Put in plain English, this means that when public virtue fails, our constitutional government does not possess the power to preserve itself. Thus, the American experiment depends upon both the government upholding its obligation to preserve liberty and the American people upholding theirs to exercise that liberty towards virtuous purposes.
Of course, neither side can ever uphold its end of the bargain perfectly (and there are many safeguards built into the system to preserve it from inevitable human imperfections), but that’s the general thrust. Citizen and state both have obligations, and if either side fails, it imperils the republic.
We see this reality play out in American history. The seeds for the first great American crisis were sown in the original Constitution itself. By failing to end slavery and by failing to extend the Bill of Rights to protect citizens from the oppression of state and local governments, the early American government flatly failed to live up to the principles of the Declaration, and we paid the price in blood.
Even after the Civil War, the quick end of Union occupation of the Confederacy enabled the creation of an apartheid substate in the South. Once again, the government failed to live up the core principles of the founding. It is by God’s grace that the Jim Crow regime ended primarily as a result of the Civil Rights Movement—one of the great Christian justice movements in history—and not as the result of another convulsive civil conflict.
There are two things I’d love to hear David expand on in the future, both of which would seem to create some problems for his critique here and his broader writing on white Christian nationalism. (Hopefully by now my track record as a friendly critic and admirer of David is clear enough.)
First: On the one hand, David here wants to agree with Adams’s assessment of the relationship between personal virtue and even religious faith and the health of the United States. Yet elsewhere he has suggested that our nation has become more virtuous as it has become less “Christian” in a certain sense. I actually suspect he and I agree on most of this, but I’d love to hear him synthesize what he says regarding Adams and the founding here with what he has said in the past regarding white Christian nationalism.
Personally, I would synthesize the two by arguing that there is a difference between a nation that is self-consciously Christian in some sense and fails, even fails egregiously, to live up to that profession in many ways and a nation that has no real moral foundations beyond a kind of personal intuitionism built around self-creation and a strong negative conception of freedom. So you can say that in some ways America was a Christian nation, in other ways that it never really lived up to that identity at all, and that this is still decidedly different from today’s regime. Anyway, that’s my attempt at it. I’m not sure what David would say.
Second, and this is the more pressing concern, I think. Here is how David lands his piece regarding Adams and the necessity of virtuous citizens for the American order to function:
It is here that we find meaning and purpose. It is here that we build friendships and change lives. And in this present time, thanks to the steadily-expanding sphere of American liberty, we have more ability to unite—including for religious purposes—than at any time in American history. Yet we still bowl alone. We tweet alone. We rage alone, staring at screens and forming online tribes that provide an empty simulacrum of real relationships.
To do the big thing—to heal our land—we have to do the small things. Yet for all too many of us that feels empty, like our small actions are simply inadequate to address the giant concerns that dominate our minds. And so we ignore or neglect the small thing we can change to focus on the big thing we barely impact.
It’s most sad to see this in the church. There are those who grow actively angry when you point out the moral collapse of churches or ministries or religious colleges, in part because it’s seen to hurt the “big” fight, the all-hands-on-deck existential struggle against the other side. In the meantime, behind every story of moral collapse is another person wracked with despair, another person gripped by anxiety, and another person struggling alone. There’s another violation of the social compact.
We need a frame shift. Do not think of doing the small things as abandoning the larger quest. See every family, every friendship, every healthy church, every functioning school board as indispensable to our continued American experiment.
For those who think and obsess about politics, this shift from big to small is hard. It’s hard to think that how you love your friends might be more important to our nation than what you think of CRT. It’s strange to think that your response in your church to a single toxic leader might matter more to America than every single word you ever say or every vote you cast about trans athletes or corporate activism.
When our crisis is one of hatred, anxiety, and despair, don’t look to politics to heal our hearts. Our government can’t contend with “human Passions unbridled by morality and Religion.” Our social fabric is fraying. The social compact is crumbling. Our government is imperfect, but if this republic fractures, its people will be to blame.
The 19th century British educator Charlotte Mason theorized that student failure in the classroom is due to one of three reasons: weakness, ignorance, or rebelliousness. Weakness needs to be supported while ignorance needs to be informed. When I read David, I often come away with the impression that he thinks ignorance is the problem and this can be remedied through instruction and information. I’ve seen David as being to conservative journalism what someone like Ben Sasse is to the GOP, a strong believer in the practice and necessity of what we might call “civil catechesis.”
The difficulty, I think, is that many of the problems David is flagging might well be an issue of weakness rather than ignorance. And weakness is addressed differently than ignorance. “Weakness” is when a student is under-performing in school because they are tired or aren’t eating well. You respond to it by making sure they eat well at school, trying to help change home routines to get better sleep and nutrition, and so on. “Weakness” might also be when a student is distracted, which can be helped by getting rid of screens in the classroom, for example.
My concern with where we seem to be today and where we are headed is that I think Jon Askonas is correct: “reality” doesn’t really exist anymore and has been replaced by an array of “games.” But if Jon is correct, then civil catechesis is a proposal wholly inadequate to the problem and small acts of virtue to help people reorder themselves to reality won’t actually accomplish very much. That isn’t to say our personal lives are insignificant. We ought to be virtuous. But I think bringing up a recovery of personal virtue or restoration of basic American principle as a solution to the problem we have now is a bit like giving a bicycle to a man who needs to get from New York to Boston in a day. The bike is fine and riding it will be enjoyable and beneficial. But it’s just utterly divorced from the scale of the problem.
If the problem is closer to what Jon is describing, then it seems the chief need is to support weaknesses rather than educate ignorance. To be sure, there are extremely stupid ways of going about this and the GOP seems intent on trying all of them. But I think we do need some regulations on big tech, for example. We do need some regulations directed at big business. We do need sweeping educational reform. These are all big picture solutions, of course, but then this is the genius of subsidiarity, I think: It reserves the right to address a problem for the smallest body competent to address the problem. Given the scale of the problems caused by Facebook, for example, I do not think it inappropriate to say that we need federal-level responses to it, nor do I think it unreasonable to say that the problems Facebook creates will never be solved by private action any more than any number of other problems (road construction or policing, to take two examples) can be solved by private action.
Basically, I continue to find myself in this odd position of thinking a kind of civic libertarianism can’t address the issues before us even as I despair of the integrity and wisdom of the conservatives that, rightly I think, recognize the ways in which we need to use the power of the state to help promote and preserve a just and good union. And I wonder if Mason’s distinction between problems of weakness and problems of ignorance might help us better understand the problems before us.
Jake Meador is the editor-in-chief of Mere Orthodoxy. He is a 2010 graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln where he studied English and History. He lives in Lincoln, NE with his wife Joie, their daughter Davy Joy, and sons Wendell, Austin, and Ambrose. Jake's writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Commonweal, Christianity Today, Fare Forward, the University Bookman, Books & Culture, First Things, National Review, Front Porch Republic, and The Run of Play and he has written or contributed to several books, including "In Search of the Common Good," "What Are Christians For?" (both with InterVarsity Press), "A Protestant Christendom?" (with Davenant Press), and "Telling the Stories Right" (with the Front Porch Republic Press).