The crisis & the merely urgent

“The old forms rattle, and the new delay to appear.”
– Ralph Waldo Emerson, February 3, 1861

I remember, years ago, reading Bruce Chadwick’s 1858: Abraham Lincoln, Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, Ulysses S. Grant and the War They Failed to See, a book about the eponymous year, and thinking: they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the war came, and swept them all away.

That book, like my news feed, covers missed clues as well as more reassuring events, such as marriages and economic trends. John Brown’s raid vied for public attention with a nasty economic recession, and I’d be a Monday-morning quarterback not to acknowledge that it must have been hard to sift through all of the merely important news to discern the momentous.

To make it more difficult, the former masks the latter. We’re used to our divisions on issues like women’s rights, gun control, taxes, and the government’s role in health care, and the news about them justifiably garners headlines. Florida’s school shooting last week revived the gun-control debate for a few days; the White House was relieved that the shooting turned the restive social media focus away from the Russia probe and its investigation into one administration threat to our very democracy.

We’re in something like what James Hurst once called the “clove of seasons”: our decades-long, divisive season is not yet dead, but our crisis season has not fully arrived. The political weather on any given day can feel more like chilly division than stormy crisis. It must have felt that way to Americans picking up the newspapers in 1858. And a lot of 1858 is like 2018 so far – a mid-term election year, a deeply divided and incendiary press, a host of conspiracy theories (including Lincoln’s “House Divided” speech), and there’s much evidence of food, drink, and sex. But the similarities aren’t the point. Rather, can we discern the times any better than our forebears given the equal portion of news from the old and new political seasons?

Generational theorists William Strauss and Neil Howe posit that, every four generations or so, America moves from an “unraveling era” to a civil crisis. It happened around 1858, and over a quarter-century ago Strauss and Howe argued that it would be happening now. The civil crisis, they said, would threaten our national existence. Our civil-crisis news concerns a president who often threatens our press’s freedom – not just by threatening to change the libel laws but also by cooperating with foreign disinformation campaigns – a president who often attacks our country’s intelligence services, a president who refuses to protect the integrity of our electoral system despite the clear and present danger four of our intelligence services conclude that Russia poses to it – indeed, he has attacked the system’s veracity himself by repeatedly claiming without evidence that almost three million illegal aliens voted against him in 2016 – and a president who has, by his own admission, obstructed justice – he has twice admitted to firing the FBI director in order to “fight back” against accusations concerning his and his campaign’s ties to a foreign enemy.

Over the last few generations we’ve had other scandals and cover-ups, of course – Nixon during what Strauss and Howe call our latest age of spiritual renewal and Clinton during the middle of our own unraveling age – but neither previous presidential scandal was as serious and, given the groundwork of our deepening political divisions, more likely to succeed. The members of our intelligence services are in my prayers day and night.

It would be hard to run for Congress this year on just the existential threats, of course. One may be tempted to run as an independent and emphasize the threats, but any attractive third-party movement based on such a strategy may split the vote and result in a Congress that would ignore the president’s threats to our government and Constitution as much as the current Congress does. Countries with united oppositions against would-be tyrants are much better at ridding themselves of them, as Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt report in their new book How Democracies Die.

One doesn’t have to wait for this fall’s elections, though, to hear the resurgence of the old partisan issues. Over the past few months, it has been difficult for certain “resistance” groups formed in response to the president’s election to maintain a crisis-era focus. In league with the political left, many of these groups now indiscriminately mix unravelling-era issues with crisis-era ones.

Besides, if we think our unravelling-era political opponents are worse than our crisis-era foreign enemies, then we may allow a would-be tyrant to use what James Madison ruefully calls in Federalist 48 “some favorable emergency” to consolidate power – for instance, to make the Justice Department and the FBI loyal to him alone. However, it may not take that much. Given our country’s preference twenty years ago for a strong economy over the well-founded accusations brought by Kenneth Starr against President Clinton, good economic times may give the administration as much cover as an emergency to quash the investigations into its Russia ties.

I acknowledge that, unless things get a lot worse, meeting the crisis probably won’t solve the problems that got us to this point. Indeed, if we don’t resolve our underlying problems, we may face a worse crisis in the future. But avoiding today’s crisis can’t help matters. Politics in the best sense is speech and action. We must practice what we can of politics, or it won’t exist.

I’m not suggesting a choice between the crisis and the merely urgent. It’s a matter of precedence: political existence comes before policy debate. Jesus once castigated the scribes and Pharisees for tithing “mint and anise and cumin” while omitting “the weightier matters of the law, judgment, mercy, and faith.” Jesus made clear that he wasn’t asking these religious leaders not to tithe: “These [weightier matters] ought ye to have done, and not to leave the other undone.” We neglect the weightier matters, too, by involving ourselves only in matters that in a less dangerous political age would be of the first moment.

Right now, political practice involves triage. We’re in need of political triage and the discernment it requires.

Arendt on walking out that door

Why do some recent writers lump Hannah Arendt with the liberals? She castigates liberalism. She thinks twentieth-century liberalism’s wish to further divorce religion from politics works against its goal of freedom. Liberals see any setback to progress as a threat of totalitarianism, she says, while conservatives are more apt to care about distinctions among authoritarian regimes, tyrannies, and totalitarian states — distinctions that she also cares a great deal about.

Arendt is not even a Lockean liberal. She understands classical liberalism as she does Christian and Jewish teaching: life is the highest ideal. But she calls concerns about life “pre-political” — they must be addressed before we walk out the door each morning into a public realm in which “not life but the world is at stake.”

