North Atlantic Community, European Community
Divergent Paths and Common Values in Old Europe and the United States

To speak of Europe is not to speak of geography, but of a civilization.

It is to speak of a centuries-long argument about the deepest meaning of such terms as God, truth, freedom, justice, and community. At the same time, to speak of Europe is also to speak of the extension of its noble and distinctive civilization (and its passionate arguments) far beyond the geography of Europe itself. It is to speak of the civilization of the North Atlantic, so as to include those far-off children of Europe: Canada and the United States.

It was to protect that whole civilization, the civilization of the North Atlantic, that NATO was formed, the Alliance that forced the peaceful capitulation of the Soviet Union in 1989, and that has so changed the perspective of formerly divided nation states within Europe, that for the first time in a thousand years there is very little prospect of war among them.

Because of that extension westward and the stunning Alliance to which it gave birth, the North Atlantic Community is a grander concept than the European Community. The great oak springing from the roots of Jerusalem, Athens, and Rome spreads far outwards over the Atlantic. Its religious vitalities have flourished generation after generation in America, while they have seemed to wither in Europe. The American people are confident and vigorous, while Europe in its secularism seems (from America) to have become complacent, risk-averse, devoted to economic security, its population no longer reproducing itself even to replacement levels.

Forgive me for not being more diplomatic. This is a moment in which anti-American propaganda, most of it false, is so powerful in Europe that it is stirring in America the need to be more frank with our European friends. "The American street" is out of patience with France, in particular, and anti-American journalism in general. A few on the American left--Bill Clinton was one--do see European social democracy as morally advanced. Observing Europe, however, most Americans see few signs of European moral superiority. On the contrary, they see moral decline.

Before addressing the divergences between Old Europe and America, however, let me first count up the strengths of NATO, and then its weaknesses.

1. The Greatest Alliance

NATO is the most successful Alliance in history. For more than fifty years, it protected its member nations from violent attack by the most powerful external military force ever assembled in history, the armies and intelligence forces of the Soviet Union. It also carried through an internal harmonization of its own command structures, communications, and (most impressive of all) military industrial production. These are great achievements.

Let me underline the importance of having attained internally harmonious command structures. Whatever the particular national make-up of its leadership and component units at any one time, a NATO unit can in principle work with others under unified command. Furthermore, all units are well practiced in certain basic systems of communication.

It is also a great achievement of NATO to have harmonized the specifications of its military equipment, so that nearly all of it is usable by all troops, no matter where it has been manufactured. To have brought about such technical harmony has required very close unity of purpose. To have done so on a Continent whose various peoples have long prided themselves on their stubborn independence and the charming disparity of their ways verges on the amazing. One might say, in a way, that the experience of blending together such a vast and potent military force as NATO prepared the way for the political and civil unification of a European Community. NATO has been a formidable military force, not only in its superior technology, but also in its moral determination to defend liberty at all costs, and with all possible attention to the humble detail of squad-level coordination.

Yet NATO itself faces a crisis springing from its own success. Less than a decade ago, many scholars were predicting at least the relative "decline" of the United States, as the Japanese economic model blossomed, and as the European Community was nearing its formal debut. Europe, it was said, had a much larger internal market than the United States--380 million v. 280 million--and a newfound determination to surpass the United States in economic power.
But in the decade since 1990, Japan has fallen into a twelve-year recession and the European economic model has sputtered in fitful stops and starts. Germany and France in particular show woefully high unemployment and forbidding costs for domestic production. (To produce an automobile in Germany, for example, costs nearly nine times more than in Slovakia). Between 1990 and 2000, the European Monetary Union nonetheless managed to add to its gross domestic product an increase of just over 20 percent [from 6.6 trillion dollars to 8 trillion dollars in chained 1995 U.S. dollars], an increase of 1.4 trillion dollars. By contrast, the United States has added to its GDP an increase approaching 40 percent [from 6.5 trillion dollars to 9 trillion dollars], an increase of 2.5 trillion dollars. Similarly, the per capita GDP in the U.S. (in chained 1995 U.S. dollars) spurted from $26,141 to $31,996--an increase of 22%.1
U.S. firms have also benefitted by a fresh burst of inventions and discoveries during this decade, particularly in communications, precision instruments, lasers, "stealth" metallic surfaces and other militarily useful technologies.

