Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

The tension between American democracy, capitalism, and culture is acute—more acute, perhaps, than at any time in our history. Even the best human fruits of this nation’s founding principles are in peril. I mean the principles of natural rights and the internal constitution of checks and balances and divided systems that protect them.

There is, of course, more than one tradition of human rights. There is the Anglo-Enlightenment and (some say) atheist tradition worked out by Hobbes and Locke and stressed by Strauss and his followers. The Continental tradition, particularly that of the French Enlightenment, lies behind the French Republic’s Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen and is the source for most European theories of human rights, which now treat rights as “entitlements” demanded by human perfectibility. This seems to be the tradition that popes following the lead of John XXIII in Pacem in Terris have attempted to graft onto the Catholic tradition.

Then there is the original American understanding, defined in brilliant terms by the Virginia Declaration of Rights, Jefferson’s Bill for Religious Liberty and his Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom, and Madison’s Remonstrance. This conception reaches back into the natural law tradition of Aristotle, Cicero, and Seneca, but it is also expressly Judeo-Christian in its conception.

The Virginians laid out their argument in five steps. First, religion is the duty the creature owes to its Creator. Second, we have a right to perform this duty without interference from any person or institution or from civil society itself. This duty is prior to our bond to civil society, both in time and in obligation. To offend against it is an offense against man and, even more, against God.

Third, this duty is unalienable. We cannot push it off on anyone else, because it is a duty we owe directly to our Creator. Fourth, our rights are endowed in us by our Creator, not the state, nor civil society, nor social contract. And finally, we are free both to perform our duty to the Creator and to discern in our own conscience and at our own time the best way to perform it.

I think that the Second Vatican Council, in the declaration Dignitatis Humanae, came to this development of doctrine in part because of the influence of the arguments of the Virginians as worked out by John Courtney Murray, S.J. Note just two consonances between the Virginians and Dignitatis Humanae.

The first is that both parties hold that duty precedes right. Madison wrote that “it is the duty of every man to render to the Creator such homage and such only as he believes to be acceptable to him. This duty is precedent, both in order of time and in degree of obligation, to the claims of Civil Society. Before any man can be considered as a member of Civil Society, he must be considered as a subject of the Governour of the Universe: And if a member of Civil Society, do it with a saving of his allegiance to the Universal Sovereign.”

Dignitatis Humanae declared: “The highest norm of human life is the divine law—eternal, objective and universal—whereby God orders, directs and governs the entire universe and all the ways of the human community by a plan conceived in wisdom and love . . . . Wherefore every man has the duty, and therefore the right, to seek the truth in matters religious in order that he may with prudence form for himself right and true judgments of conscience, under use of all suitable means.”

The second is the assertion that no one shall compel others in their religious practice. Thomas Jefferson proposed to the General Assembly that “no man shall be compelled to frequent or support any religious worship, place, or ministry whatsoever” and that “all men shall be free to profess, and by argument to maintain, their opinions in matters of Religion, and that the same shall in no wise diminish, enlarge, or affect their civil capacities.”

Dignitatis Humanae declared that while “government therefore ought indeed to take account of the religious life of the citizenry and show it favor, since the function of government is to make provision for the common welfare . . . it would clearly transgress the limits set to its power, were it to presume to command or inhibit acts that are religious.”

Nevertheless, today, mainstream American political thinking and practice have reinterpreted the meaning of rights. We no longer clearly ground them in a duty to the Creator, which precedes and trumps all other duties, but have slid into a European way of understanding rights, which holds that rights are grounded in various human “goods” that the progressive state must supply for the betterment of its citizens.

Rights are no longer thought of as based in prior intellectual foundations articulated in the past, most notably in a history-transcending source of rights in the Creator. They are thought of as future achievements of human perfectibility.

In the American tradition, the fulfillment of rights is measured by the realization in history of imperatives founded by the Creator, who in creating humans gave them liberty at the same time he gave them life. This work was not completed until the tradition’s declaration of rights was fully lived up to, with liberty and justice for all. That entailed in due time the abolition of slavery, in keeping with the permanent principles of the nation’s founding, and further progress toward more perfect liberty and justice.

In other words, the Americans “built better than they knew,” as the American bishops declared at the Third Plenary Council of Baltimore, and built closer to the Catholic tradition than either the Americans at that time or many European churchmen even today have recognized. Still, sadly, the founding of our republic was in greater harmony with our Catholic faith than is the republic we inherit today.

