Courage is rightly esteemed the first of human qualities because it is the quality which guarantees all others.—W. Churchill

Monday, June 29, 2015

Politics in the pulpit: two views from two Johns (John Jay & John Adams)

John Jay is an often-overlooked Founding Father when it comes to questions of religion in the public square. An orthodox Protestant Christian with a strong aversion to Roman Catholicism, Jay was nonetheless a proponent of religious liberty as a general proposition who believed that while religion should have a role in guiding the moral development of society, it should also refrain from stating positions on every political issue.

This is evident in one of Jay's letters to Jedidiah Morse, where Jay wrote as follows:
Although the mere expediency of public measures may not be a proper subject for the pulpit, yet, in my opinion, it is the right and duty of our pastors to press the observance of all moral and religious duties, and to animadvert on every course of conduct which may be repugnant to them. 
- Letter dated January 1, 1813.

Jay is far from advocating a naked public square in his work, but his statement to Morse demonstrates a concern that pastors not address political issues beyond the specific competency of religion to address -- those issues that directly impacted on moral & religious duties. This active though restrained role was, to Jay, one that was supported by the witness of the Old Testament.

John Adams also addressed the role that religious preaching should play in the political life of the commonwealth. As he wrote prior to the formal outbreak of the American Revolution:
It is the duty of the clergy to accommodate their discourses to the times, to preach against such sins are most prevalent, and recommend such virtues as are most wanted. For example, -- if exorbitant ambition and venality are predominant, ought they not to warn their hears against those vices? If public spirit is much wanted, should they not inculcate this great virtue? If the rights and duties of Christian magistrates and subjects are disputed, should they not explain them, show their nature, ends, limitations, and restrictions, how much soever it may move the gall of Massachusettensis?
- John Adams, Novanglus (1774) reprinted in In God We Trust: The Religious Beliefs and Ideas of the American Founding Fathers, ed. by Norman Cousins (Harper & Brothers: 1958), pg. 90.

For Adams as much as for Jay, the role of preachers was to stir the hearts of their listeners to do good and to emulate virtue, while not avoiding necessary public issues in an explanation of the duties that believers have in the political arena.  When thinking on the role of formal religion in public life, it might be a good idea to pay attention to John Jay's sage words regarding the proper role intersection of politics and the pulpit.

Friday, June 26, 2015

Five for Friday

Divine Providence and the American Revolution:
Upon the whole nothing appears to me more manifest than that the separation of this country from Britain, has been of God; for every step the British took to prevent, served to accelerate it, which has generally been the case when men have undertaken to go into opposition to the course of Providence, and to make war with the nature of things.
John Witherspoon, Sermon delivered at a Public Thanksgiving after Peace, November 28, 1782, quoted in The Founders on Religion: A Book of Quotations, James H. Hutson (editor) (Princeton University Press: 2005), pg. 18.

John Dickinson and the American Constitution:  that's the topic explored in this fascinating post over at The Imaginative Conservative.  Did you know that the Federalist Papers weren't the only defense of our Constitution at the time of its proposal?  American founding father John Dickinson wrote a set of articles, under the pen name Fabius, in defense of the proposed Constitution.  How powerful was Dickinson's argument in favor of the Constitution?  Powerful enough to earn the praise of the Father of Our Country, George Washington.  Read the entire post by George S. Ahern to learn more.  And I now have another book to add to my queue at the local public library!

Frank Meyer and Richard M. Weaver Discuss Libertarianism and Conservatism:  the Philadelphia Society has audio recordings posted of a fascinating discussion about political theory between paleolibertarian Frank Meyer and paleoconservative Richard M. Weaver. There is additional commentary recorded by other noted folks as well, but the discussion between Meyer and Weaver is what got my attention. Both Meyer and Weaver advocated the fusion of libertarianism with conservatism, although in differing proportions, with Meyer arguing for a largely libertarian approach to politics, while Weaver advocated for a moral traditional conservatism that incorporated elements of the libertarian critique of the scope of government. Amazing to hear their voices express their thoughts!

