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Conservatives are frequently accused of attempting to impose their
moral vision on America. We, in turn, accuse liberals of much the same
thing — although we correctly call the liberal attempt an immoral
vision. But are conservatives and liberals legitimately engaged in a
competition to achieve national power in order to justify a
comprehensive program of national moral formation? Let me give what I
believe is a statement of the properly conservative position on this
question.

First of all I think that at the national level we should not have
legislation against vice or sinful activity, merely as such. This is
essentially what is meant by the First Amendment — our national
government will not dictate the specifics of moral standards to us. Such
matters are to be left to the discretion and discernment of communities
at the state level and below. The founding generation understood that
this was particularly important because disagreements about moral
standards frequently reflect disagreements about matters rooted in faith
or religious conscience. America’s Founders had learned from the
terrible lessons of the wars in Europe that allowing national
governments to impose their will in such matters on provinces and
localities could lead to devastating conflicts. To avoid this great and
real evil, they declared off limits to the federal government the
practical management of the nation’s moral life.

This prohibition against federal morality legislation implies that at
the state and local level it is quite appropriate for the people to make
particular judgments about the kind of community they wish to form. It
is perfectly reasonable for communities to be able to establish
standards that reflect what they believe to be the moral requirements of
their community life. The most obvious purpose of such standards is to
prevent exposure of children to things that will undermine the integrity
of their eventual commitment to family life. The cultivation of this
commitment in young people is crucial to the survival of a community.
More than the buildings and roads, the habits of character that are
instilled in the young are the foundation of the community itself.
Accordingly, freedom to establish the standards judged critical to
success in the task of moral formation is an integral part of the
freedom to form communities at all. Broad and deep discretion on the
part of local communities in matters of moral self-government is implied
by the federal nature of our Constitution.

But it is also consistent with human nature. Making moral judgments
is an inescapable, difficult — but finally profoundly rewarding –
human duty. The decision to strive to be just in one’s own personal life
is the most crucial moral decision we face. But it is unlikely to bear
meaningful fruit if we do not also resolve to work actively with others
to bring about the justice we seek. If we have really chosen justice, we
will attempt to support that cause not only in our interior choices, but
in the whole web of concrete circumstances and people that make up our
life.

Taking responsibility for the moral form of our lives is true
self-government. And because we cannot do it in isolation from those we
live with and near, responsible moral self-government of communities is
the heart of this nation’s political life. Our entire system of
government and way of life is premised on the possibility of such
responsible self-government by each of the thousands of communities that
make up America.

The responsibility of the state, county, city and town for making the
crucial decisions of moral self-government is implied by the federal
nature of our Constitution, and by the limitation of the powers of the
federal government to those specifically designated in the document
itself. The federal government receives those powers which require a
unified, national activity. This is decidedly not equivalent to
saying that the federal government receives the more important powers.
The powers reserved to the states and the people amount to
responsibility for the most important things in life — the patterns of
family life, education, worship and mutual association which bear most
directly on our happiness and virtue.

The American citizen should experience his freedom, and its burdens,
not chiefly in deliberating about how to cast his vote for president,
but in his participation with his neighbors in the more difficult
questions about cooperative education, decency standards, municipal
planning, and other questions that give practical focus to the challenge
of self-government. Only a nation of citizens who are accustomed to
exercising real authority within their local community in the management
of such issues will be able to rise to the challenge of exercising their
political freedom at the national level.

The principal, and crucial, exception to the doctrine of local
responsibility is that all American communities must ultimately respect
the principles of the Declaration of Independence. Slavery is not a
legitimate local arrangement of moral standards. Murder cannot be legal
in America. Both of these activities violate the fundamental premises of
human equality and respect for the authority of the Creator in ways that
undermine the very possibility of civic order. If and when the local
authority fails to recognize and establish these standards in its laws,
it is indeed necessary for state or federal authority to act. But as the
instance of murder makes clear, even the most fundamental rights are not
necessarily to be secured by the federal government — the laws against
murder are not federal, but state and local. Slavery itself was not
addressed at the federal level until the failure of some of the states
to conform their laws to the Declaration on this question became
permanent and ambitious of expansion. It remains true, despite the
exceptions of slavery and abortion, that the moral standards enshrined
by the Declaration must be actually applied by state and local
communities, and that the remedy for their failure in this task should
not be routine federal legislation, but extraordinary national
attention.

