme of Forum 2000 is “Democracy and Freedom in a Multipolar World” – in a word, “Democracy After 1989.”
That theme is too rich for a brief introduction. Surely, though, one of the dramatic differences between 1989 and 2009 is the new salience of nearly all world religions in matters of democracy. As Jürgen Habermas wrote after September 11, 2001, the notion that the world is secular, and becoming more so, is no longer tenable. In fact, after September 11, secularism seemed to Habermas like a small island, surrounded by a sea of turbulent religion.
Accordingly, I will make four points this evening on the bond between religion and democracy. First, the great French social thinker Alexis de Tocqueville taught us that religion gives democracy two important tasks: to put in place foundational principles on which human rights are secure against every raging storm; and to teach “the habits of the heart” that allow democracy to work in practice – habits of honesty, self-examination, self-mastery, and habits of free association with others, and a sense of universal fraternity with all other women and men on earth. If men do not learn the habits of self-government in their private lives, how will they practice self-government in their public lives? To live democratically is to live a high moral art.
By itself, secularism tends toward individual, not general moral standards. It begins with “tolerance,” and steadily slides towards relativism. Cultural decadence – first among entertainment elites, and then among the multitudes of the uninformed young – grows like fungus on the face of democracy. The silent artillery of time wears down the habits of the past. For this reason, democracy needs regular awakenings of conscience, often religious awakenings, just to survive as a morally beautiful and worthy enterprise – a moral enterprise. Democracy is moral or not at all.
Religion teaches humble people that they are valuable and noble, beloved by their Creator, equal to every other man. It also teaches us that the personal lives of plumbers and carpenters – and professors and playwrights – and all women and men, are meaningful, morally dramatic, and made in the image of God – as co-creators.
These are the first bonds of Religion and Democracy.
The second bond is the anti-totalitarian principle. Humans must not give to Caesar the things that are God’s, nor to God the things that are Caesar’s. Caesar is not God. Every state is limited. Many parts of human life do not belong to the state – not conscience, not inquiry, not the creative arts, and not the sacred and inalienable duty of each individual to his Creator: to say yes or to say no.
In the same way, no religion dares to coerce from above all the decisions of Caesar. No religion can coerce the consciences of individuals to respond yes or no. Before God, all individuals are free to respond in conscience. In this, the state cannot interfere. Man’s inalienable responsibility before God is the foundation of his inalienable rights before the state.
Third, there is a worldwide misconception that there is only one kind of secular state – the kind found in the European continent. The kind rooted in the ruthless irreligion of the French Revolution of 1789. The European continental secular state is virtually closed towards public religion. It tries to imprison religion in the recesses of private life – outside of public sight.
Yet there is, in fact, another type of secular state. The other type may be called the Anglo-American type. Here citizens are recognized as both religious beings and political beings. The one cannot be surgically separated from the other
Similarly, the institutions of man’s religious nature, and the institutions of the political nature – the church and the state – must be distinguished as Caesar and God are distinguished. Nonetheless, religion necessarily flows into political consciences, and political consciences generally root themselves in pre-political beliefs about human nature and destiny. The two interpenetrate each other. Communism was overthrown not by secular morality alone, but also by religious conscious from above.
Therefore, the state must not coerce religious consciences from above, and institutional religion must not coerce the work of Caesar from above. Fruitful accommodations must be worked out by trial and error.
The western world has yet to hear all the new reflections on liberty, human rights, democracy and the best human relation Caesar and God, from the other great religions of the world: Islam, Hinduism, and Buddhism (to name those with more than 500 million adherents each).
The careening adventures of freedom and religion in their long journey through history are not at an end. Much is yet to be learned.
Published in National Review Online November 30, 2009
On November 8, 2009, Ave Maria University unveiled a portrait of Michael Novak, the first trustee of the University, completed by world-renown artist Igor Babailov. The portrait now hangs in the Ave Maria University Library. You can watch the unveiling ceremony below, and make sure to check out the rest of Babailov's work here.
Knowing the Unknowable God: How Most People Know the Presence of GodDelivered at Franciscan University of Steubenville on May 9, 2009
Distinguished Presidors and guests, Remarkable Faculty, graduates of “0-9” – and all your amazing parents!
I know with extremely high probability that you of the graduating class of 2009 have changed immensely in the last four years. I know your parents have seen it in you. You yourself recognize it: you are no longer who you were in high school.
… Myself, I know that you have learned good mental and moral discipline, know how to work hard, carry a lot of information in your heads, and think clearly. I know this because during the last twenty years I have worked with a good number of graduates from this great Catholic University. I was skeptical at first, but learned to admire their high quality and sound preparation, their enthusiasm, and their can-do attitude.
They also know how to laugh, and how to party. I’ve seen that, too.
Above all, graduates from this place are distinguished by their intelligent grasp of the Catholic faith and its best spirit of affection and enthusiasm. Graduates of Franciscan Steubenville seem to have learned the happy openness of their great Patron from Assisi, and married it to the intellectual searching of St. Bonaventure. One senses that happy marriage of temperaments in a remarkable number of you. Praise God! It is a rare and wonderful combination to encounter.
Let my second word of congratulations today go to your parents and families. This day is for parents! Today is a tremendous step in the life of your daughter or son. It is the crowning day of an enormous gift that you have given them—a university education. That is a privilege only a tiny fraction of the parents who have ever lived on earth have been able to give their children—the best gift, next to life itself, next to the faith.
And, dear parents, today also means one less year of tuition payments! … My wife and I will never forget the discovery we made the month after our last child had completed university–discretionary income! We had forgotten what it was like.
But today belongs especially to the graduates of the class of “aught 9.” You are the ones God chose to launch the next thousand years of Christian history.
What a difference you are going to make in the world! We don’t yet know where. We don’t yet know how. But still … During the four years of your stay here, thousands of young men and women your age have offered their bodies to bring freedom to the people of Iraq and Afghanistan. Some of them gave the rest of their lives, young as they were, and some came home badly hurt. All of them together performed one of the great military feats in the history of American arms. They rescued some 80 million human beings from tyranny and torture. They have given two nations a shot at building stable democracies…given them a chance, not a guarantee.
Some of you may do even greater things. There are countless restless souls to be healed, families to be started and nourished to maturity, discoveries to be made, businesses and new technologies to be started, young minds to be taught and inspired, the sick to be cared for, the poor to be lifted up. – And graduating seniors with big debts to pay off!
What I really want to talk to you about today is the center of your lives –about God, and how people know Him, even without faith.
Let me begin with a little story about my daughter Jana, who has written two books with me: “My daughter, the agno-theist,” I call her. Years after her high school years, she told me that she had actually become an atheist at that time. Then, when she went to one of the best secular universities in America, she discovered she really couldn’t be an atheist. She saw a contradiction in the thinking of her atheist professors, who said there was no “meaning” to things, because the world came to be by chance, without reason. At the same time, they insisted that the only way to come into contact with “reality” is by scientific method, rigorous logic, and the uprooting of prior prejudices. She couldn’t accept the contradiction between a world to be understood as springing wholly from chance, and a world to be understood through a rigorous use of science.