Founders Famous and Forgotten:  that's the title of this post by Daniel L. Driesbach, posted over at The Imaginative Conservative. Driesbach provides an insightful overview of why we consider some founders are important, why others fall by the wayside of popular imagination, and why some of the less-known founders are still critically important for understanding our constitutional and political order.  Driesbach concludes his essay with this word of warning -- something anyone interested in the American Founding should keep constantly in mind:
The near exclusive focus on a select few virtually deified famous founders impoverishes our understanding of the American founding. It also departs from the canons of good scholarship. The demands of honest scholarship require scholars to give attention to the thoughts, words, and deeds of not only a few selected demigods but also an expansive company of men and women who contributed to the founding of the American republic.
Our nation was not built only by those we consider, in light of our own prejudices & perspectives, "great men."  To understand our nation, we need to broaden the scope of the men & women we consider worthy of study.

Cold Warrior for Freedom, Cold Warrior for Peace:  there's a great article by Fred Barnes posted over at The Weekly Standard:  The Real Reagan.  Barnes does a good job in a short space debunking many of the myths about Reagan that have grown up since his affliction with Alzheimers disease and his passing.  Well worth a read. One point about Reagan that is often overlooked by his modern admirers is his moral opposition to nuclear weapons.  Reagan was a staunch defender of the West who rightly understood that the Soviet empire was evil to its core.  But he also was opposed to the strategy of mutual assured destruction and he very much wanted to help create a world free of nuclear weapons.  As Barnes writes:
[T]he big ideas of the Reagan era came from Reagan himself. The biggest was his obsession with eliminating nuclear weapons entirely, a goal he pursued despite the opposition of many of his advisers and his closest foreign ally, British prime minister Margaret Thatcher. It was Reagan, not his aides, who came to the conclusion that mutual assured destruction, the theory that fear of massive nuclear retaliation would deter a first strike by the United States or the Soviet Union, was immoral. “What’s so good about a peace kept by the threat of destroying each other?” Reagan asked “many times,” according to Secretary of State George P. Shultz. “The public was hesitant to embrace” Reagan’s idea, Shultz writes in the foreword to Reagan’s Secret War, and “advisers Reagan trusted and who were experts in this area didn’t support it. But none of that diminished Reagan’s conviction.”
And it was Reagan who thought it possible to win the cooperation of the Soviets. All they needed was assurance of America’s good intentions. Shultz agreed and became his closest adviser. Reagan rebuffed efforts by hardliners in his administration to have Shultz fired, explaining in his diary on November 14, 1984, “George is carrying out my policy.”
His most ambitious -- and most mocked -- strategic plan to accomplish these goals was SDI, the Strategic Defense Initiative, which was ridiculed by Reagan's opponents as "Star Wars."  Far from being something out of science fiction, SDI was a forward thinking effort to use technology to create a defensive system that would render nuclear weapons obsolete.  Reagan showed himself to be no reactionary, but rather a visionary with his proposal. And he was willing to reach out to the leaders of the Evil Empire to do it. Even if that meant rejecting the direction his hardline advisors wanted to take.

The conservative vision of John Dos Passos

I first became aware of John Dos Passos thanks to an introductory course in American literature I took at my local community college in 1989 or so.  The University Bookman has published this overview of the thought of Dos Passos by the late Richard F. Hill: Dos Passos: A Reassessment.

Hill points out the considerable evolution that Dos Passos underwent over the course of his productive life, moving from communism to conservatism, eventually becoming enamored with the ideas and image of Thomas Jefferson.

The Jeffersonian mythos provides the key approach to politics and human flourishing that motivated Dos Passos in his shift from the totalitarian Left to a more traditionalist vision of community and order. As Hill explains:
It is the dream of the little man, the small farmer and worker who wants to be free from centralization and tyranny, whether it come from business or labor, the right or the left. It is represented by what are surely his most sympathetic characters throughout his fiction, early and late. They are the real keys to Dos Passos’ sympathies and the best evidence for his consistency.
The whole piece by Hill is much worth reading, and provides significant insight into the work of one of the most overlooked American writers of the 20th century.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Where do our rights come from?

