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The hard road of national renewal

To one degree or another, we are all to blame for the deterioration of American public life. We have let this happen on our watch, and we have done too little to stop the rot.

(Image: Jamison Riley/Unsplash.com)

Earlier this fall, I was happy to be one of the initial signatories of “Liberty and Justice for All,” a call for national renewal drafted by scholars concerned about the dangerous deterioration of American public life. The temper of the statement can be discerned from its opening paragraphs and its conclusion:

We stand at the crossroads.

Over the next several years, the noble sentiments and ideas that gave birth to the United States will either be repudiated or reaffirmed. The fateful choice before us will result either in the death of a great hope or a recommitment to an extraordinary political experiment whose full flowering we have yet to realize. The choice will involve either contempt and despair or gratitude and the self-respect worthy of a free people who know long labors lie before them and who proceed with hope toward a dignified future.

In the name of justice and equality, those animated by contempt and despair seek to destroy longstanding but fragile American institutions through which justice and equality can be secured. Destruction of these imperfect but necessary institutions will not hasten the advent of justice and equality but rather accelerate our collapse into barbarism and degradation.

Groups of Americans who today advocate endless racial contempt, who systematically distort our history for political gain, who scapegoat and silence whole groups of citizens, who brazenly justify and advocate violence and the destruction of property invite us not to justice and equality but to an ugly future whose only certainty is fear….

This crisis is acute, and the hour is late. Like our forebears, we aim both to conserve and reform our institutions in light of enduring principles of justice. That is the task of a self-governing people who know they live in an imperfect world yet are not deterred by challenges.

The full statement, which is being endorsed online by men and women across the racial, ethnic, religious, and political spectra of American life, is available here.

It is worth reading carefully, not least because its resolute yet calm tone clears the mind amidst the dispiriting racket of the most wretched political campaign in living memory.

“Liberty and Justice for All” should be especially appealing to Catholics serious about the social doctrine of the Church.

The statement insists that we must treat with each other as mutually responsible individuals, not as embodiments of racial or ideological categories – and thus affirms the first foundational principle of Catholic social doctrine, Christian personalism. The statement suggests that a mature freedom should be lived, not merely for self, but for the common good – the second foundational principle of Catholic social doctrine. The statement challenges the national drift toward concentrations of political and economic power while affirming the importance for a healthy democracy of natural associations (the traditional family) and the free associations of civil society (including the Church) – and thereby underscores the third foundational principle of the social doctrine, subsidiarity. Taken as whole, the statement is a summons to a renewed solidarity in American life, and thus affirms the social doctrine’s fourth foundational principle.

In 1787, the Constitutional Convention was held behind closed doors, absent the glare of public or press scrutiny. Leaving it, Benjamin Franklin was challenged by some Philadelphians: “What is it to be, Dr. Franklin, a monarchy or a republic?” “A republic,” Franklin replied, “if you can keep it.”

The keeping of it is now in question, perhaps more so than at any time since the years before the Civil War. And it will not do to blame our current national distress on two septuagenarians acting like four-year-olds while contending for the world’s greatest public office (although they surely disgraced themselves and embarrassed the country in their first “debate”). Nor will it do to blame the two major political parties, although both are hostage to their most shrill voices. Nor is the mainstream media the primary culprit, although it would help if some measure of objective reporting would return to our newspaper pages and television screens.

To one degree or another, we are all to blame. We have let this deterioration happen on our watch, and we have done too little to stop the rot. That is another reason why “Liberty and Justice for All” is important. While it rightly challenges the nihilists, anarchists, and race-baiters whose only program is destruction, it also calls decent citizens who have stayed on the sidelines of public life to become part of a long-term project of national reconciliation and renewal.

Benjamin Franklin’s challenge, you see, was also addressed to us.


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About George Weigel 301 Articles
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington's Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies. He is the author of over twenty books, including Witness to Hope: The Biography of Pope John Paul II (1999), The End and the Beginning: Pope John Paul II—The Victory of Freedom, the Last Years, the Legacy (2010), and The Irony of Modern Catholic History: How the Church Rediscovered Itself and Challenged the Modern World to Reform. His most recent book is The Next Pope: The Office of Peter and a Church in Mission (2020), published by Ignatius Press.

19 Comments

  1. If one examines history, one sees that the average republic lasts for about 250 years. From the declaration (1776) that would be 2026. From the adoption of the Constitution, (1789) that would be 2039. Either way, we are getting close to the historical average of the transition from republic to despotism.