For a nation dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal, and to the pursuit of liberty and justice for all, will find that its work is never done. Divine Providence expects always more from this nation. Our nation is a nation of both memory and a “not yet.” It is bound to a vision of a mission not yet completed and, in fact, fated never to be completed on earth. That is why the pyramid on the United States’ seal is left unfinished.

Our nation, as a kind of “second Israel” (as some in the founding generation called it), an “almost chosen people” (as Lincoln called it eighty-seven years later), understands itself to have an earthly mission derived from biblical convictions. The founders did not scruple to express them in the classic words of Virgil: Annuit coeptis. He smiled on our beginnings.

But the Lord’s justice should make us tremble with fear: “He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored; / He hath loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword.”

As Jefferson reminded us: “I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just; that His justice cannot sleep forever.” And Lincoln, in his second inaugural address: “Yet if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said ‘the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.’”

At present, there is no realistic check on the appetite of progressive government (even on “compassionate conservative” government) for greater tax revenues and the racking up of greater debts. Worse, these debts are without remorse laid upon the backs of future generations. They are now laid up even to a Greece-like breaking point. That alone could destroy our republic. From within. Legally.

At present, there is no practical brake on a court system (and a system of law schools) that believes itself no longer bound to the foundational principles of the Constitution but only to the current ideas of “progressivism.” Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg recently said that even if constitutional reform occurred today, she would not look backward to the original intent of the founders but rather to the new and more advanced constitutions of South Africa and to certain constitutions of the European Union. She is not alone.

Our economic system also has its own structural flaws, in need of severe correction. Let me not enumerate, or even make distinctions among, the complaints on this score that rage daily in our press. They are too well known.

To my mind, however, the greatest of our national weaknesses lies now in the decadence of our moral and cultural institutions, even our religious institutions. Look at our mainline churches, once the bedrock of the nation’s moral solidity and depth. Look at our university faculties. Seldom has so much illusion been packed into the pride of self-superior souls.

Our founders well understood that our sort of republic cannot stand without a foundation in morality–and religion. As both Washington and Benjamin Rush put it in different ways, the framers held quite firmly, from long experience, that our republic cannot stand without liberty; nor liberty without virtue; nor virtue (for most people) without religion. (That is, without a religion of the type that favors and undergirds human liberty. Not all religions are of that type.)

The price of liberty, our founders often said, is eternal vigilance. The ideas on which liberty precariously rests need to be passed along from generation to generation. If they are ever forgotten or minimized, even by one generation, turn out the lights. Institutions of natural rights are inherently fragile, and we must not ask something impossible for this poor human race: an unbetrayable intellectual and institutional tradition.

There is now and always will be tension—a distance, a difference—between what our human natures are prey to in politics, economics, and culture and the vision of friendship with him that our Creator has offered us. It may be much greater today than it has been.

Yet I am still hopeful. With Abraham Lincoln I accept that there is a natural moral decline built into the generations of human life. The heroism of fathers inspires and yet intimidates their sons, but bores their grandsons, who shun it. In Lincoln’s phrase, “the silent artillery of time” beats generation after generation against the hard-built foundations of the great achievements of the past. Not even the Church of Jesus Christ was able to avoid it.

In my view, to put it in the words of Joseph Warren, member of the Massachusetts Provincial Congress, “our country is in danger, but not to be despaired of.” Everywhere we see the small beginnings of a drive for a “return to the Constitution” and a growing number of thinkers who are supplying fresh arguments for “revolving to first principles,” a policy that the founders advised for every generation.

Strong Catholic minds are offering a fresh articulation of the American founding principles in the new and richer context of the Catholic intellectual tradition. Tocqueville famously hinted at this possibility: that one day Catholics would become the best intellectual defenders of the American way of understanding natural rights.

Catholics bring, for example, a needed understanding of the balanced Augustinian vision of the City of Man. There is enough virtue and grace among the people to make a democratic republic work (by the favor of Providence), even in flawed human history. There is in human beings enough sin and weakness to make it fail, if the people of a society do not maintain the life of virtue necessary to keep it.

It pains me to be so sanguine, coming from an ancestral central European tradition of pessimism. But then what is the point of moving a central European family to America, if one does not learn to trust at least a little in the America our founders gave us?

Michael Novak, a member of First Things' advisory council, recently retired from the George Frederick Jewett Chair at the American Enterprise Institute.