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Gleaves Whitney
The Cultural Foundation of Politics
Philadelphia Society , Saturday, April 13, 2002

When Politics Teaches Culture


Here is the problem in a nutshell: If the assumption is that culture is the foundation of politics, then what hope is there for political renewal if what is first needed — what is most needed — is cultural renewal?

In the wake of September 11th, we heard a lot about the renewal of America that was taking place. And there is no gainsaying that there were many encouraging signs. But the smoke was still rising from Ground Zero when we learned of some very disturbing things happening in our culture — signs symptomatic of larger problems:

— In higher education, at Cal Berkeley, students were engaging in group sex on stage — which is nothing new — but they were earning college credit for it.

— In the fine arts, the rage in some of New York City's galleries is paintings produced by elephants. Literally.

— In religion, one of America's mainline Christian churches recently elected a bishop [John Chane] to the Diocese of Washington, a church leader who publicly dismisses theism and doubts the veracity of virtually every clause in the Nicene Creed.

These are not eccentric occurrences. As G. K. Chesterton would put it, they are "centric." Cal Berkeley is a "centric" institution. New York art galleries and the Washington diocese of a mainline church are "centric" institutions.


Now, it is true that practical politics cannot lead the way to American renewal. Renewal must first take place in our imagination, in our culture. But that's not to say that those engaged in practical politics do not have a very important role, both in shepherding the institutions over which they preside and in speaking to the culture.

Yes, speaking to the culture. America's best political leaders have not hesitated to use the bully pulpit to instruct the culture when our nation has needed it. We all are familiar with the New Left's line about "truth speaking to power." Well, I want to hear power speaking the truth to our culture.

Example 1: George Washington

To begin at the beginning, consider our nation's first president. In his Farewell Address, George Washington spoke to the culture of the New Republic. For the American liberty tree to sink deep roots, citizens would need to foster character consistent with self-government. Washington believed such character was formed in the crucible of civil and domestic society. By education? To be sure. By morality? Certainly. By religion? Absolutely.

Washington reminded citizens of a fundamental characteristic of human nature — "that love of power, and proneness to abuse it, which predominates in the human heart." As a constitutional republic providing "reciprocal checks in the exercise of political power," Americans have strong institutional means to fight the abuse of power. But — it is "the habits of thinking in a free country" that should also keep each branch of government within its respective sphere and restrain it from encroaching on the other branches.

Where do such habits come from ultimately? Culture.

In the Farewell Address, Washington veritably sermonized: "Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports." No citizen "should labor to subvert these great pillars of human happiness, these firmest props of the duties of men and citizens." Politicians "ought to respect and to cherish them." Citizens will be safer, and their property more secure, if there is widespread "sense of religious obligation." Justice will be more surely administered where oaths are backed by morality and where morality is backed by religion. Washington warned, "let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion. [R]eason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle."

In the Farewell Address, Washington made clear that it is not just religious institutions, but also educational institutions, that are central to the American Republic. To live in freedom, reason must govern passion. The representatives who make public policy, like the citizens who elect them, must act out of reason, not passion. "Promote then, as an object of primary importance, institutions for the general diffusion of knowledge."

Interestingly, the above thoughts — linking religion and morality and education — echo Article III of the Northwest Ordinance (1787): "Religion, morality, and knowledge, being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged."

Clearly in the Farewell Address — which was not a speech heard by a few, but an essay printed in newspapers up and down the Atlantic Coast — Washington was tutoring Americans in the ways of ordered freedom, instructing the culture of the New Republic, and giving posterity the keys to renewal.

Example 2: Ronald Reagan

For a second example, it is apt to look at Ronald Reagan — especially now that the New York Times finds itself "Rethinking Reagan," and discovering that he was a man of ideas after all.[1] You would expect a man of ideas to instruct the culture, and he did.

This weekend we are talking about the sources of American renewal. And Ronald Reagan is the president most credited with catalyzing America's renewal. The nation's economy, pride, and sense of purpose all rebounded during his eight years in office. Indeed, his presidency lends powerful evidence to my thesis that politics has an important role in the nation's renewal. It is interesting to look at what Reagan said in his Farewell Address.

Toward the end of his remarks, our fortieth President noted that "there is a great tradition of warnings" in farewell addresses. Rhetorically this serves as a "sit up and listen line," a technique speakers use to alert the audience that something especially important is to follow. Reagan used the set-up to discuss the "culture war" that had been evident since the '60s. In a televised address to the nation he said:

"I've got [a warning] that's been on my mind for some time. But oddly enough it starts with one of the things I'm proudest of in the past 8 years: the resurgence of national pride that I called the new patriotism." (Isn't this thought strikingly apt today, in our post-9-11 world?)

Reagan went on to note that "This national feeling is good, but it won't count for much, and it won't last, unless it's grounded in thoughtfulness and knowledge." Reagan challenged Americans to embrace an informed patriotism. He believed that as a nation we were not doing a good enough job teaching our children what America is and what our country had achieved against the backdrop of world history. Speaking from the standpoint of the late 1980s, he opined that people over 35 years old had grown up in "a different America." Prior to the 1960s, children were taught in a very direct way what it meant to be an American. A fervent love of country and appreciation of our institutions were taken for granted. He went on to say, "If you didn't get these things from your family you got them from the neighborhood, from the father down the street who fought in Korea or the family who lost someone at Anzio. Or you could get a sense of patriotism from school. And if all else failed you could get a sense of patriotism from the popular culture. The movies celebrated democratic values and implicitly reinforced the idea that America was special. TV was like that, too, through the mid-sixties."

