The slighter gestures

B and her boyfriend just got into Reykjavík. They’ll tool around Iceland for about eight days. Lots of pictures, please.

B’s into the better self-help books. Last Tuesday she told us about two favorites, one of the go-getter variety and one that points out the virtues of acceptance (“very Zen”). She likes the tension between the two. Victoria quoted Niebuhr’s Serenity Prayer, which defines navigating this tension as wisdom.

resistance photo
Photo by Monika Kostera (urbanlegend)

Can I justify avoiding a public life? I don’t mean a grand one, which I don’t have the personality or calling for. I could avoid a “normal” public life by claiming that there is no longer a public realm — at least not the kind that would support a republic. No public means no public life and no republic. B’s a sculptor, among other things, and maybe she can show me how to help chisel a public realm out of our mass culture.

But a person’s action can create a public space, and even, for a moment, a public and a republic. My sister, to my knowledge, doesn’t hold up signs, but she volunteers to help the poor. That’s creative as art.

Calls to elected officials and a meeting with the local police chief have felt very republican. Protests have felt very democratic. It’s funny that political parties have taken on these names. In Georgian England, if you were called a republican, you were accused of wanting to set up a republic. Similarly, democrats back then were accused of plotting a democracy. The names meant something. I’d like to see the United States restored to both forms of government.

It may be like what Merton says about saints and men: if I want to be a saint, I’ll first have to become a man; that is, I’ll have to discover my humanity. And if we want to be something other than a plutocracy, we’ll first have to discover public life.

Thomas Merton likes E.M. Forster on World War I: “For what, in that world-gigantic horror, was tolerable except the slighter gestures of dissent?” One can perceive Merton’s struggle for wisdom in this monologue about Forster’s quote:

Genuine dissent must always keep a human measure. It must be free and spontaneous. The slighter gestures are often the most significant, because they are premeditated and they cannot be doctored beforehand by the propagandist.

And so perhaps it is saner and nobler to expect effective protest from the individual, from the small unsponsored group, than from the well-organized mass movement. It is better that the “slighter gestures” never find their way into the big papers or onto the pages of the slick magazines. It is better not to line up with the big, manipulated group.

True, he who dissents alone may confine his dissent to words, to declarations, to attitudes, to symbolic gestures. He may fail to act. Gestures are perhaps not enough. They are perhaps too slight. (160)

Merton goes on to praise the then-current Civil Rights movement.

One can hear Merton’s search for wisdom also in the title of the book from which I’m quoting: Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander (1965).

Photo by MJWein

Resistance training

My average day reverses the generations of John Adams’s republicanism. He studied war and politics, he said, so that his children could study (inter alia) philosophy and commerce and so that his grandchildren, in turn, could study things like painting and poetry. I wake up with a proclivity for poetry and philosophy, which by the first bell gives way to commerce. After work, I settle in for politics and war. John Quincy Adams, anyway, proved his father wrong: he died in the U.S. Capitol fighting the Slave Power and warning the country about civil war. Curran‘s “eternal vigilance” presupposes a public life. My father wasn’t president, but he would often take me canvassing.

A holy caesura

The Bible is silent today. Jesus’ people – his mother, Peter, Mary Magdalene, and the rest – are observing the Sabbath. Jesus himself is dead, and his body rests in a tomb. Today everyone agrees about that. The only action is in Matthew: the chief priests and Pharisees come “in a body to Pilate” and successfully persuade him to seal the tomb and set a guard. The audience patiently examines the magician’s hat. Easter and the rabbit come later.

One could wish that this Sabbath today were better observed. Peter’s identity has been stripped from him. He has followed Jesus for three years, but as Jesus says, he has yet to be “converted.” Many of Jesus’ other followers have seen their political aims collapse: “We had been hoping that he was to be the liberator of Israel.”

The New Testament’s most dramatic conversions are reserved for the religious. Peter and Paul, whose stiff doctrines cause them, respectively, to wield a sword and execute arrest warrants, are silenced. Jesus later asks Peter, “Do you love me more than these others?” But Peter no longer claims to love Jesus more than others do. Paul, for his part, disappears from Acts’ pages for years. Now you see me, now you don’t.

Democracy and republicanism don’t work without the conversion of the religious – I do not say religious conversion. The proposition that all men are created equal is proven in the grave.

[Quotes are, in order, from Matthew 27:62, Luke 22:32, Luke 24:21, and John 21:15.]

America first

These days I’m grading and grading. Some of my kids’ speeches are good. The school’s subscription databases, though, suddenly seem so dated. I’ll update a student controversy, one that mirrors an article from the likes of Issues and Controversies: “Should the United States provide direct support for pro-democracy movements in the United States?”

My seniors don’t know what to think. We were openly horrified this past spring, but now any discussion of it is effectively banned. The speeches’ chosen topics have coalesced around global warming, stress & mental illness, and the need for manned space travel. To this aging ear, the speeches sound of would you betray us? would you divide us? would you, after all, prevent us? This generation’s rendezvous with destiny may come as a hurried, hunted assignation.

Abortion and today’s vote

I am pro-life. I think the Constitution, as interpreted by the Declaration of Independence, recognizes, under most circumstances, a human fetus’s right to life.1 I don’t think any of the four party candidates for president on today’s ballot share my views, though one recently switched to a pro-life position.2

I respect people’s pro-choice stance. Most of them condemn most abortions but don’t think a government should make decisions affecting the mother’s body. Indeed, when I see “Choose Life” license plates, I wonder if the driver is a pro-life person acknowledging the mother’s right to choose or a pro-choice person begging that mothers consider alternatives to abortion. And I know parents – both pro-life and pro-choice parents – who are more noble than I: they have adopted unwanted children.

