‘Who are we?” “What are we here for?” These are some of the most fundamental questions of our lives. And they can lead to a bit of a crisis these days, as there is so much uncertainty. Those questions are about more than each one of us as an individual. As statues are being torn down, the question of who we are as Americans is one that we have to consider — even if an election year could just be the worst of times for sober yet urgent reflection of any kind, never mind of the existential variety.
A speech that National Review’s founder William F. Buckley Jr. delivered in 1979 is always helpful to me when I’m worried about the future of America. He was reflecting on Americanism and what it “seeks to be.” He noted that there were some, of course, who disputed whether such a thing could be defined. In the remarks, he set out to identify himself as standing “athwart that most corrosive cynicism.” Bill’s position was that “our country and its ideals survive in a sense which is both definable and normative.” What Americanism is, contrasts with what, say, China is: “the most finished totalitarian society in the world,” as he wrote at the time. That is a place when “one may do nothing — except those things which once is explicitly permitted to do.”
In the United States, however, we have a Constitution — “and in particular the Bill of Rights.” These are, he wrote, “essentially a list of prohibitions.”
But it is a list of things that the government cannot do to the people. What a huge distinction: a majestic distinction. It grew out of a long, empirical journey, the eternal spark of which, of course, traces to Bethlehem, to that star that magnified man beyond any power of the emperors and gold seekers and legions of soldiers and slaves: a star that implanted in each one of us that essence that separates us from the beasts, and tells us that we were made in the image of God and were meant to be free.
Now, at the same time, Buckley made no claims that ours is or ever was a perfect country:
America cannot presume to offer itself up, in a frenzy of moral vanity, as the secular reflection of the Incarnation. But Americans can say, as Lincoln did, that our country was founded on a proposition: that government of the people, by the people, and for the people is of the nature of Americanism. That our ideals are proudly ours.
Of course, that “of course” about linking things to Bethlehem or any semblance of a Creator is not a given. (You don’t have to be Christian, but agree that it’s not a bad thing to have them around, because if they are who they say they are, virtue is their business.) And how one even receives a reference to Abraham Lincoln varies these days. For that government for the people, by the people and all to work, we need some semblance of a consensus — an agreed-upon basis for operation. We still have one, but goodness there is some unease, at best, about it.
A new book by Robert Reilly, America on Trial: A Defense of the Founding, ends with a bit of a rallying challenge to anyone who wants to see the American experiment, as it has been called, survive and thrive. While recalling the Founders’ insistence that moral character was necessary to avoid decline, he writes about present things (albeit written before COVID-19 and everything that has followed after). He cites Joseph Ratzinger, who would become Pope Benedict XVI, as warning that progressivism is a surrender of the concept of truth. Progress becomes truth. “But through this seeming exaltation, progress loses its direction and becomes nullified,” Ratzinger wrote. “For if no direction exists, everything can just as well be regress as progress.” Barack Obama in The Audacity of Hope described ordered liberty as a “rejection of absolute truth.” Reilly takes this to mean that “truth does not set you free; the truth enslaves you” and that “freedom requires the rejection of objective truth.” This, of course, leads to some utter confusion, madness, chaos, anger, and despair, to name a few of our non-favorite things.
Reilly, though, looks at all of this with some hope — because such a worldview cannot “survive its own erasure of natural law and Christianity.” “The loss of faith is a reason for hope,” he proposes. “It proved the downfall of the Soviet Empire, which imploded from its own hollowness.” A return to reality and reason is our exit ramp to flourishing. Virtue and a common desire to help one another succeed in freedom, according to some of the goals set out for us long ago, and even inspired, perhaps, by our Creator, could go a long way to renewing our politics. It’s going to take a lot of prayer, and work, and listening and courageous yet humble leadership, on all levels of American society. I’d like to think we’re up for it. I see glimpses daily that we must just be. May it be so.
This column is based on one available through Andrews McMeel Universal’s Newspaper Enterprise Association.