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

Friday, September 04, 2015

Christianity, social activism and the civil rights movement

John Fea explains the links between those three topics:  The "Christian America" of Martin Luther King, Jr.  As Fea explains:
King's fight for a Christian America was not over amending the Constitution to make it more Christian or promoting crusades to insert "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance (June 14, 1954). It was instead a battle against injustice and an attempt to forge a national community defined by Christian ideals of equality and respect for human dignity. Most historians now agree that the Civil Rights movement was driven by the Christian faith of its proponents. As David Chappell argued in his landmark book, Stone of Hope: Prophetic Religion and the Death of Jim Crow, the story of the Civil Rights movement is less about the triumph of progressive and liberal ideals and more about the revival of an Old Testament prophetic tradition that led African-Americans to hold their nation accountable for the decidedly unchristian behavior it showed many of its citizens.
I have read Stone of Hope and I think it is a very insightful reading of the history behind the civil rights movement in the 1950s & 1960s.  Of course, by the late 60s, after the assassinations of both Malcom X & MLK, the civil rights movement took a turn away from its religious roots and towards "new left" secularism, a turn that left much of the movement without a spiritual core.  That in turn created one of the central tragedies of the civil rights movement -- just when its greatest victories were at hand, many of its leaders & activists abandoned a key component of what had been the movement's identity, the integration of faith & public policy when it came to questions of human rights & dignity.

In the increasingly secular environment in the United States it can never be said enough that the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s vision was a profoundly religious one -- and not just religious but Christian at that. His activism was grounded not in ideology but in faith, not in a secularism devoid of moral intuition but in a Christianity that inspired moral imagination.  King dreamed of world where the dignity of each person was respected because he believed in a God of love who had suffered, died and rose again so that each human being might have life, and have it more abundantly.  For those of us who are people of faith, we should never forget or be silent about that vision.

Thursday, September 03, 2015

"We have been, and propose to be, more and more American"

He was nicknamed "Silent Cal," but when he spoke it was usually with wise words:
We stand at the opening of the one hundred and fiftieth year since our national consciousness first asserted itself by unmistakable action with an array of force. The old sentiment of detached and dependent colonies disappeared in the new sentiment of a united and independent Nation. Men began to discard the narrow confines of a local charter for the broader opportunities of a national constitution. Under the eternal urge of freedom we became an independent Nation...
Throughout all these experiences we have enlarged our freedom, we have strengthened our independence. We have been, and propose to be, more and more American. We believe that we can best serve our own country and most successfully discharge our obligations to humanity by continuing to be openly and candidly, intensely and scrupulously, American. If we have any heritage, it has been that. If we have any destiny, we have found it in that direction. 
But if we wish to continue to be distinctively American, we must continue to make that term comprehensive enough to embrace the legitimate desires of a civilized and enlightened people determined in all their relations to pursue a conscientious and religious life. We can not permit ourselves to be narrowed and dwarfed by slogans and phrases. It is not the adjective, but the substantive, which is of real importance. It is not the name of the action, but the result of the action, which is the chief concern. It will be well not to be too much disturbed by the thought of either isolation or entanglement of pacifists and militarists. The physical configuration of the earth has separated us from all of the Old World, but the common brotherhood of man, the highest law of all our being, has united us by inseparable bonds with all humanity. Our country represents nothing but peaceful intentions toward all the earth, but it ought not to fail to maintain such a military force as comports with the dignity and security of a great people. It ought to be a balanced force, intensely modern, capable of defense by sea and land, beneath the surface and in the air. But it should be so conducted that all the world may see in it, not a menace, but an instrument of security and peace.
 - President Calvin Coolidge (1872-1933), First Inaugural Address (1923).

Monday, August 31, 2015

The only enduring freedom is embodied freedom

"The only freedom which can last is a freedom embodied somewhere, rooted in a history, located in space, sanctioned by a genealogy, and blessed by a religious establishment.  The only equality which abstract rights, insisted upon outside the context of politics, are likely to provide is the equality of universal slavery. It is a lesson which Western man is only now beginning to learn. And at great cost."

