Wrong Emphasis

Michael Metzger

Our political landscape is polarized because each party has a wrong emphasis. The correct one is found at the end of the Pledge of Allegiance.

Baptist minister and educator Francis Bellamy wrote the first Pledge of Allegiance in 1892. It made no reference to religion. Congress adopted the Pledge in 1942, changing “my flag” to “the flag of the United States of America.” In 1954, President Eisenhower asked Congress to add “under God.” This is the pledge still recited in public schools.

Note the closing line: “with liberty and justice for all.” My colleague suggests that conservatives emphasize liberty while liberals emphasize justice. In both cases, for all is forgotten. That’s not news to John Fletcher Moulton. He saw this coming 100 years ago.

Lord Moulton was Minister of Munitions for Great Britain at the outbreak of World War I. Shortly after the war, he gave a speech picturing society as a sphere containing “three great domains of Human Action.”[1] All three are essential. But they’re not equal.

On one side of the sphere is the domain of Free Choice, “which includes all those actions as to which we claim and enjoy complete freedom.” God created us for freedom, so this domain is essential. Moulton believed that “this is where spontaneity, originality, and energy are born. The great movements which make the history of a country start there.”

On the other side is Positive Law. Moulton said this is “where our actions are prescribed by laws binding upon us which must be obeyed.” This domain is also essential, for God establishes the government for the execution of justice (Ps.99:4).

But the critical domain is the middle one. This is where “our actions are not prescribed by law, nor are we free to behave in any way we choose.” Moulton called this the domain of “Obedience to the Unenforceable.” It is “doing right where there is no one to make you do it but yourself. The real greatness of a nation, its true civilization, is measured by the extent of this land of obedience to the unenforceable.”

The key word here is extent. The middle land must be expanding for a society to flourish. Societies decline when the outer domains encroach on the middle, shrinking it.

In his 1921 speech, Moulton described new movements encroaching on the middle. The first emphasized “liberty,” turning “Free Choice” into what Moulton called Absolute Choice. The claim was that self-regulating markets, led by an “invisible hand,” would prove beneficial to all. On the opposite side, a movement was emerging emphasizing “justice.” It’s proponents sought to make laws to regulate everything.

Fast-forward 100 years. These two outer domains—liberty and justice—are why our political landscape is polarized. Both encroach on the middle, crushing it.

The political Right encroaches on the middle by genuflecting at the altar of financialization. This tends to commoditize the goals of work and to emphasize individual wealth maximization. It’s individual gain at the expense of the common good. The so-called “trickle down” effect of economic prosperity doesn’t trickle all the way down to those trapped at the bottom. Financialization doesn’t yield liberty for all.

The political Left emphasizes social justice. But it’s encroaching on the middle by genuflecting at the altar of government redistributing wealth to achieve justice. But real justice is not taking from those who have and giving it to those who don’t. Jesus said the worker is worthy of his wages (Luke 10:7). Redistribution doesn’t yield justice for all.

The middle domain emphasizes for all. William Wilberforce and his Clapham colleagues recognized this requires a good conscience, where we are obedient to what’s unenforceable, doing the right thing for all. Take the English Slave Trade. Wilberforce told his colleagues in Parliament: “You may choose to look the other way but you can never say again that you did not know.” He was appealing to conscience.

The political Right and Left can choose to look the other way, ignoring how neither seeks liberty and justice for all, but people of good conscience should remind them they can never say they did not know. We need good politics, as the word comes from the Greek polis, for city. Christians are to “seek the flourishing of the city” (Jer.29:7). Politics is essential for flourishing cities. Good politics expands the middle domain by encouraging citizens to act in good conscience. It recognizes the limits of law and liberty. It emphasizes the last two words of the Pledge of Allegiance: for all.


[1] “Law and Manners,” published in The Atlantic magazine, June 24, 1924.


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  1. Wasn’t political correctness an effort to encourage the center domain, an effort to avoid enacting legislation, although we did enact laws that made a crime worse if it were a motivated by hate? Some reacted against political correctness because it took away their expression of how they were really feeling, a limit to their liberty.

  2. The middle is where I find myself most of the time. But most issues nuanced rather than left or right. Wish we didn’t have a 3 party system.

  3. This reminds me of Alistair McIntyre’s distinction between the domain of positive law and the domain of virtue in the ancient polis – the former makes community possible, the latter is what makes it good (or not). And yes, the powers that be in our time have been demolishing the latter.

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