Freedom in the Absence of Virtue


Conservatives fret rightly about the state of popular culture, education, declining civility, and the effects these things combined have on Americans’ capacity to govern themselves. As these things decline, so too does our fitness for freedom. As George Washington said in his Farewell Address:

Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports. In vain would that man claim the tribute of patriotism who should labour to subvert these great pillars of human happiness, these firmest props of the duties of men and citizens.

Washington’s  whole Farewell Address could be read as one long description of the conditions upon which the freedom of the American people must forever rest. It is not enough to know that freedom is your right and to be willing to die for it. The things that gradually chip away at it are usually a lot more subtle than Redcoats.

But political wisdom requires that we examine the threats to liberty with a subtlety equal, at least, to the threats. And understanding that it is impossible to fight them all with equal intensity at all times, we need to form judgments about which threats are most acute.

The Conditions of Freedom

“Without a concept of authority and salvation, no less than of freedom,” wrote Harry V. Jaffa in the title essay of Conditions of Freedom,“human life is intolerable.”

What prompted Jaffa’s reflection?

In 1972 (!) a young woman who was then to be the assistant director in student health services at Harvard offered some reflections about her new position: a job that, according to the Harvard Bulletin, could be described roughly as “sex czar.” Thus, more than four decades ago, Harvard—always on the cutting edge of new educational trends—was already advancing the ethos of our new politically correct culture on sex. It is an ethos that takes interest in sex primarily as a health, safety, and contractual question. It is one that has destroyed all notions of real morality and (even more sadly) eros, reducing sex to a matter of securing permission slips and safety gear for naked gymnastics.

Jaffa’s point was that the idea of sexual freedom this woman and others like her were selling was counterfeit and, moreover, purchased with a lot of hidden and troubling binding clauses. In escaping the old masters of God and morality, adherents to the new “sexual freedom” would now find themselves subject to a new and even more oppressive master. And this young woman, or “czarina,” with her severe notions about seduction and romance seemed a bit less forgiving, in the end, than the God of the Bible. Not to mention that the “sex” she championed seems a whole lot less satisfying.

Too Precious to Fight

This brings me to the current political moment and to the allegations that Donald Trump is, in today’s culture, somehow unfit for the presidency because of the things he said in that “Access Hollywood” video and because of some unsubstantiated allegations of lewd behavior from women who, heretofore (and for whatever reason), had chosen to remain silent.

For me, one of the most disheartening things about this election continues to be the degree to which so many intelligent and moral thinkerspeople who have been allies and friends in previous campaignshave marched into this battle forgetting their shields. Or maybe they are deliberately leaving them behind. At any rate, they appear to have no intention of coming back either with their shields, or on them.

Instead, they seem to glory in the prospect of lying opened up with their entrails on the field for the privilege of calling themselves martyrs in the service of a god who, in the course of these particular events, has never even been called into question. These self-styled martyrs seem willing to sacrifice themselves on behalf of a lost war. They give us an answer to a question no one is even asking.

Is this election really about the culture wars? Newsflash! You already lost that one.

While it would be wrong to disparage people just because they lack the stomach for the uglier battles of real world politics, one could wish that such people had more modesty about their judgments of those battles. For those who imagine their rehearsing of Donald Trump’s private moral failings is anything but counter-productive in our current struggle to re-establish the conditions for a future healthy moral orderone that can better support the freedom that is our rightmystify me. Yet I do not wish them ill.

Good and gentle souls who can identify and provide good arguments about what constitute moral wrongs have an important public role in a thriving republic.  In an unhealthy republic like ours, that role is different (and necessarily less public) though no less important. Prudence requires judgment about what may advance versus what may cause the retreat of virtue at different times and circumstances in our history.

We are now engaged in a life and death struggle for the survival of our republic. In the midst of that, too much heavenly-mindedness is of little earthly good.

