But it was the regulation of conduct, more than the content of the regulative beliefs, that mainly concerned Jefferson, as his sentence about one God or twenty gods makes clear. And we, the beneficiaries of his thinking, are free to sustain his belief as we choose, in keeping with the best plan we can devise for the coexistence of the two goods mentioned in these sentences: the survival of our liberties and the survival of our morals. There is only a natural difficulty, rather than a logical awkwardness, in trying to combine these goods. There would be the same difficulty whether we chose a religious or a secular principle of combination. Indeed, it is perhaps merely an instinct, or an instinct informed by a reading of history, that finally decides one’s choice of one principle or the other. Like most paternalists, [George] Will has an instinct (which looks to me like superstition) that tells him morals cannot survive without the prop of religious faith. Like most individualists, I have an instinct (which looks to Will like the blindness of enlightenment) that tells me morals can in fact survive without such support.

…[William] Bennett went on to characterize the adversarial culture in a manner that more prudent conservatives have avoided since the anti-Semitic campaigns of Europe in the 1930s. He compared its agents to a kind of virus: “Most Americans, of course reject the perverted culture of our adversaries…. Our common culture serves as a kind of immunological system, destroying the values and attitudes promulgated by our adversaries before they can infect our body politic.” Burke was at once less dramatic and more cogent when he conceived of this power of resistance as inertia. The very presence of habits and a way of thinking and feeling to which people have accustomed themselves, explains, far better than immunology does, the ability to survive which their culture may exhibit even in the absence of their knowledge of reasons why it should survive.

…It remains a commonplace view now, as it was two centuries ago, that secularization cannot be had without demoralization. The anti-Enlightenment argument against America has always begun here. It says that we had better act as if we believed religion’s claims even if that forces us to do some fancy bookkeeping. But the reply of our native tradition remains what it always was. It grants that the state Jefferson and Washington founded is hard to live with now as it was from the first. But the role of an intellectual may sometimes be to challenge the common view of things. As Jefferson and Washington believed, America’s unique mission in the world was also to challenge the common view, by showing that a moral life could be established without metaphysical tests or sanctions. A conservative plea may now perhaps be allowed after so many words in reply to those who take the name of conservatives. Our constitutional and secular state, and the individualist culture that has reflected many of its complex qualities, are doubtless not the best we can envision, but they are what we have to begin with and they are worth defending today.

— David Bromwich, Politics by Other Means: Higher Education and Group Thinking


Casting the bell of culture. Culture came into being like a bell inside a mold of cruder, more common material, a mold of untruth, violence, an unbounded aggrandizement of all distinct egos, and all distinct peoples. Is it now time to remove this mold? Has the fluid solidified? Have the good, useful drives, the habits of nobler hearts, become so sure and universal that there is no longer any need to depend on metaphysics and the errors of religion, on harsh and violent acts, as the most powerful bond between man and man, people and people?

No sign from a god can help us any longer to answer this question: our own insight must decide. The earthly government of man as a whole must be taken into man’s own hands; his “omniscience” must watch with a sharp eye over the future fate of culture.

— Nietzsche, Human, All Too Human