Invincibly impersonal

3PictureJamesBaldwinI read a scene tonight towards the end of Another Country that got me thinking about self-government. James Baldwin’s 1961 novel, I acknowledge, has nothing directly to do with government  or politics of any kind. But any novel portraying great anguish well and offering a glimmer of hope is a paean to self-government. It answers “maybe” or even “yes” to Alexander Hamilton’s question at the outset of the Federalist Papers: Can people govern themselves?

Self-government’s survival, in other words, depends on whether I’m willing to live out some anguish and accept my humanity.

In the scene, a character, with a friend in an art gallery, comes to realize that she has helped to create the husband she has grown to despise.

“And I saw that I’d loved him like that, like a child, and now the bill for all that dreaming had come in. How can one have dreamed so long? And I thought it was real. Now I don’t know what’s real.” (404)

I’ll quote from the characters’ more theoretical observations and reflect on self-government.

“You think that there isn’t any hope for us?”

“Hope?” The word seemed to bang from wall to wall. “Hope? No, I don’t think there’s any hope. We’re too empty here”— her eyes took in the Sunday crowd — “too empty — here.” She touched her heart. “This isn’t a country at all, it’s a collection of football players and Eagle Scouts. Cowards. We think we’re happy. We’re not. We’re doomed.” (406)

Government is messy because humanity is messy. There are two ways out. One is to escape from being human, to be transformed into something better – a saint, perhaps, or a god. The other is to redefine humanity to exclude the messy elements — that is, to define certain groups — groups to which I happily don’t belong — as subhuman.

No matter which of these two ways out I choose, I am drawn to one of two approaches to government. As the god superior to man or as the man superior to beasts, I and my fellow superiors can govern to enforce the gulf that separates us from the inferiors for the good of society. Or I can, perhaps in disgust, disclaim any role in governing.

Neither approach to government is self-government. Self-government requires my involvement and my humanity.

Self-government is personal. It’s not enough to espouse equality. It’s not enough to vote. Self-government insists that I become human. And to become human, I must own up to my part in humanity’s problems.

“You said once,” he said, “that you wanted to grow. Isn’t that always frightening? Doesn’t it always hurt?”

It was a question he was asking himself — of course; she turned toward him with a small, grateful smile, then turned to the painting again.

“I’m beginning to think,” she said, “that growing just means learning more and more about anguish. That poison becomes your diet — you drink a little of it every day. Once you’ve seen it, you can’t stop seeing it — that’s the trouble. And it can, it can” — she passed her hand wearily over her brow again — “drive you mad.” (405)

Self-government isn’t possible without personal growth, and growth isn’t possible without anguish and hope. Hope without anguish is immature hope – perhaps a necessary starting point, but untested and, if it stays untested for too long, dangerous. But anguish without hope leads to madness.

“You begin to see that you yourself, innocent, upright you, have contributed and do contribute to the misery of the world. Which will never end because we’re what we are.” (Id.)

Equality is hard work. It’s easy to espouse in theory but hard to admit in practice, when my equality with others includes aspects of humanity that offend me.

He watched her face from which the youth was now, before his eyes, departing; her girlhood, at last, was falling away from her. Yet, her face did not seem precisely faded, or, for that matter, old. It looked scoured, there was something invincibly impersonal in it. (405 – 406)

Public life is impersonal, and that impersonality can be either bad or good. Self-righteousness is impersonal because it treats the other as less than a person. But self-government is impersonal because it transcends personality. Self-government is based on a sacred truth, as the Declaration’s first draft puts it, that all men are created equal. Our essential equality, deeper than personality, is the basis for celebrating our diverse personalities and cultures – and for celebrating, ultimately, our common failings.

Only my personal anguish – only our collective personal anguish – can lead to the invincible, impersonal equality that makes self-government possible.

Self-government, then, doesn’t have much of a chance. But the stakes are too high for me not to take it personally.

Photo is of James Baldwin, 1924 – 1987.

Three feuding philosophers of political moderation

“. . . the law is the public conscience . . .”

— Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan

3PictureBookHobbesLeviathanWe know too much about the sausage factory – the lobbying, the money, the special interests, and the compromises – to equate law with the public conscience. We may, in fact, believe that there is no such thing as a public conscience. If so, we may hold to what seventeenth century English philosopher Thomas Hobbes calls a “seditious doctrine”:

Another doctrine repugnant to civil society, is, that whatsoever a man does against his conscience, is sin; and it dependeth on the presumption of making himself judge of good and evil. For a man’s conscience, and his judgment is the same thing; and as the judgment, so also the conscience may be erroneous. Therefore, though he that is subject to no civil law, sinneth in all he does against his conscience, because he has no other rule to follow but his own reason; yet it is not so with him that lives in a commonwealth; because the law is the public conscience, by which he hath already undertaken to be guided. Otherwise in such diversity, as there is of private consciences, which are but private opinions, the commonwealth must needs be distracted, and no man dare to obey the sovereign power, further than it shall seem good in his own eyes. (Kindle loc. 5022-5027)

You would think from this passage alone that Hobbes has great faith in legislation. But Hobbes doesn’t care much for legislatures. He prefers a strong executive, to put it mildly: he believes that the judges and any legislature should be in the service of the executive. And he admits that, no matter what the form of government, all laws may not be just. Hobbes asserts, however, that we are bound to obey even unjust laws because we made our public conscience forever superior to our private ones when we entered into compact to create a government.

Hobbes’ description of this “seditious doctrine” of individual morality anticipates Immanuel Kant, the eighteenth century German philosopher whose famous “categorical imperative” asserts that “one chooses to act or not act solely on the basis of principle and never on the basis of the calculation of results.” Kant believes that, “in order to be a moral principle, a precept needs to be chosen for oneself, not imposed by someone else or by ‘nature’” (Koterski 80). The king’s or the legislature’s law, then, cannot be a moral principle, cannot be or substitute for a private man’s conscience. So Kant champions private morality, and Hobbes champions public morality.

Neither leaves much room for the other. Hobbes would find that Kant’s categorical imperative leads to weak government and eventually anarchy. Kant would find that Hobbes’s notion of conscience would lead to a loss of individual conscience and freedom. (Here’s a link to a great article in rough draft form by Gerald Gaus entitled, “Private and Public Conscience (Or, Is the Sanctity of Conscience a Liberal Commitment or an Anarchical Fallacy?)” that addresses these competing ideas much better than I can.)

Middle ground is suggested by the reference to “nature” in Joseph Koterski’s characterization of Kant’s position above. While my individual conscience may not be enough to justify my disobedience to law, the relation between my conscience and natural law may be enough to justify disobedience.

Natural law – not a king’s or a legislature’s law – is the public conscience. This public conscience doesn’t displace my private conscience in governmental matters, as public conscience as expressed in positive law does for Hobbes. Instead, my private conscience bears witness to the public conscience through reason. Indeed, if natural law weren’t universally available to all people through their God-given conscience and capacity to reason, natural law could not exist. But because natural law is available to all people through reason, one’s private conscience can find some of its expression in the public conscience, and one has legal grounds to revolt from King George III, to prosecute Nazi war criminals (who obeyed German positive law to the letter), and to sit in the front of the bus – all forms of civil disobedience justified by one’s conscience as well as by natural law.

Natural law’s theory and use from the ancients forward as well its partial delineation makes it objective. Its appeal to conscience, its unwritten status, and its incomplete delineation make it flexible. We can argue about whether natural law’s notion of equality applies to homosexual rights, for instance. But when we do, from the perspective of the philosophy of our nation’s founding, we’re asking the right questions.

Each of these three positions with respect to the public conscience reflects one of my three interlocking circles of moderation. Each of these circles from my June 28, 2014 post, therefore, now receives its patron philosopher.

