Virtually the only major cultural figure to sound an alarm in the U.S. was the eminent writer and journalist Walter Lippmann. Lippmann was a non-religious Jew who was at the center of the secular liberal establishment. But in 1955 he wrote his last book, Essays in the Public Philosophy, which dismayed his peers. “His heresy was to say that his liberal colleagues were trying to build a public consensus based on inherited principle, even after they had dynamited the foundations on which those principle had first been established.”
He charged that our liberal American values (whether fully executed or not)—equal dignity of all people, freedom of conscience, thought, and speech, government by consent, trust in science and reason—were not the deliverances of science. Originally, these American ideas were based on transcendent moral standards, a higher “universal order” that we could all recognize as the truth.
Lippmann was no theist, and so he was speaking more in the tradition of Aristotle. But he insisted that unless a society could recognize an objective moral order, a set of standards that were not merely produced by culture or our private feelings, there was no grounding for a public, shared social order. “If what is good, what is right, what is true, is only what the individual ‘chooses’ to ‘invent,’ then we are outside the traditions of civility.” By that he meant that no one had ever tried to create a social common life on such a basis. Who is to say that one particular law is just and another unjust? Do we do it by majority vote? Then what do we say to Germany whose majority thought it was right to persecute and even destroy minorities?
Lippmann was right that our original “American values” originated in an agreement between Christians who believed these were the teachings of the Bible as well as Enlightenment thinkers who believed as the ancients in “natural law”—a transcendent, moral order in the universe that was discernible through human reason and reflection. But in 1955 the American modern liberal establishment was aghast at Lippmann. They reviewed his book negatively and pushed back, saying that returning to belief in God or natural law was dangerous and completely unnecessary. A “nondogmatic, relativistic, pragmatic” way of testing beliefs was the best. Our values are just things “we all know” that will benefit human beings best and will make most people happy. They are not rooted in God or a cosmic order.
“Instead, the church was becoming a social service agency and political lobbying bloc, performing functions that could be done far better by secular organizations. No wonder it was in decline.” – Tim Keller on the Decline and Renewal of the American Church https://t.co/207b1YXuVS
— Jeff Vanderstelt (@JeffVanderstelt) September 11, 2021