- M.E. Bradford, A Better Guide Than Reason:  Federalists & Anti-Federalists (Transaction Publishers:  1994), pg. xviii.

Saturday, August 29, 2015

Three qualities of Ronald Reagan that shaped his political success

Former Reagan domestic policy assistant T. Kenneth Cribb writes about three characteristics of Ronald Reagan that helped guide his work as a politician and leader:  Ronald Reagan and the Moral Imagination.  As Cribb begins his discussion of Reagan's traits:
On the occasion of the centennial of his birth, I am going to make three assertions about Ronald Reagan that will be considered novel in some quarters. I’m going to argue:
  • Ronald Reagan was an intellectual in the only important sense of that word.
  • Ronald Reagan was a man of orthodox Christian faith.
  • The victory over Soviet Communism was made possible by Ronald Reagan’s power of moral imagination.
Read the article for a fascinating glimpse into the personality of the man who was possibly the most successful conservative president of the last century.   I found Cribbs' discussion of Reagan's religious faith to be the most interesting -- his guiding belief in divine Providence is certainly echoed by other American presidents, including our two greatest, George Washington and Abraham Lincoln.  And Reagan had a firm grasp of the necessity of religious faith in preserving a culture of freedom here in the United States.  As Cribbs quotes Reagan saying:
Without God, there is no virtue, because there’s no prompting of the conscience. Without God, we’re mired in the material, that flat world that tells us only what the senses perceive. Without God, there is a coarsening of the society. And without God, democracy will not and cannot long endure. If we ever forget that we’re one nation under God, then we will be a nation gone under.

Friday, August 28, 2015

Hillary, the Democrats and the Cannibal Vote

In reference to Donald Trump's evangelical vote—which doesn't really exist—a left-wing $25/hour college adjunct "professor" wrote at me [such types do not write "to," only "at"]:
I find it very interesting how a group of people that purport to have high moral values will be able to willingly vote for a man who does not share those moral values. 
How tiresome and judgmental. Better to have no values atall, then, like the Democrats defending organizations that tear out babies' faces and sell the bodies for spare parts? As they said of Franklin Roosevelt, if he "became convinced tomorrow that coming out for cannibalism would get him the votes he so sorely needs, he would begin fattening up a missionary in the White House backyard come Wednesday."

Surely, Planned Parenthood's cannibalism is little different from the actual thing. And there's Hillary Clinton, calling the GOP "terrorists" for wanting to defund these monsters.

At long last, ma'am, have you left no sense of decency?

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Two Constitutional Monologues Do Not Make a Dialogue

At some level, maybe Obama's onto something with all his executive orders and unilateral executive action. He claims -- disingenuously, I think -- he can't get a dialogue with Congress, so he just monologues into law. Despite the wail of constitutional conservatives, myself included, clearly the American people don't put much premium on it. Reminded of the three-branch model, the voting public clearly accepts some coloring outside the lines.

So why, then, do conservatives still expect to get return-on-investment by insisting the only way to challenge a Supreme Court decision is to amend the Constitution? This comes up in the debate over birthright citizenship. Frankly, I don't care much about the policy and would rather have this conversation over the Court's befuddling and tragic abortion precedent, but one must take civics lessons where one finds them. The precedent on the birthright citizenship question, based in the Fourteenth Amendment, is weak either way. (James Ho and John Eastman, both former Justice Thomas clerks, each vigorously represent the two opposing views.) Seems like a clear case where Congress could step in with its own independent take on the language in question: "All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside."

Yet most conservatives -- even many who desperately oppose illegal immigration and do not want the Fourteenth Amendment to support birthright citizenship -- assume this constitutional question must be settled by Court monologue. They take it as read that you have to send up a test case to the Supreme Court, and when it upholds birthright citizenship -- as it certainly will -- you're stuck with amending the Constitution. And on cue, they will cite hoary old Marbury to you, that "It is emphatically the province and duty of the Judicial Department to say what the law is." Then they will give you that self-satisfied look, as if to say, "I think I've made my point." For these "legends of our own time," as Hadley Arkes describes them, "Marbury v. Madison has come to mark the power of the Court to strike down an act of Congress as unconstitutional. More than that, it has been taken to establish this cardinal point: that the Supreme Court must stand as the sole authoritative interpreter of the Constitution."