“Of the people” – active government – tends to emphasize the public conscience as expressed by law. While the New Englanders who most championed active government in the United States and Thomas Hobbes have very different theories of governmental structure, they both believe in a strong government whose laws express society’s conscience. Hobbes is, therefore, active government’s patron philosopher. (I know the idea of associating Hobbes with those who seek more government activism today would offend many of Hobbes’s admirers and many activists, too, but I’m limiting their association to the role of the public conscience and the relationship between government and the individual.)

“By the people” – responsive government – emphasizes individual rights and conscience over government. I anoint Immanuel Kant as its patron philosopher.

“For the people” – responsible government – emphasizes public morality and minority rights over majority rule. Seventeenth century British philosopher John Locke, whose writings formed part of the basis of our Declaration of Independence, is hereby installed as its patron philosopher.

Moderation starts when we assert one patron’s views with due respect to the views of the other two.

Philosopher Hobbes Locke Kant
Public conscience is . . . Positive law Natural law An invalid construct
Patron philosopher of . . . “Of the people” – active government “For the people” – responsible government “By the people” – responsive government

Works Cited

Gaus, Gerald. “Private and Public Conscience (Or, Is the Sanctity of Conscience a Liberal Commitment or an Anarchical Fallacy?).” (2014): n. pag. 2014. Web. 22 July 2014.

Hobbes, Thomas; J. C. A. Gaskin (1996-07-04). Leviathan (Oxford World’s Classics) Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.

Koterski, Joseph. Natural Law and Human Nature: Course Guidebook. Chantilly, VA: Teaching, 2002. Print.

Can the scientific method save democracy?

3PictureKarlPopperAs I mentioned in my recent post, “A framework for political moderation,” I’ve been searching for a foundation for modern American democracy that tries to solve problems out of expediency with piecemeal legislation. I wasn’t searching for it here, though, in twentieth-century, Anglo-Austrian philosopher Karl Popper’s political science magnum opus, The Open Society and Its Enemies. Instead, I picked up Popper to learn what the originator of the appellation “historicist” had to say about that Hegelian juggernaut of a philosophy.

I’ve spent six months reading Popper’s book, mostly a few pages a night. Now that the school year’s over, I’ve had time to finish the book and to concentrate on what it is teaching me. I’d like to examine Popper here both for his take on historicism and for what I have come to recognize as his contribution to a modern, moderate political philosophy. I’ll start with historicism and meander into Popper’s broader philosophy.

Popper and historicism

Historicists, you may know, explain away claims to universality in scientific or political standards by pointing out these alleged standards’ subjective, historical contexts. (Subjective sociological and psychoanalytic contexts have since been advanced, too, of course, and Popper addresses them.) I’ve written a bit about Southern secessionists’ central historicist argument against the Equality Clause: all men are not created equal because (1) no man has an existence outside of the context of his tribe (or race) and (2) each race must earn its rights over time in the judgment of history.

Popper defines historicism this way:

[They believe that it is] the task of the social sciences to furnish us with long-term historical prophecies. They also believe that they have discovered laws of history which enable them to prophesy the course of historical events. The various social philosophies which raise claims of this kind, I have grouped together under the name historicism. (xliii).

Popper hates historicism as much as I do, but he cedes more ground to it than I do, though with little loss of effectiveness. He concedes to historicists that there are no a priori, or self-evident, truths. I like seventeenth-century Locke, who believes in self-evident truths. Popper likes eighteenth-century Kant, who doesn’t. But both of us have a faith in reason in common, and both of us dislike nineteenth-century Hegel, who overturned reason in favor of historicism.

Faith in reason or faith in equality?

Popper’s faith – or a priori political starting point – is not in equality, as mine is, but in reason. Popper believes that historicists such as Hegel undermine mankind’s faith in a universally understood reason, a faith necessary for advances in science and self-government. Like Popper, I find a faith in reason to be vital: our ability to reason about something like what Aristotle calls first principles permits us to have a chance at governing ourselves. But to me, “faith in reason” feels too much like “faith in faith” or, speaking from a Christian standpoint, too much like “faith in prayer.” It doesn’t feel like rock bottom. The Bible teaches faith in God, not faith in prayer; likewise, Locke and the Founders’ faith in equality is more fundamental than their faith in reason. The backbone of equality is its inherent hierarchy among God, mankind, and nature, and God’s absence or his ineluctable wrath, if accepted, creates a political vacuum that demigods fill, making equality impossible. I’d rather start with equality as the beginning (the standard – the individual in the state of nature) and the end (the goal – the realization in society) and reason as the means from the beginning to the end.

I don’t think Popper would call his faith in reason a priori, but I would: reason presupposes a certain metaphysical understanding of human nature. My assertion of mankind’s essential equality is no more metaphysical at its core than Popper’s assertion of mankind’s ability to reason. To affirm reason’s universal application – to assert that all men can reason enough in a democracy to effectively hypothesize about social problems and to work together toward possible solutions to them – is an affirmation and an assertion about human nature. Continue reading

Tribalism and true identity

Every school day for ten years, I’ve walked through our high school’s tall foyer. Most days, I lift up my eyes high above the foyer’s display cases and banners to the large abstract nouns stenciled on the foyer’s walls. But I’m not there today, and I can’t tell you for certain which abstract nouns are there. I think two are “integrity” and “excellence.” Maybe.

Abstractions put most audiences to sleep. I’ve learned this by bitter experience, so when I teach an abstract concept, I often use a narrative because a narrative makes my students perk up. Good speakers, as we all know, use stories.

The tribal advantage.

3PictureGerman-football-supporters-giving-the-Nazi-salute-during-the-international-match-against-England-at-White-Hart-LaneStories demonstrate the enduring appeal of what Austrian philosopher Karl Popper calls “tribalism,” a political danger he says has become active again after lying dormant for two millennia. Why stories? The inherent advantage stories have over abstractions is also the inherent advantage tribal societies have over open societies.

Tribal societies have narratives – specifically, myths – to understand what philosophers and scientists in open societies understand through observations, abstractions, models, and reason. Philosophers and scientists explain with narratives, too, but the narratives are usually only a strategy for teaching what is otherwise found to be reasonable.

But in a tribal society, the myth is both the medium and the message. The myth takes the place of the open society’s reason as a tool to discover moral and scientific truths. The tribe’s taboos amount to state-enforced virtues that prevent the development of individual morality, according to Popper (107, 164). And primitive tribal myths about natural phenomena keep members from distinguishing between tribal laws and universally applicable scientific laws, such as the law of gravity (164).

A brief history.

Tribalism first broke down in Athens a generation before Plato. Popper’s book The Open Society and its Enemies charts the rise of the open society from tribalism in Athens beginning with Democritus, Pericles, and Herodotus, who were among the first Western philosophers and rulers to insist on mankind’s essential equality. But democracy struggled following Pericles’s “Great Generation” and Athens’s defeat at the hands of Sparta.

Plato lived through Athens’s defeat, and his political philosophy aimed to return Athens to a tribal, or closed, society, which he thought would make society more stable. Plato advocated measures that are similar to some totalitarian tactics over the past several decades: the murder by doctors of political dissidents and of the physically weak, the banishment of poets, the destruction of families, the worship of rulers as demigods, the free use of lies and deceit by rulers in furtherance of a greater truth unfathomable by lower classes (Plato admitted that his famous Myth of Blood and Soil was a propaganda lie (133)), the guarantee of a pure ruling class through eugenics, and the deliberate acclimation of children to war. Popper even takes a chapter to examine the reactionary elements inherent in Plato’s ideas of the Good and of the Philosopher-King. Plato hated democracy, and he advocated these policies to move Athens away from democracy and back to tribalism.

During the next couple of millennia after Plato, the world experienced some returns to tribalism, but multi-ethnic empires, feudalism, limited monarchies, and increasingly open societies were more prevalent in the West.

Tribalism today.

Twenty-four hundred years after Plato, tribalism is growing again. Popper explains how the early nineteenth century German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, in the service of Prussian King Friedrich Wilhelm III, made Plato’s political philosophy and his return-to-tribalism agenda accessible to a modern world. Continue reading

Soccer and Our Founding Document

3PictureTimHowardGeorgeWashingtonIt’s the Fourth of July. In today’s Washington Post, Sally Jenkins, a sports columnist, urges Americans to get over “their nagging emphasis on nationality” and to find a team to root for among the remaining eight World Cup countries.

