Colson’s Law is named for the man I learned it from: Chuck Colson, founder of Prison Fellowship Ministries. It is one of the fundamental laws of human history. It has always been true, and it always will be true, unless human nature itself changes in its very essence. It is the law of four “C’s”: Chaos, Community, Conscience, and Cops.
Colson’s Law can be remembered best visually, like the “square of opposition” in logic (see diagram, page 30). Community and chaos are “vertical” opposites, good versus evil, while cops and conscience are “horizontal” opposites, two goods to be balanced. Community and chaos are inherently opposed forces, like battling armies. Cops and conscience are the two possible weapons of the defensive army (community) against the offensive army (chaos). Both pairs of opposites are inversely proportionate, but the two vertical opposites are necessarily opposed (chaos and community destroy each other), while the horizontal ones are not (in fact, cops and conscience are often complementary). But the need for each one decreases as the supply of the other increases: The more conscience a community has, the fewer cops it needs, and the more cops it has, the less conscience it needs to rely on.
Saving Communities from Chaos
Chaos is to a community what disease is to a body (for the body politic is also a body; its unity is organic rather than artificial). Community integrates; chaos disintegrates. Community is coherence; chaos is incoherence. Community is construction; chaos is destruction. (A whole philosophy today, deconstructionism, proudly names itself after this process.)
A community is an organic unity because it is a microcosm of the universe itself. Though God created the universe from without, artificially, He designed it to be held together from within, naturally, by its own inner force of unity. Like the universe, a community is one in many: many individuals and subgroups united in a common work, for a common purpose, and under a common value.
St. Augustine defined the unifying soul of a community (civitas, “city”) as a common love. Thus, there are ultimately only two “cities”: the “City of God” (composed of God-lovers) and the “City of the World” (composed of world-lovers, idolaters). A community as well as an individual can truly claim Augustine’s beautiful formula: Amor meus, pondus meum (My love is my weight, my gravity, my destiny). My density is my destiny.
The human body has two shields against disease: an inner, natural, preventive shield and an outer, artificial, remedial shield. If the body loses its inner immunity to disease, it needs medicines, surgery, or crutches to prop it up from outside, to compensate for its inner disintegration. Cripples need crutches, as sinners need churches.
Like the body physical, the body politic has an inner shield and an outer shield against chaos. The inner shield is the “natural law,” which is enforced spiritually by conscience; the outer shield is the “positive law,” which is enforced physically by cops. The inner shield is made of freedom; the outer shield is made of force. The inner shield is the love of the good (which is free); the outer shield is the fear of punishment (which is unfree). That is why Machiavelli’s sinister sagacity saw that “it is better to be feared than to be loved, for men will fear you when you will, but they will love you when they will.”
Colson’s Law dictates that a community with few “inner cops” needs more outer cops. Hobbes’s Leviathan is the kind of government that is designed for an immoral or amoral people. America was born in a revolution against Leviathan—against not only a king but kings, and their cops, as the primary keepers of order and community. Without going to the opposite, Rousseauian extreme of denying man’s innate immorality and dreaming of a “noble savage” who has no need of cops, America’s Founding Fathers repudiated Hobbes’s amoralism, too. They explicitly said that this democracy was designed only for a moral people. The fundamental foundation stones for a democracy are consciences.
But the paradox of democracy is that it is founded on the premise of strong consciences but tends to produce weak ones by its very permissiveness. Its maximization of freedom (freedom from cops) rests on the willing submission of its citizens to conscience; yet this very freedom from cops tempts us to free ourselves from conscience, too. Paradoxically, this excess of freedom, or rather this mistaken kind of freedom, requires more cops to stave off chaos, thus resulting in less freedom. (For the two kinds of freedom—freedom from conscience and freedom from cops—are also inversely proportionate).
Colson’s Law states that the only alternatives to conscience are cops or chaos. If the inner shield of a community is lowered, the outer shield must be raised to stave off chaos. Therefore, a community, especially a free democracy, that loses its conscience will necessarily become a police state.
The idea of America becoming a police state will seem absurd to many, but that is because they forget that there is what Tocqueville called a soft despotism as well as a hard despotism, a Brave New World as well as a 1984. The populist dictatorship of Rousseau’s “general will” is as totalitarian as that of any king or tyrant, and much harder to topple, for it rests on propaganda, not arms; the media, not the military; and the pen is indeed mightier than the sword.
