To fight soaring crime, President Clinton has proposed a national police corps-an idea some find ominous. “Is Clinton paving the way to a police state?” a friend asked me.
I scoffed at his fears. But the thought of a police state stayed with me. It could happen here in America-not from anything Clinton does but from what we do to ourselves.
One hundred years ago, Lord Acton foresaw the way a free state can become a police state. Acton is the source of the pithy phrase every civics student memorizes: “Power corrupts; and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”
But few students know how Acton thought we could avoid absolute power: through religion.
“No country can be free without religion,” Acton argued. “It creates and strengthens the notion of duty. If men are not kept straight by duty, they must be by fear. The more they are kept by fear, the less they are free.”
Acton’s logic is impeccable. Religion creates an invisible yoke of duty on every citizen. It gives a reason to deny self-interest, to obey the law, to sacrifice for others.
But when religion decays, duty loses its hold on our hearts. Crime and lawlessness are unleashed. And as civil disorder spreads, desperate officials call out the guns. In Washington, D.C., the mayor recently announced that she wants the National Guard to help police the streets.
Acton was right: If citizens are not governed by internal virtue, they must be governed by external force. A society that shelves its Bibles will in the end have to bring out the bayonets.
Admittedly, duty can flow from other sources. In his book Gratitude, Bill Buckley grounds duty in gratitude to our forefathers, who shed their blood to defend our liberty. “Covenants with the past,” Buckley calls them.
But in the 1960s this secular form of duty was rejected by thousands of young men-including our current president. Last Memorial Day, when Clinton visited the Vietnam Memorial, some vets booed and turned their backs. Clinton seemed puzzled: All I did, he said, was disagree with the government about Vietnam.
But that misses the point. The vets were not angry because Clinton disagreed about the war; many of them did, too. They were angry because they felt that-agree or disagree-citizens have a duty to their country. If your conscience won’t let you fight as a soldier, you go in a noncombatant role.
The sense of duty to one’s country was fading in the sixties, and it’s weaker today. “Covenants with the past” have little grip on a generation that lives for today.
Acton was right: The only dependable source of duty is religion.
Christianity musters a more profound sense of gratitude than the sacrifices of our fore-fathers ever could. People may forget the blood shed by their Founding Fathers; but they do not forget the blood shed by the Son of God to free them from their sins.
Without this vital sense of duty, we do face the prospect that worried my friend-the possibility of a police state. Will we be governed by duty . . . or by guns?
The choice is ours.