Forgive me, readers, for fast-forwarding to the end. But Robert Reilly’s closing salvo in his new book, America on Trial: A Defense of the Founding, are rallying words for us. As we watch the world—and in some of our cases, our city streets, maybe just a few blocks or a quick car ride away—in flames in recent weeks, Reilly focuses the mind on our duties as citizens present in the world today.
Forgive me, again, for going straight to his literal closing paragraph, but it gives me great hope and focus:
As grim as this all might seem [just everything, basically, that troubles our souls today!], one should recognize that failure is written into the DNA of the modern project because it cannot withstand the loss of the thing of which it is a distortion. Radical modernity is parasitic. It will fail to the extent to which it succeeds. It cannot survive its own erasure of natural law and Christianity. Paradoxically, the loss of faith and reason is a cause for hope. [!!!] It proved the downfall of the Soviet Empire, which imploded from its own hollowness. The West’s moral, social, and political implosion proceeds apace for similar reasons. Yet we can avoid the cataclysm anytime we choose to, by returning to reality, to reason, to “the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God.” Reality is resilient because, as Plato said, it is what is—not whatever one fancies. Logos wins in the end.
Robert Reilly’s book gives hope. Because when you start to meditate on where we started from and how we got to where we are, what we are living through right now all really does makes sense. As he writes, even our “Founders themselves predicted our decline if we could not sustain our moral character.” Some of the cultural poisons in our midst are almost impossible to avoid being influenced and wearied by daily–unless you’ve both managed to avoid a television and a smart phone (I know many who have managed the former, but mostly religious sisters and priests who have achieved the former). The environment we live in today simply has to do damage, even when we’re trying our best to avoid inhaling the fumes. And, as Reilly puts it, as the Founders predicted, “we are in trouble because the virtue needed to sustain the republic is fast disappearing, close to the point of irretrievability. We won the American Revolution but lost the sexual revolution….”
To take a sober look at that reality it’s only common sense that we are where we are today. One of the things that worries me most about this coronavirus time is the enormous number of elderly who died in nursing homes based on bad government decisions—decisions that are utterly consistent with these values that have won these decades. Four decades into legal abortion, is it any wonder that the same baptized Catholic governor of New York who has openly supported legalized physician-assisted suicide would issue orders that would unnecessarily kill still unknown numbers of elderly in nursing facilities in the state? Our law, which is undeniably a teacher, makes some pretty clear statements about life. Inconsistently, at times, but the culture of death sure does have its choke-hold. And even all those calculations that have been made over the years about the Supreme Court nominations aren’t the saving grace to loosen death’s grip as an ideology with a religious sway over people.
But when you read the Founders through the words of Robert Reilly as a healthy exercise during these summer days, America on Trial is both a challenge and a source of consolation. Reilly cites John Courtney Murray in noting “the Founding is not the problem; it is the solution. We had best return to its principles before it is too late.” What are its principles worth considering these days? How about a little John Adams? “We have no government, armed with power, capable of contending with human passions, unbridled by morality and religion. Avarice, ambition, revenge, and licentiousness would break the strongest cords of our Constitution, as a whale goes through a net.”
Or how about our Catholic forefather Charles Carroll? “Without morals a republic cannot subsist any length of time;” he wrote, “they therefore who are decrying the Christian religion, whose morality is so sublime and pure…are undermining the solid foundations of morals, the best security for the duration of free governments.”
Now is the time for a declaration of independence for believers. Christians, what are we doing to overwhelm the world with the Beatitudes? And that doesn’t mean writing new plans about the New Evangelization. It means living the Beatitudes anew, building in our communities—wherever we find ourselves.
That work you have been doing loving your family, teaching your children the faith while churches were closed? Teaching them, period. It is the most important work in the world. So many of us contribute to this madness we are living in by pretending otherwise. Jobs can come and go, now more than ever. But all that we’ve read about love being the measure? That’s what’s going to combat the destructive forces on our streets and in our legislatures ad courts and classrooms and phones.
Let’s face it, what we’re watching in the streets and so many other places is sheer misery. We are watching people cry out for help with the best of intentions, sometimes even in their ripping down of statutes. They want good, they just have no idea what it is, and certainly not how to pursue it. So let’s show them, by the way we live our lives. There is no guarantee that is going to be easy going forward, because a lot of hostility to real religion has taken hold, and has even informed our laws. Thanks be to God we have the likes of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty successfully fighting back. We make some important steps in law and politics and culture along the way.
But the real virtue revolution is going to come and settle in and inflame hearts by every seemingly little decision we make daily. That’s the rebuilding work we can’t miss, or the rest will be built on a shoddy foundation. We’ve got the cornerstone. If we keep our eyes on the cross, recapturing so much of the essentials of our founding for renewal can set us free again.
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