For instance, the weaponry and communications used by American forces in the Gulf War of 1991 were already so advanced that most allies could not operate on a par with American forces. By 2003, no military units, except perhaps the British, could operate at the same level. Through the use of communications drones over target areas and all-weather detection instruments, the American forces were at most times able to see the enemy out in front of them, even when they could not be seen by the enemy. Because of the interconnectedness of all U.S. forces--air, sea, and ground--by means of television images, voice, and instantaneous e-mail communications, American commanders in command centers hundreds or even thousands of miles away were privy to the same intelligence and communications as their front line forces, and in real time. Never in history had a war been fought under such conditions of instantaneous intelligence, universal communication, and informed command.

Because of these advances, the American forces launched barely twenty-percent of the bombs--the iron, so to speak--expended in 1991. They did not have to use most of their projected supplies of precision rockets and other weapons. Their intelligence concerning where to place their explosives, and the precision guidance systems that allowed them to target a specific aperture (window or chimney) through which to place them, and a specific room within which to explode them, allowed them to use far less ordinance, while achieving far superior results.

During World War II, bombs were so imprecise that the quantity of explosives packed into each bomb had to be in the thousands of pounds. In those days, to strike within a half-mile of a factory, say, was considered damaging. This may be why, as the Second Iraq war impended, Europeans mindful of World War II imagined Dresden, while the Americans were imagining something many magnitudes less damaging. In 2003, the bombing of Baghdad left virtually all civilian buildings untouched, even when a military targets in an adjoining building had been destroyed. Moreover, in the buildings selected as military targets, the explosives nearly always went off in particular rooms or sections of the building--and with the amount of force chosen in advance. Those choosing targets wanted to save file rooms, for instance.

In terms of "re-building" Baghdad, therefore, remarkably little needs to be done, except for the thirty years of neglect that Saddam Hussein visited upon basic infrastructure. Few buildings of a civilian nature were struck by American bombs. The exact targets selected were Saddam’s palaces, and military, secret police, and particular government buildings.

Although the United States has cut its military spending in half since 1989, from about six percent of gdp per annum to three percent, its gross national product has grown so large since the economic reforms of the Reagan Presidency, which began in 1981, that this small three percent still yields a powerful sum of dollars. Even this is far more than any European nation spends, and more than all of them together. Furthermore, a great deal of military spending by European nations tends to go into non-military categories, whereas US spending, while also diffuse, is far more concentrated on military purposes. In addition, the US military is greatly aided by technological research on the part of civilian firms.

For these reasons, the military forces of the European Community are falling ever further behind the war-fighting capacity of the American forces. So much so that this internal disparity is creating a crisis for NATO. I mentioned before the instantaneous intelligence-and-communications capacities of the American forces, all of whom are equipped with a highly secret new cyber-system that allows them to stay in complete and instantaneous contact with one another. In the Second Iraq War, NATO allies in the Coalition understandably wanted access to this system, but the Americans were unable to separate the parts of it they could freely share from the parts that involve secrets too valuable to permit sharing at this time.
On the front edge of the skills proper to warriors, the Americans are now very nearly alone. In more traditional peace-keeping and policing roles, by contrast, all NATO nations are used to working cooperatively and that work keeps increasing in range and numbers. NATO has many crucial assignments to its south (in the Balkans and in Africa) and east (in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere).

2. Growing Divergences

Behind this separation in military capabilities, however, there also lie profound cultural and moral divides. It is true that all of us together, Europe and America, share many common "values," as is often said, or as I prefer to say, "many common arguments." We are part of one same civilization, with the same roots, roots quite different from those of other civilizations.
All of us on this one small blue-green planet spinning in the void, as we have come to see it in photos sent back from space, all of us share one common humanity. "Humanity," however, is differentiated by time and space, and also by culture and civilization. Western civilization, and in particular the civilization of the North Atlantic, is one of the most dynamic of these civilizations, that have ever appeared on earth.