Many Evangelicals will vote for any major-party presidential candidate who claims to be pro-life. This year, then, many Evangelicals will vote for Donald Trump.3 Most of them have made their peace with a candidate whose lifestyle is hardly Christian and who recognizes no need for redemption. They have also made their peace with a candidate whom they recognize as being largely outside of the American conservative tradition. Many of these Evangelicals even agree with the conclusion, stated in a letter signed last week by hundreds of American political science professors, that Trump’s candidacy is “a grave threat to American democracy and to other democratic governments around the world.” These Evangelicals are willing to dismiss that threat because Trump claims to be pro-life.

How did we get to the place where many Evangelicals are willing to risk democracy itself in order to vote for someone who claims to be pro-life?

I’ll hazard an answer. We Evangelicals don’t know our political science. We persist in a form of Constitutional exegesis that we would, I trust, never apply to the Bible.

Most Evangelicals are strict constructionists, which is a far cry from favoring the Founders’ original intent. Strict constructionists look at what lawyers call “the four corners of the document” – in this case, the United States Constitution – without any guiding principles except principles resembling those of statutory construction. If strict constructionists don’t find the answer in the Constitution, they put it to a vote.

Robert Bork calls the operation of strict constructionism “majority morality.” Here’s how it works as it moves from Constitutional interpretation to the political sphere:

There is no way to decide these questions [that place moral positions at odds with one another] other than by reference to some system of moral or ethical principles about which people can and do disagree. Because we disagree, we put such issues to a vote and, where the Constitution does not speak, the majority morality prevails. (From Bork’s book The Tempting of America)

In our pluralistic society, Bork says, the controlling values are the majority’s. But is it really a majority’s prerogative to decide what’s right? Isn’t this the kind of nihilistic thinking conservatives often attribute to liberals?

Here’s conservative Edward J. Erler‘s response to Bork:

Indeed, Madison, like Jefferson, argued . . . that a majority may do only those things “that could be rightfully done by the unanimous concurrence of the members.” Thus it is not simply the will of the majority that “rightfully” rules in a democracy, but the rational will of the majority. In the same vein, Jefferson wrote that “[i]ndependence can be trusted nowhere but with the people in mass. They are inherently independent of all but moral law.” Thus, it is clear that Madison and Jefferson viewed the people as a moral entity, not simply as a collection of discrete value-positing individuals. The positivism of both Bork and Rehnquist is predicated on a kind of moral relativism that ultimately leads to nihilism. (Edward J. Erler, in his introduction to Harry V. Jaffa’s Storm Over the Constitution, p. xxix)

What, then, makes a strict constructionist a strict constructionist? At bottom, the denial of self-evident truth. Strict constructionists adhere to the letter of the Constitution even in situations when traditional Constitutional construction would lead jurists outside of the text. (John Marshall, for instance, sometimes would argue a Constitutional provision only to reinforce a finding he would make chiefly through natural law.)

Our literalism, however, often obscures or even excludes truth. We are often like the Pharisees, whom Jesus said “pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin, and have omitted the weightier matters of the law, judgment, mercy, and faith” (Matt. 23:23).

What drives strict constructionists to overly fixate on the Constitution’s text? Partly the same literalism with which some Protestants approach the Bible in response to the Enlightenment. Partly their core belief that no one can divine the Constitution’s spirit or distinguish between its ideals and its political compromises. And partly their reaction to the progressives’ Living Constitution doctrine, the notion that the Constitution says what each generation of Americans says it says.

But strict constructionists never meet the Living Constitution adherents’ argument that we can’t know what the Framers meant. Instead, they reinforce the Living Constitution adherents’ argument through their over-insistence on the Constitution’s letter.

We can, though, usually know what the Framers meant. It’s no secret. While a lot of important, fundamental matters divided them — the nature of federalism and the extent of the franchise, for instance – a relatively new philosophy and an older heritage united them: Lockean liberalism and the broader notions of natural law and English common law. These three sources contain the legal equivalent of “justice, mercy, and faith.” Original intent, then, is an open mind informed by a vigorous legal and constitutional tradition. Beside it, Strict constructionism and the Living Constitution appear merely as simplistic rules of statutory and constitutional construction that, as Erler says, promote a “moral relativism that ultimately leads to nihilism.”

We church folks can get this. Long ago, I saw the wisdom of this Christian adage: if you have the Spirit without the Word, you blow up. If you have the Word without the Spirit, you slow up. If you have the Spirit and the Word, you grow up. Taken from biblical exegesis and applied to Constitutional exegesis, this adage in succession describes the Living Constitution, strict constructionism, and true original intent.

How does original intent apply to today’s abortion issue?

We might look at how Lincoln applied original intent to an earlier scourge, slavery. Abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison called the Constitution a pact with the devil and burned it in front of audiences. Lincoln admitted that the Constitution contained horrible compromises benefitting slavery, but he supported it nonetheless. Though Lincoln maintained his “personal wish that all men every where could be free,” he recognized that the Constitution protected the Declaration’s truths concerning equality, life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness – the very seeds that he hoped would grow to destroy slavery.

Lincoln believed that the Declaration’s truths were protected by the Constitution’s mean compromises, and he described the relationship between the Declaration’s truths and the Constitution’s compromises in a biblical metaphor, quoting this passage from Proverbs: “A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in pictures of silver.” For Lincoln, the Declaration’s truths are the apples and the Constitution is the picture:

The assertion of that principle [“liberty for all”], at that time, was the word, “fitly spoken” which has proved an “apple of gold” to us. The Union, and the Constitution, are the picture of silver, subsequently framed around it. The picture was made, not to conceal, or destroy the apple; but to adorn, and preserve it. The picture was made for the apple – not the apple for the picture.

