Saturday, June 8, 2013

Liberty and Duty

Andrew Brown covering the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby's recent sermon at the thanksgiving service for the Queen's 60th anniversary of her coronation demonstrates why British Tories and American conservatives are not the same.

Welby spoke in praise of hierarchy, and of obedience: the "very nature of being British", he said, "is founded on liberty under authority. It imitates the example of Jesus who did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but humbled himself and took the form of a slave." He based this sermon on the ritual actions of the coronation service, when the Queen pledged obedience to God, "and others … pledged their allegiance to her. And here, in the grace and providence of God, is the model of liberty and authority which our country enjoys. "We celebrate today not liberty by itself, in which human weakness turns to selfishness, but liberty under the authority of God. We are never more free, nor better, than when we are under the authority of God."

Sorry folks, but I can't imagine an American conservative saying anything like this, no matter how far to the right.  You can draw a straight line from the Archbishop's sermon to the writings of Edmund Burke.  The idea that historical inheritance and national identity trump self interest comes straight out of Burke.  There's no sentiment quite like that anywhere in American thinking left or right.  Most American thinking, right and left, is rooted in Classical Liberalism, in writers like Adam Smith, John Locke, and John Stuart Mill.  In American thinking, the individual is not subordinate to the inherited historical state, the historical state is made up of the free consent of the individuals who live in it (in fact that idea is written into the Preamble of the US Constitution).

The closest thing I can find to this in American utterances is this line from Rudolph Giuliani:

"What we don't see is that freedom is not a concept in which people can do anything they want, be anything they can be. Freedom is about authority. Freedom is about the willingness of every single human being to cede to lawful authority a great deal of discretion about what you do."
His ideas seem to me more rooted in traditional Catholicism than in anything like Edmund Burke.

Britain is one of Europe's oldest surviving monarchies going back over a thousand years.  The traditional Whig interpretation of British history (which may not be entirely wrong) sees the English constitution and English civil society slowly arising out of violent tribal beginnings through a long process of struggle and of trial and error.
The USA is a revolutionary state; "Novus Ordo Seclorum" "A New Order for the Ages"  it says on our money (contrary to conspiracy theories about Free Masons and Illuminati, this line comes from Virgil's Fourth Eclogue).  We see the founding of our country as a break with history.  Most of us who came here, ancestrally or recently, broke with our own histories and arrived to begin anew.

I would suggest that a lot of our arguments over ecclesiastical polity fired back and forth across the Atlantic are rooted in this same historic disconnect.  Most American churches (even Roman Catholic and Orthodox ones) are rooted in the American experience of constitutional experimentation, of communities figuring out for themselves how they wish to be governed.  Most American churches did this as a matter of course.  Catholic and Orthodox congregations in the USA did this out of necessity being so far and so isolated from historic centers of authority.

Andrew Brown defends to a certain extent the ideas at the heart of the Archbishop's sermon:
The idea of being responsible only to your own idealised self is a kind of hell. To be responsible only to society gives us no resources to improve a bad society. Churches, I think, must always stand for duty, or they will fail. Obviously we can and should and must discuss where duty leads us, and use our reason to its very best effect there. But in the end, being right is nothing without acting rightly, and the idea of duty, of submission to some end, is absolutely critical to that. People on the left who wish to overthrow it should worry that its replacement is not likely to be a free woman, but an autonomous consumer, passionate only about the product and the company he has to sell.
The American version of this idea of duty would be more personal and less abstract, the idea of everyone from the Minutemen to the Marines, and even the political activist, putting everything including life itself on the line for one's neighbors and country.

Calls to duty these days ring hollow in my ears.  Institutions across the board failed miserably in their duties in recent decades. Governments, corporations, academic institutions, churches, banks, professions all traded in their duty to the rest of us (as citizens, employees, students, shareholders, patients, customers, the faithful, etc.) for their own self serving and self preservation.  All of the rest of us are paying for the sins of those who presumed to govern us, from the corporate malfeasance that brought on economic collapse to the government greed and ideologically blinkered policies that led us into one disastrous war after another.  And of course there are our priests who claim to intercede with divine on our behalf who turned around and preyed upon us and our children, and then covered it up.

I'd feel a little better about being called to sacrifice if those more fortunate than me acknowledged that we are in the same boat, and gave at least as much as the rest of us to the cause.  Calls to duty would have more credibility to me if those higher up quit demanding special dispensations and recognized that from those to whom much has been given, much is expected.

1 comment:

Ellie Finlay said...

Simply outstanding.