The op-ed is from a while ago (2012), but here's Lawrence Lindsey over at the Wall Street Journal reflecting on the question in this blog post's title: Geithner and the "Privilege" of Being American. As Lindsey points out, the Founding Fathers thought that our fundamental rights of life and liberty precede the State. In other words, the State does not provide us with our rights and grant them to us, rather the State merely recognizes rights that already exist. Our rights are not boons provided to us by our betters, by those who rule over us. The task of our leaders is to protect the rights that are ours by nature.

Of course, rights and duties need effective expression though the positive law. As the late Russell Kirk never tired of pointing out, natural law and natural justice are not substitutes for positive law, but rather the predicates upon which positive law depends to function properly to order human community towards order, justice and peace.

The weak spot in Lindsey's argument is that he fails to identify precisely where our rights do come from. If not from the State, then what is their basis? For the Founders, the source of our rights is divine Providence, in the God who creates and sustains the world -- "nature's God" to use a phrase from the Declaration of Independence.  At the root of liberty, at the root of limited government, at the root of human freedom, is the truth that prior to and above the State there exists a Power to whom the State itself is subordinate.  Take away that truth and the foundation for human rights & limited government collapses in a heap.

Alexander Hamilton, that great American founder whose memory as of late has been under continued assault, understood this well.  Writing in The Farmer Refuted in 1775, Hamilton built upon the work of the English jurist William Blackstone to eloquently hold forth on the origin of human rights:
Good and wise men, in all ages, have embraced a very dissimilar theory. They have supposed, that the deity, from the relations, we stand in, to himself and to each other, has constituted an eternal and immutable law, which is, indispensibly, obligatory upon all mankind, prior to any human institution whatever.  
This is what is called the law of nature, "which, being coeval with mankind, and dictated by God himself, is, of course, superior in obligation to any other. It is binding over all the globe, in all countries, and at all times. No human laws are of any validity, if contrary to this; and such of them as are valid, derive all their authority, mediately, or immediately, from this original."  
Upon this law, depend the natural rights of mankind, the supreme being gave existence to man, together with the means of preserving and beatifying that existence. He endowed him with rational faculties, by the help of which, to discern and pursue such things, as were consistent with his duty and interest, and invested him with an inviolable right to personal liberty, and personal safety.
And then in words that stand among the most powerful written during the American revolutionary period, Hamilton thundered:
The sacred rights of mankind are not to be rummaged for, among old parchments, or musty records. They are written, as with a sun beam, in the whole volume of human nature, by the hand of the divinity itself; and can never be erased or obscured by mortal power.
The relationship between natural law and human rights has been a well-understood and affirmed part of American law and politics for most of our history, until fairly recent times.  Not restricted to the Right, liberals long affirmed this fundamental principle, both in theory and in political rhetoric at the highest levels, as this except from President John F. Kennedy's Inaugural Address shows:



"And yet the same revolutionary beliefs for which our forebears fought are still at issue around the globe -- the belief that the rights of man come not from the generosity of the state, but from the hand of God." Amen to that, Mr. President. Amen to that.

Colonial Americans were better readers than modern Americans -- what a shock!

That's the topic of this post over at Freakonomics:  Were Colonial Americans More Literate than Americans Today?  The answer is yes, perhaps not quantatively, but qualitatively.  The people who could read were far better readers than we are, as the post notes.  I attribute this to the more rigorous standards of basic education (the study of Latin or Greek tends to enable people to follow complex synatax more effectively in English, plus the study of those languages boosts English vocabulary when it comes to the numerous words in our language which are often derrived from Latin and Greek roots).  The near uniform exposure of colonials to that jewel of the English language, the King James translation of the Bible, didn't hurt either.

