The Price of Removing Restraint

Only a virtuous people are capable of freedom. As nations become more corrupt and vicious, they have more need of masters. ~ Benjamin Franklin

As I was contemplating the implications of a weekend of horror in the city of Orlando, Florida, the home of the Magic Kingdom and the hub of a region of Florida we called home for a total of 10 years, my oldest daughter sent me a text message, which read as follows:

I think this shooting is gonna be a turning point but I don't have a feeling it's gonna be for the better. Like something we won't be able to return from. It's just like I felt something go snap in the universe, like there's a disturbance in the force.

Even before the cold-blooded murder of singer and former contestant on "The Voice" Christina Grimme on Friday and the mass murder this morning at the Pulse nightclub, my observations of the nation and the world around me have led me to the conclusion that society has broken free of its restraints, and we are driven by our passions to bring harm to one another without reason or mercy.

When we were stationed in Germany in the late 1980s, we purchased an American-made Mercury Sable to eventually bring back to the States with us since our tour was nearing an end, and we got a very good price on it from the military car sales group. It was a smooth-driving vehicle with a V-6 and a sleek aerodynamic design, but it wasn't intended to travel consistently at autobahn speeds; it was built for the lesser speed limits of the U.S. interstate highway system. Since we bought the car in Germany, it had a speed governor installed in the engine to limit how fast the car could go. If the car began exceeding a certain speed - I think it was around 120 miles an hour - it would start to hesitate and slow as the governor restricted fuel, air flow and combustion. That was a sign to us that we needed to take the foot off the gas and slow down to a manageable speed.

The analogy of a speed governor came to my mind as I watched the news over the past few weeks and witnessed rage all over the world in one form or another. I thought to myself, "the governors have been disabled." As Benjamin Franklin stated so eloquently, the governor is virtue, and virtue must reside in the people if we are to coexist in this world.

Franklin's statement was not out of the mainstream of thought in his day, either. John Adams oft-quoted words, taken from a letter he wrote to a military brigade in October 1798, draw a similar conclusion:

Because we have no government, armed with power, capable of contending with human passions, unbridled by morality and religion. Avarice, ambition, revenge and licentiousness would break the strongest cords of our Constitution, as a whale goes through a net. Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.

Adams was echoing the words of his predecessor as president, George Washington, from his Farewell Address in 1796:

Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, Religion and Morality are indispensable supports. In vain would that man claim the tribute of Patriotism, who should labor to subvert these great pillars of human happiness, these firmest props of the duties of Men and Citizens. The mere Politician, equally with the pious man, ought to respect and to cherish them. A volume could not trace all their connections with private and public felicity...And let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.

The rest of this article could contain nothing but direct quotes from founders, thinkers, foreign observers, educators, lexicographers and numerous other professions and positions unnamed, all saying the same thing: the surest restraint on the people without resorting to authoritarian rule and the demise of liberty is virtue. I've shared my thoughts on this topic a number of times in the past, but they bear repeating:

We devote much attention to liberty and the law, and their relationship to one another, in our public debates. We expect the law to act as a constraint on the excesses of liberty, and liberty to tame the potential for law to degrade into tyranny. James Wilson, American founder and one of the nation’s first associate Supreme Court justices, wrote, "Without liberty, law loses its nature and its name, and becomes oppression. Without law, liberty also loses its nature and its name, and becomes licentiousness."  
Virtue, however, is perhaps the most essential component of a healthy society because it speaks to the nature of man himself, and it is man’s nature which shapes the nature of law and liberty. Omitting virtue is like leaving out the constant in an equation; without it, the answer can never be correct, no matter how you adjust the variables. If you believe that victory at the ballot box alone, or an increase in individual independence from the state, is the solution to the nation’s salvation, then I fear you will be gravely disappointed should either or both of those outcomes occur.

As I've written before, every component of the founders' design for our constitutional republic is meant for restraint. The law is a restraint on wrongdoing, and liberty is a restraint on governmental overreach. Yet, there is still another indispensable restraint needed:

But what restrains the one element common to both the law and liberty – the people themselves? Depending on the people, the restraint of the law on liberty can devolve into oppression, while liberty’s restraint on the law, if allowed to go too far, leads to anarchy. The answer cannot come from external structures, but must come from within, and must be fostered by institutions which voluntarily call people to their better selves. 

It is that last statement that points to the same solution that the founders offered over two centuries ago. They were deliberate in their choice of the phrase "religion and morality", because they believed them to be non-severable.  For them, the institution of religion was the path to morality, the personal virtue they deemed essential to self-governance. 

It is ironic to suggest that religion is the answer to restoring the restraint of virtue in the hearts of people when the man who murdered so many innocent people at the Pulse nightclub is apparently linked to ISIS, which claims allegiance to the religion of Islam. Every institution comprised of people, however, is subject to the corruption of sin. It is the nature of the fallen world in which we live, and there is no person or organization that has not succumbed to sin.  

All else being equal, however, what other institution teaches values like "love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control"? What other institution declares that we are connected to one another through the common image we share, the image of God, and that we must love our neighbors as ourselves? What other institution tells us to "hold fast what is good" and "abstain from every form of evil"? What other institution points us to "whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable" and implores "if anything is excellent or praiseworthy--think about such things"?

Certainly, religion should be measured against the principles it espouses and, where it is found wanting, it should be held accountable. Our culture, however, in its rejection of the corruption and hatred found often in religion, has thrown out the baby with the bath water and removed the restraints a robust religious culture places on human thought and action.

We are taught not that we are connected and accountable to one another, but that we are individuals free from limits, and we have the license to act on our feelings and desires, regardless of others. We have substituted the "we" of most religious instruction with the "me" of individualism, and who's to say that my feelings or how I act upon them must be subordinated to a standard other than my own? Why should I be concerned about how my words and actions affect others when all that matters is how I feel? 

There are 7.4 billion people in the world; imagine what the world would be like if every one of them did whatever made them feel good, regardless of its impact on other people?

The Lord told the prophet Jeremiah, "The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?" He knows our tendency, left unchecked, is to do whatever is right in our own eyes. That is the cost of liberty without the restraint of virtue.

I believe there are people of thoughtfulness and goodwill, regardless of their political affiliations or source of identity, who understand the need to restore and reinforce the institutions whose duty it is to instill virtue in the people. The unbridled passion that governs us today has deadly consequences, and the events of this weekend can be a turning point. We will either put aside our differences and think about how to bring the restraining influence of virtue back into society, or we can continue down the path of the atomic worldview where we are disconnected individuals whose sense of right and wrong goes no further than our own desires. We may choose to drive the car at speeds for which it is not intended, but if we continue to drive without the governor to protect us, we shouldn't profess shock when the vehicle breaks down.