The cops in a soft totalitarianism may well wield pens rather than swords—for example, speech codes that see “hate speech,” “right-wing extremism,” and “homophobia” in more places than medieval inquisitors saw devils and witches. Long before the miraculous events of 1989 that led to the breakup of the Soviet Union were in anyone’s foresight (except the pope’s), the Italian Marxist philosopher Antonio Gramsci sagely prophesied that communism would not win on the battlefield or at the ballot box but in the universities. And G.K. Chesterton, the incarnation of Catholic common sense, prophesied in 1927 that the greatest threat would come “not from Moscow but Manhattan.”
Colson’s Law is based simply on observation of history. It is not ideological, and therefore it does not presuppose either conservatism or liberalism. Liberals and conservatives differ only about the accidents of Colson’s Law, not the essence. There are very significant differences between liberals and conservatives, of course. Liberals trust cops less than conservatives do, and much more important, liberals usually think conscience comes from society, not from God or human nature and the natural law. But, they agree with conservatives that conscience is better than cops at preserving community from chaos, so they, too, usually agree that society needs moral education in order to survive. Thus, a new coalition of liberals and conservatives may be arising that wants to teach values and even virtues.
The New Religion of Sex
The issue that separates conservatives from liberals most nonnegotiably is, of course, religion—the one thing that man by nature puts above even morality. There is presently one crucial point of conflict between the Catholic religion and the modern world: the current massive genocide of the unborn. This is a religious issue not just because the Catholic Church condemns it but because it is about sex, which is modern de-Christianized man’s most obvious and most interesting new god. Egregious violations of basic moral principles are justified, sanctified, and glorified if they serve an even higher purpose, a religious purpose, a “teleological suspension of the ethical.” That was the phrase Søren Kierkegaard made famous in Fear and Trembling to explain why Abraham, the “knight of faith,” was ready to sacrifice Isaac, his son, and the whole ethical order itself, on the altar of religion. Only religion, only the absolute, could justify this.
That is why murder is justified in our society only when it is for sex, our new religion. That is what abortion is, of course. Abortion is backup birth control, and birth control is the demand for sex without babies.
That is why lying, cheating, welshing on your most important promises, treating people like things, radically scarring the psyches and lives of your spouse and your children, and guaranteeing the destruction of your society by destroying its one fundamental and indispensable foundation—the family—is justified in our culture only when it is for sex. That is what divorce is, of course. How could society with a 50 percent suicide rate survive? But we have a 50 percent suicide rate, for divorce is the suicide of the “one flesh” that has been created by marriage. “One flesh” is not a metaphor; it is a living body, as real as the society of which it is the essential building block. “One flesh” is to a family what a fetus is to an infant, or a sapling to a tree.
In a famous cartoon, a law school dean says to a student, “What? You want a course in legal ethics? Make up your mind.” Soon there may be a similar cartoon about sexual ethics.
These things cannot be said in liberal circles. Yet, almost as many liberals as conservatives today very much want to teach traditional morality at least in nonsexual matters. For liberals as well as conservatives agree with Colson’s Law. I think the deepest reason for this hopeful phenomenon is that both liberals and conservatives share the common experience of raising children. Everyone tries to apply Colson’s Law in raising children: Parents try to get their children to substitute internal controls for external controls, to internalize restraints against chaos that began as parental and societal authority—in other words, to replace cops with conscience. A practical social alliance between liberals and conservatives is thus possible and necessary. The left and right wings can beat together, and the sick bird can fly again.
What Makes a Society Last
Colson’s Law is science rather than sermon, empirical rather than ideological. We can see the law at work in the history of any body, individual or collective, and we can predict its future on the basis of this law. Any individual human body that loses its internal immune system will die, unless propped up by many artificial, external aids: pills, operations, prosthetics—and even then, it’s only a matter of time. The same is true of social bodies: Police states without consciences are brittle. The “Thousand-Year Reich” lasted twelve years. The longest-lasting societies in history were all highly moralistic: the Confucian (over 2,100 years), the Roman (about 700 years), and the Islamic (almost 1,400 years). The longest-lasting moral order in history has been that of Mosaic law: It has structured Jewish and then Christian life for 3,500 years (though not as a continuous civil society).
Confucian society, which held together the world’s largest nation for the world’s longest time, was toppled from without by the world’s greatest mass murderer, Mao Zedong. Rome began as a moralistic republic and “evolved” into an amoral empire that became a totalitarian police state and fell from within. Islam’s society is still growing, especially in places that used to be Christian, and Christianity is still growing everywhere except in places that used to be Christian, especially in anti-Christian societies like Sudan and communist China.