Sunday, June 07, 2015

Jean Elshtain on the orientation of Catholic social theory

Over at The Mirror of Justice law blog, Michael Moreland posts an excerpt from the work of the late scholar Jean Elshtain on Catholic social thought.  Elshtain was a clear thinker and her work is very much worth reading, as this little bit of her analysis indicates:
Catholic social thought does not offer a “third way,” as if it were simply a matter of hacking off bits and pieces of the individualist-collectivist options and melding them into a palatable compromise. Rather, it begins from a fundamentally different ontology from that assumed and required by individualism, on the one hand, and statist collectivism, on the other. The assumptions of Catholic social thought provide for individuality and rights as the goods of persons in community, together with the claims of social obligation.
Indeed.  Both libertarians who try to ground their own ideology's particularities in Catholic social thinking, as well as big-government statists who do the same, are both missing the boat.  Catholicism isn't trying to "do" politics, it is proposing a way of looking at the world that incorporates both the human person and the common good.  Natural law, the principle of subsidiarity, and the principle of solidarity form the bedrock of Catholic social teaching.  The atomized and desiccated ideologies of the day have much to learn from Catholicism as a consequence.

Related item:  The Imaginative Conservative has posted a piece where the late Catholic social justice scholar Stratford Caldecott discusses a recent statement by Angelo Cardinal Scola discussing the modern idea of rights, an idea that is central to both libertarianism and modern liberalism. Scola makes the point that without a proper understanding of the human person, informed not only by an understanding of the person as an individual but also as a member of a community, there is little room to productively talk about the kind of rights that people hold. The cardinal speaks of this as "I-in-relation." As Caldecott puts it:
It seems to me that the Cardinal is getting at the following. Human rights can only be based on (a) the inherent or intrinsic value of the person, existing in relation to God, cosmos, environment, and fellow human beings, and (b) the actual needs (rather than wants) of that person in that situation if he is not just to survive but to flourish. This requires that we know at least roughly what a human being is and what causes him to flourish—in other words, we need an adequate anthropology. Without that, we are whistling in the dark.
Precisely.

Another related item:  I have had the good fortune of being cited by Prof. Elshtain for an article I wrote on just war theory when I was a law student. Not to brag or anything. If interested my article, which explored Catholic influences on just war theory, can be found here at the Gonzaga Journal of International Law website.

Monday, June 01, 2015

1½ Reasons Why Jimmy Carter Wasn't So Bad

At Patheos, David Swarz tries to help reliably liberal scholar and Carter biographer ["Redeemer"] Randall Balmer's attempt to make a silk purse out of the sow's ear that was the Carter Era. Balmer should be given a medal for service to his party, ideology, and biographical subject. 
Swarz: [Balmer] points out that Carter’s presidency was sabotaged by events quite beyond his control—and that his significant accomplishments have been unfairly obscured.

Jimmy Carter's presidency was sabotaged not by events, but by Jimmy Carter the person. His failure was as a leader, a president's Job One, in his third-class temperament. Even an ideologically friendly press and a Congress controlled by his own party despised him.

On the 5 'significant accomplishments' Balmer lists:

1. Carter's commitment to human rights was nice, although in confronting only the free world's allies [allies of convenience if not necessity] for their sins but not the other bad actors of the world, Jimmy Carter only encouraged the enemies of human rights to invade Afghanistan and use proxies like the Sandinistas to replace one tyranny with another. And of course there's the brutal Ayatollah regime that replaced the arguably less wicked and certainly less dangerous Shah of Iran..

2. The Camp David Accords. Truly historic. The only question is how much credit Jimmy Carter gets for facilitating them: When a country wants peace with Israel, it gets peace. Anwar el-Sadat—the great man, may he rest in peace— did just that.

https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/biography/sadat.html:
Convinced that peace with Israel would reap an enormous "peace dividend," Sadat initiated his most important diplomatic ploy. In a speech to the Egyptian parliament in 1977, Sadat affirmed his desire to go anywhere to negotiate a peace with the Israelis. 

