"Go not for every grief to the physician, nor for every quarrel to the lawyer, nor for every thirst to the pot." —George Herbert (1593-1633)

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

Monday, March 30, 2015

The merits and demerits of Mel Bradford's understanding of the American Founding

That's the topic of discussion in this short but interesting piece over at The Imaginative Conservative:  Mel Bradford and the Founding.

While I would agree with Bradford about the constitutional status of the Declaration of Independence (it isn't a legal document like the Constitution or statutes enacted under constitutional authority), I would disagree with him about what set behind Lincoln's appeal to the Declaration.  Lincoln was not attempting to re-found the country, rather, he was trying to call the country back to its origins, to the vision of its Founders, and to the idea of ordered liberty that was at the core of the Founders' vision. The Declaration's statement of equality was not a radical and absolute equality of position for all in society, it was a statement of the equality of all human beings before the Creator.  Because all men were equal in station before God, so should they be equal before the law that was predicated on the inalienable rights of life, liberty & the pursuit of happiness that come from the Creator and not the State.

It was Lincoln, in the great contest of the Civil War, who was the conservative, the one who sought to walk in the "old paths." Russell Kirk understood this well, and it is a pity that his friend Mel Bradford chose not to appreciate that aspect of Lincoln's political philosophy.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

How Christianity Invented Human Rights

From Baylor's invaluable Research on Religion podcast series, hosted by Tony Gill of the University of Washington.

What difference does a religious tradition make?  If it is Christianity, Prof. Jim Papandrea of the Garrett-Evangelical Seminary at Northwestern University says it matters a great deal.  Jim returns to our show for the third time (hat trick) and discusses his new book Seven Revolutions: How Christianity Changed the World and Can Change It Again, coauthored with Mike Aquilina.  The general thrust of the book is that Christian theology introduced to the world (at least) seven new ways to envision human society, starting with the individual person and proceeding up through the state.
Jim starts us off by listing the seven great revolutions introduced by Christian thought, including how we look at: the person, the home (and gender roles), work (and the laborer), religion, community, death, and (finally) the state.  He also notes how Christianity promoted a “God of love” that opened the door to an inclusionary religion that shaped all of these critical areas.  
We then look into the fourth revolution — religion — more closely and Jim notes that although based upon a Judaic foundation, Christianity opens the door to proselytizing and including all peoples into one single religion.  This has a major impact on how individuals and neighbors are conceived, and will impact the how early Christians opened the door to new thinking on government.  
We cover the reaction to this new message amongst the Romans of the day, which wasn’t always welcoming.  Persecutions were common, yet Christianity kept growing culminating in its final acceptance under the Edict of Milan (313 CE).  Jim discusses the role that Constantine played in this process and notes that the Edict of Milan, contrary to the notion that it established Christianity as the official church, was really the world’s first document on religious liberty.  
This springboards us into another one of Jim’s seven revolutions regarding the role of the state.  Here we spend some time talking about how Christianity changed the notion of sovereignty by not placing the “person at the top of the governing pyramid” as the ultimate authority, but rather noting that God is a separate authority.  Jim discusses how this translates into the role of citizen sovereignty and how it relates to the foundation of the US government some 230 years ago.  We also take time to cover the revolutions of community (“love thy neighbor”) as well as how Christianity developed the concept of human dignity for all and how this helped change views on labor and family roles, not to mention the topics of euthanasia, abortion, and infanticide (practices common in the Roman Empire).
Our conversation ends with some reflection on Christianity in the “post-Christian" era.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

A Madisonian defense of freedom of conscience

That's provided by Ken Masugi over at the Liberty Law Blog: The Conscience of a Madisonian Conservative. I'm more of a Hamiltonian myself, but Masugi makes some very good points, particularly in light of the collapse of the distinction between public & private life that life that lies at the heart of modern liberalism. As Masugi writes, in the current state of the culture & polity, both conservatives & libertarians share a common task:
In their appreciation of the American founding, conservatives and libertarians need to recover the comprehensiveness of its understanding of man, for both external goods and those of the mind. And that means a coherent doctrine of natural right.
Of course, Masugi's call for collaboration between conservatives & libertarians is premised on something which I think is very much an open issue, namely, whether libertarianism as an ideology is capable of properly discerning the line between the public & the private.  While libertarian theorists generally draw the line differently than modern liberalism, many suffer from the same fundamental malady as liberalism, the tendency to make ideologically-driven category errors, in the case of libertarians assigning legitimate state functions to the private sphere.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Ordered liberty & the political rhetoric of Alexander Hamilton