"But," Arkes demurs, "that extravagant proposition is nowhere to be found in the text of Marshall's opinion in Marbury v. Madison." Arkes is right, as I will let him explain in a moment. But as a common-sense proposition, consider what it would mean if the Marbury hawks were right. The Constitution, they explain, makes the Court the sole expositor of the constitution, and we know that because the Court told us so, and it is the sole expositor of the Constitution. It is textbook circular reasoning.

Justice Marshall, to the contrary, argued it straight. "Marshall was able to show then why the law of the Constitution must take precedence, in any case, over a statute or an act of ordinary law. If judges confronted, in any case, a tension between the law of the Constitution and the law of a statute, Marshall showed that the Judges would be obliged to accord a logical primacy to the commands of the Constitution....Marshall had claimed nothing for the judges that could not have been claimed for any other officers of the government."

Over a century later in 1927, writing for the majority in Adkins v. Children's Hospital, Justice Sutherland confirmed the point:

"From the authority to ascertain and determine the law in a given case, there necessarily results, in case of conflict, the duty to declare and enforce the rule of the supreme law and reject that of an inferior act of legislation, which, transcending the Constitution, is of no effect and binding on no one. This is not the exercise of a substantive power to review and nullify acts of Congress, for no such substantive power exists. It is simply a necessary concomitant of the power to hear and dispose of a case or controversy properly before the court, to the determination of which must be brought the text and measure of the law."

Thus, the " say what the law is" is not the same as the authority to dictate what the Constitution says. It simply makes the point that one branch cannot dictate hermeneutics to another. The example Arkes likes to use is that the Court may -- must -- independently access natural reasoning to discern that a new law that overcomes an earlier statute yet must also accede to an earlier constitution. To take an even simpler example, consider that the word "unconstitutional" never appears in the Constitution, yet the Court routinely and (sometimes) rightly strikes down acts of the people's legislatures on the basis of this invisible concept. These are concepts that transcend the Constitution. Yet they are something quite different from deciphering what "subject to the jurisdiction thereof" means.

O'Connor's dissent in City of Boerne v. Flores completes the circle, inviting Congress to join the Court in dialogue over the Constitution's meaning:

"This recognition does not, of course, in any way diminish Congress’ obligation to draw its own conclusions regarding the Constitution’s meaning. Congress, no less than this Court, is called upon to consider the requirements of the Constitution and to act in accordance with its dictates."

Of course, this invitation to collaborate in interpretation is not an invitation for Congress to exceed its powers, whether under Art. I sec. 8 or Am. V sec. 5, as O'Connor goes on to explain: "But when it enacts legislation in furtherance of its delegated powers, Congress must make its judgments consistent with this Court’s exposition of the Constitution and with the limits placed on its legislative authority by provisions such as the Fourteenth Amendment."

The point is, we're on dangerous ground if we've set up the Court as the divine last word on all matters of interpreting the Constitution. It puts too many issues too far away from regular lawmaking, and puts our policies out of step with other civilized countries (for example, on birthright citizenship and abortion). And it is particularly dangerous when lawyers and jurists have demonstrated a willingness to find a fully formed positive law in the Constitution, just waiting for the right plaintiff to midwife it into existence. That seems not very conservative to me, and even less sensible. 

Thursday, August 06, 2015

Abraham Lincoln was not the father of big government

That's the point brought out in in this piece over from the Heritage Foundation:  Was Lincoln the Father of Big Government?   As author Julia Shaw notes, it was not Lincoln who developed the idea of big government, but later progressive leaders like John Dewey, Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson who crafted the modern idea of big government.  While the government did expand under the Lincoln administration, that was to deal with the emergency of the Civil War.  Lincoln had no desire or intention to craft a permanent expansion of the federal government once that crisis was over. 