3. Giving back [giving away] the Panama Canal. Symbolically important to the Western anti-imperialist chattering class, but with no salutary effect in the real world except to necessitate Geo. HW Bush's surgical removal of the criminal Noriega regime.

4. Nuclear non-proliferation. Balmer takes a rather ¿huh? route in crediting Carter's halting nuclear initiative with Soviet Premier Brezhnev for Ronald Reagan's bold initiative with Gorbachev as "[Carter's] efforts would pay off in the 1980s."


Uh huh.

5. "A theology of limits." Can't even get near this one, sorry.* No debate could even be held on these terms--because these terms cannot even be agreeably defined.

In fairness, I'd have nominated President Carter for starting the Reagan Defense Buildup, which along with the refudiation of the Nixon/Kissinger policy of détente [the acceptance of the status quo of Soviet geopolitcal gains], brought about the close of the Cold War.

http://www.nytimes.com/1986/04/06/us/reagan-acknowledges-carter-s-military-buildup.html

You missed that one, Mr. Balmer. Although, as a qualified historian, I reckon you didn't miss it atall. Why, I'd bet it would make #1 on your The Worst Things about Jimmy Carter. Heh heh. 
_____________________________________
*Balmer: "While Carter’s invocation of Niebuhr sometimes led to race-baiting, his seriousness about Christian faith (which motivated many of the just-discussed policies) led to some remarkable sermonizing at the White House. Perhaps the most important (and politically reviled) was the so-called “malaise speech” of July 15, 1979. Near the end of his presidency (marred by economic stagnation and an energy crisis), Carter secluded himself at Camp David where he tried to make sense of it all. He read Scripture and Schumacher’s Small Is Beautiful. He met with Christopher Lasch, author of The Culture of Narcissism. He emerged from the compound speaking about “a crisis of the American spirit” in the tone of an evangelical jeremiad: “In a nation that was proud of hard work, strong families, close-knit communities and our faith in God, too many of us now worship self-indulgence and consumption.” 
“Human identity is no longer defined by what one does but by what one owns,” Carter sermonized, but “owning things and consuming things does not satisfy our longing for meaning.” Critics may have panned Carter’s idealistic approach to the energy crisis as politically naïve, but it was nonetheless a penetrating cultural critique. He was probably the most theologically profound president since Lincoln."

Oh, my. Lincoln, slavery and the preservation of the Republic, Jimmy Carter and the Energy Crisis [since obviated by good ol' American pluck and ingenuity, fracking technology!].

Sigh. Randall Balmer's invocation of the sublime Mr. Lincoln renders Jimmy Carter all the more ridiculous. Sorry, sir. Your subject is unworthy of your rhetorical skill.

Monday, May 18, 2015

Best Wishes, David Letterman, But You Left Us Worse Than You Found Us


I enjoyed David Letterman for many years, became a fan way back at his morning show [1980]. Loved the irreverence, and the silliness of "Stupid Human Tricks" and the like.



"Irreverence" means nothing anymore, of course ['transgressiveness' is the rule rather than the exception], because you can't have a comedy of manners when manners no longer exist.

Silliness [Sid Caesar, Laugh-In, Monty Python, Hee-Haw, Will Ferrell] will never go out of style, though. But at some point Dave abandoned silliness, which is fun, for dadaism, which is nihilistic. By the '90s, I remember mocking Dave's comedy laziness, that he could yell, "Pork Chops!" and the sycophantic audience would howl in delight.

Sure enough, only a few months later, on the back of an LA bus I saw Dave in an ad for Late Night that read


HONK IF YOU LOVE PORK CHOPS!


True story. Don't remember if I honked or not, but I wished I'd have tried to get a gig writing for Dave. I was clearly a comedy genius, just like him. Letterman clearly gave some people some joy--or its equivalent--but unlike Carson, I think he left us more cynical, less informed rather than more, harder rather than softer. 

