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

Saturday, July 04, 2015

"A nation was born in a day"

The interest, which in this paper [the Declaration of Independence] has survived the occasion upon which it was issued; the interest which is of every age and every clime; the interest which quickens with the lapse of years, spreads as it grows old, and brightens as it recedes, is in the principles which it proclaims. It was the first solemn declaration by a nation of the only legitimate foundation of civil government. It was the corner stone of a new fabric, destined to cover the surface of the globe. It demolished at a stroke the lawfulness of all governments founded upon conquest. It swept away all the rubbish of accumulated centuries of servitude. It announced in practical form to the world the transcendent truth of the unalienable sovereignty of the people. It proved that the social compact was no figment of the imagination; but a real, solid, and sacred bond of the social union. From the day of this declaration, the people of North America were no longer the fragment of a distant empire, imploring justice and mercy from an inexorable master in another hemisphere. They were no longer children appealing in vain to the sympathies of a heartless mother; no longer subjects leaning upon the shattered columns of royal promises, and invoking the faith of parchment to secure their rights. They were a nation, asserting as of right, and maintaining by war, its own existence. A nation was born in a day.
- John Quincy Adams, Speech on Independence Day, July 4, 1821.

Friday, July 03, 2015

Tillman on Values and Dignity

by Seth Barrett Tillman
Guest Blogger
"The corollary of that principle is that human dignity cannot be taken away by the government. Slaves did not lose their dignity (any more than they lost their humanity) because the government allowed them to be enslaved. Those held in internment camps did not lose their dignity because the government confined them. And those denied governmental benefits certainly do not lose their dignity because the government denies them those benefits. The government cannot bestow dignity, and it cannot take it away."Justice Clarence Thomas in Obergefell v. Hodges, [2015] (dissenting)

"Mrs Thatcher came only twice [to the Conservative Philosophy Group], once as prime minister. That was the occasion for a notable non-meeting of minds. Edward Norman (then Dean of Peterhouse) had attempted to mount a Christian argument for nuclear weapons. The discussion moved on to ‘Western values’. Mrs Thatcher said (in effect) that Norman had shown that the Bomb was necessary for the defence of our values. 
Enoch Powell: No, we do not fight for values. I would fight for this country even if it had a communist government.’
Thatcher (it was just before the Argentinian invasion of the Falklands): ‘Nonsense, Enoch. If I send British troops abroad, it will be to defend our values.’
'No, Prime Minister, values exist in a transcendental realm, beyond space and time. They can neither be fought for, nor destroyed.'
Mrs Thatcher looked utterly baffled. She had just been presented with the difference between Toryism and American Republicanism. (Mr Blair would have been equally baffled.)"

[The Right Honourable Enoch Powell quoted in John Casey, The revival of Tory philosophyThe Spectator, March 17, 2007 (emphasis added).]

Patrick Henry: First Among Patriots

There's been something of a trend in the last few years of biographers spending time and effort to recount the lives of American founders outside what some of us refer to as the "Top Tier" (Washington, John Adams, Jefferson, Madison, Hamilton). Books recounting the lives and work of Abigail Adams, John Jay, Samuel Adams, Charles Carroll, Thomas Paine and others are becoming more and more common. And on the whole, that is a very salutary development. Our Revolution and Republic were made not only by a relatively few great men, but by many people working (sometimes at cross purposes!) to build and "secure the blessings of liberty" for themselves and for their "posterity" (to quote the Preamble of the Constitution).

One founder who has benefitted from this trend in biography is Virginian Patrick Henry. Once considered a major founder by historians, Henry's overall status has declined since the 1930's, when a fixation on those founders of long-ranging national stature took hold on most prominent historians and biographers. Fueled by the "Jeffersonian ends via Hamiltonian means" ideology of the Roosevelt administration, the focus on Jefferson in particular but also Madison and to a lesser extent Jefferson's nemesis Alexander Hamilton, shaped a good deal of popular history well into the current period. Patrick Henry, a politician who was most at home in Virginia and who never aspired to the presidency, was left behind -- a quirky, Southern, states-rights kind of founding father who was increasingly overlooked by an historical profession that was more and more enamored by the power of nationalized government.

