By Christian Martin
The Tower (Princeton, NJ)
“You think our country’s so innocent?”
Even the interviewer, Bill O’Reilly, seemed confused by this statement. I was just horrified at what I had witnessed: a sitting U.S. president divesting a nation of its moral authority, cherished since its inception, in defense of the authoritarian tactics of Russian strongman Vladimir Putin. We were the first nation ever founded not by ethnic unity, but on a set of values. Genocides stopped from the Yazidis to the Bosnians, communities rebuilt from Europe to Africa, and hope inspired in millions worldwide — yet our national leader placed America on the same moral plane as Putin’s Russia: without a right to life, as can be seen in the murder of Russian opposition politician Boris Nemtsov; without a right to liberty, as evidenced by presidential candidate in exile Garry Kasparov; and without a right to the pursuit of happiness, as is clear by the masses of Russians unable to live as they wish due to soaring inequality.
While my heart breaks from the implication of those six words, I know this to be a manifestation of a trend running its course long before the current president took office, though it is certainly in part the reason for his election. This trend springs from the-far-too regular acceptance of presidential in infidelity in the Kennedy days and lying under oath in the Clinton days. As we grow more and more accepting of our moral failures, Americans begin to turn away from traditional moral actors in society — Gallup finds that only 37 percent of Americans attend any weekly church service still. This trend is the flight of something that prompted America’s founding and has bore witness to all our best days: a culture of virtue in a morally conscious society. This is dangerous, because in the words of then-Vice President John Adams, “Our constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.” After all, the virtue of a government is necessarily dependent on the the character of those elected to power, character which is usually only selected if voters deem it desirable. Judging by the election of a president who claims tax evasion makes him “smart,” virtue is no longer at the ballot box. This cultural exodus of virtue has never been so blatant.
We balk at teaching classes such ethics and philosophy in an age of programming and STEM. We dangerously groom an electorate unfit to actually support just laws. We have bastardized our purpose, looking at policies that maximize wealth or our personal feelings of security instead of focusing on the one value we should evaluate when determining whether or not to support any policy: is it just. The paragon of justice in American eyes, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., explained this well in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” that “a just law is a man-made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God.” This must be the framework for judging any policy, and its proponents at the ballot box. We debate whether or not torture works, but fail to discuss whether or not it is right. We fear taking in refugees, disregarding our moral obligation to do so. We maintain alliances with oppressive regimes out of desire to be “smart,” but “smart” is not an end in and of itself, but a means to the end of achieving higher purpose. We must define on that higher purpose, and decide on righteousness, even over security and wealth.
To do this, we need a re-emergence of morality in American society. Historically, the Church provided this “moral center”; it is where these values originally emerged in our country. While correlation is by no means causation, the Church’s decline has brought appreciation for virtue down with it. Increasing secularization makes a morally conscious public, accepting of diverse peoples, but grounded in the enlightened Judaeo-Christian values this country was founded upon, all the more crucial. Values of respect for the individual, freedom of expression, and equality of all people, must be at the forefront of American life, refreshing the American identity. is new attitude must persist in every decision we make: as we educate our children, as we vote, as we decide to be vocal about injustice everywhere in our world. The globe still needs moral leadership. No nation is better suited to fill this role than the United States. Americans just need to realize it and live it.
Photo Credit: Chris Wang