Besides, there was a moral chilliness – except in political matters – that she didn’t much approve of, either. So she stopped calling herself an atheist. She concluded that she is, after all, a theist. (By the way, I am a great believer in encouraging our young to question everything, to keep raising questions. The drive to question endlessly is the best way to gain an experience of the infinite – and to be restless, until one rests in the Infinite.)
Still, in college, Jana was not at all sure what the existence of God meant for her. Why did God care about her? Maybe God is just impersonal, like the frightening powers of nature. She was pretty sure there is a God, but she was very unsure what God is. So she called herself an “agno-theist.”
I’ll bet that there are at least some here today – perhaps many – who are rather unclear about what goes through their head when they say – or hear – the word “God.” Certainly the New Atheists have sold going-on two million books questioning what Christians and Jews mean by God, making fun of self-contradictions, finding no evidence of God’s existence even. The New Atheists sure expend a lot of hatred on a God they say does not even exist. Nonetheless, a lot of people now seem troubled by the question, What do I mean by “God”?
The main point I want to put before you is that God is not, and cannot be, reached by our poor human equipment. He is on an altogether different frequency. Apart from the God-man Jesus Christ we cannot find Him through out senses. We cannot smell Him. We cannot reach out and touch Him. We cannot taste Him, or hear Him. We cannot see Him. Or picture Him in our imagination. Or recall Him in memory. And even in regard to Jesus, most people who encountered him during his life on earth did not see God in him. God no one can see.
Only little children think they can picture God. Kindergarten. Sister Heloise comes up behind Ellen in a drawing class. “What are you drawing, Ellen?” Ellen hunches her shoulders over her paper, and says: “Drawing a picture of God.” -- Sister Heloise: ‘But no one knows what God looks like.” Entirely unabashed, Ellen replies: “Now they will.”
Or Sister Margaret in catechism class. “Where is God?” she asks the class. Maureen in the second row waves her hand wildly. “Maureen,” says the Sister. “He’s in the bathroom,” Maureen insists confidently. “Maureen!” says Sister Margaret. “Well,” little Maureen defiantly insists. “Every morning when my sister and I are in the bathroom, daddy knocks on the door, and says ‘God, are you still in there?’”
Back to the world of adults. “No one sees God,” St. John’s Letter tells us. Philosophy tells us the same thing. Our senses are inadequate for reaching God. He is beyond the range of our imagination. We can shoot concepts up toward Him like so many arrows, but they all fall back to earth without quite hitting their target. God is simply too great for our minds or senses to penetrate through to Him.
Yet the truth is that nearly all human beings in history, from the beginning until now, have been aware that they are in God’s presence. Atheists hardly appeared in prior history, before the last two centuries. Only in the twentieth century did there appear a significant number of atheists in high positions, able to sway the public culture.
In the United States, recently, only two percent of the population declared themselves Atheists in the large Pew Poll, and only six percent more as Agnostics. Quite stunningly, half the Agnostics admitted that they did believe in a great Intelligence underlying all things, and a great force or energy moving this cosmos. So did twenty percent of the Atheists. In other words, a majority of Atheists and Agnostics also believe in God, at least a God rather like the God of Plato and Aristotle, Plotinus, Cicero, Seneca, and virtually all the philosophers down until modern times.
What today’s Atheists and Agnostics seem to reject is the Jewish God and the Christian God. That is the God in whom they do not believe.
Among common people, by comparison, the default position of most of the human race is that they know that God is all around them, and in almost all things—they know they are in the presence of God. I say they ‘know’ this. But they do not, of course, know it through sense knowledge, or by imagination, or memory. They know it in a kind of darkness. They know what they cannot directly see. In fact, for most of human history, it was almost unknown in human experience not to know it. It took work to become an atheist, and it was not easy, as Jean-Paul Sartre explained in his autobiography Words, to remain consistent about it. He often found himself on a particularly beautiful day thanking God. He said it took a lot of vigilance every minute to be an atheist all the way through.
In fact, one of the hardest things about being an atheist, by their own testimony, is not having anyone to thank for the marvels they run into every day.
Now it is important for Christians and Jews to be able to give a reasoned account of what they believe. This is because the God of the Muslims may be pure, naked Will, more powerful than any law, but the God of Jews and Christians is the God of mind, and logic, and law, and probabilities, and surprises and creations and serendipity – but He is to be thought of first as a Word, that is, an Insight – “In the beginning was the Word.” The Word generated by the Source of all Insight, the Father, and communicated through all of creation by the Holy Spirit generated by the brilliant light of the overpowering love of Son for Father, and Father for Son.
A Jewish friend of mind once asked me, sitting at lunch with me high in the Rockies of Colorado, “Michael, what goes through your mind when you say the word Trinity. I don’t get it.” I wasn’t ready for that. But the woman he was very happily wed to was sitting with him. I asked him, an old experienced man, what was the best thing he had known in his life? What was the thing he might say was “divine,” almost too good for human beings. His love for Esther, his kids, his sisters?
Isn’t it true that the best thing you, too, have ever known in life, the most divine thing, is love – or, maybe better, communion? That’s how we Christians hold to our notion of Trinity. Our God isn’t just a solitary being, icy, and isolated, and alone. The most divine of all human experiences is love, love that is requited, love that is a circle binding all within it. The communion achieved by a man and woman who love each other so much they have committed themselves to each other for all eternity, and their communion with their sons and daughters who are the fruit of their own original communion?
That is why we think of our God as a Communio Divinarum Personarum, a communion of divine persons. Looking at it this way, we learn to respect both the singleness of every person, and the communion in which each reaches its own full happiness.
Nonetheless …my main subject today is not Christian or Catholic faith. It concerns most human beings of all time, even without Christian faith. Here are three of the signs, I think, by which most of them become aware of the presence of God… all through this universe -- and in themselves.
First, the path of beauty. The beauty of so many sunsets, and even sunrises… the breathtaking beauty of standing on a peak in the Rockies, purple mountain ranges beyond dark blue ranges, and grey-green ones… the beauty of Mozart’s sonatas, and J.S. Bach’s “The Saint Matthew Passion.” ... The incredible fragility and beauty of the ear of a newborn son or daughter, held in the palm of one’s hand for the first time… the beauty of a snowflake caught on a dark blue mitten in the seconds before it melts… the beauty in the flashing eyes of the one you love in young love … There is just so much beauty in the world, so beautifully and surprisingly ordered that it seems more like the masterpiece of a novelist, a master of surprise, a creative artist, than like an irrefutable chain forged by a logician. From beauty, the heart rises in wonder, gratitude and upward aspiration.
Second, the path of goodness. There is so much goodness in the world, even among us poor and weak and will-bent human beings. So many daughters and sisters stay with elderly parents and nurse them through awful cancers and other torments of age, with great love and solicitude and generosity. If a mother runs into a burning home to rescue her three-year-old we don’t even think of it as special heroism, it is the sort of thing that mothers do. How much immense good there is. How much suffering is borne nobly. How much self-sacrifice there is … All these things make a suffering God seem credible to us. They point somehow to the divine.
