home > archive > 2004 > this article
Reflections on the Great Experiment: An interview with Michael Novak
By Helen and Peter Evans
Michael Novak's list of credentials are truly wide-ranging and impressive. Winner of the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion in 1994, the Boyer Award in 1999 and the International Prize by the Institution for World Capitalism, among many others, he's an author, theologian and philosopher. He also served as a roving ambassador under Ronald Reagan and his writings have appeared in every major Western language. He is currently the George Frederick Jewett Scholar in Religion, Philosophy, and Public Policy at the American Enterprise Institute. Mr. Novak sits with Helen and Peter Evans to discuss the "Great Experiment" that created the United States.
Helen: Please give us your conception of the Great Experiment.
Mr. Novak: In the Federalist Papers James Madison wrote that the Constitution represented a new model of government. The newness of the thing captured the excitement of John Adams even as early as 1776. In fact, it caught the imagination of people all over Europe. The heart of it is to imagine that a whole people have enough virtue and the right sort of habits to make it possible for them to practice self government.Self government means, first of all, government of the self, or self mastery. That's why you need a certain number of people with good habits, with temperance, prudence, practical wisdom, a sense of justice and courage. Plus some other virtues; the ability to cooperate with other people to get things done, and above all the ability to think clearly, to reflect, to deliberate, to understand their actions and why they make and then to hold to their commitments. They really valued people of character, that means a people whose commitments were so strong that you could take them to the bank. In other words, if they said they were going to do something, they were going to do it. You need people like that to make a republic work.
So, in the second sense of the word republic, self-government means the country is run by the people, for the people and it's made up of the people, in Lincoln's great phrase. So it's a form of popular government, but it's not direct. It's not by referendum, or by everyone pushing a key on the Internet. It has to be more deliberative. It has to have forums, argument and debate. And that's why the form most favored is that of representative government. We choose some outstanding men and women to be our representatives so that they may become more expert in the matters of concern and argue them out, in a transparent manner, so everyone can see it. Representative government takes decision-making away from the hot passions of the people and again makes them decisions of self-mastery. Self government is the master idea that flows through this.
On a different level, another point of originality was to recognize that a free system, a system of self government, needs to be three systems in one.
You need a free economy, more free than anything in history, if you want to produce the abundance that makes people love the country, gives full exercise to their talents and abilities, and rewards their enterprise.
Second you need a free polity that can set up the institutions of government, so that people's rights are respected and their abilities to organize themselves are not interfered with, so that they live most of their lives by their own self government, without turning to the state for everything. The ideal is to turn to the State for as little as is necessary. That's what self government means; it's not government by the State over the people, but people acting for themselves, and turning to the State only when necessary.
Finally a free society needs a free cultural system: freedom of conscience and of churches, free practice of the arts, the free exercise of science, and the free exercise of religion. So, the whole range in which humans explore the human spirit (and that's what culture means) must be free. The various aspects of the human spirit, our hearts and our minds, whether in the arts or sciences or conscience; all these have to be free.
These three sets of institutions; economic, political and cultural will normally not be in the hands of the same people. These three sets of institutions require people of quite different talents. It's a rare artist or intellectual who makes a good political leader or a good businessman at the same time. Some people, but not very many, manage to do all these things. We have three systems in a republic so that we divide power; so that no one elite, not the elite of the arts, churches, business or politics, controls the whole board.
Peter: To escape the dangerous concentration of power.
Mr. Novak: Yes, to escape the dangerous concentration of power. Our ancestors had an easier way of talking about such things. They said, "Everyone sins, therefore don't trust any one person with too much power." So we make it impossible for any one person to be in charge of everything and to every power put a countervailing power. Checks and balances, so each can be a ‘sentinel' over the others.
Helen: Some might consider the division of power as a weakness, since because of the inevitable debates and compromises it could take forever to get a decision made.
Mr. Novak: Yes, but they designed it that way; hoping that few decisions would be made, but that those made might be good ones. I say this more in jest, but I think one of the most damaging things to American government is the invention of air conditioning. Before air conditioning people had to get out of Washington for half the year, and we were better governed because less governed. Now we stay too long and try to make up our minds on everything. You can't get into your automobile without a message from the Federal government telling you to fasten your seat belts. I'm very much in favor of seat belts but I don't like the intrusion of the Federal government.