One must preserve, protect, and defend the picture of silver – the Constitution – not for its own sake but for the golden apples’ sake. The abolitionists sought to keep the apples without the picture. Lincoln’s moderation would preserve both the apples and the picture long enough to amend the picture to become a fuller expression of the apples.

One can imagine a conversation between Lincoln and Garrison that would largely track a famous conversation in the 1960 movie A Man for All Seasons between Thomas More and his son-in-law, William Roper:

Roper: So now you’d give the devil benefit of law!

More: Yes. What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the devil?

Roper: I’d cut down every law in England to do that!

More: Oh? And when the last law was down, and the devil turned round on you — where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? This country’s planted thick with laws from coast to coast — man’s laws, not God’s — and if you cut them down — and you’re just the man to do it — d’you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I’d give the devil benefit of law, for my own safety’s sake.

The antebellum South, of course, took an exegetical position opposing Garrison’s. It sought to keep the picture without the apples. That is, it wanted to enforce the letter of the Constitution in order to have fugitive slaves returned and to maintain their advantage in the House of Representatives. Unlike Lincoln (and Jefferson and Madison before him), however, the South didn’t believe that the Declaration’s truths should be used to interpret the Constitution and to thereby limit slavery’s expansion.

Steeped in strict constructionism, the South in its rebellion proved just as willing to destroy the Constitution – the picture of sliver – as Garrison had been. Indeed, strict construction’s literal, truth-starved exegesis always leads to nihilism and to the destruction of the document interpreted.

Our Constitution, at least as our highest court has interpreted it, supports a right to choose. That support is contrary to the truths contained in the Declaration of Independence. We have a situation precisely like the one Lincoln and Garrison sparred over.

We cannot participate in our Constitution’s destruction, either during today’s election or in the dangerous days that follow it, in order to end abortion. The Constitution protects the Declaration’s truths, and those truths protect a fetus’s right to life.

We cannot, in screenwriter Robert Bolt’s terms, “lay flat” our country’s Constitution in order to “get at the devil.” Congress should not shut down the government to defund Planned Parenthood, which receives no government funding for abortion, anyway. The Senate should not shirk its duty to consider President Obama’s or a President Clinton’s Supreme Court nominees. And the people should not rebel against the Union because of an election, as much of the South did in 1860 and 1861. And today we should consider voting for candidates who uphold rather than tear down our Constitutional institutions and traditions.

I am not offering a solution to the abortion issue.

I do suggest, though, that if we hack down our Federal government to go after abortionists, what will be left if we succeed? When the Constitution lies flat and the devil turns on us in the form of anarchy or autocracy – or of one then the other – where will we hide?

  1. Because it involves the right to life, I see abortion as a Federal issue and not, as it once was, a state issue.
  2. CharismaNews has cast doubt on Donald Trump’s pro-life stance. Conservative columnist George F. Will finds the idea that Trump would appoint conservative justices ludicrous, given his big-government stances. Two weeks ago, even John McCain said he wasn’t sure who would be better at appointing Supreme Court justices – Hillary Clinton or Trump.
  3. Many Evangelicals also support Trump because of his pro-Israel rhetoric, and they believe his rhetoric despite his penchant for retweeting information from anti-Semitic web sites, despite his campaign chief executive’s anti-Semitic web site, and – worst of all – despite his championing of the foreign policy of Russia, the country that has fought proxy wars against Israel since Israel’s founding.

Hanna Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951)

I’ve just finished reading an extraordinary book, The Origins of Totalitarianism, written in 1951. Its author, Hanna Arendt, was a political theorist and a Jew who was briefly imprisoned by the Nazis and, years later, placed in an internment camp by Vichy France. Arendt’s book offer insights into our own state of affairs. Here are some excerpts:

The older nations enjoyed constitutions which implicitly or explicitly (as in the case of France, the nation par excellence) were founded upon the Rights of Man, that even if there were other nationalities within their borders they needed no additional law for them, and that only in the newly established succession states was a temporary enforcement of human rights necessary as a compromise and exception. The arrival of the stateless people brought an end to this illusion.

***

One is almost tempted to measure the degree of totalitarian infection by the extent to which the concerned governments use their sovereign right of denationalization [i.e., the right to deport people] . . . . But one should bear in mind at the same time that there was hardly a country left on the Continent that did not pass between the two wars some new legislation which, even if it did not use this right extensively, was always phrased to allow for getting rid of a great number of its inhabitants at any opportune moment.

***

The chief qualification of a mass leader has become unending infallibility; he can never admit an error. The assumption of infallibility, moreover, is based not so much on superior intelligence as on the correct interpretation of the essentially reliable forces in history or nature, forces which neither defeat nor ruin can prove wrong because they are bound to assert themselves in the long run. . . . Before mass leaders seize the power to fit reality to their lies, their propaganda is marked by its extreme contempt for facts as such, for in their opinion fact depends entirely on the power of man who can fabricate it.

***

. . .since the middle thirties, one mysterious world conspiracy has followed another in Bolshevik propaganda. . . . The effectiveness of this kind of propaganda demonstrates one of the chief characteristics of modern masses. They do not believe in anything visible, in the reality of their own experience; they do not trust their eyes and ears but only their imaginations, which may be caught by anything that is at once universal and consistent in itself. What convinces masses are not facts, and not even invented facts, but only the consistency of the system of which they are presumably part. Repetition, somewhat overrated in importance because of the common belief in the masses’ inferior capacity to grasp and remember, is important only because it convinces them of consistency in time. . . . The revolt of the masses against “realism,” common sense, and all ‘the plausibilities of the world’ (Burke) was the result of their atomization, of their loss of social status along with which they lost the whole sector of communal relationships in whose framework common sense makes sense.