Third, the communion of souls. When Anton Scharansky was suffering the agonies of solitary confinement in the Gulag, his chief interrogator tried to plant the idea in him that, even if he told the lies they wanted from him, no one would know, they would just go into the rows and rows of files they had stacked up by the millions. “You are going to tell me anyway. Why not make it easier for both of us?"
Then the interrogator devilishly employed the example of Galileo, a hero of Scharansky the physicist. After all, he said, Galileo did not tell the whole truth to his interrogators. “Still, for you and for millions, Galileo is a hero.”
This line stunned Scharansky, but then gave him an insight. Galileo had been dead for more than 400 years, but his partial betrayal of truth was supposed to influence Scharansky to do the same. Then Scharansky’s case would be used to weaken a long chain of others. In other words, the inner life of every human being is linked to the falls of other human beings. In our heroism and in our falls, there is a secret communion of souls.
So there we have it: Beauty, Goodness, Communion,
Beauty by surprise, not exactly beauty by design. The overwhelming beauty of the universe, as seen through the Hubble telescope (brilliant stars strewn like sand, exploding in glorious colors), and seen also in shiny grains of sand in the palms of our hands. Ours is not so much a God of Predetermined Five-Year Plans, as this God: the Artist, using serendipity and schemes of probabilities and sudden turns in the plot.
And the heroic examples of so many good persons, humble persons, unknown persons down the ages. Think of them, the saints in your own family and circles of friends.
And in both good and bad alike, the community of souls down the ages. So that the Psalms of King David sing through our hearts as though springing unbidden from eternal depths, for us as for him.
Beauty, goodness, communion: All these three things praise God.
And so should you – so will you – in everything you do in your lives. God bless all of you, and God bless your parents. … And all your teachers … and officers of this miracle-doing University.
In the century since Max Weber published The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, the book has been subject to severe and sustained criticism, much of it justified. Yet reflecting on its thesis in the light of worldwide economic developments during the past several decades reveals that, for all of his errors, Weber grasped something crucially important about the spiritual wellsprings of capitalism—something that has been neglected by capitalism’s radical critics no less than by many of its most enthusiastic champions. As Weber began to contemplate a study of capitalism’s emergence in the early modern world, he pondered a fact that many others, including Adam Smith, had noted before him—namely, that there are many areas of the world in which people—even dedicated, persistent, industrious people—tended to work only to a target they set for themselves, after which they stopped. Yet Weber also noticed that some groups were gripped by what he perceived as a new and different work ethic, such that they felt motivated to earn as much as they could and go constantly beyond their earlier gains. What accounted for this difference in values? As generations of readers are well aware, Weber concluded that a complex psychological dynamic—rooted in a Protestant (and specifically Calvinist) religious experience—leads certain individuals to perceive a duty to increase their store and better their condition.
Weber’s critics have often complained that he radically misunderstood Reformed theology. They point out that for the crucial details of his thesis Weber relied not on creedal statements or formal treatises, but rather on the pastoral writings of such practical thinkers as Richard Baxter. Passages in the Institutes demonstrate that Calvin himself quite sincerely believed that the ultimate purpose of human life is not tireless devotion to an earthly calling, but rather faith in the revelation of Christ. Any suggestion of an innate affinity between Protestant theology and capitalism, they said, must therefore be dismissed.
Yet in finding fault with Weber’s reading of Calvinism, these critics have frequently ended up misreading Weber himself. What Weber tries to demonstrate is not that the capitalist spirit was born of Calvinist theology purely and directly, but rather that it arose from psychological tensions that Calvinist theological commitments tended to trigger in the minds of believers, especially when those commitments were articulated in a pastoral setting. Consider the doctrine of predestination as Calvin elaborated it. For Calvin, the absolute sovereignty of God means that God not only foreknows, but actively wills the salvation of some and the damnation of others. When the sheer unmeritedness of the gift of friendship with God for all eternity was promulgated among ordinary people, those people became quite anxious over the state of their souls and began to seek signs by which they might reassure themselves. For Weber, the Calvinist doctrine of predestination issues in “a feeling of unprecedented inner loneliness” and is thus responsible for enormous psychological suffering among the faithful.
As a result, Reformed ministers began to advise ordinary people to dedicate themselves to a calling as a way to overcome “normal” anxieties about their election. Even if such advice consisted solely of such words as “just continue being conscientious in your work, and do the best you can,” it was quite enough to inspire a huge increase in economic industriousness. Here, then, is a classic and powerful instance of the Law of Unintended Consequences. A formal doctrine whose original intention was to remove all concern with works-righteousness ended up propelling its adherents towards an unprecedented, almost painful, obsession with works. And this totally unforeseen and negative psychological consequence had extremely beneficial economic effects—in fact, economically revolutionary effects.
Weber’s account of capitalism is far from uniformly positive. Whereas others have emphasized the market’s ability to create wealth and foster technological innovation, Weber understood capitalism primarily in terms of duty, asceticism, and self-denial—and he stressed its tendency to encourage instrumental calculations of cost and benefit, as well as to employ a purely formal mode of thinking and reason. Most ominously, once capitalism becomes divorced from its original religious impulses, it turns into iron cage” from which we are unable to extricate ourselves. The Puritan wanted to work in a calling; we, by contrast, are forced to do so. The “inexorable power” of the capitalist ethic rests upon “mechanized foundations.” Weber discerns in this atheistic, secular system a “mechanical petrification.” He describes the fate of modern man in terms as bleak as those found in the writings of such poets as Matthew Arnold, T. S. Eliot, and Ezra Pound. For Weber, modern capitalists are “specialists without spirit, sensualists without heart.” Which raises an important question: Is Weber’s outlook justified by the reality of life under capitalism? Or is it instead the result of his mistaking certain aspects of capitalism—aspects that ultimately derive from secularized Reformed Protestantism the capitalistic order as a whole? The Protestant ethic may issue in hard work, asceticism, and an always unsatisfied striving for material betterment, but doesn’t capitalism also foster ingenuity and inventiveness? Put theologically, the Protestant ethic tends to emphasize conversion and change of life that can be wrought only by divine grace. An alternative but no less important ethic—one that can be described as a “Catholic” ethic—has historically worked to emphasize that, despite the wounds inflicted on creation by sin, the world retains marks of God’s goodness. If Protestant striving has inspired economic dynamism, Catholic delight in the goodness of creation has, by comparison, encouraged economic creativity.
Weber was blind to this distinctly Catholic contribution to the development of capitalism because he erroneously assumed that the Benedictine ideal of worldly withdrawal remained the only mode of Catholic asceticism. Indeed, as early as the eleventh century, the regular canons of towns and villages throughout Europe began to adopt the Rule of St. Augustine and live the monastic life while ministering to growing urban populations. Western monasticism moved still closer to the life of the laity with Robert of Molesme and the establishment of the Order of Citeaux in 1098. As sociologist Randall Collins has shown, one of the primary causes of the great revival of European commerce in the twelfth century was the rise of Cistercian monasteries:
"These monasteries were the most economically effective units that had ever existed in Europe, and perhaps in the world, before that time. The community of monks typically operated a factory. There would be a complex of mills, usually hydraulically powered, for grinding corn as well as for other purposes. . . . The Cistercians were the cutting edge of medieval economic growth. They pioneered in machinery because of their continuing concern to find labor-saving devices. Their mills were not only used by the surrounding populace (at a fee) for grinding corn but were widely imitated. The spread of Cistercian monasteries around Europe was probably the catalyst for much other economic development, including imitation of their cutthroat investment practices."