Helen: What about the people who say, "I'm just not political. I don't have time to think about government."
Mr. Novak: Well, if we don't pay attention to it, government just takes more power. The things governments do is take money and take power.
Government always thinks it's doing good with what it's taken from us and so it just gets bigger and bigger and bigger. It intrudes by telling you to wear a seat belt, where you can smoke a cigarette, what toys to use in a crib. It affects everything you do day to day. There may be some people who like the government as a nanny making sure we don't hurt ourselves with anything; but it just gets bigger and bigger, more intrusive, more expensive and becomes even more corrupt.
Helen: So government is not "out there," it's in our lives every minute.
Mr. Novak: It's in your life everyday in a million ways and it's your government, and you're responsible for it whether you're watching it or not. You are the sovereign. Every American citizen is a sovereign. When my Grandparents grew up in the mountains of Slovakia in the middle of Europe, they were subjects of the Austro-Hungarian Emperor. Their main duties could be put into three words: "pray, pay and obey." If they did those three things they were good Christians, good human beings, and good subjects.But when they came to America, they were in a new situation, they were no longer subjects. They were citizens and to be a citizen means to be a sovereign. If there is something wrong with the government, it's your fault. You can't blame it on other people. You have to take responsibility for it and if you don't take responsibility for it, that's just one more reform that's not going to happen. So they had to learn a new way of life here.
Helen: So when people say it's not ‘cool' to be political, or they are not aware of how government affects them, they are just not aware of their responsibility.
Mr. Novak: You're a sovereign as a citizen and if you're not involved in your government, you're not doing your job. In the long run that's very bad for the Republic. The whole condition for keeping what we have is that people act as sovereigns. So we must pay attention, we must be aware, we must be very jealous of our power. Don't let that power get away from you.
Peter: There are two aspects to this. The republic depends very much on the quality of the people and the quality of the people depends very much on the quality of self government. Big government seems to go hand in hand with the decline of individual sovereignty.
Mr. Novak: If people don't care about politics and don't learn about politics they are leaving a vacuum into which government expands. They go hand in hand. Those people who do not care are turning this country into another country of big government and their children will not inherit a free society. If that's what they want, it's too bad. They should just know that's what they are choosing when they don't become involved.
Peter: They are choosing by not being aware of the implications of their choices.
Mr. Novak: They are choosing by not fulfilling their responsibility. They're just not acting like sovereigns.
Helen: One of the things that people forget about the Great Experiment is that it is indeed an experiment... in human freedom and liberty and that, because freedom is freedom, we can't predict any outcome or how it will progress.
Mr. Novak: That's why our Founders always wondered about how long it would last. The price of liberty is everlasting vigilance. You've got to be on your guard every minute or you will lose it. In most of history, societies have not been free. It's a very rare society that is free. The default condition of human societies is tyranny. Every society's inclination is toward tyranny, unless you resist it constantly.
Helen: Talking about the sovereign, I'd like to get to the idea presented in your book On Two Wings that there is a present misconception that the Founding Fathers were simply "men of reason." However, you say that they based this new society on two wings, faith and common sense. Can you tell us where this misconception came from, that the Founding Fathers didn't bring faith in a higher power into the making of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution?
Mr. Novak: There was no misconception about this idea until well into the 20th century. It was well understood that, in the beginning, our Founders would not have declared war on Great Britain in search of their independence unless they had faith that God was the God of Liberty. Great Britain was the greatest military power in the world. It had the greatest army and the greatest navy. We had no army, we had no navy, we had barely a munitions factory on this side of the water. Yet they dared to make war on this great power because they knew from their Bible that God created the whole universe with all the vast space and silence so that somewhere there would be some creature in it, male or female, that could recognize what He did and could accept His friendship. He offered His friendship, but He wanted the friendship of free men and women, not slaves. So, He had to make them free.
Ben Franklin said that "where there is friendship, there must be freedom." That's why the very first article of the charters in Pennsylvania is the charter of religious freedom. In the Society of Friends, the Commonwealth of Friends, its first city, Philadelphia, is called the City of Brotherly Love. Where you have Brotherly Love - which is a form of friendship - you must have freedom. And Jefferson said the same thing, "The God who gave us life gave us Liberty at the same time."