And we know that the opposition to Trump from the friends of virtue who “just can’t stomach him” occasionally doubts itself because every so often we are dutifully reminded that Hillary is really terrible, too. That’s right. No current choice is worthy of them. Duly noted. But it remains that the choice to do nothing is a choice to abandon the field.

Thomas Mores They are Not

Yet even as they stipulate the horrors of a Clinton presidency, many of these Don Quixotes like best to talk about preserving their own personal integrity; in the manner, they suppose, of Sir Thomas More. Mind you, don’t question their willingness to rise to martyrdom. They are quite sure that they have worked out the calculus to a sufficient degree of intellectual satisfaction.

But have they?

In the first place, More made a martyr of himself; he did not “offer up” his country.

More to the point, Sir Thomas More would not acknowledge Anne Boleyn as Henry’s rightful wife before God; but he did not refuse to acknowledge that she was England’s queen. The distinction is important. It acknowledges a separation between one’s personal moral conscience and what is required in accepting political reality. More was willing to die to uphold what was actually true before God; he would not be complicit in blasphemy.

But More didn’t insist upon that standard as a guide to the possible in the political realm. More’s real and public objection to Henry was not so much his private sin as it was his public demand not just for acceptance of his unlawful marriage, but also for More’s and every other citizen’s approval of it. It was not enough for More or the English to “draw a curtain” around that embarrassing chapter of Henry’s historyas More gladly would have done for the sake of country. Henry demanded that More endorse what he took to be a wrong as a positive good. The comparison here with today’s validation demanding leftists is unmistakable. But these NeverTrump would-be Mores want to tear open the curtains, exposing the the sins of allies and enemies alike (as if the calling out of personal sins were the object of politics), even as they know that in so doing only allies will be asked to expose our necks to the hooded executioner.

Morality is a Condition of Freedom, But Not the Only One

Jaffa notes in his essay how in our vast republic (and, indeed, in all republics) there are certain conditions required before freedom can flourish. A very important and prerequisite condition is not only knowing what politics is but also knowing the limits of politics.

Another hugely important condition of freedom is the ability to perpetuate its institutions. “If the political institutions are the best,” Jaffa writes, “to perpetuate them is not only the most difficult, but also the greatest, of all the tasks of the statesman.”

In addition to being the highest task of a statesman, perpetuating the political institutions that sustain freedom is also a task that requires good judgment and prudence. There is no absolute or unchanging formula for this work. But when the opposition is actively engaged in the creation of false flag operations to undermine the work of a major religion in the country, the media is more or less the public relations arm of their campaign, and debate moderators are supplying her with questions ahead of the debate, perhaps it is time to consider that there are bigger fish for fellow fish eaters to fry?

The Federalist acknowledged that “enlightened statesmen would not always be at the helm.” While it is true that a virtuous people who select virtuous and enlightened statesmen are two very important conditions for the maintenance of freedom, they are but two. They are not the only two.

Wisdom is knowing that the limits of politics and of any people, however virtuous, are such that we cannot fight for all  of the conditions of freedom equally at all times. That requires a political judgment as to where to train our sights. Or, to mix metaphors, we must triage. Those conservatives who have trained their sights on Trump’s sexual mores have both completely misjudged the battlefield and poorly staffed the field hospital. They are so far from engaging where it now matters that they are off in their own world, still fighting in a lost war.

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About Julie Ponzi

Julie Ponzi is Senior Editor of American Greatness. She holds an M.A. in political philosophy and American politics from the Claremont Graduate University. She was an Earhart Fellow and a Bradley Foundation Fellow while studying at Claremont and also earned a Publius Fellowship from The Claremont Institute. Formerly the Director of Academic Programs at the Claremont Institute, she also taught American politics at Azusa Pacific University. Her writing has appeared in the Claremont Review of Books, The Online Library of Law and Liberty, The Columbus Dispatch, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and The Washington Times. She was also a regular and long-time contributor to the Ashbrook Center's blog, No Left Turns. She lives in California. You can follow her on Twitter at @JuliePonzi