The Importance of Being Self-Governed
At the close of World War II, Gen. Douglas MacArthur headed the American occupation forces in Japan. As part of the plan to eliminate Japanese militarism and Emperor-worship, and to encourage the democratization of the Japanese people, the occupation forces disseminated examples of the sturdy pioneer virtues that they associated with our nation’s success as a democracy. Among the early offerings to make it across the Pacific were several of the Little House on the Prairie books by Laura Ingalls Wilder.
It is easy to see both why the Americans chose Wilder’s books and why the Japanese liked them, especially the portrait of unsentimental endurance of hardship depicted in The Long Winter. For the Japanese, this account of deprivation, courage, and endurance, all suffered with John Wayne-like stoicism, must have resonated with their own wartime experiences of want and loss, and with the initial postwar scarcity. For the Americans, the sturdy independence of the Ingalls family and their fellow pioneers, as well as their plain-speaking respect for themselves and others, and their ability to debate and at times disagree with one another, and still band together against common enemies of all kinds, rep resented the mythic homespun democratic virtues they identified as the seedbed of their moral cohesion and national success.
There is a telling scene in The Long Winter that is based on the author’s recollection of that desperate winter and a real event that her future husband took part in. Two young men in their teens volunteer to risk their lives by venturing out of town in the brief break in the long series of three-day blizzards that struck South Dakota the winter after their arrival. The small population of newly arrived homesteaders sheltering in the rudimentary town became cut off from food supplies: The trains were sidelined by the relentless snows, and as the winter months wore on, the homesteaders’ stockpiles were being exhausted. Rumors spread of a homesteading farmer who had settled on his claim the year before and had harvested a crop of seed wheat to sow in the spring. Supplied by the local storekeeper with money to buy up the seed wheat, the two young men took off in search of the homesteader’s cabin early one clear morning, knowing they could only count on one to two days before the next assault. Riding their horses across prairies covered with deep snow, they spent half the day fruitlessly looking for signs of an inhabited homestead. About to turn back empty-handed, they spot a wisp of chimney smoke in the distance and follow it to the homesteader, who does in fact have a harvest of seed wheat. But he doesn’t want to sell it.
Now comes the part of the story of unusual interest to modern-day Americans who would expect to hear the boys use arguments based on the common good. The farmer doesn’t want to part with his wheat, even for the substantial amount of money the storekeeper is willing to spend. After all, it is his seed wheat for the spring crop, and who knows when the trains will finally get back into operation once the long winter has passed. Perhaps the farmer wouldn’t be able to buy wheat in time to plant it. These two young men—adolescents, really— holding the town’s survival in their hands, patiently construct arguments to appeal to the farmer’s own rational interests and address his personal concerns:
“How do I know they’ll ship in seed wheat in time for sowing?” Mr. Anderson demanded.
Cap asked him reasonably, “Well, for that matter, how do you know you’ll make a crop? Say you turn down this cash offer and sow your wheat. Hailstorm’s liable to hit it, or grasshoppers.”
“The one thing you’re sure of is cash in your pocket,” said Almanzo . . .
They finally persuade the farmer to sell, but almost lose their lives—and the precious bags of wheat their horses are hauling back by sled—as an approaching blizzard races them back across the miles of prairie to the tiny town.
The sequel to their journey is also instructive. The starving townspeople gather at the general store to purchase their share of the wheat to last their families the remainder of winter. The storekeeper first aims to make the killing of his career by pricing the wheat at a huge profit, essentially scooping up most of the money the townspeople have been saving to buy their own seed wheat in the spring. Mob sentiment builds, and some angry voices recommend taking the wheat from the storekeeper by force, when one of the settlers points out to the storekeeper the market-based argument against his pricing for top profit:
“If you’ve got a right to do as you please, we’ve got a right to do as we please. It works both ways. You’ve got us down now. That’s your business, as you say. But your business depends on our good will. You maybe don’t notice that now, but along next summer you’ll likely notice it.”
“That’s so, Loftus,” Gerald Fuller said. “You’ve got to treat folks right or you don’t last long in business, not in this country.”