Lincoln biographer Alan Guelzo comes to much the same conclusion as Shaw in this piece over at National Review Online here.  As Guelzo notes, federal spending and the reach of the federal government grew under the Lincoln administration, but only because of the pressures of the Civil War and inflation that the war inflicted on the economy.  Once the war was over, spending ratcheted down dramatically as the North returned to normalcy and the South was Reconstructed.  As Guelzo puts it:
Yes, the federal government grew enormously under Abraham Lincoln. But that was only in comparison to the bite-sized federal government that had prevailed in the 1850s, and it occurred only under the unprecedented circumstances of civil war. The real measure of Lincoln’s “big government” is how quickly it shrank back to more recognizable proportions once the wartime emergency was over. Rahm Emanuel might say that Lincoln wasted a good crisis. It would be better to say that Lincoln managed a crisis without making it worse.
Guelzo's post is a welcome reminder that our second-greatest president believed in natural law, a free economy, and a limited role for the federal government in fostering and nurturing that economy.  He was a conservative in the tradition of classical liberalism  -- which means to say that he was a Whig.  As was another notable conservative on the other side of the Atlantic, Edmund Burke. While classical liberalism is not without its flaws, it fits within the broad tent of modern conservatism.  Certainly Lincoln's emphasis on natural justice, on the idea of equality under the law while recognizing that human beings have inevitable inequalities in terms of ability, on the notion that the role of government is to foster human liberty rather than to dictate outcomes, fit into what anyone today would recognize as a conservative viewpoint.  When taken together Lincoln's views paint a picture of a prudential and conservative approach to political order.

Interestingly enough, the points made by Shaw and Guelzo are echoed by one of the current writers most hostile to Lincoln, Thomas E. Woods.  Woods describes the point at which the executive branch of our federal government became so powerful in his book 33 Questions About American History You're Not Supposed to Ask (Crown Forum:  2007), pg. 136:
Was there a turning point that brought us down this road?  Abraham Lincoln certainly exercised extraordinary executive powers during the Civil War, as his supporters and critics alike acknowledge, but the very fact that the sixteenth president acted during wartime limits his usefulness as a source of precedents for peacetime chief executives (although to this day the "even Lincoln did thus-and-so: argument is still to be heard during episodes of government mischief).
If we had to pinpoint a single individual as being responsible for the modern presidency, it would be a man who in word and deed, in theory and practice, brought unprecedented vigor and visibility to the presidential office.  It would be a figure loved and admired to this day by mainstream Left and Right alike. It would be Theodore Roosevelt.
Big government is the result not of Lincoln's presidency or his policies, it is the product of the progressive era in American politics, the late 19th and early 20th century period that nationally coincides with the administrations of TR, Taft and Wilson.  It is at their doorstep that credit for a dominating executive branch and an expansive federal government needs to be deposited.  Leave poor old Abe Lincoln alone.  He simply wanted to save the Union for constitutional government.  Big government was neither his intent nor his effect.

Lincoln was a prudential conservative, committed to the principles of natural law and a limited government that was active and robust within its sphere of legitimate authority.  His defense of the Union, his devotion to the Constitution, and his desire for careful and cautious reform (evident in his approach to the issue of slavery) denotes him as a conservative, not a radical or proto-modern liberal.  In both good and ill, Russell Kirk was right when he adjudged Lincoln a conservative statesman. While there is much that is imperfect in Lincoln's political thought, there is much more that is right and in accord with a conservative approach to government.  Efforts to cast him from the ranks of conservative thinkers & leaders are mistaken.

Related items:
  • Here are some more popular but incorrect ideas about Lincoln, debunked over at the Washington Post by Lincoln scholar Harold Holzer:  Five myths about Abraham Lincoln.
  • University of St. Thomas law professor Michael Stokes Paulsen has a lecture posted on Vimeo and hosted by First Things on Lincoln's approach to the Constitution. Worth a watch

Tuesday, August 04, 2015

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.