A lengthy essay on that topic by one of the master historians of the American founding may be found here: The Rhetoric of Alexander Hamilton.  The author, Forest McDonald, does a very good job dispatching some of the gross distortions of Hamilton that have persisted since the radical Jeffersonians took it upon themselves to poison the record regarding this most uniquely American founding father.  Far from seeking to create a centralized government based on greed and corruption, Hamilton sought to ensure that balanced government would be motivated by virtue, natural law and the principle of proper and precise debate over public policy issues.

While Jeffersonians were perfecting bare knuckle politics, Hamilton sought to elevate discourse and speak clearly on the pressing issues of the day. As McDonald notes, Hamilton was unsure that the American experiment in constitutional government would succeed, but he was adamant in his commitment to fight for its viability in a world growing increasingly swamped by the fervor of ideology.  And the key to viability was (& is) to shift the discussion from rights to duties, from benefits to obligations:
More than most of his countrymen, he doubted that the experiment could succeed; more than any of them, he was dedicated to making the effort. He perceived clearly that political rhetoric of the highest order was necessary to the attempt, for such is essential to statecraft in a republic. Now, we hear a great deal these days about the public’s “right to know.” That is a perversion of the truth, even as modern public relations, propaganda, and political blather are perversions of classical rhetoric. If the republic is to survive, the emphasis must be shifted from rights back to obligations. It is the obligation, not the right, of the citizen of a republic to be informed; it is the obligation of the public servant to inform him and simultaneously to raise his standards of judgment. In adapting his style to his audience, Hamilton was fulfilling his part of the obligation.
Ordered liberty was the goal of Hamilton's work.  And ordered liberty requires not just a right ordering of the affairs of government, it requires a citizenry oriented to both freedom & civic virtue. McDonald's essay does a fantastic job of showing Hamilton's commitment to defending ordered liberty against its enemies, using clear, energetic language grounded in the belief in morality, duty & prudential principle.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

A libertarian argument in favor of religious liberty

Euripedes over at Self-Evident Truths provides one in this short essay on the need to stand up for the rights of religious believers:  Why We Must Protect Religious Freedom in the U.S. As he writes:
You nor I may like a particular religion, or particular religious beliefs of certain individuals, but we must protect the free exercise of religion in this country if, for no other reason, than to prevent the state from dictating what is right and what is wrong. When the state defines morality, we, as people of a free society, will cease to be free.
I would quibble with this argument a bit -- the state defines morality through the law all the time -- but the basic point is sound not only from a libertarian but also a conservative perspective. Aside from its theological value, religious liberty serves a critical function in limiting the power of the state to dictate moral norms without criticism. Absent religious liberty -- and coherent religious institutions within a society -- there is very little tangible limitation to the power of government.

By emphasizing the autonomy of faith & by fostering an atmosphere where institutions can flourish outside of the micro-managing grasp of the state, religious liberty fosters the practice of limited government. Organized religion and religious believers function to provide an alternative voice to state power. This is one reason why one of the tells of tyranny is its hostility to traditional religion, believers & institutions.

One does not need to be religious to understand this point and to come to the defense of religious believers & institutions when under attack.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Indicting the Educational-Industrial Complex

In an essay titled  "History Under Attack," Princeton history prof Tony Grafton, former president of the American Historical Association, circles the wagons for the academic establishment here. I don't know about "history" being attacked, but the keepers of the crypt, the professional history professors, certainly are.