And then there was the influence of the mendicants. The Dominicans and the Franciscans, in particular, introduced lay Catholics to the rhythms of apostolic life, taught them to cherish holiness in their daily work, and inspired them to perform that work perfectly for God. More, of course, could be said. The point is not to deny that the Protestant Reformation unleashed a special dynamic energy, but rather to note the crucial contribution of other religious and cultural influences to the development of the capitalist order, in its unique blend of dynamism and creativity.
Nowhere has this potent combination been more fully realized than in the United States. In unexpected ways, the distinctive experience of economic life in America falls as much within the Catholic view of things as it does within the Protestant outlook described so vividly by Weber. The joy of discovery, the delight in novelty, the love of risk and surprise, the frequently experienced disproportion between effort and reward—Alexis de Tocqueville points to all of these qualities in his discussion of the United States. The typical American, Tocqueville observed,
"lives in a land of wonders; everything around him is in constant movement, and every movement seems an advance. Consequently, in his mind the idea of newness is closely linked with that of improvement. Nowhere does he see any limit placed by nature to human endeavor; in his eyes something which does not exist is just something that has not been tried yet. . . . Choose any American at random, and he should be a man with burning desires, enterprising, adventurous, and, above all, an innovator."
While Americans retain a strong notion of human imperfection and affirm the need for checks and balances—in other words, they hold to a nonutopian understanding of human nature—they also take an almost Catholic delight in the goodness and possibilities and wonders of creation. “Chance,” Tocqueville notes, “is an element always present to the mind of those who live in the unstable conditions of a democracy, and in the end they come to love enterprises in which chance plays a part. This draws them to trade not only for the sake of promised gain, but also because they love the emotions it provides.”
In such a tumultuous nation, marked by extraordinary social and economic fluidity, people began to understand—perhaps for the first time in human history—that poverty was not necessarily a natural condition. The age-old class structure—not to mention the seemingly inevitable premodern cycle of prosperity and economic decline—could be broken. And if such progress were possible in the United States, why not in other countries? The chains of poverty could be systematically broken—and if they could be broken, there was a moral imperative that they must be broken.
And so they were—first in the United States, and then slowly, progressively, around the world. Little by little, people began to understand that it need not be the case that “you always have the poor with you” (Matthew 26:11)—that it is a moral obligation of societies as well as individuals to overcome poverty. Whereas poverty had previously been taken to be the natural condition of most human beings everywhere, through the workings of capitalism it came to be considered as counter to nature, immoral, and the result of inadequate social planning and effort. In America, the process of moving up and out of poverty, generation by generation, came to be called fulfilling the “American dream.”
Weber’s Calvinists, but also Catholics in the cities of France and Northern Italy, as well as skeptics and freethinkers throughout Europe—all of them shared a strong spirit of enterprise and a talent for organization and practical execution. To put it in Weberian language, they participated in a new moral sensibility that longed to bring new worlds and new wealth into existence.
Many spiritual impulses fed this new sensibility, not only the Calvinist doctrine of predestination. One of them was the sense of new possibilities launched into history by the romantic stories emanating from the New World in America, South and North. The sheer newness of America fueled the European imagination; here was soil barely trod by human feet, full of wonders and untapped potential. Nobody describes this encounter better than Tocqueville:
"It was then that North America was discovered, as if God had held it in reserve and it had only just arisen above the waters of the flood. There, there are still, as on the first days of creation, rivers whose founts never run dry, green and watery solitudes, and limitless fields never yet turned by the ploughshare. In this condition it offers itself not to the isolated, ignorant, and barbarous man of the first ages, but to man who has already mastered the most important secrets of nature, united to his fellows, and taught by the experience of fifty centuries."
Upon such a stage, men might dare to dream the impossible. This continent opened new vistas, offering wholly new perspectives. It invited its inhabitants to participate in creation as they never had before, to delight in discovering the workings of nature. No less an authority than Abraham Lincoln saw this tendency among his countrymen:
"In anciently inhabited countries, the dust of ages—a real, downright old-fogyism—seems to settle upon and smother the intellects and energies of man. It is in this view that I have mentioned the discovery of America as an event greatly favoring and facilitating useful discoveries and inventions."
Columbus’ achievement was, to Lincoln’s mind, “most favorable—almost necessary—to the emancipation of thought, and the consequent advancement of civilization and the arts.” It is this element of discovery—so natural, indeed so central, to the American experience—that is manifestly missing from Weber.
And yet, Weber’s legacy is richer than this summary might lead one to believe. In the century since the publication of The Protestant Ethic, the world has seen more than a hundred nations undergo massive economic and political transformations. Such transformations have put Weber’s thesis to the test. Toward the end of the last century, in particular, several scholars were struck by the number of disparate nations in which something very much like a Weberian development seemed to be taking place: an enormous transformation of attitudes toward work and wealth, preceded or accompanied by a profound religious conversion. Scholars today have a wealth of data to collect and reflect upon from the “economic miracles” we have experienced since the end of World War II. Nation after nation, region after region, has entered upon a process of rapid economic growth and political transformation. Since 1980, in a story largely still untold, China and India have between them raised more than half a billion of their citizens out of poverty in their rapid adoption of economies of enterprise, relatively free markets, low taxation, and global trade. In a fascinating study of emerging globalization, former leftist Jagdish Bhagwati observes that in China poverty has declined “from an estimated 28 percent in 1978 to nine percent in 1998,” while official Indian estimates report that “poverty fell from 51 percent in 1977-78 to 26 percent in 1999-2000.”
Weber may have unnecessarily limited himself by focusing exclusively on the role of Calvinism in the emergence of capitalism; no doubt his thesis would benefit from a broader, more generalized restatement. Yet in our newly dynamic world, Weber’s identification of necessary spiritual and moral conditions for successful economic activity continues to be a source of wisdom. Weber rightly teaches us that success in economics is largely dependent on the spiritual and moral qualities embodied in the practice of economic agents. Moral and spiritual flaws, in other words, have economic consequences. In economic transactions, a failure of insight, determination, perseverance, honesty, respect for law, or cooperativeness with one’s fellows can be self-defeating. Even entire worldviews can be self-defeating—when, for instance, they employ supposedly divine taboos to stifle economic innovation or curtail economic growth. Max Weber was among the first thinkers to draw our attention to these crucial moral and spiritual dimensions of economic behavior—and for that reason his work remains as vital and important today as it was a century ago.
This paper is adapted from a lecture delivered at Cornell University and is published with the university’s permission.
Published in First Things June 23, 2005
This essay is adapted from an address presented by Mr. Novak at Westminster Abbey on May 5, 1994. He is the twenty-fourth recipient of The Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion. This essay appeared in First Things.
As we draw near the close of the twentieth century, we owe ourselves a reckoning.
