I took the week of the 4th to read one of those books which American intellectuals talk about but seldom still read. Walter Lippmann’s A Preface to Morals is a 1929 effort to construct a set of values to guide public policy in an age that rejects Christian faith. Lippmann writes for people who have become perplexed by their own irreligion:
“Prisoners who have been released [from religion]…ought to be serene and composed. They are free to make their own lives. There are no conventions, no taboos, no gods, priests, princes, fathers or revelations they must accept. Yet, the result is not as good as they thought it would be. The prison door is wide open…yet they stagger out into trackless space under a blinding sun.”
Lippmann’s description was as prescient as it was poetic. The illicit experience of being morally adrift, which haunted Harvard a hundred years ago, has now ravished and defiled the American countryside. Once severed from tradition, people discover there’s still no shortage of folks who tell them what to do. The government, the boss, the bank and the insurance companies collude to keep a better stranglehold on them than the church ever did, but now these institutions lack moral authority, and people do not have anything but their inarticulate rage with which to criticize them.
Lippmann’s proposal was for the educated elite, unburdened by “popular religion,” to grow up—to learn to discipline their desires according to their own original conscience.
Yet, I wonder if even smart people might not benefit from some Transcendent help in disciplining their desires. It’s rather burdensome to whip up moral vision from scratch. Honestly, this age of moral experimentation doesn’t seem to be stumbling onto many digestible social recipes. The ones on the menu appear to be the kind of arbitrary solutions our Founders rebelled against.
American Independence works if it is thought of as independence from arbitrary power. But when traditional moral authority is thought to be arbitrary, too, and we become independent from long-established claims on one another, then democracy will descend into the chaos our founders feared. Our ongoing independence requires dependence on God. Unless the Lord builds the house, its builders labor in vain.