Sunday, August 02, 2015

The bonds of unity in the young American republic

For this you have every inducement of sympathy and interest. Citizens, by birth or choice, of a common country, that country has a right to concentrate your affections. The name of American, which belongs to you in your national capacity, must always exalt the just pride of patriotism more than any appellation derived from local discriminations. With slight shades of difference, you have the same religion, manners, habits, and political principles. You have in a common cause fought and triumphed together; the independence and liberty you possess are the work of joint counsels, and joint efforts of common dangers, sufferings, and successes.  
- President George Washington (1732-1799), Farewell Address (1796).

Friday, July 31, 2015

Thomas Jefferson's decidedly un-conservative views about religion

There is a considerable debate both in academic circles and in the blogosphere about whether Thomas Jefferson should be included within the ranks of conservative thinkers. For example, this piece by noted Calhoun scholar and Southern historian Clyde Wilson argues that Jefferson was a model conservative. This article by Claudio J. Katz argues that Jefferson is best understood as a liberal anti-capitalist. In the debate evaluating Jefferson's place on the left-right spectrum Jefferson's religious views deserve attention.

A serious inspection of Jefferson's views on religion reveal a man who was not a traditionalist or a conservative but rather a man who was deeply and fundamentally alienated not only from creedal Christianity but also from Judaism. Aside from his reworking of the Gospels, the so-called "Jefferson Bible," nowhere is this more evident than in his letters to various correspondents. Those who would argue that Jefferson held to traditional or otherwise orthodox views regarding either Judaism or Christianity need to be able to explain passages like the following:
His [Jesus's] object was the reformation of some articles in the religion of the Jews, as taught by Moses.  That sect had presented for the object of their worship, a being of terrific character, cruel, vindictive, capricious, and unjust.  Jesus, taking for his type the best qualities of the human head and heart, wisdom, justice, goodness and adding to them power, ascribed all of these, but in infinite perfection, to the Supreme Being, and formed him really worthy of their adoration.  Moses ad either not believed in a a future state of existence, or had not thought it essentially to be explicitly taught to his people.  Jesus inculcated that doctrine with emphasis and precision.  Moses had bound the Jews to many idle ceremonies, mummeries, and observances of no effect toward producing the social utilities which constitute the essence of virtue; Jesus exposed their futility and insignificance.  The one instilled into his people the most anti-social spirit toward other nations; the other preached philanthropy and universal charity and benevolence.  The office of reformer of the superstitions of a nation, is ever dangerous.  Jesus had to walk on the perilous confines of reason and religion; and a step to right or left might place him within the grasp of the priests of the superstition, a blood-thirsty race, as cruel and remorseless as the being whom they represented as the family God of Abraham, of Isaac and of Jacob, and the local God of Israel.  They were constantly laying snares, too, to entangle him in the web of the law.  He was justifiable, therefore, in avoiding these by evasions, by sophisms, by misconstructions and misapplication of scraps of the prophets, and in defending himself with these their own weapons, as sufficient, ad homines, at least.  That Jesus did not mean to impose himself on mankind as the son of God, physically speaking, I have been convinced by the writings of men more learned than myself in that lore.  But that he might conscientiously believe himself inspired from above, is very possible.  The whole religion of the Jew, inculcated on him from his infancy, was founded in the belief of divine inspiration.  The fumes of the most disorded [sic] imaginations were recorded in their religious code, as special communications from the Deity; and as it could not but happen that in the course of ages, events would now and then turn up to which some of these vague rhapsodies might be accommodated by the aid of allegories, figures types, and other tricks upon words, they have not only persevered their credit with the Jews of all subsequent times, but are the foundation of much of the religions of those who have schismatized from them.  Elevated by the enthusiasm of a warm and pure heart, conscious of the high strains of an eloquence which had not been taught him, he might readily mistake the coruscations of his own fine genius for inspirations of an higher order.  This belief carried, therefore, no more personal imputation, than the belief of Socrates, that himself was under the care and admonitions of a guardian Daemon.
Letter to William Short, Aug. 4, 1820, reprinted in In God We Trust: The Religious Beliefs and Ideas of the American Founding Fathers, edited by Norman Cousins (Harper & Brothers: 1958), pgs. 153-154.