***

…they recruited their members from this mass of apparently indifferent people whom all other parties had given up as too apathetic or too stupid for their attention. The result was that the majority of their membership consisted of people who never before had appeared on the political scene. This permitted the introduction of entirely new methods into political propaganda, and indifference to the arguments of political opponents; these movements not only placed themselves outside and against the party system as a whole, they found a membership that had never been reached, never been ‘spoiled’ by the party system. Therefore they did not need to refute opposing arguments and consistently preferred methods which ended in death rather than persuasion, which spelled terror rather than conviction. They presented disagreements as invariably originating in deep natural, social, or psychological sources beyond the control of the individual and therefore beyond the power of reason. This would have been a shortcoming only if they had sincerely entered into competition with other parties; it was not if they were sure of dealing with people who had reason to be equally hostile to all parties.

***

With the assumption that foreign politics is necessarily outside of the human contract, engaged in the perpetual war of all against all, which is the law of the “state of nature,” Hobbes affords the best possible theoretical foundation for those naturalistic ideologies which hold nations to be tribes, separated from each other by nature, without any connection whatever, unconscious of the solidarity of mankind and having in common only the instinct for self-preservation which man shares with the animal world.

***

If it should prove to be true that we are imprisoned in Hobbes’s endless process of power accumulation, then the organization of the mob will inevitably take the form of transformation of nations into races, for there is, under the conditions of an accumulating society, no other unifying bond available between individuals who in the very process of power accumulation and expansion are losing all natural connections with their fellow-men. Racism may indeed carry out the doom of the Western world and, for that matter, of the whole of human civilization. When Russians have become Slavs, when Frenchmen have assumed the role of commanders of a force noire, when Englishmen have turned into “white men,” as already for a disastrous spell all Germans became Aryans, then this change will itself signify the end of Western man. For no matter what learned scientists may say, race is, politically speaking, not the beginning of humanity but its end, not the origin of peoples but their decay, not the natural birth of man but his unnatural death.

***

A conception of law which identifies what is right with the notion of what is good for— for the individual, or the family, or the people, or the largest number— becomes inevitable once the absolute and transcendent measurements of religion or the law of nature have lost their authority. And this predicament is by no means solved if the unit to which the “good for” applies is as large as mankind itself. For it is quite conceivable, and even within the realm of practical political possibilities, that one fine day a highly organized and mechanized humanity will conclude quite democratically— namely by majority decision— that for humanity as a whole it would be better to liquidate certain parts thereof. Here, in the problems of factual reality, we are confronted with one of the oldest perplexities of political philosophy, which could remain undetected only so long as a stable Christian theology provided the framework for all political and philosophical problems, but which long ago caused Plato to say: “Not man, but a god, must be the measure of all things.” (Emphasis added)

***

The final excerpt, of course, describes the dilemma Abraham Lincoln discovered in Stephen Douglas’s Popular Sovereignty doctrine expressed in the 1854 Kansas-Nebraska Act. This dilemma precipitated Lincoln’s return to politics and was a major subject of the 1858 Lincoln-Douglas debates. All of natural law is based on political equality, and political equality is based on the existence and reign of God. That’s a political restatement of the two greatest commandments, from which all the law and the prophets also hang.

The Declaration and Donald Trump

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Since the Civil War, American conservative and liberal national officeholders have been, in an important sense, all liberals. Conservatives and liberals both defend the Founders’ liberal ideology drawn from John Locke, Jean Jacques Burlamaqui, Montesquieu, and other Enlightenment philosophers. Conservatives and liberals, of course, emphasize different aspects of the Founders’ liberalism. Today’s conservatives, generally speaking, want to conserve liberalism’s emphasis on free-market capitalism, which hitched up with liberalism around the time of our nation’s founding, and on individual rights. Today’s liberals want to expand the reach of liberalism’s equality and its removal of barriers from social and economic opportunity.

Donald Trump represents a break from this implied agreement on the goal – that is, on Lockean liberalism – between America’s two major political parties and the modern conservativism and liberalism they have represented. Trump is more like a conservative in the eighteenth-century English sense of the word. He may be the first monarchical American presidential nominee.

The Indictment

One can find similarities between Trump’s illiberal positions and the actions that King George III and, by implication, his Parliament are accused of in that most liberal of American state papers, the Declaration of Independence. (Most of the Declaration amounts to a bill of particulars supporting its indictment of a monarchy, at least as monarchism was practiced by King George. The Declaration’s more famous and soaring rhetoric is chiefly in its preamble, of course, to which I will return.)

Here are a few of the Declaration of Independence’s particulars against Trump.

Trump’s incitements to violence against protesters at his rallies (e.g., “Knock the crap out of them”) and his traffic with white supremacists recall a particular: “He has excited domestic insurrections amongst us.” His bullying of Judge Gonzalo Curiel for what lawyers call “a civil advantage” by calling the judge “a hater” and “a Mexican” brings to mind the accusation that George “has made judges dependent on his will alone.”

His promise to loosen libel laws against the press for negative reporting against him is, of course, an attack on the First Amendment’s freedom of the press. To abridge the First Amendment to this extent is right up there with “taking away our Charters, abolishing our most valuable Laws, and altering fundamentally the Forms of our governments.” His justification for limiting the press’s freedom – “I’m not like other people” – is the justification monarchs have used for such actions for centuries.