So, the whole purpose of the Universe is Freedom. Therefore a whole people cast its fate on the cause of freedom. They knew God wasn't a Pollyanna God. The good guys don't always win; they sometimes take a terrible beating. So it wasn't guaranteed we'd win, but it was a good shot. It was in accord with the general momentum of the universe. The universe moves in the direction of Liberty. So they trusted in that and they wrote in the Declaration of Independence, "with a firm reliance on Divine Providence." Well, if you don't have a munitions factory you'd better rely on Divine Providence!
It turns out it was a well-placed trust, because they won. And they were constantly thankful for it because they saw how in place after place they won by the skin of their teeth when, on paper, they should have lost. They attributed this to the "signal intervention" of Divine Providence. That phrase "signal intervention" occurs again and again in writings of George Washington and others, for they could sense the hand of God in their success when they should have failed. Therefore they asked Congress by decree to ask all Americans to undergo a day of fasting and humiliation to beg pardon of the Almighty for the sins of every American of every rank and ask his blessing on the cause of Liberty. Then, as the years progressed, they issued every year a decree that we should give Thanksgiving. They said nations as well as individuals had an obligation to recognize the goodness of God. They said this nation has had so many signals of His intervention on our behalf; we should give thanks. The decree said that every state should set aside and plan the day in its own way.
From the beginning this was a generation untypical for a Protestant generation, and I speak as a Catholic. I say this because Protestants before this, both Lutheran and Calvinists had tended to put down reason in order to exalt faith and to exalt grace. But in this generation they were unusually balanced between reason - which they preferred to call common sense - and faith.
Peter: Not reason with a capital "R."
Mr. Novak: Right, not the European heavy philosophers, or those that Madison once referred to in the Federalist Papers as "utopic" or utopian theorists. So they praised common sense and at the same time they praised faith. They quite commonly made arguments from both, side by side, and even took consolation in the fact that whether they looked at it from the point of common sense or from the point of view of Biblical faith they were led to the same conclusion: that God preferred Freedom, and that freedom required a certain virtue, a certain integrity and a certain courage. Not everybody could be free. It depended on your character. So they kept encouraging each other to a high degree of virtue, otherwise freedom would be lost.
Peter: Liberty entails the freedom to ‘enjoy' the consequences of your actions and choices, whether they are good or bad.
Mr. Novak: If you make mistakes you have to pay for your consequences and they encouraged people of virtue to do the right thing again and again and again, without having to learn by experience. It's when you do the wrong thing that you have to learn by experience. So the best way to save a lot of energy and a lot of grief is to do it consistently the right way.
Helen: Let me quote from your book, On Two Wings, where Washington said "public self-government succeeds if citizens also practice self-government in their personal lives."
Mr. Novak: This is actually based on something Madison said, but Washington also said something like it in his farewell address where he commended both religion and morality as indispensable to the maintenance of a free republic. So, Washington and Madison were on the same wavelength. They all were. In my book, On Two Wings, I also have a number of quotes by John Adams to the same effect.
Helen: So how did this misconception arise about the "separation of Church and State"?
Mr. Novak: The idea of separation of Church and State never came up in our history until well into the 19th century. Ironically it came up as Catholic immigrants became stronger in America and it was used by some Protestants as a weapon against Catholics. When they talked about separation of Church and State they meant, particularly, separation of the State from the Catholic Church. The public schools then were quite Protestant; the American Institutions were quite Protestant. That didn't bother them. What bothered them were Catholic schools.
In any case, the phrase "separation of Church and State" was just about never used. Jefferson used it once in a political letter to the Baptists of New England, but that letter disappeared. No one knew about it until, I think, the 1840's, when it appeared in an anthology of Jefferson's writings. The letter was first incorporated into decisions of the Supreme Court in 1878, in Reynolds v. U.S., but not because of the phrase "separation of Church and State." Rather, the Justices were interested in the previous sentence about the legitimate powers of government.
There was an accommodation of Church and State in this country from the very beginning. They were quite clear in that they did not want the Church to exercise political power or the state government to exercise power over the Churches. But that didn't mean that religious people can't express their religiousness in public. The largest Church service in the United States well into the 1800's was in the U. S. Capitol building and the music was provided at federal expense by the Marine Band at Jefferson's request.
