I remember so well the founding days of the Institute on Religion and Democracy. We were such a small and humble organization, so few of us, so lightly funded. Yet we had strong hearts, bold ambitions, and lots and lots of good information. As anyone can guess, Richard John Neuhaus was the leading spirit, the intellectual guide. He was still a Lutheran then and loved to nail manifestoes on Cathedral doors, so he nailed up the founding manifesto of IRD, telling how the key democratic ideas of human dignity, equality, fraternity, and liberty flowed from Christian roots and Christian understandings. And he expressed shock—SHOCK—at how many of our local parishes were using materials that attacked democracy, coming out of the National Council of Churches on Riverside Drive, New York. Anti-Democratic materials: materials siding with the Sandinistas; materials siding with violent Palestinian organizations; materials siding with the anti-democratic effort to bring down the fragile democracy in El Salvador.
This flagrant anti-democratic program did not belong in Christian preaching in the churches, IRD strongly felt, first because it was so overtly and purely political and, second, because its politics were so out of keeping with the Christian inspirations that gave birth to democratic institutions and ideas. Many congregants in the pews did not at all appreciate the national offices of their churches, clustered in New York City around the NCC, expending donations from the pews to promote so violent and so misguided an agenda.
Well, IRD got started with a bang. One of our earliest doggedly documented reports was a description of the actual deeds and practices of the violent forces the church elites in New York were nurturing. Suddenly, before we even had a fully functioning office, one of the great television networks—CBS on 60 Minutes—reported on IRD’s efforts, using the information on these anti-democratic movements that we had marshaled. A huge explosion went off in various New York offices of the churches.
It struck me in those days—remembering my Horace—“Mountains will tremble in birth pangs, and out will run a ridiculous mouse” (Parturient montes, nascetur ridiculus mus). I have always thought that the symbol of IRD ought to be a mischievously grinning mouse, because as an organization we were so tiny, and so squeaky-voiced. Whereas the huge buildings in New York we so squeakily called to account were massive, well funded, and elegantly equipped with all the instruments of propaganda. This little mouse did its best imitation of a roar, and those buildings shook.
Well, not literally. But an awful lot of the nation’s denominations decided rather quickly to pull their national offices out of New York City, and bring them back closer to their members in Louisville, Chicago, and Cleveland.
We hadn’t intended it this way, but at our birth, presidential support for democracy came from a surprising direction. Most of us there at the founding of IRD were lifelong Democrats, but in 1980 a Republican president turned against his party’s traditional isolationism, and pivoted forward with a torchlight of support for universal human rights. In his very first few weeks, President Reagan announced at a White House dinner for Margaret Thatcher that Communism was even then about to be swept into the dustbin of history. Pigeons at the opinion pages of The New York Times fluttered noisily into the air, others in the mainstream media called Reagan an ignorant and dangerous man. But then, within ten short years, the Berlin Wall came down, and a little later the whole Soviet Union crumpled into dust. Russia announced that it was beginning to build democracy and capitalism.
Thus, our little Institute on Religion and Democracy, founded in 1981, hit a note of unexpected international resonance. We watched with joy a decade-long and marvelous blooming of new democracies: from the Philippines to Chile to Poland, the Czech and Slovak Republics, and Hungary. Not to mention Russia itself.
Two years later, Diane Knippers, that great woman whom we now honor, became the president of IRD, in 1993. She was the leader who took IRD through its transition from fighting those who were destroying democracy from the outside, to fighting those sickly growths that cling to democracies like barnacles to ships, and steadily spread rot through democratic virtues from within. Even capitalism itself, Diane took from Tocqueville, thrives when it is supported by a culture of virtue, a culture open before the judgment of a transcendent God. Capitalism’s corruption erodes the institutions of democracy.
The necessary condition for the forward thrust of a successful democracy is a thriving, inventive, creative economy. Capitalism is not a sufficient condition for the strength of a democracy, but a necessary one. And so Diane turned IRD in the direction of defending and nourishing a democratic culture, through its religious and public culture. What are the primary supports of a free and creative system of political economy? Diane diagnosed them as the suffusion of Jewish and Christian commitments and virtues within them. Without those, she thought, democracies grow sickly.