Even his stands on particular issues seem extreme enough to warrant a particular from the Declaration’s indictment. His penchant for tearing up trade deals, according to most economists who have studied his proposals, will have the effect of “cutting off our Trade with all parts of the world.” His harsh immigration proposals, including the construction of a Mexican-funded wall along our Mexican border and his temporary ban of Muslim immigration, remind me of this item from the Declaration’s indictment: “He has endeavored to prevent the population of these States; for that purpose obstructing the Laws of naturalization of Foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their migration hither . . .” And his refusal to rule out the tactical use of nuclear weapons as well as his refusal to support measures aimed at halting nuclear proliferation threaten the use of “Cruelty & perfidy scarcely paralleled in the most barbarous ages, and totally unworthy the Head of a civilized nation.”

But, more than anything else, Trump’s overall disdain for democratic and republican forms of government, from his failure to master the basics of seventh-grade civics (e.g., his belief that judges sign bills into law) to his assertion of a kingly prerogative to contradict himself without accountability, to his lack of any proposed republican means of carrying out his promises – instead, he asks us repeatedly only that we trust him – makes him seem like an eighteenth-century British monarch. To give King George credit, he was a constitutional monarch on his side of the Atlantic, but if our Declaration is to be believed, he acted as an absolute monarch over here. It is this brand of conservativism – this cynical, Patriarchalist, and Hobbesian view of mankind’s need for an autocratic ruler at the potential cost of individual and collective liberty – that Trump espouses.

The Equality Clause

Trump faces indictment not only by the Declaration’s bill of particulars against King George. Trump stands indicted also – and more significantly – by the Declaration’s preamble, particularly by its most precious member, the Equality Clause: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.”

Equality is the political term for the true self. As political philosopher Harry V. Jaffa has established, the Declaration’s expression of mankind’s essential equality presupposes a Judeo-Christian understanding of the separation and mutual respect among God, humanity, and the rest of nature. Or as Jesus put it:

But you must not be called “rabbi,” for you have one Rabbi, and you are all brothers. Do not call any man on earth “father,” for you have one Father, and he is in heaven. (Matthew 23:8 – 9, REB)

Because we have a common Father and Rabbi, we “are all brothers.” To say that we are equal, then, is to say that God is our Father. It is to say that we are children of God and that each of us is a child of God. It is the foundation for individual identity. Many, of course, express their essential selves in less religious terms or in different religious terms. No matter how it’s expressed, it signifies an individual yet universal identity that challenges sometimes-externally advanced identities based on ethnicity, religion, race, or social class.

By contrast, Trump offers us a tribal identity. He regularly re-tweets material from white supremacist sources. His campaign’s chief executive’s infamous web site denigrates both blacks and Jews qua blacks and Jews. He traffics in racial conspiracy theories, such as the false claim that President Obama is not a United States citizen. Trump gets many of his talking points from Russian strongman Vladimir Putin, who champions and quotes approvingly a formerly disgraced white fascist.

Trump’s actions are consistent with the words of the Confederacy’s chief philosopher, John Calhoun. Calhoun in a famous Senate speech stated that “there is not a word of truth in the whole proposition” that all men are created equal – the very proposition to which the Gettysburg Address claims that our nation was dedicated. Individuals have no rights, Calhoun believed; rights attach to individuals only as members of a race, and then only when that race earns those rights over the course of generations.

Lincoln and the Declaration on Trump

Taken alone, according to Lincoln, the particulars of the Declaration’s indictment, which take up over half of the Declaration’s words, would amount to a “merely revolutionary” document. The more important section is what Lincoln called the Declaration’s “abstract truth, applicable to all men and all times”; that is, the Declaration’s Equality Clause. According to Lincoln, it is the Equality Clause, even more than the particulars of the Declaration’s indictment, “that to-day, and in all coming days . . . shall be a rebuke and a stumbling-block to the very harbingers of re-appearing tyranny and oppression.”

Trump’s campaign is certainly a harbinger of reappearing tyranny. The entire Declaration of Independence rebukes it.

Why we Evangelicals nominated Trump

It may seem ironic that we Evangelicals, who profess everyone’s need for redemption, helped to nominate Donald Trump, who professes no such need. But we did: he swept the Bible Belt primaries, losing only Texas to favorite son Ted Cruz. According to NBC News exit polls, Mr. Trump won a combined forty percent of the Evangelical vote in the  GOP primaries and caucuses as of May 10, shortly after he effectively wrapped up the nomination. Mr. Cruz by then had a combined thirty-four percent of the Evangelical vote, in second place in that regard. Mr. Trump’s share of the Evangelical primary vote, of course, rose thereafter.

I first felt my own need for redemption as a teen in Newport News’s Ferguson High School. One of my best friends there had suddenly gotten religion – a common experience during the Jesus Movement of the late nineteen-sixties and early seventies – and I walked the aisle at his church. My conversion felt powerful. Shy as I was, I often preached until crowds clogged the school’s halls, forcing our assistant principal to stop me.

I wanted everyone to see what I saw: each of us is made in God’s image and endowed with an invisible spirit – a means of connecting with something universal and eternal.

Slowly something happened to our movement. As a William and Mary law student in the late seventies and early eighties, I watched Pat Robertson’s 700 Club, the Portsmouth-based show I had enjoyed as a teen, begin to mix politics with its religious programming. Nationally, of course, American Evangelicalism was by then becoming associated with a conservative stance on a number of social issues, including abortion, homosexuality, and the expression of religion in public places.