At the microcosmic level, among this small new community of homesteaders, this episode demonstrates a great many building blocks of democracy and economic freedom, including initiative and risk-taking, freedom to bargain and enter into contracts, individual and collective action, market economics, rational debate and persuasion, property rights, and human respect.
But another scene occurring in the next book of Wilder’s series offers even more food for thought. Little Town on the Prairie opens the summer after the long winter. On the Fourth of July the homesteaders head to town for fireworks, horse races—and the traditional public reading of the Declaration of Independence. They conclude by singing “America” (“My Country, Tis of Thee”), cul- minating in the final lines “Protect us by Thy might,/Great God, our King!”
At that moment the 14-year-old Laura Ingalls is hit with an epiphany:
The Declaration and the song came together in her mind, and she thought: God is America’s king.
She thought: Americans won’t obey any king on earth. Americans are free. That means they have to obey their own consciences. No king bosses Pa; he has to boss himself. Why (she thought), when I am a little older, Pa and Ma will stop telling me what to do, and there isn’t anyone else who has a right to give me orders. I will have to make myself be good. This is what it means to be free. It means you have to be good. “Our father’s God, author of liberty—,” The laws of Nature and of Nature’s God endow you with a right to life and liberty. Then you have to keep the laws of God, for God’s law is the only thing that gives you a right to be free.
“No king bosses Pa; he has to boss himself”; “This is what it means to be free. It means you have to be good”; “God’s law is the only thing that gives you a right to be free.” Nowadays, what on earth would a teacher, critic, or even a parent steeped in modernity make of those quotations?
Such statements, however, are consistent with—are necessary to—understanding the requirements of democracy. Founding Fathers such as John Adams (“Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other”) and James Madison (“We have staked our future on the ability of each of us to govern ourselves”) knew and openly stated that we needed to be able to govern ourselves, to make ourselves behave, if democracy was to work. This was not a newfangled view of the meaning and requirements of liberty; Laura’s musings fall into the common, centuries-old Christian perception of liberty as the freedom to do what is right. Free will is given us, after all, solely to allow us the privilege of choosing the good; our ability to instead reject the good and choose evil—or even to choose the lesser of two goods—is only a necessary byproduct of that privilege of free agency.
So when the adolescent Laura Ingalls perceives that adulthood is the time when you “have to make yourself be good,” she does not mean we are required by our human nature to do so: We all know that many people either do not try very hard or do not persist in trying to be good. And unlike the animals, we cannot rely upon instinct to direct our course of action. We desire things or fear things, and then it is up to reason and will to work out what to do about those desires and fears: which ones to heed, which to reject.
Take the storekeeper in The Long Winter. He is a man who first follows the tug of his desire to acquire lots of money; after persuasion from two townspeople, he reverses that decision, partly motivated by the desire not to be hated and partly perceiving that in the long run self-restraint will lead to customer loyalty and greater overall sales. Two of the townspeople present the wise arguments that sway the storekeeper: These arguments are true, though the speakers are partly motivated by the self-interested but legitimate desire to be able to buy enough wheat to last the winter out. The bulk of the townspeople, whose motivations include hunger, the wish to feed their families, the need for seed money for spring, envy of the storekeeper’s relatively privileged position, and righteous anger at the injustice of price gouging, are on the verge of transforming into a mob that will take the wheat by force.
The Laura Ingalls who, four or five months after this episode, in the heat of a July day, meditates on the meaning of liberty and adulthood, could have looked back on the incident in the general store and easily identified which decisions and actions qualified as “good.” After all, it was her beloved father whose reasonable words moved the storekeeper to price the wheat at cost. But she would also understand the temptation to take shortcuts and snatch at happiness, because, over the brief span of her 14 years, she could pinpoint many instances in which she had done what the townspeople contemplated doing, although the stakes and the harm were smaller. She could recognize in herself a propensity toward impatience, sharp speaking, and impulsive action. Up until now, her parents had helped check and correct her faults, guide her conscience, and encourage her self-control—her self-governance, as the Founders would term it. Soon, within a few years in that era when adult duties were early assumed (something that was true for most people of every era before the last century), she will have to rely on that formation—on a well-formed conscience, a well-trained mind, and a disciplined will—to do so. She will not always find these sufficient—no one in our fallen world does. And she will sometimes—often—find conscience and will divided. But by and large, she will end up exercising her human liberty with better than average success. She will demonstrate self-governance.