This century was history's bloodiest. From this revered and mortally threatened Abbey some fifty years ago, one could hear the screech of falling bombs. At a time they didn't choose, and in a way they didn't foresee, more than a hundred million persons in Europe found their lives brutally taken from them. An earlier Templeton laureate, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, has agreed that, beyond the war dead, 66 million prisoners perished in the Soviet labor camps. Add the scores of millions dead in Asia, Africa, and the other continents since 1900.
Nor is there any guarantee that the twenty-first century will not be bloodier.
And yet the world has drawn four painful lessons from the ashes of our century. First, even under conditions of nihilism, better than cowardice is fidelity to truth. From fidelity to truth, inner liberty is wrested.
Second, the boast of Stalin, Mussolini, and Hitler that dictatorship is more vigorous than "decadent democracy" was empty. It led to concentration camps.
Third, the claim that socialism is morally superior to capitalism, and better for the poor, was also empty. It paved the road to serfdom.
Fourth, vulgar relativism, now widely ascendant, undermines the culture of liberty. If it triumphs, free institutions may not survive the twenty-first century.
For three centuries, modernity has been supremely fruitful in its practical discoveries-in, for example, its magnificent institutions of political and economic liberty. But it has been spectacularly wrong in its underlying philosophy of life. An age wrong about God is almost certain to be wrong about man.
History, Hegel once remarked, is a butcher's bench. Homo homini lupus. Many sober inquirers, seeing how prodigally in this century the bodies of individuals have been thrown around like sacks of bones, understandably asserted that God is dead.
And yet, in this dark night of a century, a first fundamental lesson was drawn from the bowels of nihilism itself: Truth matters. Even for those unsure whether there is a God, a truth is different from a lie. Torturers can twist your mind, even reduce you to a vegetable, but as long as you retain the ability to say "Yes" or "No" as truth alone commands, they cannot own you.
Further, as the prison literature of the twentieth century-a very large literature, alas-abundantly testifies, truth is not simply a pragmatic compromise, although torturers try seductively to present it so. "It is such a little thing," they say. "All you have to do is say yes,' sign here, and this will all be over. Then you can forget about it. What harm will come of it? We have been in power for seventy years, we will always be in power. Be reasonable. Accept reality. It is such a little thing. Who will ever know? Just sign and be done with it."
Yet millions have known in such circumstances that their identity as free women and free men was at stake; more exactly, their salvation. Irina Ratushinskaya, Raoul Wallenberg, Andrei Sakharov, Maxi milian Kolbe, Vladimir Bukovsky, Vaclav Havel, Anatoly Sharansky, Pavel Bratinka, Tomas Halik, Mihailo Mihailov-let us summon up the witnesses, the endless scroll of honor of our century.
To obey truth is to be free, and in certain extremities nothing is more clear to the tormented mind, nothing more vital to the survival of self- respect, nothing so important to one's sense of remaining a worthy human being-of being no one's cog, part of no one's machine, resister to death against the kingdom of lies. In fidelity to truth lies human dignity.
There is nothing recondite in this. Simple people have often seen it more clearly than have the clerisy. This is the plain insight that Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn expressed when he wrote in his 1970 Nobel Address that one single truth is more powerful than all the weapons in the world, and that, dark as that hour then seemed in the world, with communism everywhere advancing, truth would prevail against the lie; and that those who clung to truth would overturn tyranny. (He was correct in his prediction. Truth did prevail over arms-we are witnesses to history; it is our obligation to teach this to our children.)
What those learned who suffered in prison in our time-what Dostoevsky learned in prison in the Tsar's time-is that we human beings do not own the truth. Truth is not "merely subjective," not something we make up, or choose, or cut to today's fashions or the morrow's pragmatism-we obey the truth. We do not "have" the truth, truth owns us, truth possesses us. Truth is far larger and deeper than we are. Truth leads us where it will. It is not ours for mastering.
And yet, even in prison, truth is a master before whom a free man stands erect. In obeying the evidence of truth, no human being is humiliated- rather, he is in that way alone ennobled. In obeying truth, we find the way of liberty marked out "as a lamp unto our feet." In obeying truth, a man becomes aware of participating in something greater than himself, which measures his inadequacies and weaknesses.
Truth is the light of God within us. For us its humble mode is inquiry, seeking, restlessness. Innermost at the core of us, even as children, is an irrepressible drive to ask questions. That unlimited drive is God's dynamic presence in us, the seed of our dissatisfaction with everything less than the infinite.
The Grand Refusal of the modern age to say "yes" to God is based upon a failure both of intellect and of imagination. Modernity's mistake is to have imagined God as if He were different from truth, alien from ourselves, "out there," like a ghostly object far in space, to serve Whom is to lose our own autonomy. Modernity has imagined God to be a ghostly version of the tyrants we have actually seen in the twentieth century. It took the real tyrants of our time, jackbooted, arrogant, enjoying the torture of innocents, to shatter that false identity. The tyrants may have thought they were like God; it was idiotic to flatter them that God was like them.
Many who resisted the tyrants of our era turned nihilism inside out. In the nothingness they found inner light. Many came to call the light they found there God. The relation some gradually assumed toward this inner light, whose Source, they knew, was not themselves, was that of wordless conversation or communion. They addressed their God in conversation, under the name of Truth. In the twentieth century, prisons and torture chambers have often been better places to encounter God than universities.
Until recently, then, modernity was mistaken in its relation to truth, and thus to God and humankind. But even so modernity has, to its great credit, by grant of Providence, made three great institutional discoveries. Modern thinkers first worked out, as neither the ancients nor the medievals had, the practical principles of the three-fold free society: free in its polity, free in its economy, and free in the realm of conscience and inquiry. The great modern achievements in these matters have been supremely practical: How to make free institutions work at least tolerably well, and better in most ways than earlier regimes.
However, despite these happy practical gains, modernity tore down the only philosophical foundations that can sustain the free society. The Age of Enlightenment was supposed to do away with sectarian bickering, but it did not. If you stay within your own school of thought, the foundations of the free society may seem secure. Peek outside, however, and you will hear raucous voices shouting. The Age of Enlightenment has failed to secure a mode of public moral argument worthy of the institutions it has erected.
Lest we forget: The twentieth century has been not only the bloodiest but also the most ideological of centuries. Ideology is the atheist's substitute for faith, and, lacking faith, our age did not want for warring ideologies. For nine decades of this century, armies not exactly ignorant clashed by night. Beneath the fearful din, two great practical principles of the free society were mortally contested: first, the political principle; second, the economic principle.
Despite the slogans of the 1930s ("the End of an Era," "the Decline of the West") and despite the boasts of dictators ("In three weeks England will have her neck wrung like a chicken"), decadent democracies proved they had the will, the audacity, and the stamina to defeat the principle of dictatorship. They defeated it so decisively that today hardly a dictator anywhere-too many, unfortunately, remain-dares to argue that dictatorship is an ideal form of government. Most are left to argue limply that, in the particular case of their own countries, dictatorship is expedient. They lie.
Even for desperately poor people, the principles of democracy (the rule of law, limited government, checks and balances) are better than dictatorship. Only thus can people enjoy the zone of civil liberty necessary to ensure their dignity and self-command. Democracy is the world's first great practical lesson of our time, learned at fearful cost.
