Occasional thoughts on the soul of the nation

When I look through the recent history of the United States, I cannot help but think that we are in the throes of a crisis of faith, in the technical Roman sense of fides, which really has no direct correspondent in contemporary US English.

We like to say that we are free, but we seem more and more to understand freedom as license – and the government as the power charged with protecting our freedom thusly construed from the encroachment of our fellows, even when their “encroachment” takes the form of an argument or a claim of right, say the right to be taken at one’s word, or kept to it.


Image: Howard Chandler Christy‘s interpretation of George Washington presiding over the signing of the Constitution, 1940

I am thinking specifically, though by no means exculsively, about marriage, and what we have done to it, and to ourselves by way of what we have done to it (and here I am thinking also, but by no means primarily, of what has been done recently by the SCOTUS, which requires serious thinking together and careful listening).

The question I believe we can no longer avoid is: what do we love? Do we even make a pretense of loving truth, frankness, frugality, industry, genius, self-control, learning, charity? If not, then what?
Only a very little while ago, I could write: 

The frailty of the human condition, and our duty to be mindful, understanding of it, may indeed make it necessary to create legal avenues for those who require release from the bonds created by the giving of their words of consent… The kind of people the American people are, however, or at least … legitimately aspire to be, is one that does not despair of the human capacity, the capacity of men and women equally, though differently, to give their word, and to keep faith with it. They [we] do not believe they require the chains of despotism in order that they [we] be kept from destroying and devouring one another. (The Soul of a Nation, 189)

I wonder now, whether and to what extent we really do believe that we can do without the chains of despotism, still less whether it is reasonable to expect what we understand liberty to be today long to survive without a government our fathers would have called despotic.

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