Our culture-war emphasis came at a cost: we Evangelicals became less inclined to see the image of God in our political opponents. In other words, our focus on social issues made us lose touch with the core of our democracy – our political equality as God’s children – an understanding that our earlier spiritual renewal made particularly available to us.

Our nation was founded on Enlightenment philosopher John Locke’s notion of equality before God. As law and philosophy professor Jeremy Waldron observes, “Locke accorded basic equality the strongest grounding that a principle could have: it was an axiom of theology, understood as perhaps the most important truth about God’s way with the world in regard to the social and political implications of His creation of the human person.”

In Enlightenment terms, this “axiom of theology” is a “self-evident truth,” and the American Framers accorded the Declaration of Independence’s Equality Clause – “all men are created equal” – this foundational status.

Instead of discovering in the Declaration the core of our own faith, however, many of my fellow Evangelicals have reconstructed America’s Revolutionary past with a “Christian nation” narrative. This rather tribal outlook on our country’s origins tends to exclude other faiths and denies the universal truth at the heart of the American experiment in self-government.

The “Christian nation” narrative is also godless at its core. It suggests that our political rights spring from historical accident and not from our status as God’s children. G. K. Chesterton, the Christian apologist, in his book What’s Wrong with the World stood against a similar notion of the origin of English rights, quoting and then countering Edmund Burke:

“I know nothing of the rights of men,” [Burke] said, “but I know something of the rights of Englishmen.” There you have the essential atheist. His argument is that we have got some protection by natural accident and growth; and why should we profess to think beyond it, for all the world as if we were the images of God!

Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address claims that America was dedicated not to the Christian God, exactly, but to Chesterton’s proposition, a universally shared spark of divinity reflected in our essential – that is, our political – equality. America was “dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” The proposition is attracting some harrowing answers, and the issue is again joined.

We Evangelicals were not wrong per se to mix religion and politics, but we have fought our culture wars as us-versus-them moral battles at the expense of the Equality Clause, which Lincoln rightly calls “the father of all moral principle among us.” This moral principle guided some past Evangelicals to support political movements that led to the abolition of slavery, to women’s suffrage, and to Civil Rights legislation.

Our own efforts at political action, however, have culminated in our support of Mr. Trump, an autocrat at heart who shows little inclination to see God’s image in Mexicans and Muslims, among others. After some political defeats, we Evangelicals see ourselves as weak and as a mere special interest; we seek Mr. Trump’s protection, and he has promised it to us.

We seem willing to give up on our nation’s 240-year-old experiment with equality in favor of a king. We fit a biblical precedent, that of ancient Israel, who rejected God by crying to the prophet Samuel to “give us a king!”

Unlike ancient Israel, of course, America isn’t a theocracy, but the spiritual core of the Equality Clause suggests an outlook on democracy based on a people’s status as children of God – government by “the people in mass . . . inherently independent of all but moral law,” as Jefferson puts it. In a real sense, we Evangelicals are rejecting the spiritual essence of our nation’s founding.

Instead of breaking through “the gates of hell,” as Jesus envisioned the church, we Evangelicals may pay dearly for arranging for our own protection.

Bibliography

1 Samuel 8 (KJV) (“Give us a king!” quote)

Chesterton, G. K. (Gilbert Keith) (2012-05-12). What’s Wrong with the World (Kindle Locations 2085-2086). Kindle Edition.

Erler, Edward J. “Harry Jaffa and Original Intent Jurisprudence.” Introduction. Storm over the Constitution. By Harry V. Jaffa. Lanham, MD: Lexington, 1999. Xvii-Xl. Print. (For Jefferson’s “moral law” quote, page xxix.)

Jaffa, Harry V. “What Were the ‘Original Intentions’ of the Framers of the Constitution of the United States?” University of Puget Sound Law Review 10 (1987): 351-448. Web. 22 July 2013. <http://digitalcommons.law.seattleu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1246&context=sulr>. (For Lincoln’s “the father of all moral principle among us” quote, page 417.)

Matthew 16:18 (KJV) (“Gates of hell” quote)

Mitchell, Travis. “Evangelicals Rally to Trump, Religious ‘Nones’ Back Clinton.” Pew Research Center’s Religion Public Life Project RSS. Pew Research Center, 13 July 2016. Web. 18 Sept. 2016.

Waldron, Jeremy. God, Locke, and Equality: Christian Foundations of John Locke’s Political Thought. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2002. Print. (Page 6)

The end

637px-El_sueño_de_Jacob,_por_José_de_RiberaGot to page 13 today, and Evely’s That Man Is You is living up to its title’s promise of mistaken identity. After all this Christianity, he says, I don’t know God when I see him.

Evely quotes Saul of Tarsus: “Who are you, Lord?” An embarrassing question. Yet to find the Lord in such a place, at such a time, taking on such a tone, walking in such a skin, is to find also that I don’t know the Lord.

It is comedy. Jacob: Surely the Lord is in this place, and I knew it not. Jesus: Surely the Lord is in this face, and you know her not.

It is the path to humility, to resolution, to the last curtain. Eschatology is comedy: Then shall I know even as also I am known. Life is a play inside a play inside a play. But living is dying: stepping out of one playhouse and onto the dark streets of another.

Eternity unfolds in unmaskings. During the play, it makes sense of the past. (The embarrassment of dramatic irony: it was laughter I heard: everyone knew but me.) And I find myself in a role I hate; only faith, that faintest smile, assures me I’m on the right stage. New lines come as the scenes change — or do I improvise? — and I discover my true character.

I am practiced, by the play’s end, in facing my unknown, and I trust that my unmasking will continue.