Where was the ACLU to let Jefferson know he couldn't do that? If you visit military cemeteries around the world, you'll see the federal government puts up religious symbols; the cross, the Star of David, the Crescent. The Congress begins each session with a prayer, the oaths of office for example. This country is permeated by religious symbols. Even the Constitution points out that in counting 10 days for a veto, Sundays don't count. The day of rest is observed. So, religion is even recognized in the Constitution. But you shouldn't mix up the two powers: religion & political.
Peter: It's difficult to make a clean line between them because individuals, through their involvement in government, bring with them their spiritual beliefs.
Mr. Novak: It never would have occurred to the Founders that you should do that; that you should bring a separation between those two aspects of yourself. They wanted you to bring all the religious convictions and habits that you could to public life. That way, public life would be more reliable. It was a natural inference at that time that people deficient in basic virtues would be deficient in the way they used power.
Helen: What about the movements who want to take down the Ten Commandments from government buildings or remove nativity scenes from public squares because they say it's an un-Constitutional combination of Church and State?
Mr. Novak: Well, which Church is being entangled when that happens?
Helen: Usually a Christian Church.
Mr. Novak: But there isn't one Christian Church. There are more than 150 of them, and that's what the Founders wanted: competition among Churches. It is an expression of religion in society, but that's a different thing. The Founding Fathers are full of expressions of religion in society, even in politics. Just look at Congressional and Presidential decrees; walk around the monuments of this city. If you suppressed the expression of religion in America you would see a decay of virtue, since most people practice virtue because of religion. Not everyone; there may be some people who don't need religion in order to be virtuous. Washington even says that in his Farewell Address, "Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity," he says, "religion and morality are indispensable supports."
For most people religion is indispensable to the practice of virtue. We learn what is right and wrong through the stories of the Bible, mostly Jewish stories, from the Jewish testament. Early Americans loved the Jewish testament because that was the testament which contains the story of how a people became a nation.Want to know how to form a nation? Look to what the ancient Israelites did. They wanted a King and God said no, that's dangerous. Yet they chose a King and then they had to figure out how to get rid of the King. That's also why the early Americans loved the Hebrew names: Abigail, Abraham, Zachary, Sarah, Rebecca. It seems many more Jewish names than Christian were used at that time. Anyway, by reading the Bible people learn what's good and what's bad in God's eyes.
You can learn philosophical explanations for that also if you want to, but, as Tocqueville pointed out, the advantage of religion is that it comes right to the point. It shows you good and evil even for common, ordinary people, while the philosophers could go on arguing about these same points for generations! He argued that religion has a great advantage to a democracy in that it teaches very clearly and very simply the path to the virtues which are necessary for a republic.
Helen: In your book you speak about the "utility of religion." Some people feel that amounts to ‘using' God. Let's consider the individual who goes to church every Sunday but doesn't really feel he has a relationship with God or his religion; he's just hoping he's doing right in preparation for the afterlife. How can religion be useful to him in his everyday life?
Mr. Novak: I don't like to look at it that way. I turn it around. It would be very odd of God to call people to a religion that turned out to be completely contrary to their utility. It would be self-defeating if God said "do this" and you "did that" but then it frustrated your nature or didn't improve your condition. There would be a horrible conflict either to follow God or to improve our condition and fulfill our nature, one or the other. It's bizarre to think that if you practice the Christian and Jewish religions you would not produce people who are fit for a republican government. And it is not a "merely" utilitarian argument to make this point as if you were saying that people should practice religion in order to enjoy representative government. No, that's not the point at all. That's putting the cart before the horse. Rather, the same God who made us calls us to act as free persons. When God commands us to do His will and we do it, it does fit us better to lead lives of self-government and self-mastery. This, in turn, as in extra benefit, is also very good for a republic. Follow God's will because it's good in itself. One of its utilities is that following God's will makes it more likely that democracy will succeed. That success is an extra benefit.
Peter: Its immediate benefit is to the people who follow the precepts.
Mr. Novak: Yes, it makes you a better person.
Peter: Yet, the question asked by conscientious people everywhere is, "How can I do right? There are a lot of choices; how can I choose aright?"
