Why should American conservatives care about the moral character of the culture? What does it matter if Americans are becoming less attached to religion, family, and community? Conservatism is a political movement, and it might not be immediately clear that these cultural trends are of political interest.
American conservatism takes its bearings from the principles of the American founding, the cornerstone of which is the idea of natural rights. Governments are instituted, in the words of the Declaration of Independence, to protect the rights of individuals to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” The freedom of the individual would therefore appear to be the aim of the American project.
From this point of view, it might seem that conservatives should not concern themselves with the moral character of American culture. After all, the Declaration of Independence does not say that it is a primary task of government to foster a particular kind of culture. Rather, the government should guarantee the security of individual rights and individual liberty, the exercise of which presumably will generate whatever kind of culture is consistent with the desires of most Americans. It might appear that from the standpoint of the founding, by which conservatives are supposed to be guided, the moral character of our culture is not a political concern.
This view, though perhaps understandable, is nevertheless mistaken. Both the Founders and the most insightful analysts of the kind of government the Founders created have understood well that the preservation of the regime of individual rights requires a healthy moral culture. Religion, the family, and the spirit of private, voluntary association are essential to fostering the virtues of character that alone can sustain a free government dedicated to the protection of the rights of individuals.
The Founders were firm believers in individual rights and individual freedom, but they were not naively optimistic about human nature. They knew that human beings are very much prone to violate each other’s rights. They believed — following John Locke, the great English philosopher of natural rights — that this is why governments were established in the first place.
The Founders, in other words, did not believe that the spontaneous exercise of man’s freedom would necessarily lead to good outcomes. The invisible hand may govern markets, but it does not oversee the political community. Some discipline is required, and governments are instituted to provide that discipline so that the exercise of each person’s freedom is compatible with the rights of others.
Government alone, however, is not a sufficient solution to this problem. If selfish individuals in the absence of government will use their individual power to violate the rights of others, it is also quite possible that selfish individuals within civil society will use the power of government to commit the same violations. What is needed in addition, therefore, is a strong moral culture that teaches each citizen the importance of the dignity and rights of his fellow citizens.
Religion, the Founders believed, was a key support for such a moral culture. In this, again, they followed Locke, who treated religion not as a matter of indifference to the regime of natural rights but instead as an essential support for it. Locke taught in his famous Second Treatise of Civil Government that the very idea of natural rights depended on the understanding that each human being is created by God. In Locke’s words, no one may arbitrarily “take away” the “life, the liberty, health, limb or goods of another,” because every human being is “the workmanship of one omnipotent and infinitely wise maker.” This teaching is famously echoed in the Declaration of Independence, which teaches that human beings are “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.”
Accordingly, the leading American Founders emphasized the importance of religion as a support for the natural rights regime. In his Notes on the State of Virginia, Thomas Jefferson suggested that “the liberties of a nation” cannot “be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are the gift of God” and that “they are not to be violated but with his wrath.” Similarly, in his Farewell Address, George Washington instructed his fellow citizens that “religion and morality are indispensable supports” to “political prosperity.” Like Jefferson, Washington linked the religiosity of the citizens to the ability of the government to protect the rights of all: “Where is the security for property, for reputation, for life, if the sense of religious obligation desert the oaths which are the instruments of investigation in courts of justice?”
The Founders also believed that the family was essential to sustaining the regime that protects our rights. Thus, James Wilson — one of the greatest legal minds among the Founders — wrote in his Lectures on Law that “reason,” “history,” and “holy writ” all teach that “marriage” is “the true origin of society.” Marriage, he continued, was, more than any other institution, the source of the “peace and harmony” that mankind has enjoyed.
Americans’ respect for their familial duties, Alexis de Tocqueville later observed, supported the decent and orderly politics that America was able to achieve. According to Tocqueville, the Europeans of his day did not approach marriage with anything like the respect that the Americans displayed. As a result, the European learned from his experience of family life a “scorn for natural bonds” and a “taste for disorder” that harmed the community. As Tocqueville summed up the contrast, “the European seeks to escape his domestic sorrows by troubling society,” while “the American draws from his home the love of order, which he afterwards brings into affairs of state.”
Tocqueville’s effort to link the “natural bonds” of the family to the health of the larger social order represents a simple but essential chain of reasoning. Respect for the duties of family life is respect for the rights of other members of the family. Those bonds — the bonds that link husband and wife, parents and children — are natural; the bonds that link citizens are more conventional. People who disdain their familial duties can hardly be expected to respect the rights of their fellow citizens, while people who fulfill their familial duties are receiving the training that prepares them to respect the rights of their fellow citizens.
Of course, we cannot think clearly and consistently about our duties to marriage and family, much less learn to respect those duties, if these vital social institutions, and the duties they involve, can be redefined at will by the government. This is why it is so troubling that the Supreme Court has just decided to jettison the traditional and natural definition of marriage as a union between a man and a woman. A political power to redefine such a fundamental institution implies that we have no natural duties, that all our duties are conventional. In the long run, such an understanding can only undermine the citizen’s sense of obligation to others.
Tocqueville also observed that Americans’ habit of voluntary social cooperation was essential to their ability to maintain the free and limited government they had inherited from the Founders. According to him, the Americans of his day had perfected the “art of association.” By the exercise of this art, they addressed social problems and improved the intellectual, cultural, and moral quality of their civilization through voluntary cooperation without the exercise of government power. As he suggested in another context, it is a bad bargain to have a government that can provide for all of the citizens’ needs and pleasures if such a government is also “absolute master” of everyone’s “freedom” and “life, if it monopolizes movement and existence to such a point that everything around it must languish when it languishes, that everything must sleep when it sleeps, that everything must perish if it dies.”
Accordingly, the American capacity for voluntary association is essential to keeping the government within reasonable limits that are compatible with the continued flourishing of individual liberty.
The rights doctrine on which America is founded might appear to be a doctrine of pure individualism and self-regard. On the contrary, the preservation of rights and freedom depends in the end on the ability of citizens to care about each other. As Tocqueville observed, there “is no vice of the human heart that agrees” with despotism “as much as selfishness: a despot readily pardons the governed for not loving him, provided they do not love each other.” In the absence of mutual concern, they will not be able to cooperate to protect the rights of all.
The mutual care of citizens for each other, however, is supported by religion, the family, and the spirit of voluntary service to the community. These things are essential to the preservation of the freedoms that the Founders established, and that is why their flourishing is a proper concern of American conservatism.
— Carson Holloway is currently a Visiting Fellow in American Political Thought in the B. Kenneth Simon Center for Principles and Politics, of the Institute for Family, Community, and Opportunity, at The Heritage Foundation, and Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.
Next Up in the Index:
- John Locke, Two Treatises of Government, ed. Peter Laslett (New York: New American Library, 1960), p. 311.
- Thomas Jefferson, Writings, ed. Merrill D. Peterson (New York: Library of America, 1984), p. 289.
- George Washington, George Washington: A Collection, ed. William B. Allen (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1988), p. 521.
- James Wilson, “Lectures on Law,” in Collected Works of James Wilson, ed. Kermit L. Hall and Mark David Hall (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2007), Vol. 2, Part 2, Chapter 12.
- Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, trans. Harvey C. Mansfield and Delba Winthrop (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), p. 279.
- Ibid., p. 88.
- Ibid., p. 485.
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