The Dark Side of the American Dream

Justin Rigi

Thirty-five years ago during the 1984 presidential election, Mario Cuomo, governor of New York, gave his now-famous speech at the University of Notre Dame. Cuomo called himself an “old-fashioned” Catholic who fully accepted the Catholic Church’s teachings on abortion. But he asked the rhetorical question, “Must I insist you do?”.

And just like that, Cuomo made abortion a Church doctrine that only applied to Catholics. It is now a universal political belief that one’s religious views are just that—one’s own. He continued by stating unequivocally, “my wife and I were enjoined never to use abortion to destroy life we created.” But he then made the distinction “not everyone agrees with me and Matilda.”

This is moral relativism: the idea that morality is subjective and based on a standpoint. Moral relativism means there is no right or wrong, no specific set of morals, but only points of view. This approach has served both Democrats and Republicans who try to reconcile their own beliefs with those of the masses. This idea of “live and let live” or “judge not lest be judged” is not only a pillar of 21st century politics, but a sentiment now weaved into the very fabric of this nation.

Moral relativism is not a new phenomenon in the United States. Although more prevalent today, it reared its ugly head during the Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1854. Throughout the seven debates across 4,000 square miles of Illinois, Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas battled over whether morality was objective or relative in nature. Henry Jaffa, in his superb book, Crisis of the House Divided: An Interpretation of the Issues in the Lincoln-Douglas Debates, explains how the debates turned on issues that were present at the very founding of our nation and that we are facing again today: do the people make the moral order or does the moral order make the people?

Stephen Douglas was a proponent of popular sovereignty and therefore moral relativism, just like Cuomo. He argued that the citizens of one state could make slavery perfectly acceptable simply by voting for it, stating, “If each state would agree to mind its own business, and let its neighbors alone, there will be peace forever between us.” Lincoln, however, constantly strove to find the first principles. He tried, however imperfectly, to find objectivity. In response to Douglas, he said that “a house divided against itself cannot stand.” Lincoln abhorred Douglas’s logic, for “He doesn’t care whether slavery is voted up or down…When Judge Douglas says that whoever, or whatever community, wants slaves, they have a right to have them, he is perfectly logical if there is nothing wrong with the institution; but if you admit that it is wrong, [as Douglas does] he cannot logically say that anybody has a right to do wrong.”

Lincoln firmly believed slavery to be wrong and therefore no vote of the people could make it right. He believed, as Jaffa says, “implicitly in an objective moral order.” Today we believe in man’s individual values.

Our politicians constantly speak of people’s values. But a value, George Washington states, “is subjective to one’s desire.” And if desires are based on a whim, they cannot be objective. Thus values, as Jaffa states, are not just vacuous but perilous. John Adams said that “we have no government armed with power capable of contending with human passions unbridled by morality and religion.” Today we live in a time where society is “unbridled by morality” and morality is based solely off of the whims of the majority.

America is plagued by this moral relativism. There is no longer a specific set of morals that is standard; there is no objective right or wrong. What is right to one is wrong to another. Live and let live. Judge not lest be judged. Moral relativism seeks to remove God from law and order. Though our political system was never formed under a Catholic God, the idea of a Greater Being has always been fundamental. When God is completely removed from the equation, there remains a system founded on nothing; there is no longer an objective right. If we do not derive from God what is right and wrong, where do we turn? Popular sovereignty reigns. The people make the moral order.

The Lincoln-Douglas debates truly began the discussion on the issues we face today. Our country is a house divided, a house with no morals. We are engaged in our own form of civil war, a war between a moral code of God and a moral code of man. And this war will “test whether our nation, or any nation can long endure.” Charles Carrol eloquently said that:

“Without morals a nation cannot subsist any length of time, they therefore who decry the Christian religion, whose morality is so sublime and pure, and which denounces against the wicked eternal misery, and which insured to the good eternal happiness, undermine the solid foundations of morals, the best security for the duration of free government.”

What then is to be done? We must once again recognize an objective moral order, one that is derived from Almighty God. We must reject the idea that the popular vote makes the moral code. Today, might makes right. “It is for us however," as Lincoln stated, “and for our time to reverse the maxim, might makes right and to say that right makes might.”