Mr. Novak: Let me use an example here. A fellow I know runs a small company that does some international trading and selling. He instructs his people never to pay bribes. Now it's true they lose some business. There are some countries where they just won't get the contracts, where some other country that pays bribes will get it. Yet, he says he just doesn't want work like that. He says, "a dollar I earn that way is a dollar I don't want." On the other hand, he says there are cases where governments learn that his company won't pay bribes and he still gets the contract. Some heads of government want to work with a firm that won't corrupt its officials. So you win some, and you lose some. Nevertheless, there are some people in this world who say even if doing God's will is not utilitarian, I still want to do it. They are happy to live that way.
Peter: A case of Virtue being its own reward.
Mr. Novak: They would prefer that reward and living that way. They would prefer the reward of knowing they did the right thing, rather than the thought that they cheated or lied. They don't want that to be the description of their lives. So you need enough people who will do the right thing.Take the case of the Watergate scandal. There is this young policeman who sees a bit of tape across the basement door. Now why didn't he just rip the tape off and put it in his pocket and say, "Damn it, if I report this I'm going to have to testify in court, lose 3 or 4 days work without pay.
It's just going to be a pain in the neck." So why did he do what he was supposed to do? Well, that's character. He did the right thing. And we need people all through the system who do the right thing even though it costs them something.
Another example is the pilots over Midway in WWII had only 3 minutes of gas in their tanks before they had to turn back. Well, suddenly the clouds broke and they saw the whole Japanese fleet below them unprotected. If they went in to drop their bombs on the carriers they might not have enough gas to get home, but they didn't hesitate. They went in and got them. The one guy who was scared to death of being shot out of the sky as he went in said he was more scared of what his buddies and his family would think of him if he didn't do it. So if you live in a society of virtue which expects you to do your duty, even at the cost of your life, you want to live up to those expectations. Even if you don't do it for noble purposes, it may be just that you don't want to let your friends down. That's why you need a society which encourages virtue in one another. By the way, the Left is very good at this. The Left is always talking about ‘commitment' and ‘dedication' and ‘sacrifice.' The only thing they don't like to talk about is virtue. But they are always appealing to it. The people on the Left need virtue every bit as much as people of conservative background, but conservatives don't mind talking about virtue and Liberals hate it. I think Liberals should talk about what they do.
Helen: Let's talk a bit about that. What about someone who says religion leads either to self-aggrandizement or victimhood?
Mr. Novak: Everything can be corrupted. Love can be corrupted. Aren't all the appeals that destroy people based on love? Religion can be corrupted.
There is nothing human that can't be corrupted and there are abuses. It's very sad when good things are corrupted.
Helen: It's sad, but it's part of life. We shouldn't cut something out just because it might be corrupted.
Mr. Novak: When you see corruption, you've got to call it and get rid of it, but that's why we've got to be vigilant, not only about government but religion and every aspect of life.
Helen: Can we get into "self-interest rightly understood"? Let's use the example of someone running into the street and pushing an invalid out of the way of an on-coming car. Let's say this person is motivated, just as the pilots at Midway, by doing the right thing. Is there anything a person can do who is not motivated by self-interest?
Mr. Novak: You could say the pilot at Midway did it for self esteem, that's self interest. But I think that's all irrelevant. In cases such as these, what you want to concentrate on is the effect of the action. Concentrate with a little realism. If an invalid or a child is in danger and you can help, just do it. Whether you do it for self interest or unselfishness, the important thing is to help. You probably don't even know what your motives are.
Peter: Especially if you do it on the spur of the moment.
Mr. Novak: Yes, but even if you do think about it, we're so full of self-deception that we usually don't know our motives anyway. My view is, just let God be my judge.
In the Declaration of Independence, the Founders advance their claim with "Respect to the Opinions of Humankind" but appeal to "the Supreme Judge of the World for the Rectitude of our Intentions." In other words they said, they were not rebelling against Law, but it was the King who rebelled against Divine Law. So doing the right thing and self interest are not mutually contradictory. Anyway, I don't think it matters about "isn't everything in our self interest." That's just a clever way for some people to define things. That's why the expression of Tocqueville, "self interest rightly understood," is so important.
