"There is always a philosophy for lack of courage."—Albert Camus

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.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

The conservatism and limits of John Jay, American founder

John M. Pafford makes the argument that John Jay was the most conservative of the American founders in this book review posted over at The Imaginative Conservative: John Jay: Man of Order, Justice, Freedom.  As Pafford points out, Jay's work and contribution to the Founding were substantial, and he deserves far more attention than he usually gets in discussions of the Founding period.  Personally, I would rank Jay alongside Samuel Adams and Fisher Ames as the most overlooked of the founders. 

Which is not to say that Jay's approach to ordered liberty was optimal. As I posted over at the blog American Creation awhile back, Jay shared much of the common bigotry against Catholics so prevalent during the Founding Era. As I wrote over yonder:

I've been reading through The Myth of American Religious Freedom by David Sehat (Oxford Univ. Press, 2011).  One of the interesting points raised thus far in the book is the troubled history of religious liberty for Catholics in the colonial and revolutionary periods in our nation's history. It is well-established that notable Founding Fathers like Thomas Jefferson and John Adams had little respect for the Catholic Church, seeing it as both as a staunch defender of orthodox trinitarianism and as a barrier to a rationalized and largely de-supernaturalized re-imaging of the Christian faith. And it bears noting that those two Founders were right on both counts. Sehat discusses some of the deeper roots of anti-Catholicism in early America, and he pays particular attention to the prime secular justification for anti-Catholic prejudice at the time, namely that Catholics, due to their spiritual allegiance to the Pope, could not be trusted to be faithful citizens.

This concern was so strong, Sehat notes, that it lead to specific language being included in New York's 1777 constitution limiting religious freedom so as not to "justify practices inconsistent with the peace or safety of this State." This wording reflected the concerns of John Jay, to limit the religious freedom enjoyed by Catholics. As quoted at length by Sehat, Jay spoke out in defense of religious freedom, but did not believe that basic civil liberties should be extended to Catholics. As Jay put it, liberty should be granted to everyone,
Except the professors of the religion of the church of Rome, who ought not to hold lands in, or be admitted to a participation of the civil rights enjoyed by the members of this State, until such a time as the said professors shall appear in the supreme court of this State, and there most solemnly swear, that they verily believe in their consciences, that no pope, priest or foreign authority on earth, hath power to absolve the subjects of this State from their allegiance to the same. And further, that they renounce and believe to be false and wicked, the dangerous and damnable doctrine, that the pope, or any other earthly authority, have power to absolve men from sins, described in, and prohibited by the Holy Gospel of Jesus Christ; and particularly, that no pope, priest or foreign authority on earth, hath power to absolve them from the obligation of this oath. 
Any Catholic who had so sworn such an oath, of course, would by its terms have to affirm doctrines contrary to those of the Catholic Church. Specifically, a Catholic who complied with Jay's proposal would have to deny one of the sacraments of the Church (confession), and would have to deny the power of the Pope to release people from vows and oaths. No Catholic, then or now, could in good conscience swear to such requirements. As Sehat notes, "Jay's problem with Catholicism was similar to the views held by many Protestants." Jay viewed Catholicism as conflating spiritual and secular authority, providing too much institutional power to the Catholic Church to intervene in civil affairs. Fortunately for Catholics in New York and for liberty in that state, Jay's efforts to restrict the rights of Catholics only garnered the assent of a little more than a third of the members of the New York constitutional convention. Jay did, however manage to include language in the New York constitution that, to again quote Sehat, "suffused New York's guarantee of religious liberty with Protestant sectarianism, in spite of its apparent separation of church and state."

There is much history within the English political and religious landscape that fueled Jay's attempt to restrict the religious and civic liberty of Catholics in New York. Jay's concerns about papal authority to release people from oaths stretched back to the "Bloody Question" that was posed to Catholic martyrs slaughtered for their faith under Queen Elizabeth I. And even that ardent defender of religious liberty, John Locke, drew the line at toleration for Roman Catholics, as the original text of his Letter Concerning Toleration indicates. And Locke's objection was in substance the same as Jay's -- a concern that Catholics would not be faithful to their nation in light of their obedience to the Pope.

This objection has largely disappeared from American civic life, thanks in large part to the patriotism and service that Catholics have demonstrated for this country. In addition, Catholics have run for high office throughout the country, and served with distinction in public life. Yet while most anti-Catholicism has retreated into the shadows, it is important to note the widespread and deep anti-Catholicism that was present among much of the populace during the Founding period, and to recall how often religious liberty was sacrificed on the altar of prejudice.

Something to keep in mind as the principle of religious liberty again becomes controversial to many of our elites and their institutions.

Update:  over on Twitter the writer and founding father biographer extraordinaire Richard Brookhiser comments:

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Sen. Mike Lee's "Our Lost Constitution"

Via The Originalism Blog [itself highly bookmarkable], which is affiliated with the University of San Diego School of Law's Center for the Study of Constitutional Originalism:




Recently published—Senator Mike LeeOur Lost Constitution: The Willful Subversion of America's Founding Document (Sentinel 2015).  

