Have you ever thought about it? America’s entire way of life depends on honor. You may not think so, but it is a fact. Absent self-respect, respect for others, a sense of perspective on one’s place in society, history and the civic order, rule of law swiftly devolves into lawlessness. In short, America is premised on a sense of honor. If we lose this cornerstone, this all-important societal footing, we lose the nation.
Recently, we witnessed an impeachment process ram-rodded down the throat of a minority party. We saw due process ignored, co-equal members of Congress over-talked, overridden, gaveled to silence. We saw 200-year-old procedures thrown over, simply trashed. We saw lawyers schooled in civil and criminal procedure, technically “officers of the court,” boldly ignoring established legal procedures.
We saw a sense of equity unceremoniously dumped, material witnesses forbidden, false statements trumpeted, and dishonorable behavior from people of whom we should expect more. They have a duty to deliver more – as a matter of honor.
Let me simplify – and illustrate that my concern is not about political parties or figures, but for the country. Why do you stop at a red light, when no one is looking? Why respect a person or property of others when no one will call you out? Why do you pay for goods rather than walking out, even if you could abscond? Why do you vote, fill out census forms, report crime, intercede to stop an injustice, stand for our National Anthem, put hand on heart, teach your children right from wrong, or serve as a soldier, sailor, airman, Marine, police officer – or simply a dutiful American? Honor – that is why.
And that is why the nation should stop – right now – and think hard about what is expected of us. Political differences have always existed, levels of acrimony ebbed and flowed. At our country’s founding, before and after the Civil War, in testy days before World War II, American tempers ran hot.
That is why we are blessed to live in a republic, where we can deliberate, moderate, modulate, accommodate, discuss, compromise, persuade, dissuade, and level rough spots – and then honor our agreements. Honor again – without it, we are nothing.
Think of other ways in which we depend on that unspoken commitment – to honor. Every contract we sign, every service we perform or expect, every promise we make, receive or seek is premised on honor. The notion that “our word is our bond” means something. We, in America, take the bond seriously.
When you get right down to it, most of the time we do what we do not because we will be punished for failing to do it, not for fear of being called out, but because we have self-respect. We honor our own mettle – our role in society, big or small – by staying true to what we think right. We live by honor.
The truth is that this unstated fact is the lynchpin of America, the basis on which a representative democracy – centered on freedom – is and must be based. If in our daily lives we stray too far from the idea that interactions depend on honor, we find others dishonoring commitments to us. The circle tightens, trust evaporates, and life becomes intolerable.
That is why seeing national leaders dishonor our hard-won history, losing perspective, indulging violations of established procedure, pressing partisan gains at a cost to intergenerational principles, entertaining lawlessness – and indifference to honor – is so unsettling. If our leaders do not think honoring principles like rule of law, due process, fairness, even-handed treatment of their peers, and constitutional norms matters, what kind of example is that for the rest of us?
In short, representative democracies – republics like ours – are fragile. They depend at core on honor. Absent the commitment to being honorable, from red lights to impeachment protocol, society becomes untethered, lawless, disrespected both within and from without.
At present, our society remains one of laws, not personalities. We remain a place where laws are largely abided – not ignored. Our society is that rare repository of painful, hard-won victories, hallowed and heroic histories, depth and commitment to ideals of a kind few nations have tried or strived to live by.
For our society – for this blessed nation – to long endure, we must remember what we are built on. In a word, our lives, our shared past, our common future, our personal safety, our prosperity and America’s promise are founded on rule of law, keeping faith with an unspoken code, living by honor. This would be a good moment to reflect on honor. Without it, we are nothing. With it, America is unbounded.
Robert Charles is a former assistant secretary of state for President George W. Bush, former naval intelligence officer and litigator. He served in the Reagan and Bush 41 White Houses, as congressional counsel for five years, and wrote “Narcotics and Terrorism” (2003) and “Eagles and Evergreens” (2018), the latter on WWII vets in a Maine town. He is the National Spokesman for the Association of Mature American Citizens (AMAC).