His interviews were indifferent, and when they weren't indifferent, they became undisguisedly partisan. Johnny Carson brought America together the next morning around the water cooler. If anyone asked "Did you see Letterman last night," the answer became increasingly, Sorry, I gotta get back to my desk. 

Strangely enough, Dave, I'd still rather watch you than Jimmy or Jimmy [Fallon, Kimmel, respectively] because I'm a kind of edgy guy myself, but I'm glad to see you go. The Jimmys are more delightfully silly than you ever were, and they're less corrosive to the culture. Sarcasm has its place [I loved Frank Zappa], but it should be a very small place.
_____________________________

Epilogue, more to come: Dave's successor, debating the theology of the Eucharist with a Pulitzer-winning Catholic dissident and kicking his ass? 
Stephen Colbert, now, there's an interesting fellow. 


Stephen Colbert vs. Garry Wills on the Real Presence: Guess Who Carried the Day?



Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Russell Kirk's Rights and Duties

The University Bookman reprints a very fine review by Bruce Frohnen of Russell Kirk's book on the American Constitution, Rights and Duties:  The Character of Our Constitution.  As Frohnen notes,
Early in the book, Kirk points out that our “Constitution had been designed by its Framers, in 1787, to conserve the order and the justice and the freedom to which Americans had grown accustomed.” Thus Kirk takes issue with ideologues who seek to convince us that America was created ex nihilo through the drafting of an abstractly philosophical Declaration of Independence. The Declaration, and the War for Independence, must be seen as our Founders saw them: as defensive measures intended to protect Americans’ traditional and chartered rights from an overreaching English Parliament.
That's just a taste of Frohnen's review -- read it all, and better yet, get a copy of Kirk's book and read it closely.  There is much wisdom there.  I first read Kirk's book on the Constitution when I was a law student, and it was the first book by Kirk that I ever read.  I was immediately impressed by his wisdom and insight, and quickly devoured everything he had written that I could get my hands on.  I would have loved to have met him and studied with him, but alas that was not to be.  But he lives on in his writings, and thanks to them we can all be Kirk's students.  And he is a fantastic teacher!  Of history and literature and on the roots of our country's polity and order.

Monday, May 04, 2015

Free to Speak Our Mind; Too Bad We've Lost It

A friend, knowing me to be a religious conservative, was surprised when I favorably cited Life of Brian. He sent me a YouTube link to a debate between John Cleese and the Bishop of Southwark, Mervyn Stockwood, televised shortly after the film's release in 1979, in which the bishop claimed that Cleese’s humor would be the downfall of Christendom.  It was presumed I should sympathize with that view.

But history has proven the bishop wrong. These days, entertainers like Cleese and Ricky Gervais, down to political types like Bill Maher, and further down to purportedly serious types like Richard Dawkins, and so on, are not the faithful’s principal concern. Sure, I might wish for less crass humor at the expense of religion, or for more serious engagement with the arguments by those who purport to be high-minded.  But I am ultimately comfortable with the debate, because that’s what it’s all about: a prolonged exploration of the issues that hopefully turn up flecks of truth along the way.

No, the problem for Christendom is that today, the televised debate between Cleese and the bishop probably couldn't happen without an elaborate scheme of trigger warnings, possibly resulting in a disinvitation or calling the whole thing off.

Last week, several members of PEN America, "a nationwide community of novelists, journalists, editors, poets, essayists, playwrights, publishers, translators, agents, and other professionals," decided that they would not honor those murdered at Charlie Hebdo.  In short, even avowed free-speech advocates start checking the fine print of their mission statement when the speech in question takes a critical eye at a presumptively aggrieved minority.