Independence Day, with impeccable timing, is here to help.

But hold that thought. First, let’s take in the biggest news ever for American soccer: this week, the entire country seemed riveted to a soccer match. At its end, Team USA was eliminated from the World Cup in a 2-to-1 loss to Belgium. This excerpt from a New York Times article is typical of the American media’s euphoria over the way our team played:

Trying to figure out where soccer fits into the fabric of America is a popular topic but, for one afternoon at least, there was this unexpected truth: All around the country, from coast to coast and through the nation’s belly, sports fans of every kind were inspired by the performance of a soccer goalkeeper. In a loss.

The key to figuring out “where soccer fits into the fabric of America,” of course, has always been figuring out where America fits into the fabric of the world. The key is coming up with an alternative to mere tribalism, to what Jenkins calls our “nagging emphasis on nationality.” To restart that figuring, we might look into why we find ourselves celebrating this loss.

We are celebrating because our goalkeeper, Tim Howard, broke a World Cup record for saves. I’ve seen an Internet meme conflating Tim Howard with George Washington, and for good reason: General Washington was a master of that most defensive of tactics, the retreat. His resilience at our end of the field won us the world’s respect. Howard’s resilience did the same thing.

We are celebrating this loss because, deep down and to the surprise of many – including ourselves – we still care what the rest of the world thinks. We cared when we fought the Revolutionary War. We had a “decent respect to the opinions of mankind” back then, to borrow the Declaration of Independence’s famous noun phrase. That respect, in fact, drove us to write the Declaration.

The Declaration’s respect for world opinion isn’t just a throwaway line. Grammatically speaking, the word “respect” is the sole subject of the Declaration’s introduction. If that weren’t enough to raise its profile, “respect” comes at the end of the Declaration’s opening sentence, a periodic sentence that dramatically highlights its point by saving its subject for the end:

When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.

Aristotle taught us that every speech or writing has an audience that shapes it. The Declaration’s explicit audience is mankind. We owe the world an explanation, it says. The Declaration, which reached England, France, Italy, and even Poland by the end of 1776, was our first apology tour.

The Declaration doesn’t declare our independence from the world or its opinions. It declares our independence from Britain, but in the process, it declares also our “separate and equal station” with the rest of the nations. And it expressly solicits those nations’ opinions.

In fact, the Declaration of Independence never calls itself that. I think a better name for it would be the Declaration of Interdependence. Independence, after all, is just a necessary stage between dependence and interdependence. This progression from Stephen Covey’s Seven Habits of Highly Effective People is true also for highly effective nations. We have a lot to offer other nations, of course, not the least of which are the rights enumerated in the Declaration. But for other nations to benefit from us, we must understand that they still share an “equal station” with us. For other nations to adopt our rights, we need to be willing to respect theirs.

Lincoln knew that other nations would not adopt the Declaration’s abstract principles – equality and the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness – through American military might. He countered Stephen Douglas’s version of Manifest Destiny with an understanding, as political scientist Harry V. Jaffa has it in his book Crisis of the House Divided, that America’s “primary action upon the international scene was to be moral, not political” (85). We need to get our house in order because other nations need us.

The reverse is also true. Long after France helped us bottle up Cornwallis at Yorktown, we still need other nations. We don’t need them to form another “coalition of the willing,” as George W. Bush called the nations that supported America’s invasion of Iraq. Instead, we need mankind’s culture, its fellowship, its perspectives. (How obvious this is; how sad to feel the need to write this.) We need its candid opinions, as the Declaration claims. In his 1939 essay “The Indispensable Opposition,” Walter Lippmann argues that the foundation for freedom of speech is our need to learn from one another. The same need is the foundation for diplomacy.

The Framers believed in a “candid world” – the final two words in the Declaration’s famous preamble. “Candid” back then didn’t mean “forthcoming” but, as the Oxford English Dictionary defines it, “free from bias; fair, impartial, just.” Do we still believe in such a world?

Our reaction to this week’s World Cup loss suggests we might. Despite the dismissal of world opinion that has characterized our politics and even our foreign policy this young century, we may have rediscovered a truer understanding of ourselves this week on the pitch. There, for at least ninety minutes, we remembered what it was like to be respected rather than feared.

Today, and hopefully for ages to come, the Declaration of Interdependence can help us more fully adopt that perspective.

And so can the Post, though for a limited time. It put together an assessment of each remaining World Cup team – why you should root for each, and why you shouldn’t. So adopt a team as well as the Declaration’s perspective, and for the remainder of the Cup, celebrate our nation’s interdependence!

A framework for political moderation

I had an epistrophe! Or Lincoln did, I guess, in his Gettysburg Address, but I amplified it.

I’ve been searching for a foundation for modern American democracy that tries to solve problems out of expediency with piecemeal legislation. Such a government would be aware of how such legislation might fit into more strident political systems, but it would be confident enough in its own philosophical foundation to not be overly concerned about it. It would have enough self-knowledge – enough philosophical bottom, if you will – to distinguish itself from oligarchies, plutocracies, autocracies, and socialist states. It would have enough internal coherence to project a kind of moderation that seeks compromise but isn’t defined by it. It wouldn’t be easily caricatured as a worried peacemaker, a candidate for an Al-Anon program, brought up in a family of raging political alcoholics. Instead, this philosophy’s moderation would be as principled as the extremes’ philosophies, but its principles would be better.

My way of thinking about the elements of such a moderate philosophy of democracy is Lincoln’s famous epistrophe from the Gettysburg Address: “government of the people, by the people, for the people.” I use these three different prepositions to outline the parameters of an American political philosophy of moderation.

Of the people,” I think, requires a philosophy that understands government as being part of the people, an expression of the people and proof of its ability to govern itself. The left-wing, anti-government creeds of the French Revolution and of Marxism, now unwittingly co-opted in part by much of the American Right, is a fantasy never realized by any Western nation. Both the French Revolution and Marxism envisaged a state in which government would become unnecessary. I think that’s heaven on earth – the state, as Madison might have put it, when men become angels. Even when a particular government is the enemy, as we claimed the English crown was in 1776, government itself is not inherently an enemy. The government, as Pogo might have put it, is us.

One can see the impulse to associate the people and the government most strongly in New England’s early approach to government. Colin Woodard in his book American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America summarizes it here:

Yankees would come to have faith in government to a degree incomprehensible to people of the other American nations. Government, New Englanders believed from the beginning, could defend the public good from the selfish machinations of moneyed interests. It could enforce morals through the prohibition or regulation of undesirable activities. It could create a better society through public spending on infrastructure and schools. (Kindle Locations 999-1004)

I assign “of the people” to an understanding of government as a positive, collective activity, as an authoritative expression of the community.

By the people” seems to accept a distinction between the government and the people not suggested by “of the people.” “By the people” requires a responsive government perhaps most thoroughly expressed by the antifederalists. Their concern about the size of the federal government, their insistence on a written bill of rights, and their desire for term limits reflect a belief in a personal government. The antifederalists of the 1780’s wanted to look at the federal government and see servants doing the people’s will. “By the people,” understood in this light, hates the inhuman and unresponsive bureaucracy associated with big government. It hates the idea of lobbyists and of any person or organization having purchased a special place in the government. It hates “crony capitalism,” for instance, a controversy that made the front page of today’s Washington Post. The antifederalists before them feared that the new Constitution “did not manage to secure the government against the danger of minority faction – tyranny by one man, or a few men, of enterprise, ambition, and wealth,” as Charles R. Kessler put it in his brilliant introduction to the Signet Classic edition of The Federalist Papers. The Tea Party – a kind of small-government, populist movement – may come closest today to my version of “by the people.”


