Surely the most dismaying, disturbing, and disheartening events of the last week were the horrific carnage wreaked by Stephen Paddock, the Las Vegas sniper who killed 58 and wounded hundreds more, and the report in The New York Times of accusations of a 30-year pattern of alleged sexual harassment by Harvey Weinstein, the Hollywood producer of some of the greatest cinema in the past few decades. How can these events be explained, and is there anything similar in their causes?
Both, it would seem, reflect a complete absence of self-control, of decency, or of a sense of duty to behave in a civilized manner. Both illustrate the sad absence of morality in our time, of the lack of a religious faith that might exert some benign restraint over social conduct.
I have written in these pages before of the Constitution’s framers’ core sentiment that there could be no order without law, no law without morality and no morality without religion, and the absence of morality and religion in our public life has now reached crisis proportions.
There was a time when our dominant cultural notions were very different from what they are today. The Pennsylvania state Constitution of 1776, widely regarded then and since as the most liberty-promoting governmental pact, the one that was closest to a pure democracy, actually required of the members of the legislature to swear or affirm that they "do believe in one God, the creator and governor of the universe, the rewarder of the good and the punisher of the wicked."
Not so very long ago most Americans similarly understood that there was a force greater than us, and an afterlife where our conduct on earth would be evaluated and we would be consigned to purgatory, to the inferno, or to heaven as merited.
While many still adhere to this faith of our fathers, many do not.
When religious faith permeated American society, there were fewer mass murders and fewer instances of egregious carnal misconduct, but in our own time, when the U.S. Supreme Court has even ruled that our public schools may not permit Bible reading, permit the conduct of prayers in class or even at football games, it should be no surprise that we find ourselves where we are.
All change is not progress, and while it may not be possible, as the late Chief Justice Earl Warren reminded us, to turn back the clock, it may still be possible to reevaluate some of the notions that have brought us to our dangerous time.
President Trump quite properly called Paddock’s brutal murders "an act of pure evil," and invoking our religious tradition by stating that "Scripture teaches us the Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit. We seek comfort in those words, for we know that God lives in the hearts of those who grieve."
He went on to pray, "for the entire nation to find unity and peace" and "for the day when evil is banished and the innocent are safe from hatred and from fear." Predictably, Bill Maher, a self-styled liberal talk-show host on HBO, declared he was "sick of 'thoughts and prayers,'" declaring that "thoughts are the opposite of prayers. A thought is, what should I do? A prayer is wishing on a star." Maher signaled the emptiness of the prevailing view among those who fail to grasp the deeper meaning of the president’s words, when he declared that, "Thoughts and prayers are the Republican way of saying tough s**t."
If the absence of the holy is evil, perhaps Maher is not exactly displaying the "pure evil" Paddock did, or that Weinstein’s attitude may have betrayed, but surely there is a tainted aspect to his thought. Patrick J. Buchanan, ruminating on the horror of what Paddock had done, quoted Dostoevsky’s observation that "If God is dead, all things are permissible," and if we have lost the efficacy and the need for prayer, Paddock and others like him are the probable result.
It is profoundly sad and, as we are continuing to see, profoundly tragic that the attitude of men like Maher prevents them, and, sadder still, many of us, from grasping and acting on the religious inspiration that the president offers. In his speech reflecting on Paddock’s dreadful acts, the president responded that "our unity cannot be shattered by evil, our bonds cannot be broken by violence, and though we feel such great anger, at the senseless murder of our fellow citizens, it is our love that defines us today. And always will."
Bill Maher offers that which is dismissal, snark, and obscenity. The president’s thoughts of benevolence offer hope for our time, and may be pointing the way to a religious revival our nation needs. It was a reaction to thoughts like those of Mr. Maher’s, thoughts that drag us to some circle of Dante’s "Inferno," that led, after all, to Mr, Trump’s election. He is showing us the way back.
Stephen B. Presser is the Raoul Berger Professor of Legal History Emeritus at Northwestern’s Pritzker School of Law, the Legal Affairs Editor of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture, and a contributor to The University Bookman. He graduated from Harvard College and Harvard Law School, and has taught at Rutgers University, the University of Virginia, and University College, London. He has often testified on constitutional issues before committees of the United States Congress, and is the author of "Recapturing the Constitution: Race, Religion, and Abortion Reconsidered" (Regnery, 1994) and "Law Professsors: Three Centuries of Shaping American Law" (West Academic, 2017). To read more of his reports — Click Here Now.
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