He put it this way. In France, where he was part of the aristocracy, it was considered less than noble to do anything that served your own interest. To act nobly meant doing things for the glory or the beauty of it, or the rightness of it. Now, of course, if you came from nobility you didn't have to worry about rewards because your wealth and position in society were already assured. You didn't have to have utilitarian motives. But, he said, the contrast in America was that even when people sacrificed for the city or the public good, they would always tell you they did it for their own self interest. If you complimented their public spiritedness they would tell you, "You don't understand; in the long run it's good for me or good for my family."
Americans boast about self interest and Europeans boast about their lack of self interest.He was trying to say that Americans have a correct understanding of self interest. It's in their self interest to support the public good. This is self interest rightly understood. Europe could use more of it. Europe gets itself tied up in a lot of hypocritical knots by trying not to be in it's own self interest.
Helen: That touches on our current foreign policy. Many say that the act is tainted if America does anything that will benefit itself.
Mr. Novak: There is an irony in American history in that Americans sometimes present themselves as much more innocent that they really are.
This involves forming an unrealistic view about human nature and what human beings really are.
For instance, Americans are inclined to think about what our Founders did for Liberty without seeing that the existence of slavery was so important to the self interest of a number of the states that they didn't see how they'd survive if they got rid of slavery. So the Founders had to make an exception for the slaves in their appeal to Freedom. They couldn't appeal for the freedom of the slaves right away. What they could do was not give anyone status as a slave in the Constitution. There is no mention of slaves in the Declaration or Constitution. They did limit the number of votes a state could have in the Congress based on its black population. That's the famous 3/5 of a person. Why was that? That was so the free states would soon outnumber the slave states in votes and representation in Congress. If they hadn't done this, the slave states would have ruled Congress. So the point is that the Founders had to make a compromise, but it was a compromise that put us on the road towards the abolition of slavery. The compromise had a direction, had a point to it.
So, right from the beginning, self interest was involved and if it weren't involved there would not have been a union. And if there was not a union we would not have succeeded in getting our independence. Some people say that, without Union, there may have been 5 or even 11 different countries on this continent. We would have recreated all the divisions and wars of Europe. So it was a way of combining our self interest right from the very beginning that made our country work.
In the same way with the 2003 war in Iraq. There is oil; not only in Iraq but in the region, and we can't afford to intervene to remove every cruel tyrant in the world. There are too many of them and we're finite, with a finite military and finite resources. We can't use them everywhere. So one criterion we use is, where is our national interest most effected? What does the longevity of the country most depend on? And so we use our national interest as a criterion of where we should act.
That doesn't mean it controls our motives. We're perfectly happy to see the oil of Iraq go to the people of Iraq. We're supporting a plan right now, like that in Alaska, where every family will benefit from the oil. We can't have hostile powers in control of that oil. That would cripple our allies much more than us.
So, there is always a mixture of self interest and the public good and the trick is to get them in the right balance. Self interest rightly understood is self interest that promotes the public good too. You can't eliminate the self interest.
Peter: To eliminate self interest would be to eliminate the vital push that makes anything grow.
Mr. Novak: St. Bernard once told his monks—well he didn't use the phrase self interest; he used self love—and said, "self interest dies 15 minutes after the self."
Helen: Do you think the Great Experiment could die?
Mr. Novak: Sure it could. Coming out of the Constitutional convention, Benjamin Franklin replied to a woman who asked what sort of government they contrived in those 50 days by saying, "a republic, madam, if you can keep it." Here's another story: the sun fell upon the seat of George Washington's chair. He seemed to be gazing pensively on a symbol of the sun carved on the chair, trying to decide whether it was a rising or setting sun, whether the Constitution meant the end or the beginning.
Peter: Well, 227 years later, what do you think?
Mr. Novak: Well, let me go back to 1830, just 70 years after the Constitutional Convention, when Abraham Lincoln observed that although the whole generation of those that fought for Independence had been fondly remembered by their sons and daughters, by the time of the grandsons the story was becoming boring and old hat and that generation tired of hearing about it. By this time drinking and violence had risen, so those people who said independence would bring lawlessness and destruction seemed to be right. And Lincoln had a powerful phrase for it. He called it the "silent artillery of time" which wears down the virtues. Even if a generation succeeds in a high level of virtue, it's very hard to pass on to their sons and it's even harder to pass on to their grandsons.
