Serious proposals to fundamentally change the governance of these United States, made by unserious yet politically powerful people, are made with ever-increasing frequency: statehood for the District of Columbia, the packing of the Supreme Court, and one of the world’s largest tax on capital gains have all been placed on the table and are now the subject of public debate. Any reasonable observer knows that these proposals would alter the composition of the American republic, compromise its separation of powers (arguably the most important contribution the American founding offered to political arrangements), and radically alter its capital markets. Underlying all of these fundamental proposals is a deep-seated suspicion that our democracy, institutions, and economy as currently configured cannot meet the challenges we face today, or that they were utterly corrupt from the outset. These suspicions deserved to be addressed honestly, because they contain valid criticisms.
The COVID-19 pandemic, along with the ineffectual response to it by our political leaders, is a case in point. Massive government bailouts, pervasive restrictions on civil liberties, and enormous economic displacement have become commonplace. While scientific innovation, the extraordinary sacrifices of individuals, and the innovative adaptations of communities to the crisis have contributed to advances against the pandemic, the political class has proved to be more of an obstacle than an aid to progress.
Liberty, Lord Acton famously said, is the delicate fruit of a mature civilization. Of course, change in life as well as politics, is often necessary and even salutary, but ill-considered change, can imperil that delicate fruit. Such change is the fruit of a childish and intemperate civilization that is unconnected to the wellsprings of human flourishing.
Effective governance flows not out of a tempestuous and polarized politics, but from the virtue and vigilance of ordinary citizens. In a time of frustration, it becomes all too easy to blame others; real solutions lie not in politically hungry policy proposals that empower the already powerful, but in the and honest and ruthless examination of ourselves. Michael Nagler, writing of the thought of Mahatma Gandhi, put it nicely, “As human beings, our greatness lies not so much in being able to remake the world … as in being able to remake ourselves.”
This is an essential truth of human nature: We be both free and responsible. Our freedom gives us the concrete opportunity to respond to the crises of our moment by taking the initiative to transform our own lives and communities. We can only grow in virtue though creative service to others in our own contexts, within our families, churches, businesses, and our local communities. When we lose sight of our freedom and responsibility, it becomes easy to become captive to abstract “solutions” promised by power-hungry politicians.
The political philosopher Eric Voegelin taught that believing that the disorder we see around us can be overcome by some special knowledge was really the retrieval of the ancient error of Gnosticism and that the desire to implement policies based on this knowledge was really an effort to “immanentize the eschaton,” as Voegelin phrased it: that is, to bring about Heaven on earth by means of public policy. To sidestep human freedom and responsibility, to outsource dealing with the challenges of the human condition, is not at all unlike the final temptation that Christ faced in the desert: “The devil took Him to a very high mountain, and showed Him all the kingdoms of the world and the glory of them; and he said to Him, “All these I will give You, if You will fall down and worship me.”
At a moment of many challenges, with a polarized and ever-changing political climate, such temptations are routine. The only answer is the one Jesus gave Satan – a refusal, coupled with a renewed life of service to God and neighbor: “Then Jesus said to him, “Begone, Satan! for it is written, ‘You shall worship the Lord your God and Him only shall you serve’” (Matthew 4:8-10).