One book that seeks to bring Henry back into the limelight is Thomas S. Kidd's biography of the great Virginian, Patrick Henry: First Among Patriots (Basic Books: 2011). Kidd, who teaches history at Baylor University, has published extensively on American religious history, and he brings a keen eye towards the deep principles -- some religious, some secular -- that formed the foundation of Henry's career as a lawyer, patriot and politician. Kidd begins his biography with an overview of Henry's place in popular consciousness over time, detailing the ebbs and flows in the attention paid to him. Once the narrative turns to Henry himself, Kidd provides a detailed and contextualized overview of the broader social forces at work in Henry's life. Backcountry Virginia is described & explained, the impact of the Great Awakening is discussed and the beginnings of the crisis with Great Britain are set out -- all with an eye towards explaining how these broader forces worked to shape the social, theological and political environment in which Henry found himself. Insightfully, Kidd's exploration of Henry's world never falls into the trap of ascribing Henry's character and beliefs solely to the surrounding culture -- instead Kidd paints a nuanced picture of the interaction of Henry's own distinct personality with the institutions and issues of his day.

And what issues they were! As Kidd notes, Henry was in the thick of virtually all of the major trends and episodes in the late colonial, revolutionary and early republic periods in American history. From the explosion in evangelical Protestant religiosity during the Great Awakening -- a religious fervor that without question accelerated the pace towards the Revolution -- to the fiery debates over American independence, Henry was there, consistently struggling against the notion of centralized government authority under the crown. Then, after the Revolution's success, Henry took up again the banner against centralized authority by becoming a leader in the fight against the ratification of the current Constitution, preferring the looser form of national government provided by the earlier Articles of Confederation. With the Constitution's passage, Henry became a leading voice against the Federalist majority during the Washington administration and the first part of the Adams' administration. Then, alarmed at the growing radicalism of Jefferson and his emergent Democratic Republican political party, Henry made the choice to defend the principles of order and the rule of law against what he saw as the the corrupt and violent disposition of Jefferson and his disciples.

Even the passage of the Alien and Sedition Acts could not persuade Henry to join the Jeffersonians. Instead, he held his tongue in spite of private opposition to the Acts, and endorsed fellow Virginian, Federalist and future Supreme Court Chief Justice John Marshall for a seat in Congress. Thanks to Henry's support, Marshall won a narrow victory. Thus was Henry's way paved towards a role at the end of his life as a major player in national politics.

The anti-Christian ideology of the French Revolution also moved Henry in a more conservative direction, as he realized that he forces unleashed by Revolutionary France had the potential to destroy the bonds of ordered liberty itself. Up until that time, Henry had been active in fighting against the Federalists, going so far as to peacefully work towards the creation of separate republics in the west as American settlers spread out across the continent. No more. In his private correspondence, he began to identify more and more strongly as an orthodox Christian. In one letter to his daughter Betsy, Henry distanced himself from the Deistic movement and lamented that he had failed to make more public affirmations of his own Christian faith:
Amongst other strange things said of me, I hear it is aid by the Deists that I am one of their number, and indeed that some good people think I am no Christian. This thought gives me much more pain than the appellation of Tory, because I think religion of infinitely higher importance the politics, and I find much cause to reproach myself that I have lived so long and have given no decided and public proofs of my being a Christian. But indeed by dear child this is a character which I prize far above all this world has or can boast.
With the rise of the Jeffersonian Republicans and their flirtation with French-influenced political ideology, Henry took stock of the times and make a momentous political move. At first privately and then publicly, he shifted to the Federalist Party, allying himself directly with his former opponents. From a critic of the Constitution he became one of its most ardent advocates, defending loudly the national charter that he had so resolutely opposed. For Henry, what was at stake in the Federalist-Jeffersonian struggle was the notion that free and republican government was possible only with a virtuous and devout citizenry. As Kidd reports, Henry wrote a scathing denunciation of the ideology of the French Revolution, going so far as to state that it was, in Henry's words, "destroying the great pillars of all government and of social life; I mean virtue, morality and religion." It was to prevent this acid ideology from warping the American experiment in ordered liberty that Henry embraced his former enemies in the Federalist Party.

