Marilynne Robinson: It’s won­der­ful to be here in this beau­ti­ful city. It’s won­der­ful to take part again in one of the great intel­lec­tu­al cen­ters of con­tem­po­rary life, The Nexus Institute. Such a plea­sure to be here among peo­ple whom it is an enor­mous plea­sure and hon­or to know. 

So. I will not solve the ques­tions that Rob has broached, but here’s what I have to say about them. 

Modern Western soci­eties are not organ­isms that thrive or per­ish as one thing, one mind, one expe­ri­ence. They are com­pacts, based on the expec­ta­tion that those charged with respon­si­bil­i­ties will car­ry them out in good faith, and cru­cial­ly that those who are rel­a­tive­ly pow­er­ful will not seri­ous­ly abuse, exploit, or sim­ply neglect those who are rel­a­tive­ly vulnerable. 

Democracy is pro­found mutu­al cour­tesy, an ethos of mutu­al respect, and is in this sense deeply spir­i­tu­al. It should nev­er be for­got­ten that Jefferson asserts human equal­i­ty in the terms of the Biblical cre­ation nar­ra­tive. The dig­ni­ty con­ferred on each indi­vid­ual by his cre­ator is to be acknowl­edged as inalien­able, wor­thy of all respect. Failure in this regard has always afflict­ed American democ­ra­cy, and every oth­er democ­ra­cy of which I have any knowl­edge. This spir­i­tu­al fail­ure has now become con­spic­u­ous, con­se­quen­tial, shameless—and in America, orga­nized under the aus­pices of the Republican Party. 

It star­tles me that I feel jus­ti­fied in say­ing such a thing. It appalls me that it is in urgent need of being said. But the impor­tance of this devi­a­tion from the first giv­en of the American demo­c­ra­t­ic order, this apos­ta­sy so to speak by a wealthy estab­lish­ment pres­ence, is tru­ly threatening. 

To trust one anoth­er with our bal­lots, and then to accept the deci­sions reflect­ed in them, has always depend­ed on an eth­ic of mutu­al respect which for the moment is not to be assumed. It is hard to imag­ine what will restore the integri­ty of the sys­tem, oth­er than a spir­i­tu­al awak­en­ing. Which could hap­pen, since old white peo­ple like me are trudg­ing toward the exits, demo­graph­i­cal­ly speak­ing, bear­ing away a great part of the fear­ful­ness and sanc­ti­mo­nious­ness that has bur­dened our pol­i­tics. There are vast cohorts of young peo­ple and newly-aroused and enfran­chised minori­ties for whom the found­ing doc­u­ments are author­i­ta­tive and beau­ti­ful. We can begin our recov­ery by respect­ing them. An easy first step because they are emi­nent­ly deserv­ing of respect. 

Decline emerges as an idea very often, per­haps con­tin­u­ous­ly, though it finds greater or less­er degrees of response from one iter­a­tion to the next. Those who raise the alarm in the inter­vals when there is lit­tle con­sen­sus to sup­port this view of things are lat­er seen as prophets. They add to the cho­rus or to the lit­er­a­ture to be deployed when such con­sen­sus does begin to emerge. If, his­tor­i­cal­ly, a grow­ing sense of decline pre­cedes cat­a­stro­phe, per­haps this is true because the idea pre­dis­pos­es the cul­ture to nihilism, and also to the des­per­ate bat­tle against nihilism, which is the oth­er side of the same coin. These two appar­ent­ly con­trary move­ments act as accel­er­ants to excite­ments that arise between them. Because they both pro­ceed­ed from cat­e­gor­i­cal and very neg­a­tive assump­tions about peo­ple in general—“the mass­es,” as they are often called in this con­text. This low esti­ma­tion means that no vision is offered of a future, an ongo­ing life, for the cul­ture that peo­ple in gen­er­al could wish to have a part in. 

I could be describ­ing the col­lapse of a democ­ra­cy, or I could be describ­ing the means by which a democ­ra­cy can sur­vive and over­come the great vul­ner­a­bil­i­ties by which democ­ra­cy is always threat­ened. It may not be very long before the mat­ter is deter­mined one way or the other. 