A corollary of Colson’s Law is that a community’s longevity is proportionate to its morality—and to its religion, for no society has yet existed that has successfully built its morality on any other basis than religion. In theory, the natural law can be known without knowing the divine law, but in practice, it is very rare; there has never been a whole society of Platos and Aristotles. It is a massive and obvious fact of history that religion has always been the primary source of morality. This fact is so massive and obvious that no age ever ignored it except the one so blind and arrogant that it labeled the era lit by the Christian faith “the Dark Ages” and called its own time of darkness the “Enlightenment.”
No officially secular society has yet survived more than 72 years—the Soviet Union being history’s test case. If the results of this test are not clear, nothing in history is: the deliberate, systematic murder in one century of quite possibly more people than have lived everywhere on earth throughout all of time until the modern era.
It is Western civilization that has so far kept alive the Mosaic laws. Other societies, of course, could carry this moral and religious heritage if the West fails. Judaism was “moved” from Israel in 70 A.D. and not officially moved back until 1948. The primal see of the Catholic Church moved from Jerusalem to Antioch and then to Rome during the first century. It could move again, if necessary, as a family moves from a decaying neighborhood into a new house.
It may have to do so if things do not change. For Western civilization seems to have contracted moral AIDS. America is now the world’s only cultural and material superpower, and America, though only 225 years old, is already in crisis, like a child with progeria (premature aging). Eventual death is of course inevitable for any body (except a supernatural one), but the decay of a body’s immune system, whether physical or spiritual, means not just dying but dying young and in pain.
Diagnosis, Prognosis, and Prescription
Diseases of the spirit as well as of the body can be cured—but only if they are diagnosed. Where did we catch this disease? And where is it coming from now? Find the cause and you may be able to find the cure.
We seem to have caught the disease during the Enlightenment, which closed our eyes to God. This linguistic irony is not surprising, for language is one of a dying society’s first organs to be infected, as Confucius clearly saw. Asked to name the single most important of his many social principles of reform, he answered, “the restoration of language,” that is, calling things by their proper names.
The irony continues when we identify the current cause of the disease, for it is coming mainly from the doctors, the “experts,” the social specialists. Just as 99 percent of the violent murders in America are committed (legally) by healers who have become hypocritic instead of Hippocratic, so the main source of the murder of morality is our moralists, our mind-molders, our educators—both formal (in schools and universities) and informal (in the media). They, in turn, have been trained by our prophets and high priests, our psychologists and sociologists, who make up the most irreligious and relativistic segment of our society. These mind-molding segments of our society constitute a non-organized religion of missionaries evangelizing Christians out of their “primitive” superstitions such as poverty, chastity, and obedience and into the missionaries’ new, enlightened religion of greed, lust, and pride (money, sex, and power)—into peace with the world, the flesh, and the devil, instead of peace with neighbor, self, and God.
Treatment of a disease is always most effective if it is applied to the source of the disease. In other words, to cure this social disease that has robbed our communities of conscience, we must infiltrate its sources. To be blunt, we must take over the psychology and sociology departments and the popular journalism and media production centers—the mind-molding areas of the battlefield. The most powerful forces in America are no longer the Church and the state but Harvard and Hollywood. Church and state have limited power, for we are free to ignore or leave any church, and we are free to vote out of office any politician. But we are not free to defend ourselves against the educational and media blitz that assaults us everywhere, the buzzing flies of Beelzebub hovering over the garbage dumps of the minds that make movies and TV shows. It is on these screens that we find the flies, and it is on these screens that we must apply the swatters.
Who are the fly-swatters? Not censors, but saints, the heroes who embody Colson’s Law. Love makes more waves than hate. Wicked men will hate and fear you more for loving them than for hating them. They will forgive you for being wrong, but never for being right.
Saints always go into the ghettos, especially the moral ghettos. They make waves. Moses made waves. Jesus made waves. Muhammad made waves. The waves make the garbage come to the surface, and the waves of garbage often drown the saints and make them martyrs, white corpuscles that give themselves up to fight an infection. Saints are society’s white corpuscles, society’s saviors. If nobody wants to crucify you, you’re not doing your job. Or else your job isn’t His work.
This article first appeared in the May 2001 issue of Crisis Magazine.