Commentary Magazine


Topic: the Founders

God, Our Rights, and the Modern Liberal Mind

In a recent interview, Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore told CNN anchor Chris Cuomo, “Our rights, contained in the Bill of Rights, do not come from the Constitution, they come from God.”

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In a recent interview, Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore told CNN anchor Chris Cuomo, “Our rights, contained in the Bill of Rights, do not come from the Constitution, they come from God.”

“Our rights do not come from God,” Cuomo replied. “That’s your faith. That’s my faith. But that’s not our country.” (For this portion of the exchange, see starting around the 13:00 minute mark.)

In fact, Mr. Cuomo is wrong and Judge Moore is right, at least in the context of America and its history. To understand why, it’s important to point out that the Constitution is America’s governing charter, one that sets up a structure of government. To be sure, the Bill of Rights lay out certain rights the people are entitled to against every government on earth. But to understand where those rights come from, what their source is, one needs to turn to the Declaration of Independence. And here is what the Declaration states:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness – That to secure these Rights, Governments are instituted among Men…

It could hardly be clearer, then: Governments are instituted in order to secure rights that are God-given. And faith in divinely given rights is a consistent theme not only of the founders but of nearly every president. John F. Kennedy, in his inaugural address, crystalized the point this way: “Yet the same revolutionary beliefs for which our forebears fought are still at issue around the globe–the belief that the rights of man come not from the generosity of the state but from the hand of God.”

But the person who most often tied the story and meaning of America to the self-evident truths of the Declaration was our greatest president, Abraham Lincoln. Time and again he asked Americans to return to what he called the “sacred principles” embodied in the Declaration of Independence. Here is but one noteworthy 1858 passage from Lincoln that bears on this matter:

Now, if slavery had been a good thing, would the Fathers of the Republic have taken a step calculated to diminish its beneficent influences among themselves, and snatch the boon wholly from their posterity? These communities, by their representatives in old Independence Hall, said to the whole world of men: “We hold these truths to be self evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” This was their majestic interpretation of the economy of the Universe. This was their lofty, and wise, and noble understanding of the justice of the Creator to His creatures.

Yes, gentlemen, to all His creatures, to the whole great family of man. In their enlightened belief, nothing stamped with the Divine image and likeness was sent into the world to be trodden on, and degraded, and imbruted by its fellows. They grasped not only the whole race of man then living, but they reached forward and seized upon the farthest posterity. They erected a beacon to guide their children and their children’s children, and the countless myriads who should inhabit the earth in other ages. Wise statesmen as they were, they knew the tendency of prosperity to breed tyrants, and so they established these great self-evident truths, that when in the distant future some man, some faction, some interest, should set up the doctrine that none but rich men, or none but white men, were entitled to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, their posterity might look up again to the Declaration of Independence and take courage to renew the battle which their fathers began—so that truth, and justice, and mercy, and all the humane and Christian virtues might not be extinguished from the land; so that no man would hereafter dare to limit and circumscribe the great principles on which the temple of liberty was being built. [Emphasis added.]

It is one thing to argue that our rights are not God-given and that the Declaration, the founders, Lincoln, Martin Luther King Jr., and so many other great documents and figures in American history were wrong to claim they were. Those who hold this view, of course, need to explain the basis for believing in and protecting unalienable rights and human dignity if they are not grounded in “the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God.” Absent a Creator, what is the argument against capriciousness, injustice, and tyranny? How does one create a system of justice and make the case against, say, slavery, if you begin with two propositions: one, the universe was created by chance; and two, it will end in nothing? How do you derive a belief in a moral law that is binding on you and others apart from theism? How do you get from the “is” to the “ought”? But that is another argument for another day.

Where Mr. Cuomo goes off the rails is in asserting that “it is not our country” to say our rights come from God. This actually is a philosophical thread that runs throughout the history of our country with astonishing consistency and, at least until now, a proposition very few people disputed. So Mr. Cuomo’s statement is not only wrong; it is historically illiterate.

Illiterate, but revealing, too. There is something about the modern liberal mind that makes it so fearful about linking our rights to God that those (like Chris Cuomo) who hold this view disfigure our history in order to make their case.  Those who commit this error also seem clueless that the greatest strides toward justice in our history have occurred precisely because people like Lincoln and King articulated a human anthropology that was grounded in a belief in God. In his great debates with Stephen Douglas, Lincoln countered the argument of “popular sovereignty” by explaining that human beings were endowed by their Creator with fundamental rights that were inviolate regardless of what the popular will said. Thankfully it was Lincoln’s view, not Douglas’s, that prevailed.

