How Society Works: Two Teachers Who Often Clash, Sometimes Seriously
Society has many teachers but the two biggest ones are the state and the church (shorthand for religious practice). When they are fairly well aligned on moral issues society goes smoothly.
The Church teaches a universal morality (one that holds for all men at all times). Reflection shows an enormous unanimity across cultures and religions on most of the tenets of morality as C.S. Lewis demonstrated in his essay “Illustrations of The Tao.” The State teaches a state morality in the laws which forbid specific evils and protect specific goods. Chaos comes when the state and The Tao are in conflict. Such are the clear lessons of history.
Both teach but in totally different ways. The State teaches its “government morals” through the force it is prepared to use in arrest, judgment and punishment (from fines all the way to death). The Church teaches by word but even more by example and most powerfully when both are combined (or most disastrously when word and example contradict each other). Its most effective teachers are those who are obviously happy, peaceful and kind.
Both institutions have a very close relationship with evil. The Church, at its best, inspires one to repent. Roman Catholics are quite used to this close encounter with evil in the confessional with their secret revelation and repentance of personal evils ranging from small faults to heinous crimes. Other religions have their own form of repentance. The state, on the other hand, has a different intimate relationship with evil, in those it condemns to punishment. For many prison is hell today, not because of the punishment, but because of their close encounter with truly evil people.
In a well-functioning society the church’s core competence is in leading individuals to lives of goodness and virtue, while the state’s core competence is in containing evil. They both take on other tasks but these are the sine qua non of their roles in society. Thus the saint (the ‘ordinary’ everyday person of wide virtue) is the church’s best product (and its best preacher) while the brave soldier and just policeman is the best embodiment of the state. By the nature of goodness the saint is very idiosyncratic while the good soldier or policeman are of the same mold. The first is very relational, kind and adaptive, the second are very instrumental and treat us all the (much) same way.
The church’s competence is in growing, the state’s in protecting. Society thrives when they both teach much the same lessons when what needs to be grown is also what is protected. (Hence the deep chaos-causing nature of laws permitting abortion).
How can the two be brought into alignment? In democracies the only way is conversion of individual minds and hearts. In dictatorships alignment is achieved by force. So that leaves the United States with only one way to go: conversion. We know who the best persuaders are, but are there enough of them? Are we growing them?