The second great practical lesson of our century is the futility of socialism as an economic principle. For 150 years, the battle over fundamental economic principles was conducted asymmetrically. Hundreds of books detailed the wonders of socialism as an ideology, passionately dissected the flaws of capitalist practice, and boastfully mapped out the coming transition from capitalism to socialism. Not one single book existed-when the time finally came-to map out the one necessary transition, from socialism to capitalism. I doubt whether ever in history were so many intellectuals wrong on a matter to which they themselves assigned highest moment, all the while thinking of themselves as "scientific" and disinterested. The story of how this happened must one day be recounted.
As Pope John Paul II pointed out in Centesimus Annus, this story is connected to the intellectual's devaluation of the human person. No system that devalues the initiative and creativity of every woman and every man, made in the image of their Creator, is fit for human habitation. On the first day that the flag of Russia snapped against the blue sky over the city hall of St. Petersburg, where for seven decades the Red flag had flown, a Russian artist told me: "The next time you want to try an experiment like socialism, try it out on animals first-men it hurts too much."
Indeed, once the Iron Curtain was joyfully torn down, and the Great Lie thoroughly unmasked, it became clear that in the heartland of "real existing socialism" the poor were living in Third World conditions; that a large majority of the population was in misery; that both the will to work and economic creativity had been suffocated; that economic intelligence had been blinded by the absurd necessity to set arbitrarily the prices of some tens of millions of commodities and services; that the omnivorous State had almost wholly swallowed civil society; that the society of "comrades" had in fact driven an untold number of people into the most thoroughly privatized, untrusting, and alienated inner isolation on earth; that this Culture of the Lie had been hated by scores of millions; and that the soils of vast stretches of the land and the waters of rivers and lakes had been despoiled.
Three great lessons have been learned from our century, then, even if the cost of learning them was fearful beyond measure. First, truth matters. Second, for all its manifest faults, even absurdities, democracy is better for the protection of individuals and minorities than dictatorship. Third, for all its deficiencies, even gaping inadequacies, capitalism is better for the poor than either of its two great rivals, socialism and the traditional Third World economy. Just watch in which direction the poor of the world invariably migrate. The poor-of whom my family in living memory was one-know better than the intellectuals. They seek opportunity and liberty. They seek systems that allow them to be economically creative, as God made them to be.
From these three lessons, one might derive reasons for hope: Quite possibly-if along that great plain that runs like an arrow eastward from Germany through Poland, Ukraine, Belarus, and the Russian steppes, the new experiments in democracy and capitalism succeed-the twenty-first century could be the most prosperous and free in the history of the world. Perhaps China, too, if it becomes a democracy under the rule of law as it is already becoming capitalist, will bring to its more than one billion citizens unprecedented liberty. And throughout Latin America, there is a chance that the fertile soil of liberty will yield new fruits of education, creative energy, and prosperity for all.
Indeed, the twenty-first century could be the single most creative century in history, bringing virtually all the peoples of the world under the cool and healthful shade of liberty. It could be lovely.
Far likelier, however, is the prospect that the twenty-first century will be like the twentieth: tormented, sanguinary, barbarous. For there is still, alas, a fourth lesson.
During the twentieth century, the free society was fighting for its life. The urgent need to secure the free polity and the free economy blinded most to the cultural peril into which liberty has rapidly been falling.
Many sophisticated people love to say that they are cynical, that ours is a cynical age. They flatter themselves: They do not believe nothing; they believe anything. Ours is not an age of unbelief. It is an age of arrogant gullibility. Think how many actually believed the romances of fascism and communism. Think how many, today, believe in Global Warming; think how many believe in a coming Ice Age-and think how many believe in both! One thing our intellectual betters never lack is passionate belief.
One principle that today's intellectuals most passionately disseminate is vulgar relativism, "nihilism with a happy face." For them, it is certain that there is no truth, only opinion: my opinion, your opinion. They abandon the defense of intellect. There being no purchase of intellect upon reality, nothing else is left but preference, and will is everything. They retreat to the romance of will.
But this is to give to Mussolini and Hitler, posthumously and casually, what they could not vindicate by the most willful force of arms. It is to miss the first great lesson rescued from the ashes of World War II: Those who surrender the domain of intellect make straight the road of fascism. Totalitarianism, as Mussolini defined it, is la feroce volanta. It is the will-to-power, unchecked by any regard for truth. To surrender the claims of truth upon humans is to surrender Earth to thugs. It is to make a mockery of those who endured agonies for truth at the hands of torturers.
Vulgar relativism is an invisible gas, odorless, deadly, that is now polluting every free society on earth. It is a gas that attacks the central nervous system of moral striving. The most perilous threat to the free society today is, therefore, neither political nor economic. It is the poisonous, corrupting culture of relativism.
Freedom cannot grow-it cannot even survive-in every atmosphere or clime. In the wearying journey of human history, free societies have been astonishingly rare. The ecology of liberty is more fragile than the biosphere of Earth. Freedom needs clean and healthful habits, sound families, common decencies, and the unafraid respect of one human for another. Freedom needs entire rainforests of little acts of virtue, tangled loyalties, fierce loves, undying commitments. Freedom needs particular institutions and these, in turn, need peoples of particular habits of the heart.
Consider this. There are two types of liberty: one precritical, emotive, whimsical, proper to children; the other critical, sober, deliberate, responsible, proper to adults. Alexis de Tocqueville called attention to this alternative early in Democracy in America, and at Cambridge Lord Acton put it this way: Liberty is not the freedom to do what you wish; it is the freedom to do what you ought. Human beings are the only creatures on earth that do not blindly obey the laws of their nature, by instinct, but are free to choose to obey them with a loving will. Only humans enjoy the liberty to do-or not to do-what we ought to do.
It is this second kind of liberty-critical, adult liberty-that lies at the living core of the free society. It is the liberty of self-command, a mastery over one's own passions, bigotry, ignorance, and self-deceit. It is the liberty of self-government in one's own personal life. For how, James Madison once asked, can a people incapable of self-government in private life prove capable of it in public? If they cannot practice self-government over their private passions, how will they practice it over the institutions of the Republic?
There cannot be a free society among citizens who habitually lie, who malinger, who cheat, who do not meet their responsibilities, who cannot be counted on, who shirk difficulties, who flout the law-or who prefer to live as serfs or slaves, content in their dependency, so long as they are fed and entertained.
Freedom requires the exercise of conscience; it requires the practice of those virtues that, as Winston Churchill noted in his wartime speeches to the Commons, have long been practiced in these Isles: dutiful stout arms, ready hearts, courage, courtesy, ingenuity, respect for individual choice, a patient regard for hearing evidence on both sides of the story.
During the past hundred years, the question for those who loved liberty was whether, relying on the virtues of our peoples, we could survive powerful assaults from without (as, in the Battle of Britain, this city nobly did). During the next hundred years, the question for those who love liberty is whether we can survive the most insidious and duplicitous attacks from within, from those who undermine the virtues of our people, doing in advance the work of the Father of Lies. "There is no such thing as truth," they teach even the little ones. "Truth is bondage. Believe what seems right to you. There are as many truths as there are individuals. Follow your feelings. Do as you please. Get in touch with yourself. Do what feels comfortable." Those who speak in this way prepare the jails of the twenty-first century. They do the work of tyrants.