Mr. Cuomo has a (God-given) right to believe what he wants. But in stating his case, he really should get his facts straight. Otherwise he risks looking foolish, as he did in his exchange with Judge Moore.

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A Conservative Vision of Government

Michael Gerson and I have written an essay, “A Conservative Vision of Government,” published in the newest issue of the indispensable quarterly National Affairs. Our aim is to make a persuasive case for why conservatives should speak about not only the size but also the purposes of government–and why a modern, reform agenda is key to the future of the GOP and conservatism. 

We explain in some detail our deep disagreements with the Obama agenda and why limited government advances individual liberty and human flourishing. But we deal with a good deal more than that.

The essay responds to what we consider to be a rhetorical indiscipline among some on the right that is often directed against government. Since those attacks are often justified by references to the Constitution and the American founding, we explore the views of the Federalist founders and Lincoln, who in fact were not fiercely and ideologically anti-government.

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Michael Gerson and I have written an essay, “A Conservative Vision of Government,” published in the newest issue of the indispensable quarterly National Affairs. Our aim is to make a persuasive case for why conservatives should speak about not only the size but also the purposes of government–and why a modern, reform agenda is key to the future of the GOP and conservatism. 

We explain in some detail our deep disagreements with the Obama agenda and why limited government advances individual liberty and human flourishing. But we deal with a good deal more than that.

The essay responds to what we consider to be a rhetorical indiscipline among some on the right that is often directed against government. Since those attacks are often justified by references to the Constitution and the American founding, we explore the views of the Federalist founders and Lincoln, who in fact were not fiercely and ideologically anti-government.

We point out that the Federalist founders, unlike some anti-federalist opponents of the Constitution, did not view government as an evil, or even as a necessary evil. In their view, government, properly understood and framed, was essential to promoting what they referred to as the “public good.” The most important framers and explicators of the Constitution–Madison, Hamilton, Washington, Gouverneur Morris, James Wilson, and others–believed the national government had to have the ability to adapt as necessary to meet citizens’ needs as those needs were expressed through representative government. (“In framing a system which we wish to last for ages,” Madison told the Constitutional Convention, “we should not lose sight of the changes which ages will produce.”) They would have little toleration, we write,

for politicians who are committed to abstract theories even when they are at odds with the given world and the welfare of the polity — who fail to differentiate between conserving the system by adapting it to changing circumstances and undermining the system by breaking with its fundamental aims and outlook.

We devote a section of the essay to law and character, arguing that by definition laws shape habits, values, and sensibilities–not every law, not all the time, but enough to play a decisive role in the formation of our national character and the individual characters of our citizens.

The last section of our piece argues that the real problem in much of American government is not simply that it is too big but rather that it is antiquated, ineffective, and ill-equipped to handle the most basic functions appropriate for a great and modern country. Conservatives, we say, “should offer a menu of structural reforms that do not simply attack government but transform it on conservative terms.” 

The essay concludes this way:

Conservatives are more likely to be trusted to run the affairs of the nation if they show the public that they grasp the purposes of government, that they fully appreciate it is in desperate need of renovation, and that they know what needs to be done. The American people are deeply practical; they are interested in what works. And they want their government to work. Conservatives know how institutions can and should work in our free society, and they can apply that knowledge to government. 

All this leads us to a final reason why conservatives should be engaged in the reform of government. The reputation of government is an important national asset — and an irreplaceable source of national pride. Government overreach by the left has degraded that asset. Today’s hemorrhaging of trust in public institutions, if left to run its course, will only further degrade it. Skepticism toward government is one thing; outright hostility is injurious to the health of American democracy itself. How can citizens be expected to love their country if they are encouraged to hold its government in utter contempt?

Thinking of government as a precious national institution in need of care and reform does not come naturally to many modern-day conservatives. Given the damage that our government is doing to our society, it is easy to understand their anger and frustration. But that is precisely why, especially now, conservatives must make the case that they will give Americans a government, and therefore a country, they can once again be proud of. 

Our essay, then, is an attempt to lay out a vision of conservatism that is philosophically sound and politically popular. But judge for yourself.

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Our Talmudic American Conservatism

One of the top items at the Economist’s website today was its most recent “Lexington” column from the print edition, which offered a modest proposal: discriminate against lawyers in Congress by establishing an upper limit on the number of law degrees in the legislative branch. The Economist is unhappy with the “legalistic” approach Americans take to their system of governance, and seems to draw a parallel between the polling unpopularity of lawyers and that of members of Congress.

