The republican virtue of humility

Humility is religion’s great gift to democracy, harnessing its appetites to create a lawful Republic.

Humility is not the exclusive province of religion.  Atheists and agnostics may embrace its virtues too, and their liberty is no less dependent upon it than the congregation of any church or temple.  However, throughout American history, religion has served as the great garden where humility is cultivated. 

It is only human nature for us to fall prey to the seductions of power.  Fear and compassion are heavy coins to lay across the scales from liberty.  The benefits promised by the State are material, while the liberties we are asked to surrender seem abstract, and perhaps even irrational.  When a working political coalition can be persuaded to see a given liberty as ephemeral, it does not survive for long… unless the whole of the populace is united in its insistence that the State must be humble before it, and accept certain limits without protest.

If you are not Catholic, what difference does it make to you if the State forces them to violate their beliefs in the service of a public good, such as the mandatory financing of birth control and abortion?  Tangible and material benefits have been set before you by the government – birth control devices afford protection against certain diseases, and make popular lifestyle choices possible, by removing their consequences. 

Most of the public has accepted the notion that sexual desire is irresistible, so forcing men and women to deal with unwanted pregnancy is cruel.  We have also accepted the absurd and dishonorable idea that only women should have to deal with those consequences, having dissolved the social stigma against men who decide to abandon the situation

From there, it’s a short hop to declaring that making people, particularly women, pay for their own protection against disease and unwanted pregnancy is cruel.  The State must act to ensure that every social blessing is readily available to the poor, which increasingly means “anyone on a tight budget.”  No one should be forced to treat an absolute social good as a budgetary priority, meaning they must sacrifice something else to obtain it.

How can the ancient, irrational traditions of the Catholic Church be allowed to stand against the wisdom of the State, duly sanctified by elections and popular opinion polls?  Even a number of liberal Catholics feel that way.  Why should the State allow a portion of the Catholic population to thwart its grand and elegant designs with hoary old superstitions?

Through its contemplation of divinity, religion gives free men the priceless gift of an authority forever higher than the State.  It is not necessary to accept any religion’s portrayal of this authority, or even its literal, conscious existence, to benefit from the concept of clearly defined, inalienable rights flowing from a source that lies above politics.  Those rights are not subject to argument or barter.  No coalition of your fellow citizens can strip them from you with the coercive power of government, or purchase them from you by dipping into the treasury of the State. 

In fact, if you completely embrace the concept of “God-given rights,” you will understand that you cannot give them away.  Your inalienable rights are not your “property,” to be dispensed with at your pleasure, with the signature of a contract – because no contractual agency can match the Authority that granted you those rights, and made them an inseparable component of your being.  For example, under the Constitution of the United States and its attendant Bill of Rights, you cannot choose to become a slave.

You don’t have to be religious to appreciate the power of this ideal, but it’s no surprise that religious faith provides useful tools for the thoughtful defender of liberty, as it makes him comfortable with the essential concept of transcendence, and its ramifications… chief among them humility. 

Power is arrogant, as you can see by glancing at any hungry politician.  This is due, in part, to our social understanding that a naked appetite for power is unseemly.  Arrogance is the cloak worn by political greed, a costume that allows the ambitious politician to pose as a saint or scientist, instead of a conqueror or charlatan.

Arrogance also grows from the conviction that dissent is irrational.  Politics is a process of argument, which means it has little patience for absolute rights which lie beyond argument, granted by an Authority that will never rescind them.  The more deeply free people believe in those rights, the smaller the sphere of politics becomes.  The political animal does not like touching the bars of its cage, but its appetites drive it forever against the limits of its confinement.

There will always be arguments in favor of expanding the State.  Those who desire such expansion will always strive to appear supremely reasonable and compassionate.  Many of them sincerely believe in the power of their intellect, and the sweet depth of their compassion.  The State thus fields a disciplined, armored legion of Reason, while liberty is defended by a rabble of barbarians.  The “enemies of progress” unreasonably maintain that brilliant plans, carefully designed by the most highly credentialed architects, are somehow “illegal” because old men wearing powdered wigs wrote something about “inalienable rights” over two centuries ago, while quoting from scriptures written centuries before that.

Of course the arrogant become enraged at such nonsense!  Principles steadfastly maintained beyond the reach of political debate are articles of faith, by definition.  Those who worship the power of the State are jealous of any other faith, having convinced themselves that only theirs can withstand logical scrutiny… even as mountains of evidence to the contrary pile up around the globe. 

In order to be free, you must have faith.  The brutal mob violence of democracy is transformed into a prosperous and lawful republic through the embrace of limits to power, which cannot be dissolved at the pleasure of majorities or super-majorities.  Those limits exist because we believe in them.  We’re not required to ratify them over and over again, defending them against unceasing electoral assault… until fidelity to the abstract gives way to material hunger, and another chunk of the Constitution is devoured. 

It’s no surprise that a bountiful supply of faith is useful to any nation that cherishes liberty, or that freedom and faith are so often seen to wither in tandem.  It’s essential for each congregation to understand the limits of its religious authority, of course.  Fortunately, such an understanding is built into the Judeo-Christian tradition.  It took mankind a good long while to fully appreciate it, but we finally got there.  It’s no accident that history’s greatest flowering of liberty grew from such a rich soil.  It would be a shame to see the last of it washed away.