[Continued from “Moral Crusade, Part 1”]
It is a truism that almost any sect, cult, or religion will legislate its creed into law if it acquires the political power to do so. — Robert A. Heinlein
America’s founders began their revolt with the Declaration of Independence, which declared that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights . . . ” Not simply a rebellion against burdensome governance, theirs was a moral crusade for liberty.
To the Founders, there was no question of simply walking away from Great Britain; the only option was armed insurrection. But in battle your cause must be righteous or the troops won’t rally. The new idea of individual liberty provided the grand moral framework for the Colonists’ stand against the Crown.
The revolution prevailed. The American Experiment commenced, stumbling out of the gate — nearly tearing itself apart during a civil war — but at last it strengthened and galloped away, its success the envy of the world. Liberty became the new watchword.
To this day, Americans tend to regard their federal government as a guarantor of the ethical wellbeing of the country. That attitude, successful though it has been for two centuries, may also be America’s undoing.
The United States is a country founded not on divine right or religious suzerainty, but on the ethical virtue of freedom. Yet once a country imposes a moral system — however enlightened — with force of arms, it’s only a matter of time before some citizens argue for a different moral purpose for that government and its authority.
Many Americans became impatient with social issues such as racial bias and disparities of wealth. Casting about, they hit on the idea of repurposing the might of central authority to control society and the economy. After all, their government was the clout behind the moral crusade of … of … of Americanism! But the idea of America was changing.
Today we give lip service to liberty, but in practice we visit upon ourselves the set of moral strictures desired by the current electoral majority. Lately those principles come from Progressivism, the belief that some people have too many advantages and must hand them over to people with fewer. Even conservatives grudgingly support this idea.
It may be a quirk of history that Progressivism has been so successful in America and Western societies and, increasingly, the rest of the world. The winning moral viewpoint could easily have been something else entirely. For example, neo-conservatives — big-government imperialists with a right-wing moral code — held sway in Washington for years, with unsettling results like the Iraq War and the Great Recession. Then there’s the groundswell of support for the belief that America is a Christian nation that ought to be governed that way. Supremacists and absolutists of many stripes, similar to those now burgeoning in Europe, easily could take their turns as American voter favorites. A future campaign might overthrow Progressivism and reshape our hugely powerful and increasingly authoritarian government into an enforcer of some darker moral cause.
Any doubt that this can happen is quashed by the American experience itself. Our present system is a far cry from what the Founders intended. The government of liberty has morphed, in part, into a regulator of liberty. (One synonym for “freedom” is “privilege”, the verbal catcall of the Left. No surprise, then, that the old belief in liberty these days often gets left in the dust.)
Is there any chance Americans would, instead, one day come to think of governance as a practical, not a moral, process? To catch thieves and referee disputes and, now and then, repel invaders? And not to inflict punishments and extra taxes on citizens deemed morally unfit?
Each of us is “bad and wrong” to others in America. Like it or not, millions of your fellow citizens are deeply offended that people such as you are allowed to live and work unpunished. It doesn’t matter which side you’re on — your views are abhorrent to large swaths of voters. (Good thing they don’t know all your crazy beliefs.)
Liberty is, at the very least, a great practical idea for society. But if it must stand or fall, not on its obvious benefits, but on its righteousness, it becomes easy pickings for a more exciting cause that captivates the angry mob. And, as history has shown, it doesn’t take much for the crowd to tear freedom apart.
[continued at “Moral Crusade, Part 3“]