Kidd does a very solid job of describing the different intellectual components of Henry's political career. As an historian of religion, Kidd pays particular attention to the spiritual beliefs that animated Henry, both in his private and public life. Henry's commitment to both established religion and religious liberty are explored, with Kidd providing particular detail to Henry's early prominence as a trial lawyer defending religious establishment in colonial Virginia. Kidd demonstrates that Henry's early support of establishment in Virginia was of a piece with his concern over centralized authority -- by emphasizing that it was the Virginia colonial government that established religion in the colony, Henry struck a blow against royal control of the Christian churches in Virginia. Since the church was established by the colony rather than by the crown, the church was accountable not to the King but to the colonial government and its laws. The clergy's civil appointments could therefore be revoked by the colonial government if the clergy sided with the King against the Virginia authorities. Thus colonial establishment of religion, for Henry, was a key institutional limitation on the power of the crown, reinforcing the decentralized nature of the British Empire while at the same time strengthening local allegiances and local accountability. As such, establishment was a tool that could be used to expand the liberty of the colony, providing a buttress to its efforts at local control.

In addition to detailing the efforts Henry made throughout his career to advance the cause of liberty, Kidd does not shy away from the great stain on Henry's political life, his defense of the institution of chattel slavery. Like many of the founders, Henry was quick to denounce slavery in the abstract while clinging tightly to the institution in practice. Henry's practical embrace of slavery included engaging in the odious slave trade, oftentimes clouded with a great deal of self-delusion about the moral virtue of the act of buying and selling his fellow human beings. Kidd recounts one episode where Henry sought to purchase slaves from a neighboring estate he was attempting to buy. "Henry was concerned that they [the slaves] were too expensive," Kidd recounts, "but in a magnanimous tone he wrote that 'they are so extremely desirous of staying with me, I consent to take them.'" Henry here manages to turn his act of buying human flesh into an act of kindness towards those enslaved. As Kidd notes, Henry's talk of liberty and his anti-slavery rhetoric aside, the Virginian "would never fundamentally alter his attitude about trafficking in slaves." Enmeshed in an economic system built on slavery, Henry's own wealth and privilege were dependent on the peculiar institution. "Land and slaves," as Kidd explains, "were Henry's means of securing his financial security."

In the last chapter of the book, Kidd provides a even-handed evaluation of the political principles that undergirded Henry's views. Detailing the use and in some cases the abuse of Henry's memory by both liberal and conservative partisans, Kidd does a solid job of conveying the complexities of Henry's views and how different his concerns were from those of the modern era. At the same time, Kidd notes that Henry was of all the major founders the most religiously orthodox, holding to the basic tenants of Anglican Protestantism. Henry also held a solid conviction in the need not only for localized government but also for public morality -- for the governing structures of a society to be grounded on virtue and the common good.

As Kidd writes, if Henry were to come back today, his message would be challenging to all the major players in our political climate. "True freedom, he might warn us, lies not in doing whatever we want. Freedom is doing what we should do, for the sake of community and the republic." Patrick Henry deserves far more attention today than he is getting. Kidd's book goes a long way in correcting that problem. It is well worth reading.

Thursday, July 02, 2015

George Washington, civic religion and a providential God

George Washington's pronouncements regarding civic religion were usually couched in general language.  He rarely referred to God in specific confessional terms, for example, but rather used generalized language that reflects often common 18th century Deistic terminology.  This use of generalized language was often paired with terminology designed to appeal to religious believers of a more orthodox Christian persuasion.

It is this pairing that more often than not leads to a good deal of the confusion regarding Washington's own religious beliefs and his view of faith in public life. A good example of Washington's use of language in this regard can been seen in one of his more significant public pronouncements, the Circular Letter to the Governors of All the States regarding the disbanding of the Continental Army in 1783.  In that letter, Washington seeks to reinforce the stability of the early American Republic as the Continentals returned home after winning independence.  In his letter, Washington makes two particularly important points regarding the role of religion in civil life.  The first is that for a variety of reasons, including divine "Revelation," human society is improving.  As Washington writes:
The free cultivation of letters, the unbounded extension of commerce, the progressive refinement of manners, the growing liberality of sentiment, and, above all, the pure and benign light of Revelation, have a meliorating influence on mankind, and increased the blessings of society.
Note that Washington, while listing many human accomplishments in this process of improvement, he attaches priority to "the pure and benign light of Revelation." It was divine Revelation, in Washington's statement, that was most to account for the progressive improvement in human society. Not a dry and cramped secularism or a humanism operating in a universe where God is simply an inattentive watchmaker, but Revelation proceeding from an active God who was communicating with human beings, moving them constantly forward toward a better future. Washington argues that because of these many advantages -- both human and revelatory -- the happiness of the citizens of the United States as "a Nation" (and Washington uses both the singular indefinite article and a capital "N") is for the taking. If happiness and freedom do not result, "the fault with be entirely" our own. 