Saul to Damascus is two unmaskings. Saul doesn’t recognize the Lord, and neither does Ananias:

The Lord said to him, ‘Go to Straight Street, to the house of Judas, and ask for a man from Tarsus named Saul. You will find him at prayer; he has had a vision of a man named Ananias coming in and laying hands on him to restore his sight.’ Ananias answered, ‘Lord, I have often heard about this man and all the harm he has done your people in Jerusalem. Now he is here with authority from the chief priests to arrest all who invoke your name.’ But the Lord replied, ‘You must go, for this man is . . . (Acts 9:11 – 15, REB)

For this man is . . .

It’s the age of masks, the putting down and sorting out by the simplest codes and slurs. It is a tragedy. One hopes for the end, when all will be revealed.

Image: “El sueño de Jacob” by José de Ribera

Occupation meets preoccupation: a year of reading

3PictureUNHFacadeThis year, thanks to my reading, my blog’s abiding preoccupations made my occupation more meaningful.

A few years ago, my blog taught me something: my outlooks on my three areas of preoccupation – critical, civil, and spiritual – are the same. In each area I wish, borrowing Karl Barth’s phrase here, to “think dogmatically.” Barth uses the phrase to compliment F.D.E. Schleiermacher, a nineteenth century theologian, and Ann E. Berthoff amplifies the notion of dogmatic thinking in her own paean to Schleiermacher. It involves, she says, “the charge of keeping the code” but not by “pretending that knowledge and understanding are independent of interpretation” (Berthoff, Mysterious, 97).

I offer two more quotes, the first by Susanne K. Langer, the twentieth-century American philosopher, and the second by Jean Piaget, the twentieth-century Swiss psychologist, that put Berthoff’s understanding of hermeneutics in different ways:

All knowledge is an interpretation, and we must choose such perspectives as will yield meanings of the universe which interest us . . . (82)

To understand is to invent.

This summer, I learned a nice word for my outlook: triadicity. In semiotic terms, it means that a sign and what it signifies, by themselves, don’t explain much and can lead to, as Berthoff puts it, “getting rid of the interpreter or destroying what he is meant to interpret” (Berthoff, Sense, 133). To avoid hermeneutical (and, I would add, political, critical, or spiritual) disaster, the sign and signified – the chief elements of a dyadic approach to language – need a mediator:

The only way to get from symbol to what is symbolized is by means of a mediating idea which must, in turn, be interpreted. (Berthoff, Mysterious, 73)

I began to understand my outlook in semiotic terms. I saw that, for instance, my preoccupation with the challenges the abolitionists and the secessionists present to Lincoln fit triadic thinking: Lincoln advances a “mediating idea” – the Declaration of Independence’s “all men are created equal” – as a way to counter both the secessionists’ strict construction of the Constitution (Berthoff’s “getting rid of the interpreter”) as well as the abolitionists’ desire to destroy the Constitution as a pact with the devil (Berthoff’s “destroying what he is meant to interpret”).

I read and wrote a lot this summer while taking three courses in composition instruction to prepare to teach some college freshman composition sections. These three courses largely gave me the flexibility to pursue my interests, and the chief interest became triadicity.

I started to see triadicity everywhere whether or not it was referred to as such. Triangles always worked. One instructor at the University of New Hampshire read a few paragraphs from Susin Nielsen’s young adult novel We Are All Made of Molecules. In it, Stewart describes his mother’s death as the collapse of an equilateral triangle in which his father, mother, and he makes up the triangle’s sides. It reminded me of the sad reliance on dualistic philosophy in the Common Core, in American politics, in many American churches’ hermeneutics, and in Constitutional construction. Like Stewart, I visualized a triangle with a missing base in order to cope with a tragedy.

I quickly began to summarize my three preoccupations around Stewart’s triangle, and I found a good fit for nine expressions of them:

3PictureTriangle

After my summer classes ended, I created my classroom’s bulletin board to summarize and contrast dyadic and triadic approaches to education:

3PictureBulletinBoard

One can hear this contrast in Piaget’s writing. The above quote from Piaget, “To understand is to invent,” is really the title of one of his two seminal books on how to apply advances in psychology to educational practice, this one published in 1973. Early in To Understand Is To Invent, Piaget compares what he refers to as “three tendencies” in applying then-recent “research on the development of the intelligence and cognitive structures” to education:

The first, remaining loyal to venerable Anglo-Saxon traditions, continues to pursue an empirical associationism with would assign a purely exterior origin to all knowledge, deriving it from experience or verbal or audio-visual representations controlled by adults.

The second is characterized by an unexpected return to factors of innateness and internal development. . . . Here education would mainly consist in training an innate “reason.”

The third tendency, which is decidedly my own, is of a constructivist nature. . . . It recognizes neither external preformations (empiricism) nor immanent preformations (innateness), but rather affirms a continuous surpassing of successive stages. This obviously leads to placing all educational stress on the spontaneous aspects of the child’s activity. (10 – 11)

Although Piaget never mentions Locke or “innate ideas” directly, one sees hints in the “first tendency” of an oversimplification of Locke’s empiricism that, to some extent, was designed to counter the doctrine of “innate ideas” prevalent in Locke’s day. The oversimplification, however, is on the part of the American educational system, which, particularly with its emphasis on multiple-choice, standardized testing and its business model of teaching, has doubled down on Piaget’s first reported tendency. The left side of my bulletin board illustrates this tendency.

One can see in Piaget’s summaries the same tendencies in education that Berthoff finds in hermeneutics. Piaget’s first tendency seeks to “get rid of the interpreter” – the student – as a meaning-maker. His second tendency seeks to “destroy what he is meant to interpret” by devaluing any text used in favor of developing the student’s innate gifts.

