The David R. Jones Lecture on Freedom’s First Principles was delivered during the commencement ceremony of The Fund's Washington D.C. Institutes on August 3, 2007 by J. Kenneth Blackwell. He urged TFAS students to be a positive force of light, freedom, reason and moral coherence in a world that is often dark with the negative forces of terror, poverty, ignorance and hatred.
Permit me to share with you a few personal experiences and observations that have influenced my world view and my personal vision for America today and for her future. It is a vision of an America in which individuals are empowered to build communities of hope, respect and prosperity.
I was born in Cincinnati, Ohio in a neighborhood known as "The West End." When my father returned from World War II, he came back to a city that was struggling between its promise and its practice. There were vestiges of segregation in Cincinnati, and a housing shortage. We lived in a public housing community. My dad worked as a meat packer at a plant in the neighborhood.
Occasionally, a steer would escape from the slaughter house near where he worked. The steer would run loose in the neighborhood. That's when the fun would begin. My friends and I would run home to find our mothers' red tablecloths. In an instant we had become dashing, urban matadors. We would have a great time, oblivious to any possible danger. Eventually, firefighters and police officers would come to get the steer back to the slaughter house (alive, so that it could be killed later). They would encircle the steer and often spent between 90 minutes and two hours to accomplish their goal.
Contrast that early childhood experience with the 1997 shooting death of Lorenzo Collins in Cincinnati. Mr. Collins, who was thought to be mentally disturbed, fled the supervised care and observation of a local hospital. His apprehension involved 15 police officers encircling him like the runaway steer. He was armed with only his hospital gown and half of a brick. He was probably no more dangerous to those officers than the steers were to their predecessors. Yet Mr. Collins was shot within a very few minutes and died five days later.
One would think Mr. Collins would have been given the same concern and finesse that had been provided the steers; perhaps he would have been if his humanity and human dignity had been recognized and valued.
I use these two stories to drive home a point. In so many ways we have lost respect for our fellow humans and their innate human dignity. I believe our democracy works best when our culture respects the equal dignity of others.
This very notion is at the center of the moral foundation of our free society. Ethical respect leads diverse people to value the work of others while having the liberty to disagree with their opinions.
As the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, "We are all heirs to the legacy of worthiness." This core principle of our democracy is found in the Preamble of the Declaration of Independence: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."
It is important to note that these rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are given in a prescribed order. It is difficult to enjoy liberty if you're dead, and it is difficult to pursue happiness if you are enslaved. So, the first responsibility of government is to protect life because the miracle of life is not just in its beginning, but also in our capacity to begin again.
We are not equal in the non-essentials like skin color, height, weight, income or intelligence, but we are equal in the essentials. We are all made in God's image, all accountable to our common Creator, and blessed by his loving grace. Our human rights are inherent in our human dignity; they are not grants from any government, they are gifts from God. Understanding the universality of these rights is crucial to one¹s appreciation of the fact that each of us, as God¹s creation, has an ambition for respect.
It is only when people hold the same standards of good and evil that they can be free and equal. And it is this absolute morality that provides the basis for democratic equality for all citizens. We, as engaged citizens, are responsible for creating a culture where respect for the dignity of the human person is the principal organizing theme. It is only when we do so that our democracy is at its best, and serves as a shining example for people all the world over.
Two hundred and thirty-one years ago, when our nation was founded, two million people worldwide lived under democratic governance. Today, that number is over 2.4 billion, and America has led the way. Granted, the history of our democracy has not been one of perfection, and the architects of our Constitutional government did not always practice what they preached, but their foundational ideas were rock solid.
Twenty years ago, I read a book, Habits of the Heart by Robert Bellah and others. The authors advanced the principle called moral coherence: a state achieved when an individual lines up his behavior with the values he professes to believe.
Nations, too, search for moral coherence, and it is achieved when their practices match their promises or the values they profess to hold. Today, our 302 million citizens comprise the most diverse democracy in all of human history, representing every race and every ethnicity from the world over.