One need not be religious, of course, to be a conservative. There are many conservatives, both in history and in the current age, who don't believe in God or practice a religious tradition. Noted conservative writer George Will, for example, has been quite open about his lack of religious belief, describing himself as an atheist. But it is very difficult to be a conservative, even if one believes in God, if one does not respect the wisdom found in traditional religions. Jefferson, not in his disagreement but in his dismissal of both traditional Christianity and traditional Judaism, demonstrates a deep suspicion and hostility to received faith. Such a disposition cannot be reconciled with a conservative temperament. Whatever else he may have been, Jefferson was not a conservative in matters of religion. 

Related item:  back when I was posting at the American Creation blog, I explored the background of Jefferson's edited version of the Gospels a bit, available here.  As I wrote: 

One of the most famous of Thomas Jefferson's religious works is his harmony of the New Testament Gospels. Jefferson edited the Gospels, after consulting versions in Greek, Latin, English and French, with the purpose of distilling what Jefferson thought to be the authentic teachings of Jesus of Nazareth.  Jefferson edited out the miracles and most of the supernatural events in the Gospels, while emphasizing the moral & ethical teachings found in the texts. The genesis and purpose of Jefferson's composition of his Gospel harmony is set out pretty clearly in an 1804 letter that Jefferson wrote to noted unitarian thinker Joseph Priestly.  In the letter, Jefferson provides some advice to Priestly regarding Priestly's own plan to write out a study of the moral teachings of Jesus.  In giving his advice, Jefferson reveals the early stages of his own investigation in that topic:
I think you cannot avoid giving, as preliminary to the comparison, a digest of his moral doctrines, extracted in his own words fro the Evangelists, and leaving out everything relative to his personal history and character.  It would be shore and precious.  With a view to do this for my own satisfaction, I had sent to Philadelphia to get tow testaments (Greek) of the same edition, and two English, with a design to cut out the morsels of morality and paste them on the leaves of a book, in the manner you describe as having been pursued in forming your Harmony.  But I shall now get the thing done by better hands. 
Letter to Joseph Priestly, January 29, 1804, reprinted in In God We Trust:  The Religious Beliefs and Ideas of the American Founding Fathers, ed. by Norman Cousins (Harper & Brothers:  1958), pg. 171.

The letter from Jefferson to Priestly provides three key insights about the context surrounding the Jefferson Bible. First, Jefferson was not engaging in a unique activity.  He wasn't the only one engaging in the production of the Gospel harmony designed to spread a vision of Christianity that was grounded on the moral teachings of Jesus, rather than in the New Testament's teachings about Jesus.   Jefferson notes at the end of the passage quoted above some relief at the idea that Priestly is working on a harmony because of Priestly's greater skills at producing such a study.

Second, Jefferson's advice indicates the key to this method:  focusing on the words of Jesus rather than the explanation of those words provided by the Evangelists and the other writings in the New Testament. Jefferson's approach fused an antiquarian approach to the Gospels -- trying to get back to the earliest strata of the teachings of Jesus -- with a belief that the Gospel accounts as we have them were an accurate source of those words.  Hence, Jefferson sought not only to take the words of Jesus from the New Testament as translated into English, but he sought to take the words from the Greek New Testament as well.  It turns out that Jefferson was incorrect about the words of Jesus in the Gospels being the earliest strata of information we have about Jesus -- the epistles of St. Paul were written earlier than any of the Gospels as we currently have them -- but that's an error of application, not of method.

