The oppressed rarely have weapons to combat their oppressors. The great insight of liberalism is that ideas have power. Liberalism arms the oppressed with the doctrine of individual rights. Thus strengthened, the oppressed assert their rights against the whims of abusive, corrupt or decadent power structures. If the rebellion of the oppressed is quashed, the ideological superstructure recasts the rebels as martyrs for freedom, its greatest good. Viewed in contrast to brutality, this characterization is irresistible. Ultimately a confederacy of the oppressed and those sympathetic to their plight prevails.
Though liberalism lends revolution victory, it cannot secure the peace. Individual rights counter the injustice of barbarism but do not describe the fabric of civilization. After the Revolution, America needed a Constitution, and with it left liberalism behind. But oppression remained: that peculiar institution. Lincoln rediscovered American liberalism to bolster her second revolution. Then he did something surprising: He tried to make liberalism permanent. He dated the nation’s founding to 1776 and set up the Declaration as the scripture of a new national religion.
The worship of individual freedom has had a few salutary effects. Myriad prejudices have fallen away, democracy has become more inclusive, and the formerly barbaric increasingly throw off their chains in hope of emulation. But all the while, the fabric of civilization has been unraveling. The progress of the last century is the sound of Nero’s fiddle. Its delightful resonance could not mask the crashing timbers forever.
The wages of idolatry is decadence. A majority of marriages divorced, a million abortions each year, engorged appetites for food and sex, a landscape of sprawl and strip malls, a culture of perpetual adolescence and a generation of uneducable children. In the presidential election of 2008, Barack Obama has moved beyond the partisan divide by acknowledging some of these failures.
He has proposed solutions in two realms: policy and ideology. In ideology, his solution is a return to the national religion, to an ever-new elevation of the Declaration and corporate worship thereof. He hopes to manifest America’s unity in devotion to the common creed. But Obama’s solution is itself the cause of the problem. It is the creed that has abstracted Americans from each other. The continuation of liberalism is the disease, social disorder the symptom, and Obama’s prescription presents nothing new.
In policy, Obama proposes Band-Aids. Tuition for community service, resources for poor pregnant women, funding for No Child Left Behind, extension of the faith-based initiative — all good things, to be sure. And perhaps most promising in an Obama presidency is the soapbox on which he could proclaim the responsibilities of fathers. But far better is McCain’s signature issue — support for the surge and victory in Iraq — because it abandons the Rumsfeldian liberalism that launched a revolution but could not secure the peace. And McCain’s support for overturning Roe v. Wade indicates that he stands against the most extreme instantiation of individual rights today.
Nevertheless, no policy can strike at the root of American selfishness. Only a contrary testimony, a story more seductive than the Declaration, can begin to reverse the tide. There are glimmers of such light in the story of John McCain.
McCain, a brash and self-indulgent soldier, did not worry about returning from his 23rd mission over in Vietnam. But shot down, tortured and broken, his was a world of shame, of empty boasts and guilty selfishness. If freedom is the essence of man, prison is hell. But in prison, a fellow soldier recalled McCain to a higher vision of comradeship, of country, of faith. And in retrospect McCain can call his time in prison “the greatest opportunity in my life” because he there observed “a thousand acts of courage, compassion and love.” Thus the prison, a place of injustice, was redeemed.
Life the world over bears a similarity to that prison in Hanoi — there is no escaping injustice in the world of men. The hope of America must not rest in rights, but in redemption. McCain does not bring redemption, but points beyond himself that America may orient itself anew.
Peter Johnston is a senior in Saybrook College.