For the people” may, on the surface, seem diametrically opposed to my version of “by the people.” Instead of following “by the people”’s focus on a merely responsive government, “for the people” focuses foremost on a responsible government. This emphasis is perhaps most thoroughly expressed by the federalists of the 1780’s. Kessler first made this distinction between responsive and responsible government to sharpen an analysis of the federalist-antifederalist debate during the ratification years. He summarizes it in his introduction to the The Federalist Papers:

If republican government is to be responsible, it must be responsive to the people and answerable to their will. But if it is to be responsible in the more positive sense, it must go beyond mere responsiveness and be able to serve the people’s true interests or their reasonable will, even if this course of conduct is not immediately popular. (xxii)

The federalists believed that not every expression of the people’s will amounted to their reasonable will. Jefferson expresses it this way: “Independence can be trusted nowhere but in the people in mass. They are inherently independent of all but moral law.” Jefferson’s “moral law” is synonymous with “natural law,” an egalitarian version of classical natural law that Locke more than anyone made accessible to the Framers. The qualification of the people’s will by “moral law” and “natural law” means that the parameters of the popular will was restricted by reason. Edward J. Erler, in his introduction to Harry V. Jaffa’s Storm Over the Constitution, expresses it this way: “In egalitarian natural right, consent necessarily takes precedence. It is the task of constitutional government – and the rule of law – to insure that consent is not merely the expression of the people’s will but of their rationality” (xxiv). Of course, Martin Luther King’s appeal to these concepts of reason and natural law allowed him to justify his actions in Birmingham. He and his followers, he claimed, were justified in violating an unjust law.

The emphasis I find in “for the people” on a government’s responsibility therefore protects a minority from the majority’s tyranny, a chief concern of James Madison in drafting the Constitution. A government “for the people,” then, protects all of its people, even those who frustrate the majority’s will. It may pass legislation to protect the rights of certain minorities or to expand the participation by certain classes of people in the nation’s government and society.

There are certain overlaps.Of the people” and “by the people” both emphasize a popular government and eschew moneyed interests. “By the people” and “for the people” both emphasize individual rights. “For the people” and “of the people” both emphasize the natural authority of government.

A moderate philosophy of democracy would legitimize the three impulses I define with the Gettysburg Address’s epistrophe, and it would seek to balance each impulse with the other two. Because “of the people, by the people, for the people,” as I’ve amplified each, stand in some opposition to one another, no political party alone could champion the entire philosophy. But such a philosophy might permit us to talk to one another, and even to learn from one another, again.

I’ve found writings involving what might be considered building blocks for some principled, moderate, democratic philosophies, and I hope to blog about them sometime soon.

The decline-and-fall narrative

3PictureRomanConstantineMuseumA lot of Evangelical Christian prophecy concerning the United States runs like this: we had a godly start, we’ve sinned and have gotten away from it, and we’re going to be judged for it soon. Even ignoring challenges to the merits of these three claims, which I do throughout this post, the narrative is reprehensible.


First, the decline-and-fall narrative is an historicist prophecy that disarms man of his greatest God-given weapon on behalf of self-government – his reason. If the forces of history are stronger than a community’s ability to govern itself, then the resulting fatalism cedes the argument over the possibility of self-government that Hamilton and Lincoln said was the central drama of our republic.

This narrative is like Marxism’s central prophecy because it discourages the use of reason – indeed, it discourages the resort to any kind of action. Here’s Karl Popper’s description, found in his book The Open Society and Its Enemies, of Marx’s central prophecy’s effect:

Although itself not a moral decision, since it is not based on any system of morality, it leads to the adoption of a certain system of morality. To sum up, my fundamental decision is not (as you suspected) the sentimental decision to help the oppressed, but the scientific and rational decision not to offer vain resistance to the developmental laws of society. (410)

In other words, the narrative itself is not immoral, but it leads to a decision not to act, which in a given case may be immoral.

Second, decline-and-fall narratives, at their core, are vehicles to return us to tribalism. Plato was the first to advance decline-and-fall narratives, one to characterize the fall of the Greek city-states in his own day and a second to characterize the decline and fall of the earlier Persian Empire. (We see a parallel here to today’s most popular current and past decline-and-fall narratives concerning, respectively, the United States and the Roman Empire.) Popper points out that Plato worked out his dualism in the political realm to contrast a perfect past (the unity and purity of tribalism) with the corrupted present (democracy):

Plato was longing for the lost unity of tribal life. A life of change, in the midst of a social revolution, appeared to him unreal. Only a stable whole, the permanent collective, has reality, not the passing individuals. (75 – 76)

Plato’s narrative was, to Popper, “the beginning of a long series of Decline-and-Fall dramatizations of the histories of empires and civilizations” (53). This series has stretched beyond the publication of Popper’s World War II-era book.

Twentieth-century political theory was dominated by this desire to return to a pure and tribal past. In his book Terror and Liberalism – his explanation for the rise of fundamental Islam as a political force – Paul Berman finds the same myth and historical struggle behind the Bolsheviks, the Stalinists, Mussolini’s Fascists, Franco’s Phalange, and the Nazis:

There was always a people of God, whose peaceful and wholesome life had been undermined. . . . The coming reign was always going to be pure – a society cleansed of its pollutants and its abominations. (48 – 49)

While the decline-and-fall narratives don’t share these twentieth-century groups’ messianic claims for their nations or movements, they share their view of an idyllic and tribal past that contrasts with a corrupt present.

Third, the decline-and-fall narrative, as a practical matter, amounts to a pair of glasses with which to view and disparage any proposed change from the way things were in the idyllic past. Popper, like Berman, finds in Marx’s doctrine a dangerous historicism, but Popper approves of Marx’s ability to make Christians question their own reliance on historicism. (Popper finds “a wide gulf between Marx’s activism and his historicism” (408).) Popper summarizes Marx’s discussion about an influential eighteenth-century author:

A typical representative of this kind of Christianity was the High Church priest J. Townsend, author of A Dissertation on the Poor Laws. . . .‘Hunger’, Townsend begins his eulogy, ‘is not only a peaceable, silent, unremitted pressure but, as the most natural motive of industry and labour, it calls forth the most powerful exertions.’ In Townsend’s ‘Christian’ world order, everything depends (as Marx observes) upon making hunger permanent among the working class; and Townsend believes that this is indeed the divine purpose of the principle of the growth of population; for he goes on: ‘It seems to be a law of nature that the poor should be to a certain degree improvident, so that there may always be some to fulfil the most servile, the most sordid, the most ignoble offices in the community. The stock of human happiness is thereby much increased, whilst the more delicate … are left at liberty without interruption to pursue those callings which are suited to their various dispositions.’ [Townsend] adds that the Poor Law, by helping the hungry, ‘tends to destroy the harmony and beauty, the symmetry and order, of that system which God and nature have established in the world.’ (406)

Of course, people who believe in a decline-and-fall narrative disagree on what the idyllic past looks like. But while the application of the narrative in any given situation is debatable, the narrative’s specifics relative to any issue at hand usually rely on the same logical fallacy that Townsend employs – ad antiquitatem.

As I’ve said on this site elsewhere (applying my own logical fallacy, that of ad nauseam), Christianity’s influence on America’s founding goes beyond piety, charity, hypocrisy, slavery, and ethnic cleansing. Its chief claim is the Declaration of Independence’s Equality Clause, a dynamic, universal truth worked out over two thousand years of Greek, Jewish, Christian, and agnostic thought. “All men are created equal” rejects any form of tribal ideal. The clause is dynamic because it represents not the past but an aspirational standard. Lincoln, after all, compared the Equality Clause to Jesus’ injunction to be “perfect, as your Father in Heaven is perfect”: “let it be nearly reached as we can.” The cause is universal because, as Lincoln said, equality is an “abstract truth, applicable to all men and all times.” It is applicable not just to twenty-first-century Evangelical Christians.