Civilization, Thomas Aquinas once wrote, is constituted by conversation; that is, by argument. Civilized people, treating each other as reasonable, argue with one another. Barbarians club one another, as if values are mere "preferences," and reason has nothing to do with them. For barbarians, nothing matters but power.

Well, between the United States and Europe, real arguments have emerged with ever greater strength during the past fifteen years, especially after the threat from the Soviet Union was finally removed.

In centuries past, European reason was shaped by feudalism and the emphasis it placed on birth and class. European reason was also shaped by tribalism, collectivism and statism of various types. This was especially true in the twentieth-century, from communism through national socialism to socialism, and social democracy. By contrast, as Tocqueville remarked, America was marked from the beginning by a passion for equality, but equality understood in a non-European way: not a leveling, but an equal chance to compete; an acceptance of unequal outcomes, if fair, rather than envy of the successful. America was also marked by a revulsion against European forms of collectivism. Americans are more communitarian than individualistic. The Los Angeles Olympics, for example, were financed and staffed far more by private funds and associations than by government, federal or state, that is, by individual volunteers organizing themselves. In this sense, Americans are more likely than other peoples to pitch in and help in mutual projects large and small, to put up one another’s houses, to work together smoothly in associations, and to enjoy flawless teamwork. But it is also true that they prefer to stand on their own two feet as individuals, with fewer governmental benefits, rather than to endure European forms of collectivism, even the social democratic ones. I admit that the taste for government handouts is growing, even in America, abetted by the American left; but it is the large-scale resistance that in America is so striking, and almost unique. Europe has few equivalents to the Republican Party. (Here candor compels the author to confess to being a lifelong registered Democrat, although in philosophy rather a whig and a liberal, as defined below, than a welfare statist.)

These days, then, NATO suffers from the growing divergence between America and Europe on such points as these. The European political class has been boasting for years that the European economic model--the social welfare state, the "humane capitalism" of the Rhine Valley, the social market economy--is morally far superior to American democratic capitalism, to which they rather refer (against all evidence) as "savage capitalism." There is only one problem. European welfare states have already pledged such high benefits to future retirees and other beneficiaries that in the next fifteen years they will not be able to pay for them, on account of the demographic squeeze caused by lower birth rates.

Welfare states are predicated on three conditions that no longer apply: an average age at mortality of 65 (when Bismarck promised his generals a guaranteed pension after age 65, he knew that few would actually live longer than that); an ever larger proportion of young workers to the elderly, so that young workers could easily pay the pensions of the old ; and complete monetary and fiscal control by individual welfare states over their own territory. These days, none of these conditions are met in "Old Europe" (Germany, France, Belgium). The numbers of newborn have fallen to unprecedented lows, the average age of those over 65 advances steadily higher year by year, and both capital and labor are subject to international pressures beyond the control of the nation state. In these circumstances, the European welfare states are in an ever worsening budgetary bind.

One consequence is that the national budgets of welfare states have no money for new military needs. Strapped down by shortages, NATO suffers. European elected leaders must starve the military, because their first priority is to keep feeding the clamoring clients of insatiable welfare states.

These reflections prompt us to examine on a deeper level the diverging paths of the American experiment and the European experiment.

2. Complementary--or Competitive?

As a general principle, competition between two divergent points of view is quite good. The motto of the American Enterprise Institute, for example, is that "The competition of ideas is essential to a free society." To be confronted with a sharp competitor is a very great gift, for a gifted person faced with no competition has no way to test how deep his gift goes, or to push himself to his limits. A stiff competition is likely to make both competitors better than they would otherwise be. From experience with such lessons, Americans love competition. For them, competition is a moral term. Even in business, they regard competition as a form of checks and balances, not so much Darwinian--"dog eat dog"--as Madisonian (after James Madison, the Father of the American Constitution; see Federalist #10).

