Say what you will about Cardinal O’Connor, he represented a voice of moral authority in a political culture otherwise impoverished of genuine spokesmen for truth. What a pathetic sight it was to see that row of politicians in attendance.
They begged to be admitted, but not one of them can hope to be on the receiving end of such sincere adulation after he departs. Taking the long view of the relationship between church and state, this is something extraordinary, and its implications deserve deeper exploration.
Since the French Revolution, the state has purported to replace the church as the arbiter of right and wrong in private and civic life. But through wars, extortion, and graft, and its wild overreach into the management of our economic and private lives, the state has squandered whatever moral authority it once claimed. In the end, it is the church and other private authorities who command our attention and respect, while the political sphere is widely regarded as a haven for scoundrels and wastrels.
At all the recent ecclesiastical funerals, you could sense the sincerity on the part of the attendees and commentators. Mother Theresa and Cardinal O’Connor represented very different charisms within the Christian tradition, one serving the poorest among us with humility and the other proclaiming the gospel through a high-profile position of power in church affairs. But they were both credited with the best of intentions, even when they may have been wrong, and they were respected for taking principled and sometimes unpopular stands on issues of the day.
What political figure can command such deference and respect? In days gone by, perhaps. Even thirty years ago, you could imagine it. But state funerals today are matters of mere protocol, with canned tributes and mandatory proclamations of greatness. Do average people feel deep warmth and affection toward even the politicians they have voted for? Think of Washington’s leaders today, whether in elected office or appointed bureaucratic roles. Is there one whose death would call forth a mass outpouring of sadness? To a man, they live with the knowledge that at their death, mourning will be thin and indifference common.
This reality is due, in part, to the assumption that political leaders are not driven by good intentions, much less by a genuine moral conviction to serve the common good, but by selfish concerns. It is the polls and the payoffs which grease the gears of the State’s machinery, and everyone knows it. Gone are the days when any political figure could count on his audience’s good will. Whether right, left, or independent, they are craven in their courting of special interests, and supported by those who believe they have something to gain by doing so.
In contrast, consider institutions that are largely separate from the state, such as the family, the church, or the entrepreneurial class. Each is a voluntary institution whose authority is not elicited through force but through consent. None of these institutions is perfect because each is made up of fallible humans, but, on the whole, they command our respect and attention, and exercise more influence over the culture than the political sector and its affiliated branches in the media and academia.
As a concrete application of this observation, consider the Microsoft case. For years, the Department of Justice has tried to demonize Bill Gates as a cheating con-artist whose profits derive from trickery, not public service. Joel Klein has attempted to raise himself up as a moral voice for fairness and his department as a force for integrity and virtue in commerce. And yet, after all this hard work, the polls are still running 8 to 1 among computer users against Justice and in favor of Microsoft.
The tactic of demonization is hardly foreign to the practice of statecraft. For centuries, the state has attempted to do the same to the church, portraying the moral voice of religion as hypocritical and potentially tyrannical. Crucially, the state has taken on functions that would require attributes once seen as belonging only to God, including omniscience and omnipotence.
In many ways, this has been effective, causing the church to run for cover, thinning out its doctrines and watering down its moral demands on our lives.
The state has failed to sustain anything close to the spiritual commitment that genuine faith calls forth. Its welfare state has failed to give us real security, its social insurance has been a poor substitute for familial obligation, and its attempts to manage our economy have not replaced the invisible organizing hand of market forces.
The state has failed us in fundamental and very conspicuous ways, whereas the church and other organizations based on consent and the freedom of will have not similarly failed. Politicians and bureaucrats have never been less popular in the public mind, a fact which the media elite bemoan on a regular basis. And yet when we look every society on earth today, the state retains massive powers over our lives — powers that were never assumed by the church even at its historical height.
How can the state retain its awesome powers even when it is widely seen as bankrupt of any genuine moral authority? The answer is force: it has roped the population in through tricky confiscatory schemes and a careful arrangement of special interest pandering. But the situation is very unstable, and major political figures know this in their heart. Not a day goes by when they don’t worry about the future of the institution to which they have devoted their lives.
What the outpouring of sadness in the wake of Cardinal O’Connor’s death portends is much more profound than it first appears. If you want to see the shape of the social order of the future, look to the men and women of faith and courage — prelates, intellectuals, writers, entrepreneurs, fathers, mothers, and philanthropists. It is they, and not the grafting class of taxing rulers the world over, to whom history is turning to provide genuine leadership that can be trusted.