In other words, Diane turned IRD toward “cultural ecology,” or an “ecology of the human.” The physical earth itself depends on a favorable ecology. But so does the inner life of the human race. An invisible gas of relativism, the dry gas of nihilism, chokes off the air supply to human morality, incapacitates it, suffocates it. Without a morality suitable to human upward striving, democracy will slowly die.
Even at Diane’s too-early death in 2005, a new attack was already being launched on the free world’s free and inventive economies, even within the United States. Under economic bad times, envy, that most deadly of all the deadly sins, multiplies like a virus. Region is turned against region, class against class, neighbor against neighbor. By contrast, under conditions of prosperity each citizen of a democracy pursues her own happiness, according to whatever path she chooses, without envying those who choose otherwise, or who happen to gain more wealth.
Fighting envy is the IRD’s main task today. Some of our religious rivals wish to replace democratic capitalism with social democracy. And to that end, they badly misconceive of two great ideals: the common good and social justice.
Our rivals claim that Americans must now make “the common good” the central concern of our society. But into this cry they slip a hidden and deadly poison: They mean by “the common good” more new spending by the federal state, more new regulations by the federal state, and the imposition of ever higher taxes by the federal state.
And yet never in the history of this Republic until now has the federal state spent more trillions of dollars, dollars it does not have, dollars that it must borrow from our children and grandchildren. This trend has proceeded under both Democratic and Republican administrations, but it has now reached its worst point. Never before has the federal state dreamed up more intolerable, irrational, and corrupt regulations—paying off this group by tying that group down with silken regulatory ropes. Attacking Boeing for opening a badly needed plant in South Carolina, for example, in order to pay off labor unions who object to that state’s right-to-work laws.
Overwhelming evidence shows that the pursuit of the common good does not entail statism. It entails a liberated and booming private sector: initiative, invention, and creativity among all our citizens. That is way toward the common good, the common prosperity, the common growth, and common happiness. It is also the way to defeat envy.
The state can be a very good tool of the common good. It was so when Abraham Lincoln put his powerful moral weight behind the Homestead Act and the Land-Grant College Act. By these laws, the federal government gave a title to so many acres of public land to private citizens—but on condition that they work that land for five or more years. And thus improve it, and multiply its value, by their own individual creativity, in their own unique circumstances. Not according to a federal plan.
In addition, the federal government insisted that no new territory could join the federal union unless it set aside a prescribed number of acres for the founding of state universities, as well as of agricultural and mining universities. Lincoln’s insight was that wealth is generated by ideas, by experimentation, by intellectual creativity. (See his address at the Wisconsin State Fair in 1858.) If America were to become a developed nation, Lincoln saw with early genius, it would do so by way of intellect and invention. Not as a slave culture, but as a free culture, becoming prosperous by the creative minds of free individuals. Neither in the Homestead Act nor in the Land-grant College Act did the federal government set out to manage the decisions of the recipients. On the contrary, the federal government set American citizens free, and trusted their creativity, the creativity of ordinary American people. In the old days, our government trusted the American people.
Those who insist that the best way to achieve the common good, and to attain social justice, is to give more resources (and control) to the federal state, had better go looking for some evidence somewhere that undergirds their self-righteousness. They insist that others of us, who do not support the expenditure of more state money, are immoral. Yet the first moral obligation, Blaise Pascal wrote, is “To think clearly.” And with evidence.
The defense of the common-sense ideas that make our Republic work is still the raison d’etre of this humble but amazingly successful organization, IRD. For IRD’s focus even today, we owe so much to Diane Knippers. With IRD’s tiny budget of about $1 million per year, Diane rocked the religious world. She also helped to rock a good many decayed dictatorships, some of which are still tumbling to the dust, by the month. The social ideas of Judaism and Christianity (liberty, fraternity, equality, for instance, and mercy, justice, love, and second chances), once suffused through the liberties of a genuine democratic republic, are today even more potent forces in the larger world, even more so than in earlier times.
Michael Novak has recently retired from the George Frederick Jewett chair in Religion, Philosophy, and Public Policy at the American Enterprise Institute and is a member of the editorial board of First Things.
The First Annual Diane Knippers Memorial Lecture
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