I think the Economist misses an important point about why American governance is conducted in this language, and why that’s a good thing. And though the Economist seeks to dismiss the behavior it describes, in raising the issue it does at least present us with a moment to contemplate an aspect of American politics that bears defending, and loudly. When in the course of attacking lawyers (and specifically Ted Cruz–who else?) the magazine wrote:

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One of the top items at the Economist’s website today was its most recent “Lexington” column from the print edition, which offered a modest proposal: discriminate against lawyers in Congress by establishing an upper limit on the number of law degrees in the legislative branch. The Economist is unhappy with the “legalistic” approach Americans take to their system of governance, and seems to draw a parallel between the polling unpopularity of lawyers and that of members of Congress.

I think the Economist misses an important point about why American governance is conducted in this language, and why that’s a good thing. And though the Economist seeks to dismiss the behavior it describes, in raising the issue it does at least present us with a moment to contemplate an aspect of American politics that bears defending, and loudly. When in the course of attacking lawyers (and specifically Ted Cruz–who else?) the magazine wrote:

The imbalance is not new: more than half the men who signed the Declaration of Independence had a legal training. But a legalistic approach to politics is no longer serving America well. Today’s budget wars are deeply political. They reflect unresolved debates that divide the country: over equality and redistribution, risk-taking and safety nets, and the role of government itself. Seen through foreign eyes, the current dysfunction within Congress is at once distinctively American and recognisable as a political crisis within a grand coalition: in essence the Tea Party is walking out on other members of the Republican alliance, whom you might call the Business Party, the National Security Party and the Christian Values Party. But too often, these budget battles are being fought with legal arguments about precedent and legitimacy, advanced by politicians trained in the adversarial, prove-me-wrong traditions of American law.

I sympathize somewhat with the sentiment that the role of emotion, rhetoric, and social solidarity cannot be completely removed from politics. But let me step in here to defend the law (and the lawyers). This country has a special relationship with its founding documents, in which they are treated almost as revelation. It’s no surprise that the historian Pauline Maier titled her book on the development of the Declaration of Independence American Scripture.

Yet it’s not a religious document, only one that is treated with religious reverence. I’m reminded of the scene in the West Wing when the (Democratic) president’s speechwriter is furious to discover that a man whose reputation he had long defended was actually a Cold War turncoat who worked for the Soviets decades before. “This country is an idea,” he says angrily. “And one that’s lit the whole world for two centuries.”

It was Daniel J. Boorstin’s contention that this idea of America stood in place for any real post-independence philosophical and ideological development. I discussed Boorstin’s idea of American “givenness” back in April, and referenced a COMMENTARY essay he wrote on the topic in 1953, which was based on a book he was about to publish called The Genius of American Politics. He explained “givenness” in the essay as “the belief that values in America are in some way or other automatically defined: given by certain facts of geography or history peculiar to us.”

In the book, Boorstin elaborates and explains that this lack of a need for new ideological theorizing is partially responsible for the form that our historical review tends to take: through massive biographies of the Founders, in which we seek to understand our secular American saints rather than write our own ever-changing scripture. Boorstin writes:

Political theory has been little studied in the United States. For example, departments of political science in many of our universities show more interest in almost anything else than in political theory. This, too, can be explained in part by the limitations imposed by the “preformation” point of view. If our nation in the beginning was actually founded on an adequate and sufficiently explicit theory revealed at one time, later theorists can have only the minor task of exegesis, of explaining the sacred texts. Constitutional history can, and in many ways has, become a substitute for political theory.

What this is, in its own peculiarly American way, is an essentially talmudic approach to American law. As we see from Pauline Maier’s characterization of the Declaration of Independence, that document was a kind of dogmatic explication of God-given laws. The Constitution and amendments that followed it served as the oral law to the Declaration’s written law, a practical guide to guard and fulfill inarguable principles.

America’s Jews, then, are well positioned to understand exactly what the Economist complains of. Orthodox Judaism has halakhic guidelines preventing certain actions that would be sanctioned by a plain reading of the Torah so as to guard against transgressing biblical laws. As I discussed in my post yesterday, the amendments to the Constitution were largely to prevent a situation in which tyranny could develop. They are not a “break glass in case of emergency” last resort in the event that tyranny shows up. They err on the side of caution and seek to rule out actions that might seem on the surface to be in accord with America’s founding ideals but which could put the country on a slippery slope.

“This is our kind of conservatism,” Boorstin wrote, by which he meant a temperamentally conservative outlook rather than an ideologically conservative outlook. But the Economist and numerous others–many more today than when Boorstin wrote those words–see this is as so much hypochondria. It is not intended to be neurotic, and when employed by conservatives today it is not intended to be bullying–though when applied by ideological conservatives who are not also temperamental conservatives it can certainly come across that way.

It is simply intended to be faithful to an idea. Because this country is an idea, and it is one that has lit the whole world for two centuries.

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