Orderly elections, the peaceful transfer of power from one administration to the next, and public confidence in the institutions responsible for ensuring that these things transpire are necessary for any free and just society. These are integral components of the rule of law, which minimizes the conflicts that may arise when the free actions of persons and institutions result in competing interests. We have seen, tragically, in the past months just what happens when our nation’s institutions and leaders fail in their most basic functions to preserve the common good. Of course, we have seen this over a long period of time in the United States, but the most recent examples merit comment.
The effects of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic have led to increasing social isolation and large-scale economic dislocation. This has, in many cases, been compounded by the failures of ham-fisted government interventions, the thirst for accumulating power and political leadership at all levels. Changes in the normal rules and procedures in the administration of elections adopted to deal with the public health impacts of the pandemic were implemented poorly, litigated extensively, and resulted in the conduct of an election in which the outcome was reported in neither an orderly nor timely manner. The already existing suspicion of institutions and leaders has now resulted in widespread public distrust and anger.
Former President Donald Trump himself disputed the results and filed several legal challenges. With the failure of these legal challenges at every level, he doubled down, protesting that the election had been stolen. The public distrust and anger, along with the intemperate and imprudent language of former President Trump and other political leaders, contributed to the tragic and dispiriting January 6th storming of the U.S. Capitol by a mob of rioters, which resulted in five deaths.
This political violence is part of a larger and deeply troubling trend. The riots of last summer in the wake of the death of George Floyd similarly resulted in property damage and tragic loss of life. They, too, were fueled by public distrust and anger and were also encouraged by intemperate and imprudent leaders such as Congresswoman Maxine Waters, who was rightly condemned at the time for inciting violence against public officials.
Those interested in promoting a free and virtuous society must refuse any sort of moral relativism, excusing or minimizing one form of political violence while calling out another. It is counterproductive to hurl political barbs back and forth, promoting further political division and polarization. Political violence, in all of its forms, must be repudiated totally.
We must recognize that the only path forward is to listen to each other honestly and with a great deal of patience. Many people are caught up in political polarization and demonization promoted by bad actors and opportunistic political leaders. We must be ruthless in promoting our principles while being gentle with our neighbors. It must be noted that this effort at honest dialogue ought not, in any way, diminish our commitment to our values and the promotion of the virtues that undergird freedom.
The growing secularist mentality sees religion as irrelevant, reducing everything to political conflicts and temporal power. The Psalmist warned about this mentality when he wrote:
Put not your trust in princes, in a son of man, in whom there is no help.
When his breath departs he returns to his earth; on that very day his plans perish (Psalm 146:3-4).
The principles underlying a free and virtuous society are grounded not in the pretensions of any human ideology, but within the very nature of human persons created, sustained, and loved by God. They originate and flow from the dignity of the human person, free and secure in his rights and bound to his neighbor in his duties. This is a message that inspires our confidence, and this is the only sure ground on which to reform and build trustworthy institutions for the next generation.