    • Richard,
      This might be true. However, American democracy is different from most republics in that it has safeguards to becoming tyrannical. The fact that tyrant-minded citizens have discovered ways to breach these safeguards doesn’t negate America’s value.

      Nevertheless, we have to quickly figure out how to “right the ship.”

      • “…we have to quickly figure out how to “right the ship.”

        Throwing certain species of ballast overboard comes to mind. Not sure my choice would agree with Mr. Weigel’s.

  2. Stop already with this attitude of “I’m above it all.” It’s so elitist that it stinks. Let’s recall that Jesus Christ make some highly unpalatable and inflammatory remarks that ultimately got him killed.

  3. The elitist attitude mentioned above of “I’m above it all” is so true. After four years of accomplishments too numerous to mention, George Weigel seems not to have moved beyond his 2016 statement that ‘Donald Trump is now manifestly unfit to be president of the United States.” When he says that “we are all to blame” that really means that no one is to blame.
    He says that both major parties are hostage to their most shrill voices. If he cannot see the difference between the platform of the party of death and the platform of the party of life, I don’t know what to say. The distinction between the two presidential candidates is just as sharp.
    Weigel gives a vague reference to groups who advocate…violence and destruction of property. Why not name them? We know who they are. The moral equivalence alluded to here is astounding, given what we all know has happened in our cites this year, and who the perpetrators are.
    When Mr. Weigel states that we must treat each other as mutually responsible individuals, I can only think that , among other things, he did not watch the democrats on the Judiciary Committee attack Amy Coney Barrett. We are involved in a conflict of good against evil.

  4. Mr. Weigel and his fellow neoconservatives should consider the role they have played in bringing us to this deplorable and precarious point in our nation’s history. The ruinous Middle Eastern wars they so loudly demanded and strenuously defended over the last thirty years probably have accelerated America’s descent into Marxist chaos by several decades. The late Michael Novak and Mr. Weigel were perhaps the principal Catholic intellectual supporters of this insanity and despite the disastrous consequences that are plain to see, there has never been any hint of regret expressed by either of them or most of their allies.

  5. “Stop already with this attitude of “I’m above it all.” (Deacon Edward Peitler).
    “To one degree or other, we are all to blame.” (George Weigel).
    The author’s actual words make the unsubstantiated charge of aloofness mystifying, to say the least.

    • In my mind, implied in Weigel’s “Off with all their heads” is the unstated, “Except mine.”

      Perhaps Weigel should pen a piece here detailing all the ways he’s been personally responsible for the mess we’re supposed to be in.

  6. The fundamental question addressed neither by Weigel nor Liberty and Justice for All is whether the state has the authority to legalize the murder of innocent humanity as a matter of social policy.

    Or, to put it another way, does the statement “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. – That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men …” still have meaning today? If it does then it matters that we have one political party that still believes that the state simply has no authority whatsoever to legalize the murder of innocent humanity, and the other ferociously pretends that it does.

    Thousands of babies, some of them older and more viable than the patients routinely cared for hospital newborn intensive care units, are brutally murdered every day in America.

    Failing to mention this situation, and failing to mention the fact that one presidential candidate is working to end it, and the other belongs to a party that ferociously defends “legal” murder and has promised to advance his party’s position on this matter, is irresponsible and outrageous.

  7. It is impossible to take Weigel and his fellow neo-cons seriously. They have shown their contempt for the rest of us for too long. We know when he says “we are all responsible” he really means “you hillbillies are responsible.” Yes, the fighting has gotten ugly, and we are down to brass knuckles now, but we have the President we want. And you know what? We don’t care what you think about it. Nobody is listening. So go write another book about the New Evangelization that no one will read.

  8. For national renewal to occur republicans and democrats must begin to compromise. For me, as a republican that is impossible. I cannot move toward a party that is rushing far left as fast as it can, using identity politics to destroy property and relationships, and is moving toward atheism. One might just as well ask a peaceful German in WW2 to try compromise with the SS and The Reich. For peace to occur the Democratic Party must abandon it’s far left methods and begin to act like they used to do during the time of JFK. They cannot do it. I will not be the one to make the first move except to vote.

  9. George, I get it. You are one of those “on both sides” guys. When it’s clearly very much on one side only. And you of course must Know what side that is.

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