- The Washington Times - Monday, June 14, 2010


The divergence in opinion about the Employment Nondiscrimination Act being considered by Congress, illustrates a deep and widening divide in the beliefs of the American public. Homosexual rights advocates promote the act as necessary to protect homosexual and transgender persons from employment discrimination. The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and other religious groups state that it would jeopardize religious freedom, have an adverse effect on the privacy and associational rights of others and lead to the redefinition of marriage.

Such polar differences, which occur on many national issues, threaten the social compact underlying America. The unity of this nation as a constitutional republic is based on civic understandings rooted in shared moral precepts. When the Constitution was adopted, it did not set forth idealized principles for the nation. Rather, it codified existing beliefs and desires of the people. Those beliefs, though not necessarily stated, were embodied in ways of behavior, implicit values and the collective way of life of the people. If the written Constitution had not been in agreement with them, it would not have worked.

For 223 years, the Constitution has served the American people well. While assuring stability and continuity through an adherence to the written decrees, it has adapted to changing social conditions through the process of amendments. As long as the social compact remained in place and there was compatibility between the written Constitution and the unwritten persuasions of the people, the system worked. When severe disagreements arose in the mid-1800s, with strongly opposing views about the right of states to secede from the union, the social compact was fractured, and it took a Civil War to settle the question and keep the nation united.

Today, the social compact is once again being strained. There are deep divisions among the people as to what America stands for. One side believes in individual initiative, personal responsibility, equality of opportunity, entrepreneurship and limited government. The other side advocates bureaucratic regulation, societal responsibility, equality of results, centralized control and a paternalistic government. One believes in a capitalistic economy and a free-market system to reward individual achievement, the other in regulated commerce and a redistributionist system to promote social justice. One believes in equality under the law, the other in fairness under the law. One side believes in the innate dignity of every human being, the protection of life from conception to natural death and in marriage as only between one man and one woman, the other in dignity being conferred when one can function as a person, in the right of a woman to abort her own child and marriage as a civil right among consenting adults regardless of gender.

The division between these opposing views is not only extensive, but irreconcilable. In many aspects, especially the moral, there is no middle ground. One cannot unduly tax the rich and expect them to make the investments and take the risks to grow the economy. One cannot create a paternalistic government providing guaranteed income, health care and other social benefits and expect people to exercise individual initiative and take personal responsibility. One cannot believe that abortion is an abomination against the law of God and accept a woman’s right to terminate her pregnancy.

When this nation was founded and throughout most of its history, the people at large held to a common set of moral principles based on Judeo-Christian teachings. Those principles shaped the notions of liberty, justice and social responsibility, together with the customs and legal institutions to effect these ideas and preserve them for future generations. America today is a pluralistic nation in which people of numerous religious, cultural and ideological persuasions must live and work together in freedom, peace and equality under law. That can only occur and be sustained if the people are bound together by shared moral and ethical values, which form the unwritten mores synchronized with the written Constitution. As John Adams said, “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”

This is not to say that there was or should be a communal religion or that everyone should adhere to a prevailing set of doctrinal beliefs. Rather, the prosperity and prestige of the nation is best advanced when the people strive within a common ennobling framework to realize their personal ambitions. As long as the general ethos of the nation was Christian and the leaders governed in concert with its tenets, as had been the case in the past, a public unity could be achieved while accommodating a variety of doctrinal beliefs.

In the past several decades, however, there has been a progressive discarding of these common precepts and of their concomitant practices in public life. As a result, the shared civic principles that have held America together are eroding. If this trend is not reversed and a public moral consensus formed once again, there may not be a sufficient foundation to preserve the nation. It is shared tenets based on religious teachings that quell man’s self-interests and give rise to just laws and a civilized community. If faith is lost, a nation can be maintained, and then only temporarily, through coercion and dictatorial power.

Lawrence P. Grayson is a visiting scholar at the School of Philosophy of the Catholic University of America.

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