In fact, the spirit behind the decline-and-fall narrative isn’t Christian at all, as Popper points out:

This kind of ‘Christianity’ which recommends the creation of myth as a substitute for Christian responsibility is a tribal Christianity. It is a Christianity that refuses to carry the cross of being human. Beware of these false prophets! What they are after, without being aware of it, is the lost unity of tribalism. (446)

To Popper, “the cross of being human” is the willingness to act, to make mistakes in acting, and to learn from those mistakes through the criticism of the greater community of mankind. The decline-and-fall narrative discourages the taking up of that cross.

It may be – it’s likely, in fact – that the United States is headed for a world of trouble. But if Christians confuse Platonism for prophecy, they’ll only contribute to the problem.

Ice, hail, & the reign hereafter

For my blog’s tenth anniversary, a suitably long and slow post. The post combines my blog’s three favorite preoccupations: literary criticism, political theory, and spirituality. You’ve got another ten years to read it.

Thick ice this morning on our sidewalks and streets. The pines beside them shine and droop as if an angel had fallen and not the rain. No school. Today, for the first time, I would have started teaching Macbeth. Now I have another day to prepare.


So yesterday’s hereafter wasn’t today, after all; it’s tomorrow again. The witches’ greeting:

All hail Macbeth, that shalt be king hereafter. (1.3.48)

The New Cambridge Edition points out that Shakespeare, in two other plays, associates “all hail” with Judas’ betrayal – his “Hail, rabbi” when he leads the soldiers to Jesus.1 Judas’s greeting is ironic, right? “Hail” in Middle English meant “healthy,” like our “hale.” (For “hail,” the OED quotes the early fifteenth century Wars of Alexander: “When on athyll was so wele in happe and in heyle.”) By King James’ day, “hail,” with a fading glow of good health, had become an interjection of greeting and sometimes of acclamation, as for a king.

And Judas kisses Jesus as a future king. Palestine’s Roman and Jewish leaders are concerned that Jesus’ movement is gaining a political expression, that “king of the Jews,” a claim Jesus never denies, means hereafter. The Magi prophesied that Jesus would be king hereafter. Pilate tacks “the king of the Jews” atop Jesus’ cross to establish irony. Jesus’ followers, however, find Pilate’s sign prophetic and therefore reflecting a deeper irony.

Pilate puts “hereafter” in this life, but Jesus puts “hereafter” in the life to come. Are they that far apart?

Christians argue about whether Jesus will rule on earth and whether, assuming he will, nature and mankind will be much as they are today. And is there anything Christians can to do help that prophecy along?

If chance will have me king, why chance may crown me
Without my stir. (1.3.142-3)

Macbeth understands in these early lines what Macbeth’s New Cambridge Edition editor A. R. Braunmuller terms “prophetic irony” – the suggestion inherent in prophecy that the one receiving the prophecy should act upon it, to go beyond what Saint Paul describes as prophecy’s purposes: to edify, exhort, and comfort.

Christian political actions focused on hastening or establishing Jesus’ reign, such as the Crusades, have ended in disaster. Yet removing religion from the equation hardly helps. Every ideology seems to have a heaven on earth. Just as paradise moved from hell to heaven with Jesus’ resurrection, so for all ideologies heaven moves to earth at the juncture of history and no-history, or, in the case of Marxist thought, at the juncture of prehistory and history.

Macbeth uses the word “hereafter” four times. Shortly after the witches use it to tell Macbeth when he’ll be king, Duncan, the then-current king, uses it to announce when he intends his son to be king:

. . . kinsmen, thanes,
And you whose places are the nearest, know:
We will establish our estate upon
Our eldest, Malcolm, whom we name hereafter
The Prince of Cumberland . . . (1.4.35-40)

Macbeth, among the thanes who hear the news, immediately takes his leave. He heads home, Haman-like, but is greeted by his wife much as he was greeted by the witches:

Great Glamis, worthy Cawdor,
Greater than both by the all-hail hereafter (1.5.52-53)

In Lady Macbeth’s greeting, as Braunmuller points out, “the phrase ‘all-hail’ is treated as an adjective, ‘hereafter’ as a noun.”2 “Hereafter” for Lady Macbeth is no longer an adverb that merely tells when something else will happen. “Hereafter” becomes, instead, a destination in its own right – a political destination at which, I suppose, all will be hail.

Is Lady Macbeth’s vision of a perfect political future – a kind of heaven on earth – peculiar only to some Christians and Marxists? Perhaps there are no new idealistic political movements under the sun. Paul Berman’s book Terror and Liberalism puts recent radical Islam in company with other anti-liberal political movements, both religious and secular, and points to, among many other similarities, their common vision of the hereafter:

The coming reign was always going to be pure – a society cleansed of its pollutants and abominations. It was going to be the purity of unexploited labor (for the Bolsheviks and Stalinists); or the purity of Roman grandeur (for the Fascists); or the purity of Catholic virtue (for the Phalange); or the biological purity of Aryan blood (for the Nazis). Yet no matter how these several components of the myth were labeled, the coming reign was always going to last a thousand years – that is, was going to be a perfect society, without any of the flaws, competition, or turmoil that make for change and evolution.3

The political hereafter, the heaven on earth, escapes history’s vicissitudes and untidiness. How can we resist such an allure? The hereafter is an ideal time, and we’re wired for ideals. There’s no escaping Plato – or, more precisely, what he represents: ideal forms. Inductive reasoning, for instance, is inescapable. It’s how we learn. An empiricist knows the sun came up yesterday and yesterday and yesterday. Any conclusion he draws about tomorrow makes him an unwilling Platonist. And, just as in Newton’s day, science today can’t go far without mathematics – that perfect language of the ideal – which was also Plato’s favorite language.

But to achieve a political hereafter, to end history in favor of an ideal state, eventually requires that we become something other than what we are: beings with an unfathomable center that makes integrity, or “one-ness,” possible on a personal but not a political level. By seeking a political one-ness, we divide ourselves from ourselves. Lady Macbeth calls off her own menstrual cycle (the “compunctious visitings of nature”) long enough for her and Macbeth to kill King Duncan:

. . . Come, you spirits
That tend on mortal thoughts, unsex me here
And fill me from the crown to the toe topfull
Of direst cruelty; make thick my blood,
Stop up th’access and passage to remorse
That no compunctious visitings of nature
Shake my fell purpose nor keep peace between
Th’effect and it. Come to my woman’s breasts
And take my milk for gall . . .  (1.5.38 – 46)

Her stifled cycle stopped the flow of blood to the king’s sons, too, as if from a kind of menstrual synchrony in this claustrophobic play. Macbeth announces King Duncan’s death to one of the king’s heirs, Donaldbain:

The spring, the head, the fountain of your blood
Is stopped, the very source of it is stopped.  (2.3.91 – 92)

Do we bleed just by being together? Is something as essential as blood our own, or is it something we share? Christian realism, Reinhold Niebuhr’s political philosophy, issues from such an uneasy tension between an individual and her society. Niebuhr’s individual can’t find fulfillment without her society, but she “also cannot find fulfillment completely within society.”4 An individual lives her life “in painful tension with even the best community,” but her life turns tragic when her society adopts some ideology to eliminate this incongruity. For Niebuhr, “the final wisdom of life requires, not the annulment of incongruity but the achievement of serenity within and above it.”5 But ideologies wish to annul the incongruity, want to solve more than they can.