Even abortion, a fundamental Declaration issue like chattel slavery,
was illegal by state law until illegitimately legalized at the federal
level by a rogue Supreme Court. Now that the spurious right to abortion
has been so systematically and nationally asserted, it will probably be
true that nothing short of a Constitutional amendment can adequately
reestablish the truth that it violates the Declaration. But abortion was
not in itself an issue that demanded federal political action, any more
than other forms of violence against innocent human life.

For these reasons, the efforts by “moralists” of any stripe to impose
their codes of morality by legislation or court decision at the national
level are not only unconstitutional — they are immoral as well. That
is, they will tend to diminish the degree of moral responsibility that
citizens experience at the local level, making all of us correspondingly
less practiced at the very activity of decent self-government that makes
the nation moral. A people which receives the answers to all its moral
dilemmas by seeking intervention from Washington will be a people
incompetent to decently regulate their own lives, or to responsibly
delegate to their legislators on moral matters. Such a people will not
remain moral or free for long.

One example of such illicit federal moralizing is the ongoing effort
to use the force of law at the national level to force Americans to
endorse the activist homosexual agenda. This is the clearest assault on
First Amendment rights of religious exercise in the history of the
country, and it must be stopped. The federal government has no right to
dictate to people that they must accept what is clearly in contradiction
to their deep religious faith and scriptural tradition. The attempt is
persecution, and its success would mean the loss of our First Amendment
freedoms. We face not only the national imposition of moral vice, but
the permanently damaging precedent of a national imposition of
particular moral judgment. We might recover from a bad national law, but
not from the established practice of leaving the task of moral judgment
to the national authority. So if the people of San Francisco and Vermont
try to abuse the Constitution in order to force other communities to
accept the abandonment of moral principle, we would need to draw the
line, stand up, and defend our right to live in communities
according to our moral principles.

But we must realize that the defense of local authority in moral
matters means that many American communities may establish moral
standards that we will disagree with. I certainly do not agree with the
current San Francisco City Council on the question of “domestic
partnership.” But I do not dispute the constitutional right of the city
to shape its laws to correspond to its moral judgment.

When Vermont was considering similar legislation, I went there to
speak against it and to help the citizens of the state understand that
they were considering an action that would be destructive of the
institution of marriage. I explained that they were utterly withdrawing
what ought to be the state’s respect for the family as our primary
social, and hence political institution. Family life is actually
antecedent to politics, and can demand that all political structures
respect its requirements. I acknowledged that under our constitutional
federal system, the people of Vermont have a right to pass this terrible
law. If I were a citizen of Vermont, I would work to overturn this law,
but not by claiming in court that the state had no right to pass it.

If I and my fellow citizens couldn’t overturn the law, and believed
its damage to our families and children would be great enough, we would
have to move somewhere else. True local autonomy means that citizens who
have serious objections to the standards of the community in which they
live can move to other communities, or form new ones. This is always a
daunting, wrenching experience. But it also leads to invigorated or new
communities, heroic virtue in those who undertake the challenge, and the
preservation of a genuinely fruitful diversity in the communities that
make up our republic.

A proper application of the Constitution will mean that we remain a
diverse nation, in which, at a certain level, tolerance is required. But
we will also be a nation in which people will be able, in their
communities and states and localities, to establish the standards that
they believe are most consistent with a decent way of life.

This was the promise of federalism. This was the promise of true
constitutionalism in America. Not that we would be all the same in our
beliefs and practices, but that we would be all the same in our
opportunity to live in communities that reflected those beliefs and
practices. The Declaration, our nation’s creed, states our national
moral standard. The variety of our local communities should reflect the
rich diversity of the people striving to live up to that standard. And
the proper forum for those who are ambitious to legislate moral
standards is not the Congress, but the more demanding and daunting
environs of the local school board.

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