In a competition to understand more accurately the nature of political and economic reality, however, if one competitor is more in touch with reality, the loser is partly living on illusions. In that case, competition has fateful consequences. If the loser is not willing to change his ways, his predicament can only grow worse. If he accepts the competition as a valuable wake-up call to change, on the other hand, the competition was a great blessing. Faced with superior competition from the Japanese during 1970-1980, American business was shocked into dramatic self-reform and restructuring, which led to an immense wave of new technological breakthroughs in fiber optics, computers, the internet, cell phones, genetic medicines, telecommunications, satellites, etc.

Europeans are constantly preaching how much more moral they are than Americans, at least in terms of their economic model. The American model is "savage," they say. Further, the fact that about half the states in the United States continue to exercise the death penalty is taken as a confirmation by European elites of their own higher level of humanity. The Europeans, they say, embrace the Kyoto Accords, while the Americans will not ratify them (the U.S. Senate rejected Kyoto by about 99-0, as I recall). In actual fact, of course, the Europeans sign the formal documents while actually doing little to meet the requirements, whereas the United States goes a long way to meeting the requirements, but refuses to sign a protocol that it knows will never be observed.

Not to be less than candid, Americans deeply hold that their own experiment in liberty is morally superior to the ways of the Old World. They have their own views about European perfidies. They think that today’s Europeans are shirkers, who do not work enough hours per day, or week, or year; take too many holidays off; and constantly want something for nothing. Traveling in Europe is frequently a disappointment to Americans, when some form of transport or other is rendered unusable by hostile and arrogant strikers, normally protecting some ancient privilege of their own, and utterly heedless of the common good. Europeans seem to Americans always to be defending their "rights" (i.e., privileges), in a fundamentally self-centered spirit, each protecting his own self-interest, while carrying signboards on which appear professionally painted slogans about high principle. To Americans, Europeans seem risk-averse, slow to experiment with the new, usually quicker with dozens of reasons why something cannot be done than with an obvious and open willingness to give a new idea a try. Europeans seem obsessed with the familiar, the comfortable, and the secure.

So much for cultural divergences on what constitutes moral superiority. There is not much point in shouting recriminations across the Atlantic. But it does seem necessary for an American in Europe, who hears so many negatives hurled at the United States on television and reads many others in the journals, to remind Europeans that Americans have their opinions about Europe, too. One should not, I think, encourage isolationism in America, nor in Europe. To maintain a strong alliance, it is not necessary to be blind to each other’s faults or to disguise our own pronounced preferences for our own ways. It is quite enough to have common interests and, on a deeper level, common roots and values--which are under quite hostile worldwide threat, as was shown on September 11. This threat is not aimed solely at America, but at "crusader" Europe, too.

3. What Is Causing the Recent Cleavages?

In recent years, nonetheless, several sources of new cleavages have opened up. I am not certain I understand these, but let me offer three or four hypotheses.

First, Europeans today have a far weaker belief in the nation state, and have begun to idealize large collective entities, such as the United Nations and the European Community. They are willing to cede sovereignty from one to the other, and in the process to give up a great many safeguards of local democracy. To Americans, in fact, it seems that Europeans revere bureaucrats, in the larger collective, the more so. They certainly pay lavish salaries to countless ranks of them. In addition, the Europeans seem not to be preoccupied with checks and balances, the division of all powers, and other auxiliary precautions, in the protection of liberty from its customary and traditional sources of abuse. Europeans seem relatively passive before their political elites. Europeans even seem to cry out to their elites: "Abuse us!" In other words, to American eyes, Europeans, after all their bad experiences, still seem innocent about concentrations of power. Europeans seem not to believe in original sin, or in the pervasiveness of evil in the hearts of men, for against these they arrange so few protections.