Now, that story line exemplifies a traditional Christian and American understanding of the meaning of human liberty and adulthood and the context in which we are called to make choices. As Attorney General William Barr emphasized in his recent Notre Dame speech on religious liberty, we are capable of self-governance on the national, political scale only if and to the extent that we are capable of self-governance in the private realm of our daily personal choices. But what does it mean nowadays, to most of the people we meet each day, to govern oneself? How do many or even most of our fellow citizens conceive of their self-governance, their personal liberty and the manner in which it is to be exercised?
To begin with, it is pretty clear that, even among those who believe in a personal God, relatively few conceive of him as “our King,” as the words of “My Country, ‘Tis of Thee” expressed this concept and as Laura Ingalls conceived of it. Even our Declaration of Independence, though it acknowledges the “laws of Nature and Nature’s God” as the foundation for Americans’ rights, steers clear of talk of kings except in the human and pejorative sense of George III’s transgressions. The unspoken assumption of the Declaration seems to be that, the physical and moral landscape having been laid down at the world’s creation, perhaps in good Deist fashion (and even the Episcopalians and Presbyterians and Congregationalists of that era were likely to have been influenced by Deist thinking, as we are by secular and materialist thinking), we were then left to work out the details on our own. And though periods of greater and lesser religiosity have waxed and waned in the intervening centuries, we today are far from the religious and theological level of even our late Eighteenth-century Founders.
In practical terms, and though almost all of us believe in some idea of right and wrong, and although we would agree at least in theory on a number of specifics, there are many others on which we would disagree. In addition (and perhaps most catastrophically for the kind of moral and religious self-governance on which our Founders pinned their hopes of the success of our American experiment), most of us would check the box next to “it depends” in response to most ethical questions. We also largely agree not only that moral laws have changed with time and have differed from one society to the next, but that time equals progress, in a fairly linear fashion, in the area of morality as it does in science, technology, and medicine.
However, many people today also sentimentally believe that primitive peoples in non-Western cultures (Indigenous tribes of the Americas, African tribes, Pacific Islanders, Tibetans and Indians, etc.) are purer, simpler, better than we are. These neo-Rousseauans imagine that primitive peoples are wiser, closer to Nature, less activated by greed or selfishness. How do these seemingly contradictory opinions of the value of human progress and human primitivism coexist in our minds? Partly by ascribing our bad Western traits to our particular European ancestral inheritance, and partly by not thinking too hard about such cognitive dissonance.
Back to our discussion of God as monarch. Earthly kings (that is, the old-time ones who ruled rather than the modern ones who preside over festive ceremonies and fuel the tabloids) have, since the Enlightenment, been despised by democrats and also socialists as arbitrary, despotic, elitist, and stodgily attached to tradition. But they are also despised simply because they are an old idea. They are relegated to fairy tales, like gnomes and talking animals (but not, oddly, like witches). But God’s position as transcendent ruler and lawgiver is perhaps almost as tenuous and threatened as earthly kings’ position. And the divine original in whose stead earthly kings once ruled?
Well, we understand by God a being possessing a great power and extraordinary creativity—he made all there is, after all (unless we are pantheists who believe that God is all there is). And of course he is immortal or else as old as the eons-old material universe(s). But we don’t total up each attribute and arrive at God’s having a limiting or disciplining authority over us. Like our own Deistically influenced Founders, we like to imagine God as permitting us to go our own way. Unlike them, we also would like to imagine him, genie-like, able and willing to grant us our wishes.