You are, no doubt, familiar with the objection to this warning. Its central argument goes like this: to accept the idea of moral truth is to accept authoritarian control. But between moral relativism and political control there is a third alternative, well known to the common sense of the English-speaking peoples. It is called self-control. We do not want a government that coerces the free consciences of individuals; on the contrary, we want self-governing individuals to restrain immoral government. We want self-government, self-command, self-control.
If a people composed of 100 million citizens is guarded by 100 million inner policemen-that is, by 100 million self-governing consciences-then the number of policemen on its streets may be few. For a society without inner policemen, on the other hand, there aren't enough policemen in the world to make society civil. Self-control is not authoritarianism but rather the alternative to it.
"The Revolution," Charles Peguy once wrote, "is moral, or not at all." This is also the law for the free society. It will deepen its moral culture-or it will die. As human lungs need air, so does liberty need virtue. The deepest and most vital struggles of the twenty-first century will be cultural arguments over the sorts of habits necessary to the preservation of liberty. What are the habits we must teach our young? Which are the habits we must encourage in ourselves, and which discourage? To allow liberty to survive-and, more than that, to make it worth all the blood and tears expended to achieve it-how do we need to live?
With the ample wealth produced by a free economy, with private liberties bestowed abundantly by free polities, are we not now ashamed of the culture we have wrought, its shocking crimes, its loss of virtue, its loss of courtesy, the decline of common decency? Can all the sufferings of our ancestors on behalf of liberty have been endured for this-that we might be as we now are?
Nihilism builds no cities. Great cultures are built by vaulting aspiration-by the Eros of truth and love and justice and realism that flung into the sky such arches as this Abbey's.
We must learn again how to teach the virtues of the noble Greeks and Romans, the commandments God entrusted to the Hebrews, and the virtues that Jesus introduced into the world-even into secular consciences-such as gentleness, kindness, compassion, and the equality of all in our Father's love. We must celebrate again the heroes, great and humble, who have for centuries exemplified the virtues proper to our individual peoples. We must learn again how to speak of virtue, character, and nobility of soul.
Liberty itself requires unprecedented virtues, rarely seen in simpler and more simply led societies. Special virtues are needed by self- governing peoples: calm, deliberate, dispassionate reflection; careful, responsible, consequence-accepting choice. In self-government, citizens are sovereigns, and must learn to exercise the virtues of sovereigns.
The free economy, too, demands more virtues than socialist or traditional economies: It demands active persons, self-starters, women and men of enterprise and risk. It requires the willingness to sacrifice present pleasures for rewards that will be enjoyed primarily by future generations. It requires vision, discovery, invention. Its dynamism is human creativity endowed in us by our Creator, Who made us in His image.
And so, too, the pluralist society calls for higher levels of civility, tolerance, and reasoned public argument than citizens in simpler times ever needed.
To maintain free societies in any of their three parts-economic, political, or cultural-is a constant struggle. Of these three, the cultural struggle, long neglected, is the one on whose outcome the fate of free societies in the twenty-first century will most depend. We will have to learn, once again, how to think about such matters, and how to argue about them publicly, with civility, and also with the moral seriousness of those who know that the survival of liberty depends upon the outcome. The free society is moral, or not at all.
No one ever promised us that free societies will endure forever. Indeed, a cold view of history shows that submission to tyranny is the more frequent condition of the human race, and that free societies have been few in number and not often long-lived. Free societies such as our own, which have arisen rather late in the long evolution of the human race, may pass across the darkness of time like splendid little comets, burn into ashes, disappear.
Yet nothing in the entire universe, vast as it is, is as beautiful as the human person. The human person alone is shaped to the image of God. This God loves humans with a love most powerful. It is this God who draws us, erect and free, toward Himself, this God Who, in Dante's words, is "the Love that moves the sun and all the stars."
Delivered March 9, 1994 in New York City: Awakening from Nihilism: The 1994 Templeton Prize Awarded to Michael Novak, ed. Derek Cross and Brian Anderson (Crisis Books, 1995), 35-42.
One of my favorite images is the white-hot ingot, such as I often saw while I was a youngster in the yards of Bethlehem Steel in Johnstown, Pennsylvania. The ingot suggested how God is present in the world: the fire and light at the heart of everything, creating all things and seeing that they are good.
The images of my childhood—of World War II and the holocaust, especially—have stayed with me. The nihilism of the twentieth century seemed to me a necessary starting place for writing about faith. One had to go into the nothingness, I thought, into the night, if one wished to write truthfully. The murder of my closest brother, Dick, personalized the world’s irrationality but the roots of the latter were far broader and deeper than anything personal.
Since at least the second grade, and maybe before, I have always wanted to be a writer. I wanted to try stories, novels, poems, plays, the verse for musical comedies, philosophy, everything. I wasn’t sure which forms I could do well, but I wanted to try everything.
I loved novels. As a teen, I tried to read fifty a year.
In college, the models that most excited me were Albert Camus, Francois Mauriac, Jean-Paul Sartre, because they were engagé, because they wrote both fiction and philosophy, and regular journalism, too. I loved the boundary areas between philosophical inquiry and the imagination. I thought fiction needed to be pressed deeper into philosophical inquiry, and philosophy to be pressed deeper into the role of metaphors and story in philosophical thinking itself. I took a double major in philosophy and literature, and as many courses in political and social thought as I could.
About my sophomore year I noted that Aristotle said a young man cannot fully understand (let alone write about) ethics—which he saw as a branch of politics—and that Jacques Maritain, the French Catholic Thomist, wrote that a man could not write well about metaphysics until he was at least fifty. This led me to ask: What should I do until I am fifty? I noted that Aristotle and Maritain gained as much experience in other spheres of life as they could, learning about the arts, politics, and other practical enterprises. Maritain became an ambassador and was active in the composition of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the founding of UNESCO; Aristotle accompanied Alexander the Great as his tutor, wrote dramas and dialogues (now lost), and collected extant constitutions of city states. They wrote about metaphysics and ethics later, on a base of broad and rich experience.
I determined to put myself in the way of as many diverse experiences as I could. My dream was to compose as deep a philosophy (or theology) of culture as I could.
Journalism seemed a very good medium for gaining such experiences, so I seized every opportunity offered me for taking on assignments—to Rome for the Vatican Council in 1963 and 1964, to Vietnam in 1967, covering presidential primaries in 1968 and 1972, etc. Actually, even during my seminary years I wrote as much journalism as I could. I also wrote a lot of fiction, some short stories, and a small brace of poems. My first published book was a novel—simple, naive, but clean and carefully written—and was a modest success. My second novel (in 1970) wasn’t very good, and I piled up manuscripts of about three or four others even less good. Meanwhile, in the middle of long years of postgraduate education, while writing and teaching philosophy and religious studies, I had become more adept at philosophical and theological prose. It became harder to free my imagination as fiction requires. And I had a lot that I wanted to investigate—about being a believer, a Christian, a Catholic in America, the most advanced country in the world, and about being an American who understood the American experience from a different point of view than most of those I encountered print—as a Catholic, a grandson of Slovak immigrants, a man with a mind and imagination steeped in traditions older than the United States.
