By Jeff Polet, Director of the Ford Leadership Forum, Gerald R. Ford Presidential Foundation
One of the central conceits of this website is that good action comes from sound thinking, and sound thinking requires attention to how words are used. At the core of our political crises is confusion, often times intentional, about what words mean.
Today we are going to consider a use of the word “reform.” It’s obvious meaning is to convert into a previous form (something is formed, and then after it becomes corrupted it gets re-formed). It can also mean altering into a new form, and around the 14th century it took on the meaning of changing something for the better, and in the 15th century the sense of altering institutions. Although this was background for the Protestant Reformation which repeated the medieval idea that “to be reformed is always to be reforming,” but made it more of an institutional emphasis, particularly given the corruption of the church in the late medieval and Renaissance eras. By the 1580’s it came to mean “abandoning wrongdoing or error,” which is the sense we might use it when we talk about a “reformed alcoholic.”
One particularly bedeviling issue is the relationship between institutional and personal reform. Some people believe that if you reform institutions you can reform the individuals who inhabit them (this is typically a more “progressive” position, as we indicated recently in our essay on Edward Bellamy), while others believe that institutional reform requires reform of the individuals who run or inhabit institutions (this tends to be a more “conservative” position). If the latter, then personal reform will typically require some sort of “conversion” experience. The conversion experience will often overwhelm the person and generate a zealous conviction that a new truth has been discovered and that this truth needs to be shared.
What both forms of reform have in common is that the itch for reform tends to be generated when the institution or the self is in disrepair, is corrupted in some way. Sometimes people will mistake the two, and thus the efforts at reform will be stillborn. One classic example was Luther’s anxious wondering whether the church was wrong or he was. Getting reform right requires sound judgment, prudence, introspection, and self-doubt — characteristics that are in short supply.
Because defense of the original Constitution is now treated as a “conservative” position, we miss out on what an innovative act of reform it was. In the most obvious sense it was “reforming” the government that had existed under the Articles of Confederation, but there were other reforms at stake, one of which was an effort to restrain the apparent corruptions of state governments. But could corrupt persons effect good reforms, and would good persons necessarily produce good reforms? Most believed that issues of virtue and religion were implicated in such questions.
An article published in the Virginia Independent Chronicle in October of 1787, when public debate over the proposed Constitution was heating up, the author (known by the initials A.B.) addresses whether institutional reforms and reorganizations will be sufficient to solve the problem of the political chaos the fledgling nation was experiencing. The author expresses skepticism about whether political reform can happen without cultural reform, and that cultural reform cannot happen without cultivating virtue:
The unpromising situation of national affairs has of late, induced many well meaning people to submit to the public their sentiments, however unpolished, respecting the proper means of effecting a reform. Several have, and very justly, pointed out the want of virtue, public and private, as one principal source of our distresses, and have recommended the practice thereof with the most plausible arguments. To such writers the community is certainly much indebted for their well meant endeavours. But alas! the experience of every age evinces that arguments drawn from the native charms of moral rectitude, and its necessary connection with the happiness and welfare of states, are too feeble to ensure the requisite practice of virtue when opposed to the allurements of self-interest and self-gratification.
The author seems to be engaging a central feature of our Constitutional system: that clashing interests are sufficient for maintaining political order inasmuch as they will tend to cancel each other out. Rather than trying to root out self-interest, our Constitutional encourages it as a check on the self-interest of others, with our central mutual interest being a desire to maintain peace.
But the author doesn’t simply suggest that virtue can be easily cultivated, or cultivated at all, without attention to religion. Granted, the law in general might be constructed to encourage virtue and discourage vice, but as Plato argued, such constructions are only effective if they are relentlessly, if not tyrannically, enforced. Instead, the gentle and softened power of religion provides a surer basis for virtue. Not self-interest, but obligation; not rights, but duties are the coinage of a sound polity.
Though the different states into which mankind are formed, have, generally speaking, enacted laws to restrain and punish enormities, to countenance virtue and discourage vice; yet the most approved and wisest legislators in all ages, in order to give efficacy to their civil institutions, have found it necessary to call in the aid of religion; and in no form of government whatever has the influence of religious principles been found so requisite as in that of a republic. It requires but a slight degree of observation to be convinced that mankind require the awe of some power to confine them within the line of their duty.
Whatever influence speculative vanity may ascribe to the indefinite principle termed honor, or political refinement, to an artful collusion of interests, sound reason as well as experience proves that a due sense of responsibility to the Deity, as the author of those moral laws, an observance of which constitutes the happiness and welfare of societies as well as individuals, is the mean most likely to give a right direction to the conduct of mankind. The man who carries his prospects forward to futurity, and considers himself a candidate for the favor of omnipotence, will be actuated, in the general tenor of his life, by motives that elevate him above the little interests and passions which disturb the peace of society, and will discharge the relative duties of his station, unawed by the fear of man, with a consistence and steadiness correspondent to the principle from which he acts.
The argument that no society can flourish without the influence of religion is an old one, and one that was repeated during the Constitutional period especially by those who didn’t think that good order could arise from bad motives, or those who thought that institutional arrangements were themselves sufficient. These arguments have been a perennial feature of American political life.
- Can atheists be good citizens? What would be the arguments for and against?
- Do authors such as the one mentioned above change your views of the role of religion in our Constitutional system? Does the fact that God is not referenced in our Constitution make any difference in your view?
- Dostoevsky wrote that “if God is dead, then everything is permitted.” Does that apply to the arguments above?