Matt Welch takes the air out of the charges that Charlie Hebdo is racist, but that misses the point. Liberalism has legal and cultural components. Legally, we guarantee free speech. Culturally, however, we try to signal that certain speech is boorish and unwelcome. What irked Christians about Piss Christ, for example, was cultural radicals misusing the law for cultural ends. Everyone understands artists are provocateurs, but surely the state need not subsidize the provocation. That was liberalism’s left foot stepping on its right foot — going beyond legally permitting speech to affirmatively encouraging oafish, disrespectful speech. It was the law treading on culture.

The massacre of Charlie Hebdo is the opposite.  Muslims deserve cultural respect like anyone else. And in the abstract, we might be uncomfortable with ridiculing religion just to have a go.  It's a jerk move. On the other hand, when Muslims threaten violence against lawful speech, that’s the right foot treading upon the left — culture trouncing the law.

This aggression will not stand, man. That culture needs to be reminded of its place. One way to do that is for liberalism to flex both its legal and cultural muscle.  It can reaffirm its legal protection for free speech regardless of who it offends.  And just as important, it can widely publicize the cartoons and venerate their deceased creators. Tastefulness is a luxury liberalism cannot afford. Yes, the works might disrespect many good, faithful Muslims’ beliefs, and that is unfortunate. But it appears that too many have not taken the lesson that their culture must co-exist within a legal framework.

Garry Wills on conservatism and its view of government

What is the conservative conception of the proper role of government? The American Conservative has posted an essay originally written in 1964 by now-liberal but then-conservative Garry Wills that seeks to answer that question: The Convenient State. Just in the midst of the Goldwater moment in the GOP, Wills wrote a cogent and classically informed take on the necessity and limits of the state in conservative thought.

Far from being utopian or ideological, conservatism as Wills explains builds upon the fundamental conviction within western civilization that there is a zone of individual liberty upon which the state may not intrude, a part of man that is his and his alone. Libertarianism expands this zone beyond its prudential limits, while totalitarianism denies its existence altogether. In the western world, conservatism has thus seen the role of the state as limited, as a vindicator of justice that respects the individuality of the human person. In this, it seeks (as conservatism always does) to preserve balance. In this, Wills follows no less a conservative thinker than Edmund Burke.

Where libertarianism suffers the temptation to eschew justice in favor of maximization of private privilege and restraint from limitation, and totalitarianism absorbs the individual into a vision of the true, the good and the beautiful that is uniform and coerced, for the Wills of 1964 conservatism embraces the contingent nature of justice in human societies marked by diversity and variety. In its quest, conservatism avoids the sterile and dogmatic seduction of rationalism; not for the conservative is the quixotic attempt to remake society on the basis of abstraction. As Wills puts it:
Each society must form a unique constitution, an “agreed station” of components, growing out of the resources it can command. The ideal state–of a justice or a freedom defined outside any particular human context–is as meaningless as some uniform ideal of individual fulfillment. Is monarchy, aristocracy, or democracy the best form of government? Such a question simply breeds further questions: Best for what society? And what kind of monarchy or democracy? These questions are as hopeless as similar ones would be in the case of an ideal life for individuals. Is it better that man be an artist or philosopher, monk or martyr, doctor or teacher, worker or statesman? And if he is a doctor, should he engage in research, psychology, or compassionate work among the poor? If an artist, should he write or paint in an austere or demonstrative style? To attempt an abstract answer to these questions is to deny the mystery of individuality, the secret springs of motive, that make up the human fact of freedom. As ever, rationalism leads to sterile paradox, to an ideal freedom that is a denial of freedom. 
Read it all.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

The multitudes of Oscar Wilde

One of the great wits of Victorian literature had a life-long fascination with Catholic ritual & art which eventually blossomed, toward the close of his life, in a conversion to the Catholic faith. This is explained in this article over at the Catholic Education Resource Center: The Long Conversion of Oscar Wilde. In our era Wilde is usually celebrated for his embrace of a bohemian lifestyle, but if one looks deeper into the works & life of the man, strong currents of a spiritual river that eventually flowed to the Tiber become visible. So, who was Wilde? As the author of the article, Andrew McCracken, points out, Wilde contained multitudes: "writer, wit, voluptuary, gay man, failed father and husband, sensitive soul, laughing stock, broken heart, eleventh hour Catholic convert."