Second, on a planetary scale, Europeans seem to hold that the world is populated by Kantians, eager to accept resolutions after hearing speeches in the UN. The UN Security Council passed seventeen such resolutions for Saddam Hussein, as if they actually expected him to be swayed by patient argument, and then they were miffed not to be able to make it eighteen.

By contrast, Americans do not have much faith in Kantian reason or the rationality of collectives and tyrants. The schoolmaster of the Americans is not Kant but St. Augustine, the teacher both of Aquinas and of eighteenth-century Protestant divines in America. Augustine was more keen to detect the ways in which humans abuse power, even twist reason itself. Robert Kagan has mistakenly asserted in Of Paradise and Power2 that Thomas Hobbes is the teacher of the Americans, but Hobbes was far too cynical, and a lover of illiberal Leviathan. The American master is Augustine, whom Kagan ignores. Augustine urges Americans on toward the City of God, the "shining City on the Hill," while simultaneously warning them against their own inveterate inclinations to sin. Hobbes depresses the spirit; Augustine inspires and arms it. From St. Augustine, the Americans get both their realism and their optimism.

There may be a third reason for the screeching anti-Americanism in Europe, although I sense myself walking on shakier ground. Could it be that some Europeans hate America for not accepting the rationality of the European view of the world? By designating terrorism as "evil," and by designating three states that support terrorism [Iraq, Iran, and North Korea] as "the axis of evil," President Bush flew directly against the worldview of the Europeans. They want rationality, he pointed to the irrational components in Iraq, Iran and North Korea. They want peace at the lowest possible cost, while he was not willing to wait until the terrorists again struck New York or Washington. They want collective security, he had observed what happened in Rwanda, and in the French unilateral intervention into the Ivory Coast, and in the Russian into Chechnya. European elites use the language of bureaucracy and collective negotiation, Bush used the language of Christianity. That language deeply offends secular Europeans. There seems to be great resistance to Bush precisely because he is visibly religious. (Bill Clinton used religious language at least as often as Bush; but perhaps that didn’t worry Europeans because they didn’t think he meant it. Meanwhile, Bush’s religious language may worry Europeans precisely because he does believe it.)

In any case, America is far more religious than Europe, both more Christian and more Jewish. In America, a great number of political and intellectual leaders--yes, and journalists--are serious about their Judaism or their Christianity. As Americans, they feel quite comfortable in expressing that seriousness. In America, from the beginning religion has normally been on the side of liberty, and liberty on the side of religion. We never faced the ancien regime that led so many European lovers of liberty to reject religion outright. We did not experience on our own soil the rise of aggressive atheism under Nazis and Communists.

In short, as Niall Ferguson has suggested,3 it may be American religious seriousness that still leads us to work so hard and with such discipline (Max Weber), and to have high morale, and a deep conviction about the rightness of supporting liberty around the world (Tocqueville). For certain, it is our sense that each woman and each man is made in the image of the Creator that leads us so to emphasize creativity, invention, and enterprise in each sphere of life. As Judaism and then Christianity have taught us, it is the vocation of every woman and man to create–to add to this world before our deaths what was not here at our births. Each American should be creative.

It is one of the ironies of our times that nearly all of the values that America holds most dear derive from Europe, even though today’s Europeans no longer hold them. For instance, all those lessons about Judaism and Christianity mentioned above Americans did not find here in America waiting for us. Just the opposite, they came with the Bibles that were carried in our grandparents’ steamship trunks, and in the lessons they carried in their heads and their hearts from Europe to America.

The public buildings of the United States reflect Greece and Rome. The influence of the Enlightenment--the English, not the French or the German Enlightenment--is reflected in our terse classic speech, such as that of our Declaration of Independence, our Constitution, and other basic documents such as The Federalist. But the deepest impress on America’s soul is biblical realism--a sense of the glories possible to man, chastened by a sense of the pervasiveness in all circumstances of human wickedness and weakness. In our youth, we thought we learned these lessons from Europe. In our maturity, we are surprised that Europe has "outgrown" them. We think these lessons would be useful for Europe to relearn.

