(RNS) A government is only as good as its people, and a people get the government they more or less deserve.
These kinds of thoughts have run through my mind a lot recently as I have witnessed the carnage of this presidential campaign. I keep wondering whether the problem isn’t them but us.
Ours is a political culture in which the default setting is to maximize freedom. Freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of association, freedom of movement, freedom of religion, freedom of commerce and exchange, freedom to create and dissolve just about any form of human endeavor one can imagine — this is the American way of life.
Many people who have suffered under tyrannies of various types have come to our shores attracted by this expansive vision of freedom.
But today I join others in being anxious about a transition from freedom to chaos, from liberty to license, in the character of our country. Freedom is a great thing, except when people misuse it.
Freedom of speech is great except for when people use it to curse and slander others. Freedom of the press is great except for when the press libels people. Freedom of association is great except for when people form hate groups. Freedom of religion is great except for when their religion does harm to others or to their own children. Freedom to form and dissolve romantic relationships is great except for when people bring harm to themselves and others who count on them. Commercial freedom is great except for when business harms people with unsafe products. And so on.
It is clear that America’s founders understood that the freedom-maximizing government they were creating required a citizenry of sound character to go along with it. Government could stay small and limited if, and only if, people could regulate their own actions in virtuous ways.
You don’t need a whole lot of police in a town in which 99.9 percent of the citizenry on a given day are voluntarily choosing not to break the laws that their representatives have established. Virtuous business owners don’t cheat their customers or mistreat their employees, spouses of sound mind and character do not physically harm their children. And so on.
Religion has for centuries been one primary force undergirding the formation of character.
In the U.S. at the time of our founding, of course, the primary religion was Christianity. The founders counted on the force of Christianity to shape and constrain the exercise of freedom by most Americans. Even those who had left the theology of Christianity behind were still affected by the broadly Christian ethos that Christians and their churches had formed here.
That formative power manifested itself in many ways — among them Christian preaching, home-by-home parental Bible teaching, the formation of human conscience, and the belief that everyone must someday give account of their lives to God. Of course the same thing happened and still happens in many other cultures in which a deep and widespread religiosity pervasively affects community, family, and personal values.
I think we have good reason to be anxious about the erosion of the moral (and religious) ethos that once formed and constrained our expressions of the maximized liberty of our political system.
The delicate balance that the founders expected — a free people, but not utterly free, because they are shaped and constrained by the force of a powerfully religious and moral culture — is in the process of being lost.
We can see the effects of that erosion in a variety of places.
I think it is especially clear in much of what passes for entertainment. Liberty has become license; entertainment has become degradation. Of course it’s not just in the media. Don’t miss the utterly ruthless business practices of many in corporate America, or the anything-goes ethos of our political fighting, to see a similar loss of moral restraint. There used to be certain things that decent people just did not do. This baseline is eroding, across the board. The erosion has certainly been visible in this presidential campaign.
We need a renewal of moral seriousness in this country. We need to retrieve religious and moral resources easily available to us for the cultivation of character. We need to be able to draw a distinction between liberty and license. We need creative ways to speak the language of character so that our children and grandchildren will be able to understand what we mean, and want it for themselves. We need to be brave enough to push back against the most egregious cultural expressions of raw degradation masquerading as entertainment.
And we need to look for leaders in every venue — family, church, business, community, national government — who exemplify character qualities like honesty, discipline, self-control, unselfishness, patience, forgiveness, humility, mercy, and covenant faithfulness.
(David Gushee is Distinguished University Professor of Christian Ethics and Director of the Center for Theology and Public Life at Mercer University. His RNS column is titled “Christians, Conflict and Change.” This commentary is adapted from his new book, “A Letter to My Anxious Christian Friends”)