It took me a while to work out my own identity, voice, style, but I think I have done that, and in a way capable of reaching a I certain universality easily grasped in faraway cultures.
Possibly, Belief and Unbelief (1965) and The Experience of Nothingness (1970) are deeper and more significant for my thought as a whole than has yet been noticed. I am pleased that both books are still in print.
Beginning in 1976, I began inquiring into the philosophy and/or theology of economics. I wanted to settle the century’s number one question—socialism or capitalism?—in my own mind. Put differently, I wanted to know why, even though I was determined (like Jacques Maritain) to be a man of the left, the socialist ideal left me restless. The more I inquired into it, the less satisfactory socialism seemed. It seemed clear that I needed to learn more economics than I then knew.
I kept thinking of my family still in Slovakia. I had returned there for a week in the summer of 1974, the first member of my family to revisit the homestead in the Tatra mountains from which my maternal grandfather had fled by night along “the underground railroad" at the age of sixteen to escape being impressed into the Hungarian army. He had told me of a crucifix he put up in a tree alongside the road. It was still there, I discovered, close to tears, although the road had long since been moved and the tree stood alone in the middle of a hillside meadow. One of my “cousins" (relationships are still unclear to me after so many years) was a Communist official in the area, if I understood correctly. Although in their own terms the family lived in rural prosperity greater than they had known before, they were very poor and their lives were very simple by the standards of their American relatives. Constraints upon even our intra-familial conversations lay heavy on the air; no one knew for sure the status of my translator, who worked for the government news agency.
In 1969 I had taken the first of many trips to Latin America. As a Catholic, I felt close to Latin Americans, both in religion and in the experience of the new world, even though Latin America seemed in many ways closer to Europe, especially Latin Europe, than the United States did. The problem of socialism v. capitalism was not just a philosophical problem there; by the early 1970s it was becoming a question over which people killed one another, families became bitterly divided, and even the Church was being torn apart. This seemed to me a misconceived struggle.
Because of my family’s ties to Asia—Dick had been murdered in the land he loved, today’s Bangladesh; Ben had volunteered for service in Vietnam because it was his generation’s battle place, he said, even though he didn’t have to go and was not wildly in favor of the war; and Jim served in various positions in several different Asian nations for more than a decade (and has recently written the world’s best introduction to the land, the culture, and the politics of Bangladesh)—I also began to attend to the economic miracles that were changing the condition of the poor in East Asia and the unnecessarily miserable conditions of those that were still following socialist models, even those of the relatively mild Fabian type.
The obligation of those of us who had escaped from poverty through the blessings of liberty, within the living memory of our own families, it seemed to me, was to do all we could to help to improve the conditions of the poor elsewhere. My heart was most drawn to the conditions of the poor in Eastern Europe, Latin America, and Asia. I gave some thought to Africa (at the Human Rights Commission in Geneva, I spent as much time as possible with the African delegations to learn more about that continent), but lacked firsthand experience there.
The problem of world poverty is systemic; most economic systems repress the personal economic initiative and economic creativity of their poor. In Latin America, for example, most of the poor are neither proletarians nor farm workers but entrepreneurs, hawking odds and ends to eke out a living in the swarming urban barrios, but they are seldom allowed to work legally, to incorporate small businesses, or to borrow the money that is the mother’s milk of new enterprises. They are forced to work as illegales or informales. This is a great crime against the image of God in them. They are made to be creators and to exercise personal initiative freely and fruitfully, in His image.
I have tried to work out my theology of economics with the poor in the forefront of my attention—first of all, the poverty of my own family in its beginnings and in central Europe today, but even more urgently the awful and unnecessary poverty of Latin America, Asia, and elsewhere.
Under Providence, moreover, it seems that the third wave of capitalism, like the third wave of democracy, is now beginning to gather momentum in predominantly Catholic areas of the world—from the Philippines to Poland, from Chile to the Czech Republic (it saddens me that the current leadership of Slovakia is still wed to the socialist model, spelling continuing hardship for its people). Thus it seemed useful for me to attempt to articulate a theory of capitalism and democracy that draws on the riches of the Catholic tradition, just as earlier generations of writers had thought out such theories in predominantly Protestant terms.
For example, Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, which millions of students have read in college, stresses the role of the individual and the tyranny of bureaucratic reason (“the iron cage”), while overlooking the distinctive capitalist social invention, the firm held together by voluntary consent and teamwork, and the factor of surprise and novelty introduced by invention, discovery, and the virtue of enterprise. The Catholic intellectual tradition delights in the Don Quixote factor of invention and creativity, and in the argument from teamwork and voluntary cooperation, as well as in the fact that the business firm, especially the small firm, is a "mediating structure," operating according to “the principle of subsidiarity." You can see these threads from Leo XIII (1891) to John Paul II (1991). So it seemed useful to bring them from the background of attention to the foreground, and to reflect on their implications in more extensive and practical detail.
Thus, if I had one wish to express on the occasion of this year’s Templeton Prize, it would be that the poor of the world benefit by it, through having attention focused on the systemic issue: Which sort of system of political economy is more likely to raise the poor out of poverty, liberate them from disease, and protect their dignity as agents free to exercise their own personal economic initiative and other creative talents? It is urgently important to get the system right, and through trial and error to get it to work according to the habits and history of every individual people. One of the beauties of individual systems of democratic capitalism is that each can be quite different from every other, according to the genius of each people. Their inner principle is respect for the liberty and creativity of individual persons.
Looking ahead to the twenty-first century, the problem that worries me most is the fragility of free societies that lose their intellectual and moral roots. All it takes for a free society to fail is for a single generation to abandon the ideas and habits which constitute free institutions. The history of the human race is mainly a history of tyranny, and political and economic freedom come with no guarantees. It is entirely possible that the free society such as we know it in the United States will burn out like a comet that swept through the darkness for a little over two centuries and then disintegrated.
Today, nearly all the world’s social democracies and welfare states are in severe crisis. Family life is falling apart, moral corruption is growing, both rising crime rates and the growing irrationality of horrible crimes are terrorizing citizens, and taxes from the public are insufficient to pay for the benefits the public has been unwisely promised.
Social democracy is based on the same errors as socialism, but in a form that takes a little longer to effect self-destruction. Those errors include promising their populations security, while forgetting that complete security is not possible for humans, since human wants and needs are infinite, whereas sources of funding are finite. For this reason, the modern State is an overpromiser and an underachiever, and ultimately a fraud. It is bound to disappoint, to embitter, to divide, and to engender corrosive cynicism. Weighed down by the ever-growing financial burden of the welfare state, and undermined by the moral corruption inherent in the latter, democracy will be hardpressed to survive the twenty-first century.
Free institutions cannot survive on the base of just any morality. Moral relativism is deadly for democracy. Both democracy and capitalism have a moral basis, without which they perish.
For such reasons, I expect the twenty-first century to be one of great cultural crisis. This does not mean that one should bet against the free societies. It means that if our institutions are to survive, an intellectual and cultural awakening will have to occur.