Third, at the time of the letter to Priestly, Jefferson sought to undertake his harmony for his "own satisfaction." Jefferson didn't seek to publish his study at this point, but was thinking of compiling his study for his own use. The nature of how he sought to carry out the composition of the harmony -- cutting out the relevant texts from his copies of the New Testament and pasting them into the "leaves of a book," indicates that he wasn't thinking of sending the text to a publisher. It was to be a private book indicating his own private thoughts, something quite understandable given the fact that Jefferson was a sitting president, an active politician, and one who was constantly dogged by allegations of infidelity regarding religion. For good reason he might seek not to widely publicize his views regarding the nature of Jesus of Nazareth, his life, and his ministry.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Why study Edmund Burke?

The late Russell Kirk, one of the proponents of Burkean thought in the second half of the 20th century, provides an answer that question in this essay provided by The Imaginative Conservative website:  Why Edmund Burke is Studied.  In short, Burke is studied because he stands as a key proponent of the notion of ordered liberty that nurtured the birth of our own Republic:
Because he was a principal defender of that world of reason, and order, and peace, and virtue in which the United States participated, through its inheritance of civilization.  Constitution, custom, convention, and prescription give society a health continuity, as Burke knew; and he pointed out that prudent change is the means of our preservation; he understood how claims of freedom and claims of order must be kept in a tolerable tension.  Such truths he taught not as a closet-philosopher, but as a practical statesman and manager of party.  His speeches and pamphlets were read by the men of 1996 and the men of 1787 -- and studied with yet closer attention after 1789.  No other political thinker of their own time was better known to the American leaders than was Burke. 
Burke was an English Whig politician and theorist, a member of Parliament at the time of the American Revolution and an ardent defender of the British constitution in the face of dangerous innovation from abroad. At the time time, he was a proponent of reform and sought reconciliation with the American colonies in the run-up to the American Revolution.  At the foundation of the American concept of liberty is, among other sources, Burke.  And as Kirk points out, not even the American Federalists can substitute for Burke's wisdom in guiding the course of prudential politics.

Friday, July 17, 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.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Man vs. Nature. Who Won?

“Man’s conquest of Nature turns out, in the moment of its consummation, to be Nature’s conquest of Man. Every victory we seemed to win has led us, step by step, to this conclusion. All Nature’s apparent reverses have been but tactical withdrawals. We thought we were beating her back when she was luring us on.” 
―  C.S. Lewis The Abolition of Man

Friday, July 10, 2015

Five for Friday 3

Five posts to inspire reflection and conversation over the upcoming weekend. There's a common thread to all the posts, but instead of spoiling the fun by saying what it is, I'll leave it up to each reader to determine what links these five posts together. Have a great weekend!

Frohen on Kirk on the Constitution:  the University Bookman reprints a 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.

Franklin and Jefferson on the Lord's Prayer: among the Founding Fathers, Franklin is often thought to be one of the most secular. This is a misreading of Franklin. While he was not an orthodox Christian, Frankly was a strong theist who consistently thought of his religious views in relationship with the general teachings of genetic colonial Protestantism regarding divine providence, the power of prayer and the Last Judgment.  Franklin even went so far as to update the Lord's Prayer from the New Testament for his own personal use, and that prayer definitely reflects Franklin's own religious beliefs in a providential, personal God who is the ground of the moral law and who cares for each human person:
1. Heavenly Father, 2. May all revere thee, 3. And become thy dutiful Children and faithful Subjects. 4. May thy Laws be obeyed on Earth as perfectly as they are in Heaven. 5. Provide for us this day as thou hast hitherto daily done. 6. Forgive us our trespasses, and enable us likewise to forgive those that offend us. 7. Keep us out of Temptation, and deliver us from Evil. 
Benjamin Franklin, Autobiography, post-1784, quoted in The Founders on Religion: A Book of Quotations, edited by James H. Hutson (Princeton Univ. Press: 2005), pg. 166.