We had also thought we learned our "whiggism" and our "liberalism" from Europe, from Scotland to be precise--from moral sense philosophers such as Francis Hutchison and Adam Smith. By the whig tendency, we mean the love for civil and political liberties, along with respect for tradition, experience, the local, the unspoken, the tacit, and the religious dimension of life. By the liberal tendency, we mean the commitment to economic liberty as well as political and civil liberties. In combination, the whig and the liberal tendencies see liberty as the bright red thread which furnishes to human history its central line of institutional progress.
Liberty in this sense is not given, it must be earned. Indeed, it must be learned through hard practice, repetition, trial and error; it must be learned through suffering, failure, and even death. Liberty in this sense means self-government, that is, the conquest of the self. Self-government, in turn, has both a personal, private dimension and a public, institutional dimension. To extend true liberty in both dimensions exacts a high price in vigilance and sacrifice. Liberty is in its own way the way of the cross. It is not won by wishing, but by wagering on it all that one has, by dying or being willing to die. "I regret," said Nathan Hale at his death early in the War of Independence, "that I have but one life to lose for my country." Through such men, the rest of us enjoy today our institutional liberties.

In this sense, Americans do not fear death. We are still, though much besieged, a culture of life. The critic may reply scornfully, But what then about your practice of abortion, the least restrictive on earth, or your tolerance in half your States of the death penalty? Well, to the best of my knowledge, the American people have never voted for abortion in any jurisdiction. Every time the issue comes to a popular vote, abortion loses. It is the American Supreme Court that (illegally, many of us think) has imposed the abortion regime on the people. As for the death penalty, circumstances in America are not the same as in Europe, and what seems reasonable in one continent may to many seem otherwise in another. The laws under which people live are properly their own choice. (It may be that on many issues, such as the death penalty, popular opinion in Europe is much the same as popular opinion in the U.S., despite the fact that in Europe the laws are far more closely controlled by the political elite than is possible in the U.S.)
To resume, I believe it descriptively accurate to state that Americans stand out among our allies as noticeably optimistic, active, vigorous, and not afraid to take chances. Failure does not affright us. Many great ventures succeed only after the learning that takes place through multiple failures.

In all these ways, George Bush after September 11 has been an exemplary American, not at all afraid to trust in liberty and to roll the dice of history for very high stakes. There were a huge number of ways in which the war in Iraq might have gone wrong. A sudden, swift victory was by no means assured. Oil wells might have been sabotaged, pipelines emptying unchecked into the Persian Gulf. Israel and Kuwait might have been bombed. Resistance might have been universal and fierce beyond all previous experience. The small American force--much lighter and smaller than twelve years earlier, and moving without the long weeks of preparatory bombing that marked 1991--might have been surrounded and captured. Bush risked not only his Presidency but the credit of the United States military forces for many decades to come.

Can it be that, precisely for his daring and vigor, he is hated by a different stripe of men?

I hasten to point out that Bush is by choice a man of the American West, and that nearly all American Presidents of the last fifty years have been from that part of America, the most religious, biblical part, the Bible Belt of the South and the West. Let me count them off: Lyndon Johnson from Texas; Richard Nixon from California; Gerald Ford--the exception--from Michigan, in the oval office not by being elected but by succession as Vice-President; Jimmy Carter from Georgia; Ronald Reagan from California; George Bush the First from Texas; Bill Clinton from Arkansas; and George Bush the Second from Texas. The center of gravity in American politics has moved to the part of America that is least like Europe, the vigorous American West, and wise Europeans will want to take that into account.

4. The "Values" We Have in Common

When we look out through the next hundred years, no other potential alliance in the world rivals the European and North Atlantic civilization, not in cultural power, nor in economic power, nor in military power. The only thing that can defeat us is our own disunity. What drive us together in the first place are our own interests and, even more deeply, our ‘common values.’ Statesmen are fond of stressing these ‘common values’ at the end of their speeches. But over the years our ability to state these values has grown weaker and weaker. The reason for this vagueness is that our civilization is distinctive primarily because of its Jewish and Christian roots. But both in America and in Europe, especially in Europe, our elites no longer feel comfortable expressing reality in religious language. Thus, on many important points--noticeably so, under threat from Muslim antagonists--they fall silent, or try too obviously to change the subject.