The more society seeks to annul the incongruity, the more the individual doubles – the more she is tempted to lose her integrity, splitting into a public and a private person. Scotland under Macbeth, Ross reports, is “almost afraid to know itself” (4.3.167). Leading up to Duncan’s murder, Lady Macbeth counsels duplicity:

Your face, my thane, is as a book where men
May read strange matters. To beguile the time,
Look like the time, bear welcome in your eye,
Your hand, your tongue; look like th’innocent flower,
But be the serpent under’t. (1.5.60 – 64)

Most modern political ideologies seek to protect “the value and dignity of the individual,” but that dignity “is constantly threatened by the same culture which wants to guarantee it.”6  For Niebuhr, who wrote Irony in the middle of the Cold War, the threatening culture may be Communist or bourgeois capitalist, among other possibilities:

The Christian idea of the significance of each individual in God’s sight becomes, in bourgeois civilization, the concept of a discrete individual who makes himself the final end of his own existence. The Christian idea of providence is rejected for the heady notion that man is the master of his fate and the captain of his soul.7

In other words, ideologies are based on the individual as perhaps born of God but untimely ripped, like Macduff, with God dying while giving birth. Ideologies are based also on a notion of society as either bound by God’s prophecy or freed from God’s justice and mercy – in either case, as freed from his providence. Orphaned from God, the individual becomes her own end. Either freed from God or goaded by some notion of biblical prophecy, society is able to control – and in that sense, close – history as surely as its science is now able to control nature.

In tempting Macbeth to kill Duncan, the weird sisters tempt him to make an end of history, too. They anticipate and rip off Macbeth’s words in time (“So foul and fair a day I have not seen” – 1.3.36) and use and confuse them outside of time (“fair is foul, and foul is fair” – 1.1.11). As Braunmuller puts it, “regicide is necessarily an attack on time’s progression and duration.”8 After meeting the witches, Macbeth considers that killing King Duncan would be “the be-all and the end-all,” a “jump” from time to “the life to come”:

If th’assassination
Could trammel up the consequence and catch
With his surcease, success, that but this blow
Might be the be-all and the end-all – here,
But here, upon this bank and shoal of time,
We’d jump the life to come. (1.7.1 – 7)

These lines show Braunmuller that Macbeth “first envisages, and then undertakes to create, a world in which acts have no consequences, no duration beyond the moment of their enactment, no reach in time and beyond time into eternity.”9 Responding to her husband’s letters, Lady Macbeth has a similar vision, though not as fully developed, in reaction to the witches’ prophecies:

Thy letters have transported me beyond
This ignorant present, and I feel now
The future in the instant. (1.5.54 – 56)

Niebuhr warned in his 1952 book The Irony of American History that America one day would be tempted as the Soviets to create a hereafter, to make such a “future in the instant”:

. . . our “technocratic” tendency to equate the mastery of nature with the mastery of history could tempt us to lose patience with  the tortuous course of history. We might be driven to hysteria by its inevitable frustrations. We might be tempted to bring the whole of modern history to a tragic conclusion by one final and mighty effort to overcome its frustrations. The political term for such an effort is “preventive war.” It is not an immediate temptation; but it could become so in the next decade or two.10

The Iraq War makes plain that Niebuhr was prescient. Niebuhr understood that America might be tempted to end history in the name of democracy or of Christ, just as the U.S.S.R. sought to end history for the benefit of a godless mankind.

When Macbeth’s preemptive strike against the king and his heir begins to unhinge him, Macbeth follows King Saul’s precedent and seeks out the witches. The witches’ first apparition warns Macbeth to “beware Macduff,” but the second apparition counters the first with what would later turn out to be doublespeak:

Be bloody, bold, and resolute; laugh to scorn
The power of man, for none of woman born
Shall harm Macbeth. Descends

Then live, Macduff, what need I fear of thee?
But yet I’ll make assurance double sure
And take a bond of fate: thou shalt not live,
That I may tell pale-hearted fear it lies,
And sleep in spite of thunder. (4.1.77-85)

By now, Macbeth has long since dropped any notion of leaving chance to its work “without my stir.” The witches’ fresh prophesies in support of the “all-hail hereafter” tempt Macbeth “to take a bond of fate” – to plot Macduff’s murder. Macbeth doesn’t succeed in murdering Macduff, of course, but he does succeed in having Macduff’s wife and child murdered.

These prophecies also have made Macbeth believe he is invincible, almost immortal. Up until he learns from Macduff that he wasn’t born but “was from his mother’s womb / Untimely ripped,”11 Macbeth’s arrogance seems to increase with each scene.

Niebuhr believed that America’s millennialism might combine with its frustrations to cause it to act on its rising arrogance and to put an end to history. Where did America’s millennialism come from? Niebuhr pointed out that we harbor a Messianic sense of our destiny flowing from two sources. First, “the New England conception of our virtue,” which began “as the belief that the church which had been established on our soil was purer than any church of Christendom.” And second, from Virginia’s son Thomas Jefferson, whose “religious faith was a form of Christianity which had passed through the rationalism of the French Enlightenment.”12 Niebuhr quoted Jefferson on America’s innate superiority to Europe, though he failed to comment on Jefferson’s reference to a millennium of American (at least mental or spiritual) ascendency:

“If all the sovereigns of Europe,” [Jefferson] declared, “were to set themselves to work to emancipate the minds of their subjects from their present ignorance and prejudice and that as zealously as they now attempt the contrary a thousand years would not place them on that high ground on which our common people are now setting out.”13

It wouldn’t have surprised Niebuhr, then, that the president who wanted to help history along enough to start a preventative (or “preemptive”) war would be an evangelical Christian and would have little use for European leaders’ advice. Presidential candidate George W. Bush, when asked during a 1999 Republican debate in Iowa what “political philosopher or thinker” he identified with most, responded, “Christ, because he changed my heart.” Applying the Sunday school strategy of answering every question with “Jesus,” of course, doesn’t work in political science.14 And applying the Christian project of redemption of human nature (“he changed my heart”) to government makes Christ a reformer of human nature rather than a redeemer, and so makes Bush’s political theory no better in this regard than that of an Hegelian or a Marxist, who also sought to reform human nature through government.15

But human nature cannot be reformed, and history, like the poor, will always be with us. The Macbeths’ “all-hail hereafter” turns out to be a bloody mess. Macbeth can’t stop now, however. He is immortal.

The witches’ second round of prophecies leave Macbeth looking for a second political hereafter – the real hereafter – which Macbeth now reasons is delayed long enough for him to win an apocalyptic battle against Macduff, Malcolm, and the large English army they return to Scotland with. (Berman points out that all modern idealist political movements, religious and secular, promote myths that include an Armageddon – a final battle that ends history and ushers in the ideal state.)16

At the height of his invincibility – just before he hears news that puts in doubt his understanding of the witches’ prophesies – Macbeth hears that Lady Macbeth has died. Here Shakespeare employed the play’s fourth and final hereafter, and the only one that falls from Macbeth’s lips:

The queen, my lord, is dead.

She should have died hereafter;
There would have been a time for such a word.
Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle,
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury
Signifying nothing. (5.5.16-27)

It’s presumptuous of me to add anything new to the commentary these lines have generated over the last four centuries. I believe as much of it as I’ve read: Macbeth clearly loves Lady Macbeth, and her death brings him closer to himself, prepares us for his undoing, and reminds the audience of Macbeth’s heroic sensibility that permits his tragedy. The repetition of “tomorrow” acts to slow time to something without meaning, much like the repeated and meaningless words that Lady Macbeth utters in her madness, which are “full of sound and fury / Signifying nothing.” I’d add only that Macbeth here still believes in a hereafter – a time on earth after history’s end – and one that may go on forever thanks to his newly promised immortality. But he now realizes that the Armageddon he thinks he’s about to win will be empty not only of history but also of love.

Whether I give my friend a fish, train my friend to fish, or train and fund my friend’s country to establish and maintain a fishing industry that increases everyone’s standard of living, I had better do it from love. If I do it to create a future or to change the world, I am nothing. And if I talk about my future kingdom, I had better be talking from a cross.