The academy as a whole is corrupt, they tell us. We professors are imprisoned within sclerotic disciplines, obsessed with highly specialized research. We can’t write except in meaningless jargon, and we address only esoteric students, thus ensuring that we have no audience. We train our graduate students to do the same, even though they, unlike us, won’t be rewarded for doing so by gaining tenure-track jobs. We usually don’t train our undergraduates at all, since we leave lower-level teaching to adjunct and contingent faculty. And when we do deign to spend time with them, we offer not rigorous training in source criticism, literary analysis, and argument, but indoctrination into our own left-wing view of politics, the arts, and pretty much everything else.
For all their disagreements on detail, almost all of these critics agree, not only on the symptoms but also on their causes. They have met the enemy, and he is us. We professors have shed our basic responsibility, teaching, in favor of research. Instead of grounding eager young people in the liberal arts, nine or twelve or fifteen hours a week, we barely enter the classroom. Instead we are off-campus, secluded at home or in a library or archive, pursuing specialized research. Every year we write more and more about less and less, filling libraries with unread books and articles and babbling at pointless conferences. And every year we are rewarded for this dereliction with higher salaries and more privileges.
This rich, protean indictment appears, in all its varied forms, in many places—from trade books produced by professors, think-tankers, and journalists to journalistic articles and blog posts. It echoes and reverberates and deafens, like conversation in a fashionable restaurant. And it is often expressed with memorable savagery. Let professors pay for their own vacations in Tuscany, write Hacker and Dreifus, unsubtly suggesting that research trips are really luxurious jaunts to places in the sun.  
It’s easy enough to refute individual articles of this indictment. 

Well, in a nation where college students' ignorance of even the most basic facts of history and civics is well-chronicled,  I don't think he does very well with the refutation part atall atall, but you can read the whole thing and decide for yourself. I do give him credit for getting the indictment right, though. Perhaps the only justice in the whole corrupt enterprise is that the true believers, the adjunct professors, get screwed by the system even worse than they screw the students.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Burke, Lincoln & the Whig idea of reform

Greg Weiner has an essay posted over at The Imaginative Conservative exploring the link in the thought between the two great Whig statesmen: Edmund Burke, Abraham Lincoln and the Problem of Greatness. Both Burke and Lincoln were men of conservative temperament who believed in reform through, as Weiner notes, the Whig concepts of gradual improvement and sound morality. "These are," as he puts it, "the essence of prudence." Lincoln and Burke are models of the reforming statesman, who look not to the disruption of ambition and distinction but rather to another path for excellence in reform: "prudence itself as a form of excellence worth celebrating too." As Russell Kirk was fond of pointing out, one of the key frames through which a conservative politician & statements views politics is the virtue of prudence, a virtue that enables the right deployment of the other virtues in both person and public life. And in politics, one of the key principles of prudential reform is continuity.

Nowhere is Lincoln's vision of continuity & reform more on display than in the Gettysburg Address, delivered by the man who led the battle to save the Union in the face of those who would destroy the country in order to propagate the institution of chattel slavery:
Fourscore and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation or any nation so conceived and so dedicated can long endure. We are met on a great battlefield of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field as a final resting-place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this. But in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead who struggled here have consecrated it far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living rather to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us--that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion--that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain, that this nation under God shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth.
Amen to that, Mr. President. Amen to that.

In honor of St. Patrick's day, a testament to the wisdom of the Celtic mind

Brad Birzer provides just that in this article over at The American Conservative:  The Celtic Mind.  The Irishman Edmund Burke & the Scotsman Adam Smith both had a solid grasp and commitment to the Christian & classical roots of western civilization, incorporating the wisdom of the Christian faith & ancient Stoicism into their political, moral & economic worldview.

Yet, in addition to these strong roots, both Burke & Smith participated in something uniquely modern:  the British Enlightenment.  The British Enlightenment did not embrace not the radical version that found fertile and bloody soil in France, or the more shallow version that fared in America, but was formed in part by a uniquely Celtic vision that thrived in Scotland & Ireland.  And what a difference that made, as Birzer explains:
The Celtic Mind recognized and extended the Western vision of man. It sought not, like those of the other Enlightenments, to put man in a box as this or that. Even in its skepticism, the Celtic Mind embraced humility, not ego. If those of us who love order and liberty, labeling ourselves either conservatives or libertarians, did the same, we might have a chance to reclaim the field now possessed by the heirs of those darker Enlightenments—the neoconservatives, the militant liberals, and their legions of corporatist allies feeding Leviathan at home and bloody imperialism abroad.