A TIMELESS PIECE OF EDITORIAL WRITING
CONTINUES TO RESONATE AT CHRISTMAS
Vermont C. “Roy” Royster was editorial page editor of The Wall Street Journal from 1958 to 1971. He had retired from that post by the time I came to work at Dow Jones (then owner of the Journal) a couple years later, so I never got to meet him.
However, as a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner, he was still very much a presence in the company. And I always made it a point to read the weekly column he continued providing after he assumed a chair in Journalism and Public Affairs at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.
Royster was a journalist of the old school who considered himself a classical liberal (in the John Locke/Adam Smith mode) and resented how the “liberal” designation had been appropriated by the left. Over his long career he penned numerous editorials in praise of personal liberty and free markets. But his best known and most enduring commentary was the Latin-titled In Hoc Anno Domini (in this year of our Lord), a Christmas reflection that first appeared in 1949 and has been republished in the Journal annually ever since.
The birth of Jesus had changed the world for all time, Royster’s essay asserted, setting a new course for human history. Prior to the advent of Christ, in lands dominated by the Roman Empire…
“There was enslavement of men whose tribes came not from Rome, disdain for those who did not have the familiar visage. And most of all, there was everywhere a contempt for human life. What, to the strong, was one man more or less in a crowded world?”
But with the great Christian incident there had come…
“the voice from Galilee, which would defy Caesar, offered a new Kingdom in which each man could walk upright and bow to none but his God. Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me. And he sent this gospel of the Kingdom of Man into the uttermost ends of the earth.”
Royster’s quasi-biblical prose style seems theatrical today, but his message remains sound…
It is the concept of human dignity — conceived by Judaism and carried to the “uttermost ends of the earth” by Christianity — that has given us our understanding of individual liberty.
This is a truth too-frequently overlooked, even by people of faith; it is actively denied by nonbelievers. But it remains true, even if it’s not yet fully realized or universally applied.
The so-called Enlightenment in which secularists see the roots of our modern freedoms merely codified and cast into temporal language the ideas implicit in the Judeo-Christian understanding of man’s relationship to the Divine as something above civic obligation.
If our highest allegiance is to God, then the state must never be allowed to dominate our will, direct our dreams, or diminish human striving — at least not forever, and not even when despotism is dressed up as “the fatherland” or “the people” or even “the community.”
In our day when bureaucracy has metastasized and there seems to be no limit to government manipulation of personal destinies, Royster’s editorial remains as relevant as it was in the Cold War year of 1949 when he recalled the admonition of St. Paul…
“And so Paul, the apostle of the Son of Man, spoke to his brethren, the Galatians, the words he would have us remember afterward in each of the years of his Lord:
“Stand fast therefore in the liberty wherewith Christ has made us free and be not entangled again with the yoke of bondage.”
In Hoc Anno Domini is usually reprinted in the Christmas Eve edition of The Wall Street Journal. If you’d like to read it a few days in advance, I’d suggest visiting Journal Online where you’ll find the 2011 posting along with a video reflection on Vermont Royster from a former colleague…
And from our house to yours: Have a Merry and Blessed Christmas!