He Thought He was Right: Liberality Must Kiss Righteousness

He Thought He was Right: Liberality Must Kiss Righteousness June 15, 2023

John Reynolds thought he was right and went off to fight. My great-grandfather was once asked: “Brother Reynolds do you think you are right about everything?”

He replied: “If I thought I was wrong, I would change my mind.”

This was wise. Naturally, he did change his mind sometimes and as a modest man Great-grandfather knew he likely was wrong about more than a few things. However, he knew that eventually a person has to commit himself and then see. After all, his father had gone off to fight for Lincoln and Liberty. That John Reynolds made the right moral call. He considered, put his life on the line, and then he saw. He had faced down men equally committed to a wrong idea. Whatever most voters, or even people, in Virginia thought, he was not willing to tolerate disunion and slavery any more.

The voice of the people is, sometimes, the Voice of God, but then so, sometimes, is the voice of a motivated minority. If you think you are right, and your ideas are not in the majority is this position somehow incompatible with democratic values?

Convinced, committed, courageous voices are needed in a democracy even if they do not prevail.

Too many moral minorities have been right to dismiss them with today’s polls. The Civil Rights movement is an example of good change by persuasion and politics, Prohibition a bad one. Yesterdays minority can become today’s majority. When it comes to trends only the bad investor bets that today’s trends guarantee of tomorrow’s outcomes. Patient work inside of systems can help one minority group form coalitions to achieve their ends. In the American system, we allow the courts to overturn, at least for a time, the will of the majority.

Nor is the situation more dangerous if a person, like most people who have ever lived, derive some moral ideas from religion or God. After all only an arrogant person would assume that all those people must be wrong. Religious ideas motivated much of Union cause in the Civil War. When Great-grandfather sang the “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” marching off to war, he thought his service was an imitation of Christ:

In the beauty of the lilies Christ was born across the sea,
With a glory in His bosom that transfigures you and me.
As He died to make men holy, let us die to make men free,
While God is marching on.

His cause was just and his service noble.

Immediately we must be cautioned: just as religious motivation does not disqualify a person from serving this republic well, so it is no guarantee of righteousness. The immoral minority in the South believed they should fight and die for the right to enslave and often (though not always) they had religious motivations. They were very wrong, but many ignored justice while praying prayers to the same God and reading the same Bible as Great-grandfather.

We can get some things right and others disastrously wrong.

We can commit, but we must always have the caution of Lincoln to hope less that God is on “our side,” but that we are on God’s side. Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address is a beautiful expression of this humility. We need to act, but prudently, charitably, and with malice toward none. Liberality must kiss righteousness. 

Liberality is the noble character quality that is generous, plays by agreed on rules, and is charitable. Liberality will demonize demons, but not men. Righteousness, true justice, is greater, but no person can trust themselves. Divorced from liberality, the person seeking justice can easily become a tyrant. Majorities can tyrannize, but so can minorities. Causes that demand lies, riots, insurrections, are rarely noble causes.

There is no sure path, so liberality with righteousness is the prudent way. If we did not think we were right, we would change our minds, so we do justice. While persuading, voting, we also know that we have much to learn. We might be wrong. We might even take something right and turn it into something monstrous if we apply it badly. I am sure some of the Bolshevik meant well, but the good they did, so many righteous causes, were drowned in a sea of blood and illiberality.

Fearful people become illiberal. Just people might be willing to die for justice, but not for lies, grift, and hate.

God grant me a soul where liberality kisses justice.


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