As Berthoff says, “thinking dogmatically means honoring a commitment to the third way” (Berthoff, Mysterious, 97).

° ° °

I’ve run up a great debt to Ann Berthoff. She has written passionately and thoughtfully over several decades about triadicity. Most of her earlier writings addressed triadicity in the context of writing instruction. Her writing tends to be highly theoretical and critical of dyadic thinking. However, unlike many composition theorists, Berthoff has done pedagogy: she has coupled her engaging works on composition theory (The Making of Meaning; The Sense of Learning) with a full-blown textbook for the college freshman composition class (Forming, Thinking, Writing). Without her textbook, Berthoff would seem to take on the role of the perpetual backbencher, a gadfly who would come “out of her corner again and again . . . to attack a would-be pedagogical savior,” as Philip Keith describes her modus operandi. Keith is enthusiastic about her textbook:

It is a putting of cards on the table after long study, thought and analysis. It is serious and, to use the word of an earlier reviewer,?amiable; tough and nurturing, careful and strange. It organizes?while it swamps. It is a wonderful book, and the world might well become a very different place if it were used in even a quarter of the freshman composition classes in the country. (98)

Instead, like all of Berthoff’s books, it is out of print. This past summer, to get her latest book, The Mysterious Barricades: Language and its Limits, for less than fifty dollars, I had to order a used copy from Australia. Her relative obscurity is no reflection on her, of course. After reading her, I’m convinced it speaks more to the intransigent nature of American classroom practice, an intransigence that helps to give old, classic pedagogic texts (like Piaget’s) a certain immediacy since they often describe the same challenges and mindsets that continue to plague writing classrooms today.

In a way – and this is a grand sentiment – I hope to do for Berthoff in my college composition and ninth-grade classes what she did for her intellectual forebears. She gives fresh thought and new application to two fellow writing instructors, I. A. Richards and Louise M. Rosenblatt, as well as to several other theorists – among them Charles Sanders Pierce, Kenneth Burke, and Lev Vygotsky – who weren’t thinking a great deal about writing instruction per se when they worked out their theories.

° ° °

Here are the books and the Great Courses I’ve read this year. Thanks to my three graduate classes, I’ve also read too many academic articles, none of which I’ve included here.

Peter Ackroyd. Rebellion: The History of England from James I to the Glorious Revolution

James Baldwin. Giovanni’s Room

James Baldwin. Go Tell It on the Mountain

Anna Beer. Milton: Poet, Pamphleteer, and Patriot

John Berger. To the Wedding

James A. Berlin. Writing Instruction in Nineteenth-Century American Colleges

Ann E. Bertoff. Forming, Thinking, Writing (2nd Ed.)

Ann E. Bertoff. The Mysterious Barricades: Language and Its Limits (two reads)

Ann E. Berthoff. The Sense of Learning

Ed Catmull and Amy Wallace. Creativity, Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration

Teju Cole. Every Day Is for the Thief (second read)

Joseph Conrad. Heart of Darkness

Maurice Cranston. John Locke: A Biography

John Dewey. Experience in Education.

David Herbert Donald. Lincoln Reconsidered: Essays on the Civil War Era (3rd edition)

Dave Eggers. What is the What

William Faulkner. Intruder in the Dust (second read)

L. Dee Fink. Creating Significant Learning Experiences

Joseph A. Fitzmyer (introduction, translation, and notes). The Anchor Bible: The Gospel According to Luke (I – IX)

Paulo Freire. Pedagogy of Freedom: Ethics, Democracy, and Civic Courage

Malcolm Gladwell. Outliers: The Story of Success

Howard Holzer. Lincoln and the Power of the Press

Michael Korda. Clouds of Glory: The Life and Legend of Robert E. Lee

Alan Charles Kors. The Birth of the Modern Mind: The Intellectual History of the 17th and 18th Centuries (Great Courses)

Pauline Meier. Ratification: The People Debate the Constitution, 1787-1788

Stephen Mitchell, trans. Gilgamesh

Michel E. de Montaigne (Donald M. Frame, trans.). Essays, Book One

Reinhold Niebuhr. The Irony of American History (third read)

Tim O’Brien. In the Lake of the Woods

Walker Percy. The Moviegoer

Walker Percy. The Thanatos Syndrome

Raymond P. Scheindlin, trans. The Book of Job

Dan Senor and Saul Singer. Start-Up Nation: The Story of Israel’s Economic Miracle

William Shakespeare. Romeo and Juliet (three reads; countless previous reads)

Dava Sobel. Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time

Mark A. Stoler. The Skeptic’s Guide to American History (Great Courses)

Stephen Toulmin. The Uses of Argument

Alice Walker. The Color Purple

Philip Weinstein. Becoming Faulkner

Garry Wills. Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words that Remade America (three reads)

° ° °

Works Cited

Berthoff, Ann E., and James Stephens. Forming, Thinking, Writing. 2nd ed. Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook, 1988. Print.

Berthoff, Ann E. The Mysterious Barricades: Language and Its Limits. Toronto: U of Toronto, 1999. Print.

Berthoff, Ann E. The Sense of Learning. Portsmouth, NH: Boynton/Cook, 1990. Print.

Keith, Philip M. “Ann Berthoff and the Problem of Method in Writing: A Review Essay.” Rhetoric Society Quarterly 10.2 (1980): 98-103. Print.

Nielsen-Fernlund, Susin. We Are All Made of Molecules. New York: Wendy Lamb, 2015. Print.

Piaget, Jean. To Understand Is To Invent: The Future of Education. New York: Grossman, 1973. Print.

3PictureUNHFacade1Photos of building facade taken this past summer at the University of New Hampshire.