Specifically, we in the North Atlantic civilization draw four thought-categories, or frameworks, or paradigms, from our Jewish and Christian roots. These four are the rights endowed in all humans by their Creator; liberty of conscience; a regulative idea of truth; and historical consciousness. These are horizon-shaping concepts, which frame the way we look at reality. Each of these boundary concepts may be articulated in secular terms. It is not necessary to be a believing Jew or Christian in order to hold them in mind or, more exactly, to be held in their grip.

As a wise and experienced rabbi once explained to me, it is important in establishing a new synagogue to pay special attention to ‘flying buttresses,’ that is, to those people who support the synagogue from outside, without ever going through the door. In the same way, it is important to find words to express the common values of the West whose origins may be religious, in terms that are graspable by those who no longer go through the doors of churches or synagogues. It is necessary to express these originally religious concepts in non-religious ways.

Thomas Jefferson, for example, no orthodox believer himself, wrote that one of the truths we hold is that "All men are created equal, and are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights." Even those who do not hold that there is a Creator of all things may understand by this locution that each human being, by the very fact of being human, shares in certain inalienable natural rights. Such persons may grasp the essential point, moreover, that these rights are not given to us by the State, nor may they be taken away by States. They are rooted in our own innate capacity to reflect and to choose. They are rooted in our capacity to be self-governing agents, such that each of us is responsible, alone, for choosing our individual destiny.

Again, our commitment to religious liberty, or liberty of conscience, also has a specifically Jewish and Christian historical origin. But it, too, is also understandable in secular terms. After immense suffering from religious warfare, in which human beings seemed to be discrediting religion by the very act of killing one another to vindicate it, certain thinkers began to notice accusatory characteristics of "the Divine Author of our religion" (as Jefferson put it). For instance, the God of Israel wanted to be worshiped "in spirit and in truth," not solely by external motions, and not on false pretences, but with honesty of heart and singleness of mind. In addition, He addressed his word to each individual in solitude (as well as to all together, as a community), in such fashion that each is obliged to reply to him in a way that neither mother nor father nor sister not brother can do in his stead. In that sense, personal responsibility is inalienable. That responsibility belongs to the self alone. And no one can legitimately interfere in the arena in which the soul stands alone and inalienably before God. In brief, States must respect the religious liberty of each person.

Obviously, it is not necessary to be a Christian or Jewish believer to grasp the secular point of that religious discovery. Conscience is inviolable. It is beyond the reach of States. God Himself may have commissioned some few to speak in his name, but in the end even their words may be rejected, or on the contrary accepted, as the conscience of each among the people directs. In religious terms, the God of Abraham, Moses and Jesus wants only the worship of free women and free men, not of slaves. In secular terms, every human person is bound to follow his or her own conscience, and to do so conscientiously. This is not to say that all consciences are equal, or that there is no such thing as truth. But it is to insist that in the search for truth, due attention should be paid to evidence. Thus, civilized peoples argue about serious matters in the light of evidence. They respect each other as reasonable creatures, and they hold each other to conducting themselves reasonably. Thus the discovery of the principle of religious liberty leads to discoveries about the nature of truth.

For, in this same spirit, reasonable people recognize the importance to civilized living of a regulative principle of truth. By truth, they mean that which may be affirmed and held in the light of evidence. Without a rule of looking to evidence that may be able to sway reasonable persons, a people would have no rational method for resolving differences. The alternative is a brute appeal to superior power. Indeed, the acceptance or non-acceptance of the regulative idea of truth separates civilized peoples from barbarians. Civilized people argue with one another in the light of evidence. Barbarians club one another.