Yet, over the course of those 231 years there have often been gaps between America's promise and America's practice. These gaps represent the challenges of a pluralistic democracy, and when they are prevalent, there is moral incoherence.
We must help our communities, our cities and our nation achieve moral coherence. Only when we engage in this struggle do we contribute to America¹s legacy as a shining beacon of freedom for the entire world to see.
A relentless pursuit of truth and the unleashing of human potential must be our passion. Helping our communities avoid practices inconsistent with our democratic ideals and common moral universe must be our mission.
About a decade ago, The Washington Post published a four part series entitled "Reality Check: The Politics of Mistrust." It was an analysis of a study conducted by The Post and Harvard University. The conclusion of the study was that we were becoming a nation where individuals not only distrust the government, but one another.
The September 11 attacks brought our nation and our world to a crossroads. We must consciously choose between two paths. We must decide whether we will turn to one another or turn on one another. Will we give into tribal instinct and division, or will we maintain a culture of respect for our shared moral universe?
What is it that strengthens us when forces try to weaken our sense of community and our personal belief that we really can make a difference in the world? It is people who are more interested in lighting candles than cursing the darkness, people who do not make excuses because they know that those who are good at making excuses are usually not good at anything else.
What strengthens us are people with strong character, people who inspire us with their personal courage, people who help us believe we can cut through the darkness to the straight way of light, unity and trust once again.
Throughout my years in public service, I have seen firsthand the many positive and varied ingredients that combine to give our country its strength and vitality. Character is perhaps the most important, as it is the cornerstone of American citizenship, and citizenship is the foundation of community. Character arises from our dedication to living a moral life.
James Madison, chief architect of the U.S. Constitution, said, "We have staked the entire future of the American civilization not upon the power of government, but upon the capacity of the individual to govern himself, to control himself and sustain himself according to the Ten Commandments of God."
The quality of our freedom and self-governance depends on the depth of our understanding that ours is a law-governed freedom. Freedom, in this context, is not a matter of each person living free to pursue any behavior in his self interest as long as it doesn't hurt anyone else.
It is often wrongly thought that our modern constitutional democracy is fine regardless of the private vices of those within it. Many of us tend to care much more about our rights and success than about our goodness. This is a mistake. For human beings, there is no living without standards of living, and true virtue requires us to live in accordance with these standards. Not out of fear of punishment, but rather out of respect for them. As the late Pope John Paul II told us, “Freedom is not about doing anything you want. It’s about doing what you ought.”
In closing, I want to focus your attention on the enormous power you each already possess in your hands. You have this power not because of your education, although that is important. Nor do you have it because of what you will achieve, no matter how considerable that may be. This power does not come from holding office, amassing wealth or commanding others.
It is the power of moral example. It is the power to change lives in large and small ways. It is the power that comes from the recognition of our common humanity and our responsibilities to one another. Most of all, it rests on your understanding of right and wrong and your willingness to act upon what you know.
Each night Mother Teresa would go through what she called the examination of her hands. She would ask her hands, "What have you done today? Who have you helped today?" I suggest we daily ask our hands, and ourselves, those same questions. Like Mother Teresa, we should strive to have our morality and work align perfectly in our respective missions.
As a child I read a novel about a young boy who spent a lot of his childhood in infirmaries in the 1920s. One night a nurse came into his room at dusk and found the little boy with his face plastered up against the window in his room. The nurse asked, "Little boy, what are you doing?" He answered, "I¹m watching the man punch holes in the darkness." Puzzled, the nurse walked over to the window to find the lamplighter going down the street, lighting street lamps one at a time. In this young boy's mind's eye, the man was punching holes in the darkness.
My challenge to you is that you be like the man in the story who punches holes in the darkness, that you would be a positive force of light, freedom, reason and moral coherence in a world that is often dark with the negative forces of terror, poverty, ignorance and hatred.