None of Macbeth‘s four “hereafters” refer to the afterlife. The notion of life after death, whether or not one believes in it, must be acknowledged as a belief also in the impossibility of man’s reaching his fullest expression in this life. Macbeth and Lady Macbeth’s belief in a political hereafter that will “jump the life to come,” that is, will bring eternity (or at least an end of history) to the political present, is particularly modern for reasons best stated by Niebuhr:

It is generally taken for granted [in the modern era] that the highest ends of life can be fulfilled in man’s historic existence. This confidence makes for utopian visions of historical possibilities on the one hand and for rather materialistic conceptions of human ends on the other. All concepts of immortality are dismissed as the fruit of wishful thinking. This dismissal usually involves indifference toward the tension in human existence, created by the fact that “our reach is beyond our grasp,” and that every sensitive individual has a relation to a structure of meaning which is never fulfilled in the vicissitudes of actual history.17

As mentioned earlier, a believer in a life after death may believe also in something like Macbeth’s political hereafter. The contrapositive is also true: a disbeliever in a life after death may also not believe in the modern idea that “the highest ends of life can be fulfilled in man’s historic existence.” But Niebuhr rightly recognizes that, at a societal level, the dismissal of life after death has been accompanied by an “indifference toward the tension in human existence, created by the fact that ‘our reach is beyond our grasp,'” and this indifference makes us more susceptible to political hereafters on earth.

If we don’t believe in something like what Niebuhr calls “the mystery of the individual’s freedom and uniqueness”18 and in its messy consequence – the “mystery of . . . the drama of history”19 – then our desire for ideal forms will drive us to form ideal states on earth. If we wrongly expand on Christianity’s teaching that human nature can be redeemed by insisting that human nature can be reformed as well, we will destroy ourselves. If we believe that history can be tamed just as science teaches that nature can be tamed, we will destroy ourselves.

If we destroy ourselves and our planet by war – nuclear, cyber, biological, chemical, or otherwise – it would probably be, from a literary standpoint, only the latest and bloodiest production of Macbeth.

  1. Shakespeare, William. Macbeth (The New Cambridge Shakespeare) (Kindle Location 5569). Cambridge University Press. Kindle Edition.
  2. Shakespeare, supra, at Kindle location 6297.
  3. Berman, Paul. Terror and Liberalism. New York: Norton, 2003, at 49. Macbeth takes in all ideologies, too. The play addresses no specific ideology: it was written while ideologies were stirring but before they had been released into the political atmosphere. Its indeterminate target in this regard is a grace. Because it discovers the nature of all political ideology, Macbeth becomes the most perspicuous and chilling political play.
  4. Niebuhr, Reinhold. The Irony of American History. University of Chicago Press. Kindle Edition, at 62.
  5. Id. at 63.
  6. Id. at 62.
  7. Id. at 13.
  8. Shakespeare, William. Macbeth (The New Cambridge Shakespeare) (Kindle Locations 1221-1222). Cambridge University Press. Kindle Edition.
  9. Id. at Kindle Locations 1206-1207.
  10. Niebuhr, supra, at 145-46.
  11. 5.3.15-16
  12. Niebuhr, supra, at 25.
  13. Id. at 26.
  14. The morning after the debate, Bush made his frightening response worse, explaining that he had taken the question to mean, “Who’s had the most influence on your life?” How could he have conflated those two questions?
  15. Compare Bush’s response to the “favorite political philosopher” question to that of his immediate successor, who had labeled the Iraq War “a dumb war” at its inception. Obama has called Niebuhr his “favorite philosopher.” Speaking to Concordia University Professor Paul Allen in 2008, Obama said he gleaned from Niebuhr that, “There’s serious evil in the world, and hardship and pain. And we should be humble and modest in our belief we can eliminate those things. I take away … the sense we have to make these efforts knowing they are hard, and not swinging from naïve idealism to bitter realism.”
  16. Berman, supra, at 49.
  17. Niebuhr, supra, at 6.
  18. Id. at 8.
  19. Id. at 14.

Liberty versus Freedom

And the chief captain answered, With a great sum obtained I this freedom. And Paul said, But I was free born.

– Acts 22:28, King James Version

Proposed Florida Civil War flagAn individual purchases liberty. A society, over time, earns liberty. As John C. Calhoun said, “Liberty is the noble and highest reward bestowed on mental and moral development, combined with favorable circumstances.” It is “the most difficult [reward] to be won . . .”1

But freedom is a birthright.

According to historian David Hackett Fischer, “. . . the original meanings of freedom and liberty were not merely different but opposed. Liberty meant separation. Freedom implied connection.”

“Liberty” comes from the Latin libertas and its adjective liber, which means “released from restraint.” The Greek eleutheria is similar, and may be defined as “an independence by means of separation.” But “freedom” is a cousin of the Norse fri, the German frei, and other Nothern European variants. Their common root, the Indo-European priya or friya or riya, means “dear” or “beloved.”2

Theologian Chaim Wirszubski points out that “ . . . the Romans conceived of libertas as an acquired civil right, not as an innate right of man.”3 But Fischer says that “by the eleventh century, most men in Iceland were born free. This prior condition of freedom was a birthright that all freeman shared.”4

“In ancient Rome, liberty implied inequality.”5 But in northern European tribes, the ancient rule was, “All free men are equal before the law.”6

Roman citizens spoke of their varying privileges and immunities. But Northern Europeans before the Middle Ages spoke of rights that were available to everyone in the community.7

The American South adopted classical Greco-Roman notions of liberty. But the New England settlers brought in Northern European notions of freedom. The American Civil war was, in an important sense, a struggle between liberty and freedom:

During the Civil War . . . Northerners expanded their ideas of freedom and union into a universal principle. Southern notions of liberty and independence went the other way.8

For Ancient Greeks and Romans, slavery’s existence was consistent with liberty. In fact, one man’s liberty required another man’s slavery. Liberty, then, is a reflection of our need for one another: the slave needs his master, and the master needs his slave. But our interdependence is a necessary but not sufficient element of true community. As Reinhold Niebuhr puts it,

Genuine community, whether between men or nations, is not established merely through the realization that we need one another, though indeed we do. That realization alone may still allow the strong to use the lives of the weaker as instruments of their own self-realization. Genuine community is established only when the knowledge that we need one another is supplemented by the recognition that “the other,” that other form of life, or that other unique community is the limit beyond which our ambitions must not run and the boundary beyond which our life must not expand.9

Liberty and freedom agree that we need one another. But freedom alone agrees with Niebuhr that “the other” is as sacred as we are.

In his debates with Lincoln, Stephen Douglas warned darkly that, were the slaves freed, society would be ruined by miscegenation. Douglas said, in effect, that whites need blacks. They must serve us as slaves; otherwise, they’ll serve us as wives. In his retort, Lincoln pointed out the slave’s status as something very much like Niebuhr’s “other”:

I do not understand that because I do not want a negro woman for a slave I must necessarily want her for a wife. My understanding is that I can just leave her alone. I am now in my fiftieth year, and certainly never have had a black woman either for a slave or wife, so that it seems to me that it is quite possible for us to get alone without making either slaves or wives of negroes.10

To leave someone alone in Lincoln’s sense is to recognize her sacred character.

At its essence, states’ rights means that the states should be left alone, as the proposed flag for Civil War-era Florida above makes clear.  If sovereignty rests in the state, then it should be left alone in Lincoln and Niebuhr’s sense. But sovereignty rests in the people, and it will remain with them in practice so long as the people’s community is based on the sacredness of the individual.

Freedom, then, is grounded in equality, and equality – recognized in the Declaration’s self-evident truth that all men are created equal – is grounded in what Niebuhr calls the “divine source and center”:

. . . life has a center and source of meaning beyond the natural and social sequences which may be rationally discerned. This divine source and center must be discerned by faith because it is enveloped in mystery, though being the basis of meaning. So discerned, it yields a frame of meaning in which human freedom is real and valid and not merely tragic or illusory.11

Science and logic cannot discover the individual’s existence “above the stream of nature and time” – something that “religion and poetry take for granted.”12

Here, essentially, is where religion and politics must not separate. Freedom and the true community it engenders are fixed in each individual’s sacredness perceived by faith.