Here is the book description from Amazon: 
In Our Lost Constitution, Senator Mike Lee tells the dramatic, little-known stories behind six of the Constitution’s most indispensible provisions. He shows their rise. He shows their fall. And he makes vividly clear how nearly every abuse of federal power today is rooted in neglect of this Lost Constitution. For example:

   • The Origination Clause says that all bills to raise taxes must originate in the House of Representatives, but contempt for the clause ensured the passage of Obamacare.
   • The Fourth Amendment protects us against unreasonable searches and seizures, but the NSA now collects our private data without a warrant.
   • The Legislative Powers Clause means that only Congress can pass laws, but unelected agencies now produce ninety-nine out of every one hundred pages of legal rules imposed on the American people.
Lee’s cast of characters includes a former Ku Klux Klansman, who hijacked the Establishment Clause to strangle Catholic schools; the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, who called the Second Amendment a fraud; and the revered president who began his first of four terms by threat[en]ing to shatter the balance of power between Congress and the president, and who began his second term by vowing to do the same to the Supreme Court.

Fortunately, the Constitution has always had its defenders. Senator Lee tells the story of how Andrew Jackson, noted for his courage in duels and politics, stood firm against the unconstitutional expansion of federal powers. He brings to life Ben Franklin’s genius for compromise at a deeply divided constitutional convention. And he tells how in 2008, a couple of unlikely challengers persuaded the Supreme Court to rediscover the Second Amendment’s right to keep and bear arms.

Sections of the Constitution may have been forgotten, but it’s not too late to bring them back—if only we remember why we once demanded them and how we later lost them. Drawing on his experience working in all three branches of government, Senator Lee makes a bold case for resurrecting the Lost Constitution to restore and defend our fundamental liberties.
Senator Mike Lee knows how to tell a story. Combining historical fact and his own legal expertise with imagined dialogues and settings, Lee brings the sometimes dry and archaic debates of the constitutional convention in Philadelphia and other episodes to life, and with them the Constitution itself. This is truly an inspired, fascinating, and important book.
And from Michael McConnell
Mike Lee won election to the Senate by traveling around his state giving talks about the Constitution. Now he has written a most unusual book, which interweaves lively histories of what he calls the lost clauses of the Constitution with biting critiques of such modern issues as delegation of legislative power to agencies, NSA data collection, church and state, and Obamacare. Readers may not agree with all his conclusions, but they will encounter serious history and a conscientious attempt to grapple with modern issues in light of an enduring Constitution.

Friday, April 03, 2015

Abraham Lincoln and Kirkian conservatism

One finds, here and there, on the fringes of the Right and in the mainstream of the Left, the strange idea that Abraham Lincoln was not a conservative.  Portrayed as a radical centralizer and opponent of the old Constitution, he is viewed as a man who ushered America  into the era of big government. Nothing could be further from the truth. Lincoln was a conservative thinker and politician, a devotee not of the radical theories that would give rise to the modern Left but by the natural law principles of the Founding generation, particularly as expressed publicly by Thomas Jefferson.

The conservative mind of Abraham Lincoln is explored by T. Elliot Gaiser over at The Imaginative Conservative: Abraham Lincoln: A Man and a Leader of Men. Gaiser explores five key conservative principles and finds Lincoln as an exmplar of all five. Of course, Russell Kirk would approve of such an investigation of Lincoln, as he himself throughout his career contended repeatedly that Lincoln was a model of conservative statesmanship. For Kirk's views of Lincoln, see the following:

Thursday, April 02, 2015

Nat Hentoff on the continued relevance of founding father George Mason

"How many of you know who George Mason was? Does our president?" So asks the noted civil libertarian journalst in this op-ed on the importance of the Bill of Rights and the 4th Amendment in particular: Who will teach our police the Bill of Rights?

As Hentoff notes, most people are largely ignorant of their rights under the Constitution, and such ignorance bodes catastrophic consequences for self-government under our republican (with a small "r") democratic (with a small "d") system. And just as the citizenry need to know their rights under the Constitution, Hentoff argues that the police need to know and protect the people's rights as well. And it is here that the work of George Mason is so important, as Hentoff writes: 
My primary hero of the full existence of the Constitution is George Mason, a Virginia delegate to the 1787 Constitutional Convention. Why him? He refused to sign the Constitution because it didn’t have a “declaration of rights” – the individual liberties of American citizens. 
Because of George Mason, who was followed by other non-signers, James Madison introduced the Bill of Rights. These first 10 amendments to the Constitution, when ratified by enough states in 1791, guaranteed to We the People specific limits on government power.
A government of limited and enumerated powers is one of the great gifts that the American Founders left to posterity. But if we don't understand that, if we don't know what the Founders knew, that gift too often falls by the wayside. And that isn't just bad for the folks who find themselves in need of the Constitution's protections in specific instances, it's bad for our public culture and the rule of law