Occupy St. Louis March 19, 2012
“I appreciate you guys making your point; let me go ahead and make mine,” Obama said before continuing his speech. “I'll listen to you, you listen to me, OK?”
A few minutes later, Obama acknowledged the Occupy protest movement again, saying: “You are the reason I ran for office.”
President Obama, Nov. 21, 2011
Excerpted from The Handwriting on the Wall:
By George Weigel
In both its hard and soft forms, the secular project was wrong. Above all, it ignored the deep truth that it takes a certain kind of people, living certain virtues, to make democracy and the free economy work properly. People of that kind do not just happen. They must be formed in the habits of heart and mind, the virtues that enable them to guide the machinery of free politics and free economics so that the net outcome is human flourishing and the promotion of the common good. There is no such formation in the virtues of freedom available at the empty shrine.
A glimpse of what the empty shrine does produce was on offer late last summer in Great Britain, when packs of feral young people rampaged through city after city in an orgy of self-indulgence, theft, and destruction. The truth of what all that was about was most powerfully articulated by Lord Jonathan Sacks, the chief rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth, writing in the Wall Street Journal:
This was the bursting of a dam of potential trouble that had been building for years. The collapse of families and communities leaves in its wake unsocialized young people...[who are the products of] a tsunami of wishful thinking that washed across the West, saying that you can have sex without the responsibility of marriage, children without the responsibility of parenthood, social order without the responsibility of citizenship, liberty without the responsibility of morality, and self-esteem without the responsibility of work and earned achievement.
The inability of democratic countries to make rational decisions in the face of impending fiscal disaster gives us another glimpse into the effects of the empty shrine and its inability to nurture and form men and women of democratic virtue — citizens capable of moral and economic responsibility in both their personal and public lives. Whether the venue is Athens or Madison, Wisconsin, the Piazza Venezia in Rome or McPherson Square in Washington, the underlying moral problem is the same: adults who have internalized a sense of entitlement that is wholly disconnected from a sense of responsibility. And once again, it was Lord Sacks who connected the dots here when he wrote that the moral meltdown of the West — the attempt to build a civilization disconnected from the deep truths on which it was founded — had had inevitable economic and financial outcomes: "What has happened morally in the West is what has happened financially as well....[as] people were persuaded that you could spend more than you earn, incur debt at unprecedented levels, and consume the world's resources without thinking about who will pay the bill and when." These linked phenomena — "spending our moral capital with the same reckless abandon that we have been spending our financial capital" — are, Sacks concluded, the inevitable result of a "culture of the free lunch in a world where there are no free lunches."
At the moment, the gravest examples of the moral-cultural disease that is eating away at the vitals of the Western democracies may be found in places like Greece and Italy. There, public irrationality and political irresponsibility have rendered the democratic system so dysfunctional that, under the pressure of the sovereign-debt crisis, the normal processes of democratic governance have been replaced in recent months by the rule of technocratic elites, operating beneath a thin democratic veneer.
But Americans would be foolish if we did not see glimpses of the effects of the empty shrine in our own country. Those results come into view when we note the distinct absence of profiles in courage in our own politics; when entry into public service is essentially a projection of personal ego and self-esteem; when the crude exchange of epithets displaces serious engagement with the issues; when complexities are reduced to sound bites because the talk-radio show must go on; when short-term political risk aversion leads to grave long-term consequences; when trans-generational solidarity is abandoned in the name of immediate gratification; when the question becomes, "What can I get out of the state (and its treasury)?" not "What am I contributing to the common good?"
What these symptoms of democratic dysfunction suggest is that the empty shrine of the secularist project is not, in truth, entirely empty. For while it is true that the atheistic humanism of the 19th century and the democratic functionalism and economic libertarianism of the 20th have drained a lot of the moral energy from both free politics and free economics, the shrine at the heart of Western civilization has become the temple of a new form of worship: the worship of the imperial autonomous Self, which, in 1992, three justices of the U.S. Supreme Court promoted and celebrated as "the right to define one's own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life."
That false worship of the Self — the worship of that which is not worthy of worship — has led to a severe attenuation of the moral sinews of democratic culture: the commitment to reason and truth-telling in debate; the courage to face hard facts squarely; the willingness to concede that others may have something to teach us; the ability to distinguish between prudent compromise and the abandonment of principle; the very idea of the common good, which may demand personal sacrifice.
If "the handwriting on the wall" is telling us that the secular project is over, then one of the lessons of that verdict can be put like this: While there are undoubtedly serious functional problems with Western institutions of governance in the early 21st century, the greatest deficit from which the Western democracies suffer today is a deficit of democratic culture. And a primary cause of that deficit has been the profligate spending-out of the moral-cultural capital built up in the West under the influence of Biblical religion.
What we call "the West" — and the distinctive forms of political and economic life it has generated — did not just happen. Those distinctive forms of politics and economics — democracy and the market — are not solely the product of the continental European Enlightenment. No, the deeper taproots of our civilization lie in cultural soil nurtured by the interaction of Jerusalem, Athens, and Rome: Biblical religion, from which the West learned the idea of history as a purposeful journey into the future, not just one damn thing after another; Greek rationality, which taught the West that there are truths embedded in the world and in us, and that we have access to those truths through the arts of reason; and Roman jurisprudence, which taught the West the superiority of the rule of law over the rule of brute force and sheer coercion.
The three pillars of the West — Jerusalem, Athens, and Rome — are all essential, and they reinforce one another in a complex cultural dynamic. That mutual interdependence of Jerusalem, Athens, and Rome is another lesson that the handwriting on the wall in the early 21st century is teaching us. If, for example, you throw the God of the Bible over the side, as atheistic humanism demanded, you get two severe problems: one empirical, the other a matter of cultural temperament. Empirically, it seems that when the God of the Bible is abandoned in the name of human maturation and liberation, so is his first commandment, to "be fruitful and multiply"; and then one embarks on the kind of demographic winter that is central to the crisis of the European welfare state. Culturally, upon abandoning the God of the Bible, one begins to lose faith in reason. For, as post-modernism has demonstrated, when reason is detached from belief in the God who imprinted the divine reason on the world — thus making creation intelligible through the Logos, the Word — reason soon turns in on itself. Then radical skepticism about the human capacity to know the truth of anything with clarity begets various forms of soured nihilism. And that lethal cocktail of skepticism and nihilism in turn yields moral relativism and the deterioration of the rule of law, as relativism is imposed on all of society by coercive state power...