Second, Washington further reinforces the importance of God's action in human events by commending the state governors and their respective states to divine care.  "I now make it my earnest prayer," he writes, "that God would have you and the State over which you preside, in his holy protection[.]" Washington then states that he hopes that God would move the citizens of the country to "cultivate" a host of proper civic virtues:  obedience to governmental authorities, fellow-feeling for each other -- both fellow citizens and particularly for the returning veterans of the Continental Army -- and, most interestingly, to emulate those virtues "which were the characteristics of the Divine Author of our blessed religion[.]" (Italics in the original.)  After including a brief and common list of those virtues, Washington states that without "an humble imitation" of the example of the Divine Author, "we can never hope to be a happy nation."

What one sees in Washington's Circular Letter is language used that is non-confessionally specific, but which takes for granted certain key religious ideas:  1)  God is active in human affairs, moving human beings towards greater goodness and social solidarity;  2) because of the advantages they benefit from, the citizens of the United States are responsible for their freedom and happiness; and 3) human beings are called to imitate the attributes of God as He has revealed them. While Washington's Circular Letter is not a fully developed treatise in civic theology, it does manifest the key points of Washington's own views about the role of religion in human society.  And Washington's vision in that regard was one that viewed religion as a positive force in human life and civic affairs.  It is not, to say the least, a vision of civic life that is hostile to religious faith.  While couched in language that is not expressly orthodox, it is couched in language that is certainly amenable to orthodox interpretation.

Far from religion ruining everything, to borrow a phrase from the late Christopher Hitchens, in Washington's Circular Letter religious faith stands as the well-spring for civic virtue and human happiness.

[Cross-posted at American Creation.]

Wednesday, July 01, 2015

"A free society is by definition a pluralistic society"

Wisdom from an often-overlooked scholar & writer of the middle-part of the 20th century:
Most Americans today accept it as an axiomatic truth that we live in a free society. I often wonder, however, how many of us realize that a free society is by definition a pluralistic society. A pluralistic society is one in which there are many different centers of authority, influence, and opinion, competing with one another, arguing with one another, trying by various means to expand their spheres of influence, and producing a great variety, richness, and animation. In such a society there is no single voice, government, cultural, ethical, religious, or social. There are many voices, each speaking from its point of view and striving to maintain itself in the general competition for belief and support. In direct contrast stands the monistic ideal of society, experienced by many millions of persons in other lands, which does have only one voice, and which works by many means toward effecting a unanimity of opinion, belief, and sentiment on all the issues of this life. That system bears the name totalitarian, and it is by now an obvious fact that these two are engaged in a gigantic rivalry to capture the imagination of the world.
- Richard M. Weaver (1910-1963), Responsible Rhetoric, reprinted in In Defense of Tradition: Collected Shorter Writings of Richard M. Weaver, 1929-1963, edited by Ted Smith III (Liberty Fund: 2000), pgs. 290-291.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

"The greatest security in a Republic"

Alexander Hamilton on the best defense of the American system of government, namely respect for the laws that govern us: 
If it were to be asked, What is the most sacred duty and the greatest security in a Republic? the answer would be, An inviolable respect for the Constitution and Laws -- the first growing out of the last.  It is by this, in a great degree, that the rich and powerful are to be restrained from enterprises against the common liberty -- operated upon by the influence of a general sentiment, by their interest in the principle, and by the obstacles which the habit it produces erects against innovation and encroachment.  It is by this, in a still greater degree, that caballers, intriguers, and demagogues are prevented from climbing on the shoulders of faction to the tempting seats of usurpation and tyranny.
- Alexander Hamilton (1755-1804), Tully No. III, Aug. 28, 1794, reprinted in Alexander Hamilton:  Writings (Library of America:  2001), pg. 830.

Of course, it helps if those laws are themselves respectable.

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.

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.
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.

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


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?