My subject today is the relationship between our culture and our public life, between our culture and politics. It's a topic that's been vigorously debated for years, but the horror at Columbine High School outside Denver earlier this year gave that debate a new sense of urgency. In the wake of the Columbine massacre, Americans of widely divergent views agreed that something had gone deeply, fatally wrong in our national life. And they sensed, correctly in my view, that that "something" involved our culture.
Since Columbine, public commentators, religious leaders, and politicians have all a lengthy list of horror-stories, a catalogue of the decadence of key sectors of American culture.
Some may find this cataloguing distasteful. I welcome an airing of our cultural dirty laundry, for too many of us prefer to ignore the sewage around us. Being reminded of just how low things can, and do, get is salutary. Accurate diagnosis of a disease is the first step toward a cure.
But I don't propose to add to the catalogue of horribles today.
Various remedies have been proposed for dealing with the problem of a toxic culture. A distinguished bipartisan group of public officials and public figures has called on the entertainment industry to police itself much more stringently through voluntary, self-adopted measures. Others have gone farther, proposing a reinstitution of censorship. They point out that no civilization in history, before ours, has ever thought it possible that society could tolerate a free-fire zone in images and words. These and other proposals for both private restraint and public boundary-setting merit the most serious consideration.
But I don't wish to address them today.
Rather, what I would like to do is take the conversation a little deeper, if I can, by thinking out loud with you about what we mean by "culture" and what we mean by "politics." Then I would like to suggest why, in politics properly understood, culture properly understood counts a great deal.
In the post-Columbine debate, "culture" has largely been identified with certain artifacts, certain things: movies, videos, CDs, websites, and so forth. Those artifacts suggest one possible definition of culture, but they leave us on the surface, I think: "culture" is more than the works that are the product of cultural activity. We ought to probe deeper.
The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language helps when it defines "culture" as "the totality of socially transmitted behavior patterns, arts, beliefs, institutions and all other products of human work and thought." That's a mouthful, but it's a better, richer definition. I would like to propose a simpler form of it for your consideration.
Our "culture" is formed by what we believe, what we think, what we cherish, what we honor. What we believe, think, cherish and honor is expressed by the books we read, the stories we tell, the poetry we write, the plays we attend, the music we listen to, the paintings we admire, the sculpture we erect, the buildings we design and so forth. Put even more simply, at the heart of "culture" is cult: what we cherish, honor, even worship.
And what we cherish, honor, or worship tells us a great deal about who we are, what we value, and what we are capable of. There is nothing more important that we can know about ourselves and about others, for good or for ill, than what we cherish.
It's often said by historians that what we call "western civilization" is the product or confluence of three great cultural streams: Greek philosophy, biblical religion, and Roman law. Here in Manhattan, Kan., as indeed across America, we are the heirs and legatees of the cultural heritage created in Athens, Jerusalem, and Rome, more than two thousand years ago. We really do stand on the shoulders of giants.
Now it is instructive to remember that, in each of those ancient cultures, worshiping correctly was thought an absolutely essential part of social life. To cherish the wrong things, to honor the wrong heroes, to worship false gods -- this was considered socially lethal in pagan Greece and Rome, as it was among the people of Israel. Remember the great story of Moses coming down from Mt. Sinai bearing the tablets of the law -- a legal code that would help keep the Israelites from falling back into the habits of slaves. At the base of the mountain, Moses finds the people worshiping a golden calf, a false object of honor. In righteous fury, Moses tears down the golden calf, burns it, scatters the ashes in the water, and makes the Israelites drink the mixture, so that they will eventually expel the worship of false gods from themselves in the most literal way. To worship a false god, Moses insisted, was not just stupid, irrational, ungrateful; false worship -- a false cult -- inevitably led to a corrupt culture, and in a corrupt culture men and women would begin to act, again, like the slaves they had been in Egypt, the land of bondage.
Here is a fundamental truth of the human condition that we ignore at our peril.
If "culture" is the expression of who we are, what we believe, and what we cherish, and if the heart of culture is "cult," then to cherish false gods -- whether that false god is a golden calf, Baal, Zeus, gangster rap, unbridled material consumption, or a culture of violence -- is lethal to a life-affirming culture. We have to learn to distinguish false from true objects of veneration. For what we cherish and honor becomes a constituent part of who we are. We become what we honor.