Finally, one of the great gifts that Judaism conveyed to Christianity, and thence to the civilization of Europe and the North Atlantic, is the sense that, because there is a Creator and a Messiah, history is not a cycle of continuous and eternal return to its starting point, in as it were a circle. Rather, history is an uneven line whose course is determined by human freedom, a line which has a beginning, a middle, and an end--a narrative line, so to speak, whose axial point, whose bright red interpretive thread, is liberty. History is the story of the slow appropriation by the human race of the full meaning of human liberty--that is, the liberty that is constituted by deliberate self-government. It is, therefore, the story of countless personal appropriations of liberty. It is also the story of large human social experiments in building up institutions compatible with and supportive of human liberty. Liberty is the main interpretive thread of human history.

One implication of this sense of history is that one needs a theory of the development of doctrine, a way to measure what is true progress in understanding fundamental ideas and categories, and what is a distortion. Today’s Muslims are urgently searching for some such systematic method for determining what is permanently valid from the Koran, and what belongs properly to one period but perhaps not to later periods. Not only Jews and Christians, but all serious secular philosophers have also had to wrestle with a theory of how to discern authentic progress from distortion and betrayal.

These four categories of thought, in a word, are a few of the ‘common values’ of Europe and America. All in fact had a religious origin. Yet they are each susceptible of quite rational secular articulation. One does not have to be Christian or Jewish to cherish them, or to make them one’s own.

Common convictions about natural rights, religious liberty, a regulative idea of truth, and historical consciousness –these are four of the distinguishing marks of the civilization of Europe and North America, which set it off from every other civilization in history, whether religious or secular.

These are the marks that most deeply unify Europe and America.

When one looks ahead for the next fifty years, or even for a century, there seems no other alliance so deeply or so well grounded, so capable both of authentic progress on the path of liberty, and of authentic re-appropriations of forgotten truths from our own past. It would be unforgivable if America and Europe, because of current pettiness and manufactured rivalries, did not go forward together, for the good of the human race as a whole, and for the good both of Europe and America. Despite their particular origin, furthermore, our common values have important meaning for all cultures universally, as many in other cultures have long been testifying. Others may not accept these common values wholesale, or in the same way that we do, but nothing in these common values belongs solely to us. Like all things human, they both have a particular historical origin, and also they are part of the common heritage of humankind.

Michael Novak is the George Frederick Jewett Scholar at AEI.

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Events Calendar
  • 27
    MON
  • 28
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  • 29
    WED
  • 30
    THU
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    FRI
Monday, October 27, 2014 | 10:00 a.m. – 11:30 a.m.
State income taxes and the Supreme Court: Maryland Comptroller v. Wynne

Please join AEI for a panel discussion exploring these and other questions about this crucial case.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014 | 9:30 a.m. – 12:15 p.m.
For richer, for poorer: How family structures economic success in America

Join Lerman, Wilcox, and a group of distinguished scholars and commentators for the release of Lerman and Wilcox’s report, which examines the relationships among and policy implications of marriage, family structure, and economic success in America.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014 | 5:30 p.m. – 7:00 p.m.
The 7 deadly virtues: 18 conservative writers on why the virtuous life is funny as hell

Please join AEI for a book forum moderated by Last and featuring five of these leading conservative voices. By the time the forum is over, attendees may be on their way to discovering an entirely different — and better — moral universe.

Thursday, October 30, 2014 | 2:00 p.m. – 3:00 p.m.
A nuclear deal with Iran? Weighing the possibilities

Join us, as experts discuss their predictions for whether the United States will strike a nuclear deal with Iran ahead of the November 24 deadline, and the repercussions of the possible outcomes.

Thursday, October 30, 2014 | 5:00 p.m. – 6:15 p.m.
The forgotten depression — 1921: The crash that cured itself

Please join Author James Grant and AEI senior economists for a discussion about Grant's book, "The Forgotten Depression: 1921: The Crash That Cured Itself" (Simon & Schuster, 2014).

No events scheduled today.
No events scheduled this day.
No events scheduled this day.
No events scheduled this day.
No events scheduled this day.