Arendt is pre-Locke, a democrat — small “d” — and she loves democracy in what she considers its purest expression, the Greek polis. She doesn’t advocate a return to the polis, which she concedes would be impossible. (She doesn’t often advocate a return to anything, thankfully, though she wants history and philosophy clearly heard and understood as we move in and out of politics, searching for it, as we do, like a receiver trying to pull in a long-lost signal.) But she understands from the polis that freedom is possible in politics alone, and the best politics involves a public space in which free men and women work at living together.

In such politics wisdom is possible and reason, despite its severe limitations within a given individual, wins over majorities. Her understanding of reason is Madison’s, and she quotes Federalist 49 with approval: “The reason of man, like man himself, is timid and cautious when left alone, and acquires firmness and confidence in proportion to the number with which it is associated.”

But pure democracy may not be liberal. The Athenian polis, of course, was underwritten by slavery, the system that allowed husbands and slaveowners to leave their domestic tyrannies and walk into the polis as free men, and the equal of other free men, all unencumbered by necessity. Without slavery, is a polis — a community of equals who can dedicate time to political speech and action — possible? And in what sense today can we consider necessity “pre-political”?

Does the first nonpolitical use of the word “freedom” — Jesus’ reference in John 7 to being free from sin — suggest a way to a polis of sorts among those who, like Jesus, have chosen to live a life without fear of necessity? Is this one reason Arendt advocates mining the Gospels for a theory of faith that would spur political action against our grinding world systems? Or are we doomed to put up with our corrupted version of the polis in which only the rich can afford to use our politics as their plaything?

[Featured photograph by Giorgio Raffaelli. Used by permission.]

Antidisestablishmentarianism

[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.”

Good reads on natural law, Lockean liberalism, & equality

Walter Lippmann stampA few people recently asked me for some good reads to start them into natural law, Lockean liberalism, and the equality clause. I oblige them here.

The Teaching Company’s Great Courses includes a thoughtful overview on the history and development of natural law theory. Joseph Koterski’s “Natural Law and Human Nature” course comes with a good “course guidebook” that has lots of suggestions for more reading.

One of those suggestions is Paul E. Sigmund’s book Natural Law in Political Thought. Here is the most approachable scholarly book I’ve read on the subject. Like Koterski’s course, Sigmund’s book traces natural law’s development over the centuries.

Sigmund’s book, in turn, mentions Walter Lippmann’s book The Public Philosophy. I’m reading it now. Unlike Koterski and Sigmund, Lippmann was not a scholar but (as Wikipedia puts it) a public intellectual and an amateur philosopher. He wrote The Public Philosophy in 1955, near the end of his reign as probably the twentieth century’s most influential American columnist. Lippmann’s book isn’t a history book; instead, it advocates that America readopt natural law as its public philosophy.

Ruth W. Grant
Ruth W. Grant

Another well-argued piece is political science professor Harry V. Jaffa’s 1987 law review article “What Were the ‘Original Intentions’ of the Framers of the Constitution of the United States?” Jaffa takes issue with his fellow conservatives who reject natural law in favor of strict constructionism. (If you click the above link to that article, be prepared to be patient. It takes a while to load.) Jaffa’s shorter article along those same lines is “The False Prophets of American Conservatism.” If you end up liking Jaffa and want to challenge yourself, treat yourself to what I consider to be the past few decades’ greatest work of American political science, A New Birth of Freedom: Abraham Lincoln and the Coming of the Civil War, published in 2000. In it, Jaffa develops the founders’ and Lincoln’s political philosophy and establishes the significance of the equality clause and the natural-law hierarchy it reinforces among God, mankind, and nature. Very slow, difficult, but rewarding reading.  (You can read my Amazon.com customer review of the book here.)

Three good primary sources would be Locke’s Second Treatise on Government, Hamilton, Madison, and Jay’s Federalist Papers, and Lincoln’s writings. Political Writings of John Locke has a long (115 pages) and excellent introduction by David Wootton. The introduction puts Locke’s works in the context of his life and times and explains his works’ appeal to the American revolutionary generation. The Signet Classic version of the Federalist Papers has a much shorter but equally thoughtful introduction, this one by Charles R. Kesler. Written in 1999, the introduction presciently demonstrates how pertinent the Federalist Papers are to us today: “The American Union is threatening to split up into separate confederacies of states, Publius argues, and each state is itself teetering on the brink of tyranny due to the danger of majority faction.” As for Lincoln’s writings, I use Lincoln on Democracy, edited by Mario M. Cuomo and Harold Holzer, and the Holzer-edited version of the Lincoln-Douglas debates. My favorite intellectual biography of Lincoln is the very approachable Abraham Lincoln: Redeemer President by Allen C. Guelzo.

Alexander Rosenthal
Alexander Rosenthal

Two other books I’ve read should not be missed: Alexander S. Rosenthal’s Crown Under Law: Richard Hooker, John Locke, and the Ascent of Modern Constitutionalism and Ruth W. Grant’s John Locke’s Liberalism. The links associated with those titles lead to my extensive reviews of the titles.

Three good steps for finding free or cheap books: (1) showroom Amazon (many would say it’s only fair) using its customer reviews and its “Look Inside” feature where available, or Google Books, to see what you want, (2) look for free e-book downloads on archive.org’s texts sectionOpen Library, or Amazon’s Kindle store and the like (usually books out of copyright) (you can borrow many e-books at these sites, too), and, barring that, (3) shop for used hard-copy books, starting at bookfinder.comAnd three guidelines for buying used books: (1) hardbacks are often way cheaper than paperbacks, (2) older editions are often way cheaper than newer editions, and (3) (contrary to all reason) well-marked books are often way cheaper than “clean” books.

I can’t compile such a digest of political science books as this without acknowledging the work that got me interested in natural law, Lockean liberalism, and the equality clause more than a quarter-century ago: Jaffa’s Crisis of the House Divided: An Interpretation of the Issues in the Lincoln-Douglas Debates. I trembled, reading it the first time.