Now what, you may be asking, does all of this have to do with public life broadly defined, and politics more narrowly understood?
We are too accustomed to thinking of "politics" as a matter of the machinery of government. But Thomas Jefferson did not stake the American claim to independent nationhood on the fact that the British Parliament wasn't working to his satisfaction. No, he staked the American claim to independence on certain "self-evident" truths that were explicitly moral in character. The human person has an inalienable right to life; that right does not derive from government and is not granted by government; that right inheres in the human person, and governments are bound to respect and protect it. Similarly with "liberty" and "the pursuit of happiness."
Now if the foundation of the American house of freedom are these moral truths about the human condition, then it stands to reason that the foundation will only remain solid when those truths are understood, and lived, by the people who wish to be the residents of that house of freedom &emdash; the people who are responsible for the house's maintenance. It takes a certain kind of people to make democracy work. And that means it takes a certain kind of culture to make a democracy work. For the character of a people is, in no small part, a product of their culture.
What we believe, what we think, what we cherish and what we honor turns out, on closer inspection, to have everything to do with politics -- if by "politics" we mean tending to and caring for the well-being of the house of freedom.
And so we can extend the definitions in both directions: Politics is a function of culture, and at the heart of "culture" is cult -- what we believe and honor.
The implication of this equation is both obvious and sobering. A humane culture, a life-affirming culture, is essential for the politics of freedom. And a death-dealing culture, a culture that appeals to the basest human instincts, is lethal to the politics of freedom.
American democracy is not, as one constitutional historian famously described it, a "machine that will run of itself." It takes a certain kind of people to make democracy work: a people who understand the self-evident truths that human beings are endowed with certain inalienable rights; a people who know what it means to pledge one's "sacred honor" to the defense of those rights; a people who do not worship death-dealing false gods, "idols for destruction," as the evangelical culture-critic Herbert Schlossberg has called them.
In my judgment, the foundations of the American house of freedom today have eroded, ominously. They have not crumbled yet. But there are cracks in the foundations of our democracy, and they must be attended to. One way to test the cracks is to survey fellow citizens about the moral status of democracy.
Too many Americans, I find, can give only a pragmatic answer to the question, why is democracy a morally superior form of government than anything else currently available? Life is complicated, they say, and so is our society; giving everybody a voice, a handle on the levers of government, is simply the easiest way to keep the lid on. That's the pragmatic answer one often encounters. But it won't work, at least not over the long haul.
For in situations of social crisis -- created by economic difficulties, racial and ethnic tensions, or a grave national security threat -- the answer to the questions, why be civil, why be tolerant, why be democratic, cannot simply be that civility "works better." Unless we have seen in our fellow citizens -- and especially those fellow citizens who may be of a different race, ethnic group, or creed -- the bearer of inalienable rights like our own, the fabric of civility will shred under intense social, economic, or national security pressures.
The breakdown of civility is followed, inevitably, by the breakdown of public order. The breakdown of public order is followed by anarchy. And because human beings cannot tolerate anarchy, they will reach for chains in order to regain some measure of control over their circumstances.
The cracks in the foundations of the American house of freedom, in other words, can lead to tyranny.
What Columbine reminded us, in the most graphic and unmistakable way, is that there are no guarantees that the American house of freedom will remain that. Democracy is not a given; nowhere is it written that the next generation of Americans wi1l automatically enjoy the liberties of its parents' generation. Lincoln noted, at Gettysburg, that it was an open question whether a nation "so conceived and so dedicated" could long endure. But that is a question for every generation of Americans.
Democracy is an ongoing moral experiment in a people's capacity to govern themselves. And only a certain kind of people can be self-governing: People who have been formed by a life-affirming culture; people who are not, in the depth of their souls, utter pragmatists; people who do not worship false gods; people who are inwardly self-governing in terms of their appetites and aspirations; people who cherish goods worth cherishing and honor heroes worth honoring.
When the Founders staked their lives, fortunes and sacred honor on the American democratic experiment, they did not think that free government was inevitable, only that it was possible. And the Founders believed that its possibility depended on a certain kind of people: a people who knew that freedom, rightly understood, is not a matter of doing whatever we like, but of having the right to do what we ought. Freedom and virtue were inseparable, in their minds, and that meant that the house of freedom must rest on the foundation of a life-affirming culture.
