“These people are complainers, disgruntled ones who live by their desires; their mouths utter bombast as they fawn over people to gain advantage.” Jude 16
I find my mind preoccupied with politics these days. I know I am not alone in this. To some degree, this is part of the natural four year political cycle in the U.S., with the impending presidential election demanding our attention. We are inundated with it, from the news, to social media, to broadcast and print media, and in conversation with friends and family. But it is different this time. There is a crescendo of greater magnitude. I feel this is multifactorial, but principally due to the candidates nominated by the two major parties.
I know many share my view that both of these candidates are unfit for the office of President of the United States. I don’t intent with this essay to delve into which is better of the two, or “the lesser evil”, as I’ve heard many put it. Plenty is said, and will be said, along those lines. Instead, I want to put forth my thoughts on why we have arrived at such a place in American politics.
Many blame the politicians themselves. Not just Trump and Hillary, but the majority, if not all, of our elected officials. Some blame our system itself. I don’t exonerate the politicians, and I believe our system needs tweaking, or fine tuning, and will always need so, as intended by our founders. But these things are not the main problem. The politicians of our day are symptoms of a greater issue, simply a mirror of a deeper reality.
The problem is us. You, and me, and all of us, collectively. We are the main cause of the circumstance we are in. I contend the scripture quote from Jude noted at the beginning of this essay does not refer to Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton, any more than the rest of us. Go back to the top and read it again. Do you not agree that this epitomizes our society, at least in the way the majority of us act toward each other?
We, as a people, are fast losing the ability to competently govern ourselves. Abraham Lincoln spoke of a “government of the people, by the people, for the people”. Inherent in that assertion is that the people constituting the government will embody the characteristics we will project into our leaders. A portrait can only be as vivid as the image it is portraying. Whatever truth and integrity exists in a people cannot be exceeded by its leaders. Certainly, leaders can foster, encourage, and promote positive qualities in their subjects. But they cannot instill them. The heart and soul of a people must first yearn for high ideals before any leader can help them be realized. I fear we, as a people, are losing those high aspirations that helped make this nation great.
We need some serious national introspection.
Let us be reminded of the purpose of government. In a republic such as ours, government exists for the people, not the reverse. Specifically, government exists to provide for people what they cannot do themselves. Nothing more, and nothing less. I am neither a Socialist nor a Libertarian. Government is needed to protect those who need protecting. The Preamble of our Constitution says it best: “…establish justice, ensure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity.” But let us also remember what government CANNOT do. It cannot make us better people. It cannot instill within us the human traits which allow us to build and maintain a greater society. Of course, government does provide education, and rightly so. But education and the provision of moral and ethical guidance are two different things, at least as far as public education is concerned. To provide the latter, it falls to us as a people to better ourselves, both within and (more so) outside the boundaries of a government-funded public education.
It is important that our government not be involved in promoting certain moral or religious choices. Separation of Church and State is discussed much, and is an important cog in the wheels of our national machinery. But don’t take this to mean our nation does not need a moral or religious compass. We do. In fact, I believe we are lost without it, as certainly as a ship without navigation is lost, aimlessly floating on an open sea. John Adams put it best: “We have no government armed with power capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion. Avarice, ambition, revenge or gallantry would break the strongest cords of our Constitution as a whale goes through a net. Our Constitution is designed only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate for any other.”
A great beauty of the American experiment is this dichotomy, this paradox. A system which does not mandate by constitution any particular set of religious or moral tenets, yet is wholly dependent upon them being present. The brilliance lies in the fact the system allows the inclusion of all faiths, the exclusion of none, and includes those without any set of moral or religious values. But it recognizes that without a prevailing wind of such values, the system cannot last. Inherent, then, is the conclusion that it falls to the people themselves to provide these values.
This is where government must stop and religion must take over. Yes, the same religion many feel is obsolete, outdated, and arcane. I understand that there are some who feel religion is part of the problem, not the solution. But I disagree. Religion is not the problem. Perhaps the effectiveness of religion (or lack thereof) has contributed, but it is not the problem. Human nature is the problem. It is our broken selfishness that is at the core of our societal problems, both within and outside religion.
Of course, I cannot objectify my own religious beliefs. I am a cradle Catholic Christian, and have been blessed spiritually to be so. But I also have no illusions as to the primacy of my faith, at least as far as our nation is concerned. I am grateful for, and very comfortable with, a national brotherhood with all faiths and value systems, as long as they do not go against the values of human freedoms and protections set forth in our Constitution. I believe the ultimate value of my faith lies in eternal salvation, but that is not the focus of this essay.
Isn’t this brotherhood one of the revolutionary tenets of our American system? The American experiment was bold. The concept was a nation without a national faith, a nation which embraced all faiths, including those with no faith. The only requisite was lawfulness, specifically to the Constitution. But inherent within the fabric of our nation was a need for a moral populace. It doesn’t work otherwise. It can’t. The loss of moral fiber is not an instantaneous thing, and neither is its effect instantly apparent. Instead, we have seen a gradual loss of national effectiveness over the last two generations, which we have struggled to explain. We like to blame others, our leaders in particular. But it is us, as people, who have changed.
We are fast becoming a course, selfish and rude people. We are self-promoting. We are less and less teaching our children the core values of honesty, integrity, and service to others. We promote rampant individualism, to the exclusion of fostering motivation for the common good.
These are not new traits. They are within our nature, and always have been. Unless we find a way to alter our human nature, they always will be. But they have been somewhat controlled in the past. The rigid morality of previous centuries is now viewed as restrictive and stifling, but it had a purpose. Our ancestors recognized the need to control our impulses, that not every desire of our heart was constructive and healthy. We recognize this fact regarding our physical health quite well. We know giving in to our carnal appetites for food and drink is destructive, unless channeled in a “healthy” direction. Why do we now think this is not the case for other desires?
Spiritual and moral guidance is not a luxury, not an esoteric pursuit for those so inclined. I believe it is a necessary ingredient for a healthy society. Our humanity is constructed in such a way to demand it. Our nature is incomplete and lost without it.
J. Michael Servant