So the natural default of republics is decline. If you lose virtue, you lose the republic. I think we're in mortal danger of losing the republic now at the beginning of the third Millennium.
Helen: Do you see the moral relativism movement, wherein there is no right or wrong, being part of that decline?
Mr. Novak: That's even worse. There is no right or wrong, it's just opinion. That's where fascism begins. That's saying there is no connection between morality and truth. So how do you settle questions of morality? Power!
Peter: Fight it out.
Mr. Novak: And the guys with the most power win. That's exactly the lesson Stalin, Hitler and Mussolini drew in the beginning of the 20th century.
Instead of talk, talk, talk, babble, babble, babble; they became strong men and governed as dictators. So it's worse than just moral decline. Moral relativism is the end of morality, period. Maybe you don't feel it in the first generation because there may be good people who live good lives but are attracted to the idea of moral relativism and talked about it. Then their children learn it, and by the time their grandchildren are around there's real moral relativism everywhere. There's no morality.
Peter: In terms of vigilance, it seems we're going to sleep where morality is concerned. Yet, it seems the terrorist attacks on 9/11 were a wake up call. Do you think the net result of that was beneficial?
Mr. Novak: I thought it was, but it's been dissipated, by very strong attacks on the President and on the policy of the war because we're in the middle of a political campaign. The sense of unity is already fractured by the up-coming election. That's not necessarily wrong, that's what elections do and you could construct an argument about what is morality and what is moral and that's not bad in itself. Yet, that tangible sense of unity felt for months after 9/11 is gone. Well, some of it still lives. The President still enjoys strong support in the war on terrorism and is seen by the vast majority of Americans as a leader of honesty and moral integrity. So, that sense of unity is not completely dead, but it's wounded.
Helen: What would you suggest the average citizen do to become part of the Great Experiment?
Mr. Novak: The first thing is to steep oneself in the lives of the Founders and the story of the Founding. The best way to start a reform or renaissance at any time is by going back to stories from the beginning. An American reformation is a turning back to the starting place and seeing where we began and what the purpose of this republic is. It's told mostly in the lives of the people. So the more you steep yourself in the lives and stories the better you come to an understanding.
Peter: Would you suggest the Federalist papers as an introduction?
Mr. Novak: That's a little too difficult. I wouldn't urge that on everybody. It's a wonderful text. It's the one book to tell you how to be a revolutionary; not those that tell you how to take up arms and bring down the government. That's ridiculous. So, you bring the government down.
then what? That's where the Federalist begins. It's a brilliant handbook for how to form a republic and make it work; it contains all the arguments.But its easiest to read biographies. David McCullough's book on John Adams is a very good story. Richard Brookheiser has been doing a very good small set of books on the individual Founders. They're very short.
There is also a minister in Philadelphia who wrote a wonderful, little pamphlet on the liberty Bell. Search "Liberty Bell" on the Internet and you'll find wonderful stories about how the Liberty Bell and the republic came to be. We also need more children's books telling the story of the founding. Lynne Cheney has written A is for Abigail and each letter tells a story about the Founding.
I also love the play "1776." It's witty and funny but there's a lot of meat in it; a lot of true insights. These are the sorts of things we need more of.The old history books used to be full of them. The reason Americans remembered their history is that the text books were full of stories.
History was telling stories, and the purpose of history was to give you the narrative line of your people. It wasn't to tell you social history, how many people did this or that, what kind of plates they used and what they did with their garbage. That's a different kind of stuff. That's for an Institute of Technology or something like that. But if you want the healing history it's the narrative that inspires people. What was the measure of their lives, what they were trying to live up to.
This country is full of stories and Washington is a city full of people who love these stories. There is a statue of John Witherspoon near Dupont Circle and he's probably the most influential of all the congressmen in the Constitutional Congress. He was on a hundred committees; yet few people know of him these days. Most people don't know the stories of the top founders, or even those 50 who signed the Declaration of Independence, yet they are fascinating stories.
Peter: John Witherspoon seems to have influenced most of those 100.