As we stand on the threshold of a new century and a new millennium, we have just completed a decade of unparalleled peace and prosperity. These blessings may tempt us to think that the house of freedom is secure. Yet we know that cannot ever be the case, in any final sense.
There are adversaries abroad, and we must take them seriously. In the quest for peace, freedom, and order in the world, America will have to bear a burden of responsibility far into the future. But for the moment, I should like to suggest that the gravest threats to the American house of freedom, and the greatest challenges to our country in the first decades of the 21st century, are internal.
One of those threats can be summed up in a phrase created a decade ago, after the fall of communism, by the distinguished political scientist Zbigniew Brzezinski.
Brzezinski warned that the new threat to the United States, and to the West in general, was that we might decline into being what he termed a "permissive cornucopia." Here in Kansas, where you help feed the world, you know all about comucopias. What Brzezinski meant by a "permissive cornucopia" was historically unparalleled material abundance combined with a collapse of personal and public morality. The "decadent cornucopia" would be another way to express the same idea. That America might become -- indeed, may be becoming -- a "permissive cornucopia" in which "I did it my way" is the new national anthem is another reason to think very seriously about the intersection of culture and politics. On the present trends, Americans seem likely to become ever richer, as riches are measured materially. Yet the entire history of humankind suggests that enormous riches are enormous temptations. When we think that having more is the index of being more, we are in deep, deep trouble.
The answer to the temptation of the permissive cornucopia is not to impose asceticism through governmental fiat. The answer is to rebuild a life-affirming culture in which we honor what is honorable, cherish what is truly lovable, believe what is true, think intelligently -- and learn, from all of that, how to discipline and channel our wealth so that it frees us, rather than enslaving us.
A further danger looming just on the horizon is a variant on the ancient Promethean temptation to steal fire from the gods: in this instance, to remake the human condition and refashion individual human beings by manipulating our new-found knowledge of the human genetic code. This new knowledge can lead to great good. It can also destroy us.
If the revolution in biotechnology that will sweep over us in the next decade reinforces the idea, already present in certain sectors of our society, that human life is a commodity like any other -- a commodity to be bought, sold, manufactured, or discarded on purely utilitarian grounds -- then we are indeed on the doorstep of Aldous Huxley's "brave new world." The only culture capable of channeling the explosive potential of biotechnology toward genuine human flourishing is a culture imbued to its depths with a deep reverence for human life. As the eminent bioethicist Leon Kass wrote recently, "The most pernicious result of our technological progress -- more dehumanizing than any actual manipulation or technique, present or future -- [is] the erosion, perhaps the final erosion, of the idea of man as noble, dignified, [and] precious ... and its replacement with a view of man ... as mere raw material for manipulation and homogenization."
Legislation alone cannot cope with the revolution in biotechnology. As Dr. Kass continues, "important though it is to set a moral boundary here, devise a regulation there, hoping to decrease the damage caused by this or that little rivulet, it is even more important to be sober about the true nature and meaning of the flood itself." And that means, in turn, deepening in our culture a profound, carefully nurtured, and unshakable commitment to the sanctity and dignity of human life. Absent that commitment, we will inevitably become the creatures, even the slaves, of biotechnology and genetic engineering.
Culture "counts," then, for a great deal. Only a certain kind of people can live freedom nobly. Those kind of people are formed by a certain kind of culture. If we want our children and grandchildren to be able to answer Lincoln's Gettysburg question in the affirmative, it is way past time to attend to the cracks in the foundation of the American house of freedom. That means the reconstruction of our culture, through the reconnection of freedom to moral truth.
In the 21st century, a century of great possibility and equivalent danger, the character of the American people will be tested as never before.
Washington is a city that breeds cynicism, and to invoke the word "character" is to invite a cynical response. My friends, it is too late in the day for that. Character is destiny, and has been since the Bible, the Iliad, and the Odyssey. The character of our people, of those who lead them and those who interpret public affairs for them, is the foundation of American democracy.
In this closing year of the century and the millennium, let us try to discipline our common talent for cynicism, to recover a sense of the mystery and wonder of life, and to rededicate ourselves to the renewal of American democracy through the renewal of American character.
Living freedom nobly means that we all must avoid, the worship of false gods. In doing that, we can give this nation a new birth of freedom, the kind of freedom for excellence that made the United States a light to the nations, a bright city on the hill, the last best hope of mankind.