A second dose of original sin

Piety demands that a man honor his father and his country.  What is one to do, though, if one’s father or country is demonstrably bad?  I don’t mean just having normal human failings–piety looks past these things.  I mean, suppose one’s father is a serial killer, or that conquering and enslaving foreigners is an integral part of the national life?

To admit one’s own failings is practically painful, but theoretically straightforward.  We know we are sinners, and we know better than to “believe in ourselves”.  When the sin belongs to our ancestors, things are more tricky.  Reverence for them is not just a matter of justice; it’s part of the perfection of being a man.  Feeling that one has noble ancestors of whom one must strive to be worthy is part of the good life.  Parents and countries are icons of God that, if tarnished, cannot be replaced.  A man who lacks these objects of reverence, perhaps through no fault of his own and despite how saintly he might otherwise become, will be spiritually scarred all his life.  Such a person has been dealt a double dose of original sin.

Most of us tend to see this as just a wild thought experiment, one devised by the partisans of impiety to trip us up.  We should not dismiss it too quickly, though, because there are two national movements that potentially open up Americans to just this dilemma.  First, there is the Civil Rights movement.  According to many of its advocates, American culture is irredeemably racist, its economy is built on slavery and the exploitation of negroes, and all the great figures in our history are complicit in it.  In other words, racial injustice is an essential feature of America, not just an accidental feature.  For the moment, my point is not that these claims are true or false, only that white Americans are right to feel threatened by them.  The very right of our culture to survive is in jeopardy–because a culture can only survive if tradition and ancestors are given some degree of reverence.  According to the anti-racist reading of American history that your children are imbibing, our ancestors were nothing but criminals.

The second critique, mentioned in my last post, comes from the pro-life movement.  Accept, as I do, that abortion is murder, and you must admit that America has perpetrated the greatest mass-murder in human history.  In this case, the roles are reversed from that of the Civil Rights agitators.  Here, opponents of legal abortion tend to present it as accidental to American life while supporters present it as essential.  Our supreme judicial body has declared repeatedly that the right to feticide is a fundamental part of our constitution.  Pro-life writers, of course, claim that the Supreme Court is mistaken.  I suspect on this issue that the Court has the stronger argument.  Abortion is indeed the very sacrament of freedom:  cruel, selfish, barren, and unnatural.  The chain of duty between mother and child is the strongest of them all.  Break it, and we really are all just disconnected individuals with nothing to occupy ourselves but our own “self-actualization”.  Reject abortion, and you really are rejecting the Enlightenment philosophy on which our Declaration of Independence and Constitution are built.  Mainstream liberals are right to regard us as dangerous radicals.

If racism and abortion are no big deal, or if they are cleanly separable from the American substance, then there’s nothing to worry about.  Otherwise, I don’t think there’s an easy way out of this.  You can’t respect something that you know is contemptible.  On the other hand, we can’t just discard the signs God has given us to aid our assent to him (parents, ancestors, nation) and think this won’t leave a terrible wound.

Every country is founded in violence and iniquity.  Nevertheless, I think that to love a country, you have to be able to find in it something pure.  You must touch a living spirit of the people.  This spirit is above all a conviction that the national order reflects God’s presence in the community, and that carrying forward this order is a service to Him.  The moment this belief came into the people’s mind (even if only implicitly) is the moment the nation was truly born.  If this spirit dies–perhaps because we become so alienated from our ancestors that everything from them seems tainted–we will cease to be a nation and be nothing but a social contract.

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