Our society has lost the ability to make even the most elementary moral distinctions. And it hurts our children most of all.
A “Satanist” organization petitioned a Washington state elementary school to use its facilities for a “Satanist Club,” apparently in response to that school’s use by a Bible-study group. Under the advice of their counsel, who warned that a rejection of this petition would lead to long years of expensive litigation, the school acquiesced and allowed the club to hold its meetings.
This story is of a piece with other “Satanist” related stories, such as the one out of Oklahoma City, where a planned monument containing the Ten Commandments was nixed after a group of Satanists insisted their own monument be included on the public grounds.
The story deserves far more attention than it has received thus far. It shows that our civilization has lost the capacity to make even the most elementary moral and social distinctions. Despite what the half-witted sophists buzzing around such issues often say, there is nothing complicated about the distinction between God and Satan. There is not the least difficulty, to a sensible person, deciding which of these two names ought to have a place in the education of young children, or on the statues in our public squares. Even to the thoroughgoing atheist who regards these names as nothing more than mere symbols, what they symbolize is a matter of clearest preference: a matter of good over evil.
This is a basic conceptual distinction that all other civilizations have managed to make. Yet we cannot make it.
We’ve Lost Our Ability to Discern Basic Truths
In this sense, the spread of litigation around the question of Satanism should be seen in connection with the present fad for transgenderism. Here too, a basic distinction of social life—that between a man and woman—has been subject to confusion.
A world without distinctions is a world without reason. That is the world we live in now.
Large numbers of people are now convinced that there is no real line to be drawn between manhood and womanhood. It is now commonly asserted that these categories are ultimately fluid, self-willed, and illusory. Any established roles and conventions that might stem from these categories of gender have also been delegitimized (hence, the now popular cause of sending women into combat). So once again, we find ourselves as a society incapable of making the distinctions that every society prior to our own has managed to make.
To reason is to distinguish. We observe the world in its multiplicity, and by the aid of our faculties for conceptualization, we define some appearances as this kind of thing, and others as that kind of thing. Over time, these distinctions become the basis for further distinctions, as when the distinction between childhood and adulthood becomes the basis for the myriad distinctions we make in regards to the rights and responsibilities allotted to persons at different stages of maturity.
So our waning ability to make any moral or social distinctions should be seen for what it is: a symptom of the perilous decline in our stock of public rationality.
How the Loss of Moral Distinction Affects Our Children
It is no surprise that the place this confusion manifests itself regularly is in the education of our children. When a culture loses its bearing, it’s the children who endure the worst consequences, since they are the ones who depend upon those bearings most urgently. A young mind encountering the world for the first time is confronted by a dizzying and bewildering spectacle. It is only by means of the experienced guidance it receives that such a mind finds its way.
That guidance always takes the form of salutary distinctions. We teach young people that this is healthy, that dangerous; this polite, that uncivil; this conducive to their flourishing, that likely to prevent it. To fail to provide burgeoning minds with these distinctions as supports for their growth is to miscarry in the most fundamental duty any generation owes to its children.
Picture a boy strolling through a garden with his father. The garden is planted with many lush fruit trees—some salubrious, some poisonous. The child asks his father which plants are safe to eat. In response, the father merely shrugs, and answers, “You must figure these things out on your own.” The child reaches his hand out to the closest branch, trembling at the consequences of his uninformed decision. This is a perfect distillation of the way America raises its children now.
Politics and Policy Can’t Fix This Problem
I sense that there is still reluctance among a significant portion of conservatives to acknowledge the metaphysical depths of our predicament. The realization that our political disorder is simply the pernicious outgrowth of our more fundamental spiritual disorder has not yet impressed itself on the conservative intellect the way it ought to have by now.
The Constitution cannot save us now. The law cannot save us now.
Some evidence of this reluctance may be seen in the intense criticism leveled against the now famous Flight 93 essay. Insofar as the author of that essay was arguing for the viability of a Trump presidency, I agree with those criticisms.
But the central thesis of that piece seemed to lie elsewhere, in the contention that America’s political culture has reached alarming levels of decrepitude, and that the conservative movement is consistently failing to offer solutions apposite to the severity of this condition. I cannot help concurring with this thesis. The usual set of conservative nostrums always strikes me as inadequate, because they so often seem to lie exclusively within the realm of policy. But policy cannot save us now.
More to the point—the Constitution cannot save us now. The law cannot save us now. Without any prior philosophical grounding, law codes become almost endlessly pliable in the hands of the most powerful, and may even become instruments of confusion, rather than a bulwark against it.
The cases I cited above are perfect examples. It is fear of litigation that is compelling a school to offer a Satanist club to its students. It is a judge’s decision that a person may be something called “binary” that is undermining the categories of maleness and femaleness. Devoid of any authoritative rational framework that would serve to shape and delimit its structure, the law may be put to any use whatsoever. Hence, the proliferation of “penumbra’s” and “rights to define reality as we see fit” which is such a notable feature of modern constitutional jurisprudence.
How to Redirect a Culture That’s Lost Its Way?
We too often throw out the line that “America is a nation of laws,” without noticing that she is rapidly becoming a nation of legalisms—a place where positive law floats free of any shared conception of the good, and as a result decays into something arbitrary and pernicious.
Cardinal Newman, in his Apologia, remarks that the Bible could not serve as an effective antidote to the endemic skepticism of his age. If even Scripture cannot remedy the loss of a viable model of public rationality, how much less can our Constitution, or any organ of positive law, do so?
What this means is that any political program which is not more fundamentally a metaphysical and religious program is doomed to failure, because by its nature it will be inadequate to address the true sources of our political dilemmas. If we cannot distinguish between man and woman, God and the devil, we cannot possibly make any of the more specific distinctions that constitute political debate—the distinction between a fair and unfair economy; a just and unjust immigration policy; a proper or improper foreign policy.
There is a part in the Catholic baptismal liturgy when the priest asks, “Do you reject Satan and all his works?” A nation that cannot return an unambiguous affirmation to this question cannot hope to answer any other question in a meaningful fashion.