Mr. Novak: Yes, he was President of Princeton and without question the most influential professor in the history of the republic. The sermon he preached when coming out in defense of the revolution, when all his life he had refused to speak of politics from the pulpit, was so powerful that it was reprinted and distributed in all 500 Presbyterian Churches before the Declaration. At the other end of the spectrum was Gouvernour Morris; wise and shrewd, and he has a claim to designing the Constitution just as Madison had.
Helen: Do you have any words, especially for Catholics? We sometimes hear that Catholicism is opposed to the common good and that a democracy is perhaps not the best place to be a practicing Catholic.
Mr. Novak: There are not many places in history where the Catholic Church has been so free and successful in establishing institutions. For instance the hospital system run by the Catholic nuns is larger than that of some states. The Catholic university system is the largest in the world. There is no question about the freedom of this country being good for the Catholic Church and the Catholic Church having learned a lot from them.
Because Catholic countries in the world were largely based on an agricultural economy, there are many books published preferring the life of the farmer and the nobility to the life of the businessman. One occupation deals with real fruit and products, the other is buying cheap and selling for a profit; so the middleman is looked down upon. This is also true of Greek and Roman literature, secular as well as Catholic.
So, it has caused some anti-Capitalist feelings among some Catholic clergy and some laity that don't have a basis in fact, but have their basis in tradition and heritage. That needs some attention, because what is Capitalism? It's not just buying and selling. That's ancient and has been in every system in the world. Capitalism is a new system which arose in the 17th and 18th centuries with increasing refinements today. It's a system based on invention and discovery. Virtually every corporation in the United States, every fortune, is based on a new idea, or a new good or service never before seen being provided to people. I think the heart of Capitalism is creation and innovation.
This is something Max Weber, in his Protestant Ethic of the Spirit of Capitalism, missed. He thought capitalism was characterized by its logic, discipline and asceticism. He looked at it in a very Puritan way. I think he missed the essence of the thing; the creation, the innovation, the discovery. I think that's a more Catholic way of looking at things. We tend to emphasize the creation and the Protestants tend to emphasize salvation.
Catholics see that creation is injured by sin, but not destroyed, and so tend to see the good within creation.
We have a relative, who was a mature Protestant and became Catholic. One of the things she said she learned from Catholicism is a certain emphasis on ordinary life. She's found she's more at home in the world now. Anyway, the point is looking at capitalism as the story of creation rather than of logic and asceticism.
Peter: You describe Judaism and Christian as narrative religions.
Mr. Novak: Yes, take the Jewish Seder, the Passover meal. It's a time to relive the story of the passing of the Jewish people out of Egypt. "Next year in Jerusalem." You're taught to see yourself as belonging to a long story. Also, you're not the first Jew to suffer or desire; many have gone before you. Also in Christianity, the mass is the reliving of the passion of the death of Christ. You are taught to identify with the story and to know that the story is aiming somewhere. You're taught that history has a beginning, a middle and a stated end, which we haven't achieved yet. Both religions are the religions of the "not yet."
Helen: So it differs from those religions which state that life is a cycle.
Mr. Novak: Yes, that's just "one thing after another."
Peter: Islam is larger in the American mind that it was a few years ago. What is it?
Mr. Novak: It's a narrative too, but it's a more warlike narrative. The story there is that at the end of history Islam will conquer the world, or that everyone left will be Muslim.
Helen: The Great Experiment is a narrative too.
Mr. Novak: Oh yes, it is and they learned that from Judaism and Christianity. It's a narrative that says that God offers his friendship to every individual, man and woman, and they have the inalienable responsibility to say yes or no. Inalienable, because neither their mother or father, brother, sister, aunts or uncles - no one - can make the decision for them. They have to make up their own mind and their consciences have to be free in order to make the decision. Their conscience has to be respected, not just if they're Jewish or Christian, but also if they're Hindu or Buddhist or Islamic or whatever. It's still our Christian duty to respect them.
So, we have a theory of religious freedom based on Jewish and Christian beliefs which protects even those who are not Christian or Jewish. To my knowledge no other group has developed such a theory.
Peter and Helen Evans is a husband and wife team who are freelance writers and speakers and teach a philosophical approach to conservatism. They are also real estate agents in the Washington, DC area.
Get weekly updates about new issues of ESR!
© 1996-2021, Enter Stage Right and/or its creators. All rights reserved.