  1. Speech on the Oregon Bill, June 27, 1848.
  2. David Hackett Fischer, Liberty and Freedom: A Visual History of America’s Founding Ideas, at 5.
  3. Chaim Wirszubski, Libertas as a Political Idea at Rome, at 3.
  4. Fischer, supra, at 6.
  5. Id. at 7.
  6. Sir Frederick Pollard and Frederick William Maitland, The History of English Law Before the Time of Edward I.
  7. Fischer, supra, at 7 – 8.
  8. Id. at 314.
  9. Reinhold Niebuhr, The Irony of American History, at 139.
  10. Harold Holzer, The Lincoln-Douglas Debates: The First Unexpurgated Text, at 189.
  11. Niebuhr, supra, at 168.
  12. Id. at 8 – 9.


[The English people] do not consider their church establishment as convenient, but as essential to their state, not as a thing heterogeneous and separable, something added for accommodation, what they may either keep or lay aside according to their temporary ideas of convenience. They consider it as the foundation of their whole constitution, with which, and with every part of which, it holds an indissoluble union. Church and state are ideas inseparable in their minds, and scarcely is the one ever mentioned without mentioning the other.

– Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France

3PictureFrenchRevolutionJust thinking out loud here. I won’t use any sources other than what I’ve been reading or what I remember having read. With that confession of ignorance, I give myself permission to write, even though I’m giving my subject short shrift.

What has been the effect of the First Amendment’s Establishment Clause (i.e., “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion . . .”)? Is there any downside to not having a state-sponsored religion? Suppose we had tolerance – say, perfect tolerance – for dissenters based on a well-administered Free Exercise Clause (i.e., “. . . or prohibiting the free exercise thereof”). What would the further addition of a state-sponsored religion get us?

I’m currently reading nothing on the Establishment Clause or on the English Civil War, that poignant fulcrum for English and American church-state issues. Instead, I’m reading Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France and Joyce Appleby’s book Liberalism and Republicanism in the Historical Imagination. One of Burke’s arguments against the French Revolution, however, is also an argument against some of his English contemporaries who wanted to disestablish the Anglican Church.

Edmund Burke’s vision of society and the state was typical of Whigs in his day, J. G. A. Pocock states in his thoughtful introduction to Reflections. Burke thought that society and the state needed an established church. Society needed an established church because society needed order and manners. Pocock summarizes Burke’s view on the social order:

The social order in his mind was natural; it was an alliance between heaven and earth; and property . . . was the means by which the human actor assumed a place in this natural, but also dynamic and historical, order (Kindle location 602).

The confiscation of church property in France for collateral for the nation’s debt shook Burke. If the church didn’t own property, the church wasn’t a player.

Within this alliance of heaven and earth, the clergy nourished manners, and manners, Burke and his fellow Whigs believed, were the modern equivalent of the virtue of Greek and Roman antiquity and the outcome of medieval chivalry. Manners, Whigs also believed, were necessary for an economy that relied more and more on commerce.

The state, on the other hand, needed an established church in order to maintain its sacred character. Eighteenth century English Whigs felt the established church legitimized the state in the sight of a religious polity:

The separation of church and state would mean that the sacred character of the latter had no ecclesiastical or institutional expression, and could be affirmed only by such undenominational religion as men were able to agree on, irrespective of church membership or doctrinal belief; in the words sometimes ascribed to President Eisenhower, society would be based on a fundamental religious faith, but it wouldn’t matter what it was (Kindle location 414).

Eisenhower’s exact words (though the quote is arguably apocryphal, and I’m not allowing myself to Google it) are, according to Pocock, “Our society makes no sense unless it’s founded on a fundamental religious faith, and I don’t care what it is.” I don’t think Eisenhower was an antidisestablishmentarianist, though I confess I know little about him. But I do think he was onto something.

Because we have no established church, we’ve had to scramble. James Madison’s elaborate checks and balances, three branches, and bicameral Congress were designed in part to win America’s respect for the new Constitution, according to Charles R. Kessler in his excellent introduction to The Federalist Papers:

The Federalist’s concern for veneration of the Constitution shows that a purely calculative or self-interested attachment to government is not sufficient to secure republicanism. The Constitution must attract the loyalty, admiration, pride, and even reverence of American citizens if the rule of law is to be firmly grounded – if republicanism is to be responsible (xxx).

Reverence for government is tough, Burke would say, when the first amendment to your constitution doesn’t permit its government to establish a religion.

The need for a religious cast for American government persisted. Lincoln’s famous 1848 Lyceum speech advocated a “political religion,” a notion that grew from mere adherence to laws in 1848 to include sacrifice and redemption in Lincoln’s 1863 Gettysburg Address and in his 1865 Second Inaugural Address.

It’s ironic that Lincoln’s narrative of American history includes redemption. In Burke’s time, advocates in England who wanted a church-state separation based their thinking on Locke’s “theory of natural rights which made no appeal to a theology of redemption” (Pocock, Kindle location 427). Yet Lincoln was a Lockean liberal.

Lockean natural rights theory is itself a civil religion and one well suited to America, which has largely rejected Pilgrim and Puritan notions of the community’s primacy in favor of the individual. Locke’s state of nature starts not with society but with an individual, a child of God, much like Adam in the Garden of Eden. Appleby captures the religious appeal of natural law for the generation between Madison and Lincoln:

During these same years evangelical Protestants successfully propagated an individualistic Christian message that challenged much of Calvinist orthodoxy. They compared liberation from sin to liberation from tyranny as a kind of individual empowerment, thus providing a Christian foundation for the civil religion forming around natural rights (4).

But evangelical Christians in our own day have lost sight of natural law. In a related development, their relation to the federal government has become fundamentally antagonistic. America to many evangelicals is like the Roman Empire before Constantine – before it made Christianity its official religion. But we’re also a democracy in which over ninety percent of the population believes in a monotheistic God. Consequently, our politicians rarely throw Christians to the lions.

Instead, many evangelicals speak of a war on Christmas, pointing to courts that order local governments to take crèches down from courthouse lawns. We have claims of anti-religious acts when the I.R.S. denies a religious organization tax-exempt status. Every now and then – most recently a federal district judge’s decision in Wisconsin – someone threatens the I.R.S. housing allowance under which a minister is allowed not to report as taxable income any money he or she uses to pay a mortgage on and to otherwise maintain a residence. As I recall, these challenges end up with Congress reaffirming this sweet tax break in almost unanimous votes.

It must be noted that questioning a tax break for clergy is a good deal less tyrannical than confiscating all church property, as happened soon after the outset of the French Revolution. Certainly, some evangelicals see Free Exercise Clause issues where some courts see Establishment Clause issues. But why are these evangelicals so vociferous in their denunciation of the federal government, so adamant that the government is out to destroy their faith, even though the same government gives clergy and nonprofits special tax breaks? I think Madison, Kessler, Lincoln, and Eisenhower point to the answer.

Many evangelicals would have more respect for the federal government if it were to revoke the Establishment Clause and adopt a religion, like England. I think this desire to revere government, as Kessler might put it, underlies, for instance, many evangelicals’ claim that we are a “Christian nation.” An acceptance of the Christian nation theory would take at least some teeth out of the Establishment Clause. After all, why would evangelicals make this historical argument if its acceptance wouldn’t be a kind of guide to political action?

America’s Christians would be better off taking a hard look at Locke, who in the past has served as a means of unifying Christians and the rest of Americans in a common understanding of government. Non-Christians and unorthodox Christians – Unitarians and Deists – in Burke’s England and in Revolutionary America who wanted to separate church and state were Locke’s followers, but so were Lincoln and many participants in the Second Great Awakening.

Locke’s theological understanding of political science goes deeper than the patently flawed Christian nation claim. Fortified by Locke’s understanding of our mutual status as God’s children – the understanding that underlies Locke’s notion of our fundamental equality – evangelicals could again find what Pocock calls “the sacred character of the state” without bothering with the antidisestablishmentarianism. The Deists were wrong: Locke’s concept of equality before God is redemptive. It was after his resurrection, after all, that St. John’s Jesus first announces our equal status as God’s children: “Go to my brothers, and tell them that I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.”