Consider what this means for the range of issues this journal has discussed for the past 45 years. A woman finds herself pregnant and for one or more of a range of reasons, deriving from circumstances often very challenging and sometimes horrific, decides that having or keeping the baby will cause her great unhappiness. She may be a selfish hedonist, but more likely is without the means to bring up a child, or even more likely is without the support of the father, parents, or stalwart friends. She fears abandonment, aloneness, and poverty. The people she loves or depends upon are vividly real to her. She knows how they look, feel, and sound under a variety of circumstances. The child she carries is anonymous to her: She cannot yet feel or touch her baby, or see it laugh or cry. She and her child have no habits or history together; they as yet share no memories. So she is tugged by her fears and her familiarities into the orbit of abortion. It is not a decision made by drawing up columns of pluses and minuses, although pluses and minuses may have gone through her mind. It is also not a decision made by consulting the Commandments or meditating upon the laws of Nature and Nature’s God. It is made in the circumscribed locality of her loves, desires, attractions, dreams, nightmares, and fears.
After making the decision—which may go either way, for life or for death, depending upon the relative strength of those fears and attractions—she then reconciles that decision with the God she believes in. Either God will endorse her choice outright, because he wants her to be happy and figures she knows what will accomplish that, or God understands and forgives her erroneous choice, because she is a basically good person and was caught in a hard place, and how could he expect any more from her. Either way, God is in effect an afterthought to her decision rather than the lawgiver, judge, and king—or even collaborator. Laura Ingalls apprehended the need to make herself good, because she knew she was under the authority of God her king, whose laws were given to guide her decisions or, if she ignored them, to accuse her of disobedience. Laura’s post-modern and largely post-Christian descendent, if her family line had persisted into our own era, would be consulting not a law inscribed in her conscience, but the law of her needs and desires, the laws of economics and psychology, the laws of her loved ones and of her self-legislating mind. There is not much room for absolutes about the sanctity of human life or the wise workings of the natural law in the cramped space of a self-constructed consciousness or an internally directed will.
Abortion is hardly the only life issue confronting our self-made consciences and dealt with by the internal legislatures and legal chambers of individual hearts and minds. Something similar occurs in the decision-making of those grappling with euthanasia. Far from consulting divine revelations of religious tradition or even the long history of the Christian-formed West on these topics, the person formed by our current decadent culture (that is, a culture that has decayed from its previously vibrant and vital life to the status of carrion picked over by scavengers) commonly consults a range of practical, financial, emotional, and psychological considerations to arrive at the best possible outcome. Of course, someone else with a different set of considerations could arrive at a different best possible outcome. The result is not one Lord of Life, but millions—billions—of individual lords of life and death.
Circumstances, after all, loom large in the decisions of someone debating whether to end his or her own life (or the life of a declining family member), just as they do in abortion decisions. They loom so large that they crowd out the influence or authority of absolutes. For this kind of situation ethics depends not merely upon the situation a generic person finds himself in, but upon the idiosyncratic, unrepeatable individuality of that person’s history, psychology, needs, wants, loves, and fears. Under such a magnifying-glass morality, there is no point in even engaging in the classic classroom life-raft debates about which factors to consider and how to weight them in arriving at an ethical course of action. Each member of the class would have his or her own right answer, but only for the individual case. And again, such a microscopic focus on the individual requirements of the case (as they seem to the actor) pushes God to the margins of the moral decision: He is the one we cajole afterwards into coming around to our opinion. He is the manipulable authority figure of whom we (confidently) ask forgiveness, not permission. By that time, we already have decided what we want and have probably gone ahead and grabbed it; if our decision differs from what God is reported to want, we will get him to see that we are an exception to the rule—an exception to any rule. But then, so is everyone else. Surely God is so wise, so accustomed to all the shapes and sizes we humans come in (for, after all, he made us all), that he can see what led us to this and every choice we have made!
But what if God is so wise that he knows that we are wrong? What if God is so wise that he knows what is right for us, and has made it possible for us to know this too, at least in the areas of moral decision-making that would, say, dissuade us from sacrificing our unborn child to hopes, fears, dreams, and nightmares? What if he is so wise that he knows the good that can come out of situations we recoil from entering into or continuing to endure? What if he is our good and wise Creator and King? Then maybe we need to listen to what he has to say when ruminating on questions of life and death. Maybe we need to learn to govern ourselves according to the laws of Nature and of Nature’s God.
Ellen Wilson Fielding, a longtime senior editor of the Human Life Review, is the author of An Even Dozen (Human Life Press). The mother of four children, she lives in Maryland.