Our fifth and final module is a culmination – bringing together themes from the four previous modules into a consideration of modern political theory – from Hobbes through Nietzsche. In this module, the Fellows consider what the necessary conditions must be to restore and revitalize representative government, community, and culture in our contemporary age.
We truly hope that you have enjoyed our Fall Learning Together series and that you have gained important insights into the nature of our academic program at the John Jay Institute. This final essay, written by current John Jay Fellow, Katerina Levinson, expounds upon our culture's need to ground our democratic republic in a Christian tradition.
Morality and Religion
By Katerina Levinson
We live in an age confused about what true morality is. We consider it wrong to regard one moral truth as higher than another, in an attempt at a harmonious simultaneity of all truths.
Society, then, holds a definition of morality that holds in balance both one’s tolerance of varying moral ideologies as well as the uniqueness of one’s individuality.
Yet, without an explicit moral basis, our understanding of what it means to be an individual has degenerated.
In an effort to endow individuals with dignity and uniqueness, we construe identity in terms of intersectionality: race and ethnicity, sex, sexual orientation, and more. The reason for this is that we have sought and granted such freedom to the individual, that we have allowed for him to espouse the moral and political basis of our society.
In this module, we studied the modern approach to the question of the citizen’s relationship to the polis. As we read French and English Enlightenment thinkers we learned how we have taken freedom of conscience to its extremity, the prizing of one’s own will as our highest ideal. Social contract theory conceives that community and civil government are merely formed by the fiat of the individual will. Thus, community is artificial, and only a means of allowing the individual the freedom to do what he wants. Furthermore, Rousseau in The Social Contract advocates that we forget religion in favor of an artificial civil religion so that we can allow tolerance to reign and establish uniformity (intolerance being the greatest evil and obstacle to uniformity). Modernity tends to prize the individual’s conscience, even when devoid of religion, in a haphazard attempt at holding the collective together.
But is our democratic republic truly feasible when morality is not grounded in something higher than the individual?
Our study of Reinhold Niebuhr and Alexis de Tocqueville has taught us that democracy is only properly realized when the both the individual and the collective are the starting premise for the polity. In The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness, Niebuhr asserts that in order for democracy to be sustained, “the individual [must be] related to the community in such a way that the highest reaches of his individuality are dependent upon the social substance of which they are and they must find their end and fulfillment in the community.” A symbiosis between the individual and the collective allow the individual and the community to reach their true end. Otherwise, as De Tocqueville notes in Democracy in America, unfettered individualism in democracy simply “would extinguish that liberty of the mind to which a democratic social condition is favorable,” and result in the tyranny of the majority. A fuller understanding of liberty and individualism can only be found when limits are imposed upon the individual in the collective conscience.
Nonetheless, the collective conscience must be founded in religion. Tocqueville writes, “a principle of authority must always occur under all circumstances, in some part or other of the moral and intellectual world.” A community’s conscience is never completely unbounded; the question is merely where it decides that its moral authority lies. Nowadays, it seems we have founded morality in “toleration.” However, Niebuhr notes that toleration indicates the decay of traditional religious devotion. If we do not have a moral foundation in religion, then morality inevitably becomes anti-religious. When Tocqueville visited America in the 19th century, he observed that the most stark contrast between America and France after the French Revolution was America’s religious institutions. Religion engrained in the government restrained individualism, and united citizens with the community in order for democracy to properly function.
Religion is the only true unifying force between the individual and the collective that allows for a flourishing democracy. Niebuhr articulates, we must allow for limitless “creative human vitalities [ideologies],” while also daring to place limits upon human freedom. We must also recognize human equality, but not to the extent that we grant that all ideas are equal. The state of our current society reveals our desire for equality and uniformity. But we cannot properly endow the individual with dignity through intersectionality. There is a place for language about diversity, but it is only by conceiving of the human as a bearer of the imago dei that he has true equality with the rest of humanity. Accordingly, we must enter into proper community with one another: regard each other as immortal creatures, and yet recognize our own limitations as humans. We must ground our democratic republic back in religious tradition, recognizing a higher, Divine authority as our guide.