If Franklin's version of the Lord's Prayer evidences a strong belief in a personal God who intervenes in human affairs and who answers prayer, the version provided by Thomas Jefferson in his own version of the Gospels, the so-called Jefferson Bible, is even more traditional -- deviating lightly from the version of the Lord's Prayer given in the Authorized King James Version. Jefferson is often invoked by those hostile to religion as someone who was opposed to religion. And it is true that Jefferson disagreed with orthodox Christianity and was a critic of organized religion for the most part. But he also was a strong believer in a theistic idea of God, a deity who governs the world through Providence. Jefferson's version of the Lord's Prayer evidences that belief:
Our Father which art in heaven, Hallowed by thy name.  Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done, as in heaven, so in earth. Give us day by day our daily bread. And forgive us our sins; for we also forgive every one that is indebted to us. And lead us not into temptation; but deliver us from evil.  
Thomas Jefferson, The Jefferson Bible: The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth (Beacon Press: 1989), pg. 87.

When referring to the religious view of the Founders, it is easy to fall into anachronism on either side, either viewing the Founders as a whole as proto-evangelicals or viewing them as proto-free thinking "New Atheists." Both views are incorrect. Even the most secular of the Founders were strikingly religious by modern standards, and affirmed beliefs in strong-theism, of a personal God who intervenes in human affairs, responds to prayer, who authors a moral law, and who will hold each human being accountable for their violations of that law as well as for how they treat those who have sinned against them. Ben Franklin and Thomas Jefferson both testify to this fact.

Rhetoric as a necessary component of a liberal education: "Oh, that's just rhetoric," is a refrain that sadly is heard far too often in regard to politics or any kind of civic engagement.  But as this article by Sean Lewis over at The Imaginative Conservative rightly points out, the study of rhetoric -- the presentation of ideas and concepts -- is critical for liberal education.  The study of rhetoric is one of the pillars of classical education, and the recovery of the integrity of rhetoric is essential to forming a disciplined mind.

One good place to start a study of the use of language is with George Orwell's magnificent treatise on writing & rhetoric:  Politics and the English Language.

Reagan's agenda in his own words: as the country prepares for another presidential political campaign, the memory of Ronald Reagan will no doubt be powerfully in mind for conservative & Republican voters. It might be a good idea to see the consistency and the changes in Reagan's approach to politics and policy across his life in politics.  Below are three examples, from the beginning, peak and close of Reagan's political career, of speeches where Reagan set out his political vision.

Here is Reagan's first major venture on the national political stage, his Time for Choosing speech in support of the Goldwater campaign in 1964:

After serving two terms as governor of California and then running successfully in 1980 against President Jimmy Carter, Reagan delivered his first First Inaugural Address in 1981:

Finally, at the conclusion of his second term of office in 1989, President Reagan addressed the country in his Farewell Speech, talking about his hopes for the future of our country:

Conservatism is not an ideology: Reagan's political principles, both their flexibility and their deep consistencies, raise the question of how conservatism reconciles principle & prudence in the field of practical politics.  Russell Kirk, one of the great explainers and developers of the conservative tradition in the 20th century, explained conservatism's fundamental approach:
The conservative understands that the circumstances of men are almost infinitely variable, and that any particular political or economic policy must be decided in the light of the particular circumstances of time and place -- an enlightened expediency, or prudence ... Conservatism, I repeat, is not an ideology. It does not breed fanatics. It does not try to excite the enthusiasm of a secular religion. If you want men who will sacrifice their past and present and future to a set of abstract ideas you must go to Communism, or Fascism, or Benthamism. But if you want men who seek, reasonably and prudently, to reconcile the best in the wisdom of our ancestors with the change which is essential to a vigorous civil social existence, then you will do well to turn to conservative principles. The high-minded conservative believes in Principle, or enduring norms ascertained through appreciation for the wisdom of dead generations, the study of history, and the reconciliation of authority with the altered circumstances of our present life. He is a highly reasonable person, although he looks with deep suspicion on the cult of Reason -- the worship of an abstract rationality which asserts that mundane planning is able to solve all our difficulties of spirit and community. But the high-minded conservative detests Abstraction, or the passion for forcing men and societies into a preconceived pattern divorced from the special circumstances of different times and countries. 
From Prospects for Conservatives (Regnery Gateway: 1989), pg. 8-9. Within that passage from Kirk is the antidote to virtually all of the big picture problems that have developed on the Right for the last 35 years.