Reagan pointed out the extent to which the culture had changed by the '80s. Bluntly speaking, he said that younger parents weren't sure that "loving" America was the right thing to teach modern children. And as for those who were involved in creating the popular culture, informed patriotism was no longer the style. "Our spirit is back," Reagan said, "but we haven't reinstitutionalized it. We've got to do a better job of getting across that America is freedom — freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of enterprise. And freedom is special and rare. It's fragile; it needs protection."

And this point: "If we forget what we did, we won't know who we are. I'm warning of an eradication of the American memory that could result, ultimately, in an erosion of the American spirit. Let's start with some basics: more attention to American history and a greater emphasis on civic ritual."

Reagan closed, in that colloquial way of his, with the observation that the Number One lesson about our nation is that, "All great change in America begins at the dinner table. So, tomorrow night in the kitchen I hope the talking begins."

This is remarkable. For here you have a president insinuating himself into the very heart of America's homes. Even more so than Washington, Reagan was admonishing the culture, challenging us to intellectual and moral virtue.

Example 3: Clarence Thomas

As a third and final example, I would cite Justice Clarence Thomas (two volumes of whose writings will be coming out in the near future). Endowed with the moral imagination and with right reason, he understands the timeless insight — perhaps best formulated by Thomas Aquinas — that one of the important functions of the law is to instruct people.

I remember back in 1973 when I was in high school: 1973 was the year Roe v. Wade was decided. And I remember very distinctly the discussions we students had around the lunch tables, and the reasoning we summoned. To wit: If abortion is legal, ergo it is moral. It turns out the law was as much a teacher as any of our classes.

As this audience is certainly aware, Justice Thomas is not afraid to use the bully pulpit on and off the bench. In a famous speech in Washington last year, he criticized contemporary America's "overemphasis on civility." He pointed out the commonsensical: none of us should try to be discourteous in our manner as we debate issues of consequence. Good manners are never out of style. "However, in the effort to be civil in conduct, many who know better actually dilute firmly held views to avoid appearing ëjudgmental.'"

Because of this tendency to dilute important principles so as not to appear judgmental, our common discourse is the poorer. We are perhaps discovering that civility cannot be the highest principle of citizenship or leadership.

Justice Thomas buttressed his case with the work of historian Gertrude Himmelfarb, whose book, One Nation, Two Cultures, addresses the problem head on. Justice Thomas was quite struck by it: "[t]o reduce citizenship to the modern idea of civility, the good-neighbor idea, is to belittle not only the political role of the citizen but also the virtues expected of the citizenóthe ëcivic virtues,' as they were known in antiquity and in early republican thought."

As Himmelfarb points out, these "civic virtues" are central to ordered liberty and self government. They are the virtues that Aristotle thought were necessary to govern oneself like a "freeman"; that Montesquieu referred to as the "spring which sets the republican government in motion"; and that the Founding Fathers thought provided the dynamic combination of conviction and self-discipline necessary for self-government.

Himmelfarb refers to two kinds of virtues. On the one hand you have the "caring virtues." Respect, compassion, fairness, decency. The virtues that make our day-to-day contact with others pleasant and agreeable.

On the other hand you have the "vigorous virtues." Boldness, courage, ambition, and creativity. The heroic virtues, Himmelfarb says, "transcend family and community and may even, on occasion, violate the conventions of civility. These are the virtues that characterize great leaders, although not necessarily good friends."

Himmelfarb notes that in America today the vigorous virtues have been supplanted by the caring ones. Though they are not mutually exclusive or necessarily incompatible, active citizens and leaders must be governed by the vigorous rather than the caring virtues. We must not allow our desire to be decent and well-mannered people to overwhelm the substance of our principles or our determination to fight for their success. Ultimately, we should seek both caring and vigorous virtues — but above all we must cling to the vigorous virtues for the sake of our country.

No one today speaks with more authority than Clarence Thomas when he recounts the public humiliation he went through at the hands of his countrymen. He knows the rough and tumble of the democratic process. Unfortunately, Thomas says, "by yielding to a false form of ëcivility,' we sometimes allow our critics to intimidate us." No one wants to be perceived as mean-spirited, or be branded a racist, sexist, and homophobe. In the face of such attacks, most decent people try to be tolerant and nonjudgmental. We end up censoring ourselves. But, Thomas says, "This is not civility. It is cowardice." "What we need [is] a brave civic virtue, not a timid civility," to keep our Republic.

Since we call ourselves the Philadelphia Society and since we meet in the City of Brotherly Love, it is fitting to conclude on the encounter Benjamin Franklin had with a woman outside of Independence Hall right after the Convention had completed its mission, September 17, 1787.

"Well, Doctor, what have we got — a republic or a monarchy?" she asked.

"A republic, if you can keep it," he answered.

We can only keep our republic if we continually renew the culture consistent with the best in our Western heritage. On that, we all agree. Along the way, I want wise statesmen who will use the bully pulpit to speak the truth to culture — and speak it loudly and unambiguously and courageously and brilliantly. For it is the Truth that sets us free and keeps us free.

[1] Adam Clymer, "Rethinking Reagan: Was He a Man of Ideas after All?" New York Times, April 6, 2002, pp. A17,19.


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