Our gov­ern­ment has been based in a greater degree than any of us were aware on norms and cus­toms, unen­force­able def­er­ence to prece­dent, and restraint in the face of oppo­si­tion. Our incum­bent is intent on remak­ing the office to suit his own char­ac­ter, and is both lim­it­ed and pro­tect­ed by a tra­di­tion of respect for the office of President. Respect which he seems not to share. 

When norms are vio­lat­ed with impuni­ty will they func­tion as norms again there­after? Will the stan­dards of con­duct they have sup­port­ed be changed by the attempts that are like­ly to come to enforce them by leg­is­la­tion, assum­ing a restora­tion of some­thing like nor­mal­cy? In oth­er words, will a com­plex insti­tu­tion­al sta­bil­i­ty be com­pro­mised, changed, or lost, leav­ing us with in America we can­not fore­see and will not have chosen? 

Many essen­tial things are in a state of true inde­ter­mi­na­cy, so it seems. Se are on our way to learn­ing how our pol­i­tics live in our civ­i­liza­tion, how we under­stand our prob­lems and what resources we bring to mit­i­gat­ing them. If we sub­scribe to decline as an inter­pre­ta­tion of our prob­lems, our democ­ra­cy will indeed fail. 

The con­cept decline” by impli­ca­tion takes a for­mer state of things to be good, and evil to be those ten­den­cies per­ceived at least as depart­ing from it. Evil is a word I’m gen­er­al­ly reluc­tant to use. But in the con­text of cul­tur­al pes­simism it evokes pre­cise­ly the nature of what is to be feared and resist­ed in the dis­so­lu­tion these peo­ple think they see. To call any­thing evil is to lift it out of the ordi­nary, the sec­u­lar, to assume in it a spe­cial ener­gy that places it beyond the strate­gies of rea­son and good intent, and that demands hyper­alert­ness and recourse to very extra­or­di­nary defens­es. This idea of evil is holi­ness invert­ed, Satan loose in a god­less world. Speak of this dev­il and he is very like­ly to appear. 

I do not believe, I can­not imag­ine that any human being could be with­out a spir­it, a soul. I believe as a mat­ter of faith as well as obser­va­tion that spir­i­tu­al­i­ty aris­es out of the indi­vid­ual spir­it, sole­ly by the grace of God, through dif­fi­cul­ty, despite neglect, in the absence of help and approval, in tact­ful or ten­ta­tive silence and secre­cy as sure­ly as in the recita­tion of any creed. I believe that human beings have an end­less­ly demon­strat­ed ten­den­cy to refuse to acknowl­edge the spir­it in them­selves and cru­cial­ly, in cul­tur­al­ly select­ed oth­ers: slaves, aliens, women, Jews, heretics, ene­mies real or per­ceived. The blind­ness they induce in them­selves releas­es them from the felt con­straints of jus­tice, mer­cy, and rev­er­ence, and mon­sters them indi­vid­u­al­ly and as soci­eties. This is a brief his­to­ry of human­i­ty’s crimes against itself. 

American Puritans, ances­tors of my tra­di­tion, the peo­ple who gave us Thanksgiving, did not cel­e­brate Christmas, which they con­sid­ered a pagan fes­ti­val. But they did in a larg­er sense cel­e­brate the Incarnation, the faith that God him­self could pass unno­ticed in this world, an ordi­nary man accord­ing to Calvin one phys­i­cal­ly marred by pover­ty and labor. Who might he not be? He told us who he was, the hun­gry, the sick, the impris­oned, the stranger. I believe there was once a con­ven­tion in a lib­er­al state that there is cour­tesy owed to those with whom he explic­it­ly iden­ti­fied. Well, soci­ety giveth and soci­ety taketh away. But for Christians, the Incarnation changed the world in one great par­tic­u­lar. We know what we do. Whom we slight, insult, ignore, for­get. The para­ble that is our faith would tell us that the spir­it is always real, always present, wait­ing to be seen. Thank you.

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