Culture: Introduction

Culture and the Challenge of Self-Government

Scott Yenor

The future of our political community depends in no small part on factors that elude direct political control. Our public life suffers when individuals shirk their responsibilities; when individuals exercise liberty responsibly with a view to the long term, public life appears healthier and government operates more effectively.

Modern democracies are based on the distinction between private and public, or between civil society and civil government. The private realm is the realm of individual freedom, rights, and duties, where individuals can voluntarily associate with others to accomplish important goals; the public realm is where people meet common concerns that individuals or voluntary organizations cannot accomplish on their own.

John Locke was perhaps the first to develop the distinction between private and public in political thought. In his 1685 Letter Concerning Toleration, writing specifically about toleration of religious belief, Locke argued that government should be limited to the public concerns or “civil interests” of “preserving and advancing…life, liberty, health, and indolency of body; and the possession of outward things, such as money, lands, houses, furniture, and the like.” The “whole jurisdiction of the magistrate,” Locke continued, “reaches only to these civil concernments,” and “all civil power, right and dominion, is bounded and confined to the only care of promoting these things.” The “care of souls” and shaping of character are beyond the magistrate’s control.[1]

Locke treats these latter “private” concerns in his treatise, Some Thoughts Concerning Education.[2]

The American regime has generally followed Locke’s idea of limiting civil government to protecting life, liberty, and property so that people can arrange their lives responsibly in freedom. Few statements draw clearer lines around civil government than the decisions of the Supreme Court of the United States in Meyer v. Nebraska (1923) and Pierce v. Society of Sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary (1925).

In Meyer, Nebraska had outlawed teaching foreign languages to children before the eighth grade, while the Oregon statute at issue in Pierce required parents to send all eight- through 16-year-old children to public schools. The Meyer Court declared the Nebraska law an unconstitutional infringement on individual liberty and further held that:

[Liberty] denotes not merely liberty of bodily restraint, but also the right of the individual to contract, or engage in any of the common occupations of life, to acquire useful knowledge, to marry, establish a home and bring up children, to worship God according to the dictates of his own conscience, and generally to enjoy these privileges long recognized at common law as essential to the orderly pursuit of happiness by free men.[3]

Pierce follows Meyer in providing a constitutional ground for the practice of parental rights:

The fundamental theory of liberty upon which all governments in this Union repose excludes any general power of the State to standardize its children by forcing them to accept instruction from public teachers only. The child is not a mere creature of the State; those who nurture him and direct his destiny have the right, coupled with the high duty, to recognize and prepare him for additional obligations.[4]

Individual choices about whom to marry, whether to marry, whether to stay married, whether to have children, how many children to have, and when, how to raise them, and other questions are largely beyond the legitimate scope of modern liberal governments.

These two Court decisions also point to an important challenge to modern democracies — a challenge that these cultural indicators evaluate our ability to meet. As Pierce relates, civil government can secure certain rights, but people must couple these rights with a sense of “high duty”; they must exercise rights responsibly and consistently in the public interest.

Securing the freedom to marry does not mean that people will marry (they may organize their relations outside of marriage) or that they will necessarily stay married;

Securing parental rights does not mean that people will have children or that they will necessarily do the job of parenting responsibly;

Securing the right to gain employment or to get an education does not mean that people will be employed or choose the right kind of learning for the world in which they must work; and

Securing the right to conscience does not mean that people will practice faith or follow their consciences.

Generally, securing a right does not guarantee the proper exercise of that right in a manner that is consistent either with the demands of duty or with the needs of our political community. The future depends on people’s initiative to learn and their pursuit of education, work, and other life interests.

To illustrate this point, the perpetuation of our political institutions and society depends on the private decisions of couples to have children and take responsibility for them: No children, no future citizens. No future citizens, no future political community. Recent developments, however, suggest that a coming “birth dearth” may threaten the future of self-government here and abroad.[5] A shortage of well-educated citizens means a shortage of individuals who not only think through public issues intelligently and broadly, but also understand the need to take action to pass on the “blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity.”

Government cannot build these private families, nor can it force people to join civic associations. Yet both private families and civic associations are common concerns because they allow for the practice of individual responsibility and personal virtues. Governments must avoid two problems in respecting private families and other institutions of civil society: first, it must not usurp their roles and leave them with little to do; and second, it must respect their integrity so that they can accomplish their high duties.

Locke and the American Founders knew that the future of free government depended on married couples, families, churches, and other private associations in civil society, which they believed would flourish best in an atmosphere of freedom. It is one of the great accomplishments of the American regime to secure parental and marital rights, though communities have burdened these rights on occasion. These two Court decisions demonstrate that securing people’s rights, while essential, is not by itself sufficient to ensure the responsible exercise of liberty.

Changes in opinion that bring about greater celebration of “individual rights” and equality are relatively easy to secure in America; achieving change that emphasizes duties and responsibilities is more difficult. The social and political costs of these changes lie behind many of our contemporary public crises. Familiar research linking family breakdown with poor educational outcomes and crime provides the most striking example of the problems that result when parents ignore their high duty. It stands to reason that religious practice correlates with a greater sense of such high duty and thus corresponds, on average, to more responsible marital and parental practices.

What happens in marriage, family life, and religious practice is part of what constitutes a country’s culture. Culture is a manifestation of core beliefs that shape how we live our lives, how we approach duties, and what we expect civil government to do. What John Adams wrote during the American Revolution remains true today: The “foundation of national morality must be laid in private families”[6] and in the associations that people form in civil society.

Stronger churches and institutions in civil society dedicated to supporting families in the exercise of their high duties are essential to the perpetuation of our political institutions and to our culture of liberty. Healthy cultures honor those who exercise their high duty to have and raise children responsibly. Human beings act to make healthy cultures that welcome life and honor responsible exercises of human liberty. The future of self-government depends on making a healthy culture of liberty and responsibility.

We cannot through government easily “make” people exercise their liberty responsibly or consistent with high duty. Tracking cultural indicators allows us to make informed judgments about our culture’s health and to know better, as Lincoln famously said, “whither we are tending” so that we can “better judge what to do and how to do it.”[7]

Scott Yenor 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 a professor of political science at Boise State University.

Next Up in the Culture Section:

Marriage Rate


  1. John Locke, Letter Concerning Toleration, ed. James H. Tully (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 1983) pages 26–27.
  2. John Locke, Some Thoughts Concerning Education and Of the Conduct of the Understanding, ed. and intro. Ruth W. Grant and Nathan Tarcov (Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 1996).
  3. Meyer v. Nebraska, 262 U.S. 390, 399 (1923).
  4. Pierce v. Society of Sisters of the Holy Names of Jesus and Mary, 268 U.S. 510, 535 (1925).
  5. Consider David P. Goldman, How Civilizations Die (And Why Islam Is Dying Too) (Washington: Regnery, 2011); Jonathan V. Last, What to Expect When No One’s Expecting: America’s Coming Demographic Disaster (New York: Encounter Books, 2013); and Phillip Longman, The Empty Cradle: How Falling Birthrates Threaten World Prosperity and What to Do About It (New York: Basic Books, 2004).
  6. John Adams, June 2, 1778, in The Adams Papers: Diary and Autobiography of John Adams, ed. L. H. Butterfield (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1961), Vol. 4, p. 123.
  7. Abraham Lincoln, “House Divided Speech,” Springfield, Illinois, June 16, 1858, (accessed May 12, 2016). Emphasis in original.

© 2016 by The Heritage Foundation. All Rights Reserved.




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