Stephen Fry, who embodies many of the same traits as Wilde in modern cloth (replacing, unfortunately, Wilde's interest in Catholicism with an avant-garde embrace of atheism), conveys some insight about Wilde's humor & deeper spiritual perspective in this discussion of Wilde's approach to literature:

 

Monday, April 27, 2015

Thomas Paine's surprising influence on Ronald Reagan

Awhile back I finished up historian John Patrick Diggins' book on President Ronald Reagan. Diggins brings up an interesting point that I hadn't realized, namely that Reagan's views were strongly influenced by Thomas Paine. Paine is the one founding father that Reagan quoted the most, and much of Paine's ideology -- individual liberty, a suspicion of large institutions, hostility to taxation and government regulation, etc. -- is evident in Reagan's general approach to conservatism as a governing political philosophy.

Paine's influence on Reagan accounts, in Diggan's telling, for much of Reagan's unorthodoxy as a modern conservative. As a result, Reagan's brand of conservatism was remarkably untraditional in its rhetoric. In several different contexts, Reagan quoted Paine's stirring line, "We have the power to begin the world anew" -- a very untraditional sentiment, one that displays the precise opposite of the customary conservative impulse to embrace the necessity of restraint in public reform. Reagan embraced Paine's idea that human beings can liberate themselves from corrupt & oppressive structures in order to create a new order of liberty & individualism.

While Reagan appealed to voters of a more traditionalist perspective, he was no fawning disciple of Russell Kirk & even less a disciple of Edmund Burke. Behind Reagan's conservatism was a streak of radicalism that is unappreciated by many conservatives today who tend to be overly hagiographic when speaking of the former president. The lack of depth about the nature of Reagan's beliefs is sadly shared by many progressives who demonize Reagan because of his success in shaping the political landscape in a more conservative direction.

It is a fascinating twist of history that the most radical founding father serves as a primary philosophical influence on the most successful conservative president of the 20th century. Any attempt to understand Ronald Reagan must take into account the influence of Thomas Paine on his work. And any attempt to appreciate Thomas Paine's influence on America must look to the impact his work had on the ideas, rhetoric & program of President Ronald Reagan.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

The evangelical-deist alliance at the American founding

Historian Thomas Kidd, one of the sharpest evangelicals working as a professional historian today, has a well-worth reading post over at the Southern Baptist Ethics &  Religious Liberty Commission website asking the question: Founding faiths: Was America founded as a Christian nation? This nuanced and deeply thought out post examines the alliance of devout evangelicals and more skeptical deists that brought about the unique American experiment in ordered liberty, especially religious liberty. As Kidd writes:
Even Thomas Jefferson, a deist hailed as a hero of today’s secularists, took a generous approach toward the public role of religion after disestablishment. For example, Jefferson routinely attended religious services in government buildings as president. Jefferson was the author, of course, of the 1802 letter in which he argued that the First Amendment had erected a “wall of separation” between church and state. But the same weekend he sent this letter to the Danbury Baptist Association of Connecticut, a Baptist minister named John Leland preached before a joint session of Congress, with the president in attendance. The actual history of faith and the Founding, then, confounds our expectations. Evangelical Baptists were the staunchest advocates of church-state separation, and their union with deists like Jefferson made the Baptists’ vision of religious liberty a reality. You could hardly imagine this collaboration of skeptical politicians and traditional believers today. Their partnership worked, however, because deists such as Jefferson realized that religious liberty did not require rigid secularism. The Baptists, for their part, knew about Jefferson’s personal skepticism, but they supported him because he was the champion of real religious freedom. Not all America’s Founders were devout Christians, but America was founded with Christian principles in mind. Among the most vital of those ideals – one that could bridge the gap between evangelicals and deists – was an expansive concept of religious liberty.
Read it all.