Posts tagged with: American founders

Blog author: rnothstine
posted by on Monday, February 24, 2014

scaliaSpeaking on February 14 at a Chicago event celebrating George Washington’s Birthday, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia’s headline remark was his insistence that Chicago-style pizza is “not pizza.” But Scalia focused heavily on the abysmal state of civic education, which not surprisingly, includes law students as well.

Over at the Liberty Law Blog, Josh Blackman, offers some excellent highlights of Scalia’s words from the event. On the relationship between religion and good government, Scalia declared:

Let me make clear that I am not saying that every good American must believe in God. What I am saying, however, is that it is contrary to our founding principles to insist that government be hostile to religion. Or even to insist, as my court, alas, has done, that government cannot favor religion over non-religion.

It is not a matter of believing that God exists, though personally I believe that. It is a matter of believing, as our founders did, that belief in God is very conducive to a successful republic.

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Martin_Luther_King_-_March_on_WashingtonMartin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream Speech” is steeped in American patriotism, the American Founders, and the Judeo-Christian worldview. Today marks the 50th anniversary of his speech, and King’s remarks are receiving considerable attention. As I mentioned in a past commentary, King made no reference to contemporaries except for passing references to his children and Alabama’s governor. He homed in on the significance of the American Founding and the Emancipation Proclamation while lamenting that there was a check marked with “insufficient funds” for many citizens because of segregation and racial injustice. The Scripture and religious tradition isn’t overtly mentioned until halfway through when King quotes Amos 5:24.

When you read the text of his remarks, you realize King is not offering up new ideas or a political revolution but positing his argument in America’s past and the justice and biblical deliverance that shaped the Western tradition, but specifically America. By borrowing from these ancient truths, King wasn’t just appealing to black America but you could easily argue more specifically to white America. He was using the language and tradition that they were most familiar with. He borrowed from the founders, the American tradition, and its sources. The biblical language he used was one of not just liberation or the Exodus, popular in black churches, but also words that spoke of redemption, an even more familiar theme among America’s white Protestants. Even the “let freedom ring” cadences are an indirect reference to the Liberty Bell, which Americans knew well.

While later in his career and ministry, King would go on to encourage more and more federal action, some needed and some not, the “I Have a Dream” speech is essentially conservative in its roots. And of course without the American tradition of liberty, justice, and the rule of law, the speech would not have been possible and would have rung hollow. Even King’s tactic of Christian appeal through non-violence wouldn’t have been effective against a pagan or secularized culture.

In his speech, King was effective because he appealed to America’s strengths, which were America’s founding, the rule of law, and the strong role of religion and faith throughout the country. These are all things we as a country are moving away from today, and it’s a detriment to not just the appeal King made in his 1963 address, but almost all of the aspects of virtue and liberty in our society. I suspect that fact will be neglected or missed entirely by most of today’s commentators on King’s speech.

actonLord Acton once said of the American revolution: “No people was so free as the insurgents, no government less oppressive than the government which they overthrew.” It was America’s high view of liberty and its ideas that cultivated this unprecedented freedom ripe for flourishing. Colonists railed over 1 and 2 percent tax rates and were willing to take up arms in a protracted and bloody conflict to secure independence and self-government.

In a chapter on Lord Acton in The Moral Imagination: From Adam Smith to Lionel Trilling, Gertrude Himmelfarb explains how Acton was a historian who saw moral absolutes, and these were the same absolutes Lord Acton found in America’s Framers.

In America, there is certainly a great dearth of moral clarity in today’s political culture and really most of society. I think a large segment of our population certainly feels aimless and fatigued over the trajectory of not just the political debate, but where our nation is headed. As a country that is losing its history, many thirst for a return to first principles and away from the kind of relativistic rot which has become the status quo. Below is an excerpt from Himmelfarb’s book which discusses Lord Acton’s view on the American Revolution:

Although the first tentative overtures toward freedom came in ancient and medieval times, only in modernity, Acton claimed, did it emerge in its true nature. English Protestant sects in the seventeenth-century discovered that “religious liberty is the generating principle of civil, and that civil liberty is the necessary condition of religious.” But not until the American Revolution had “men sought liberty knowing what they sought.” Unlike earlier experiments in liberty, which had been tainted by expediency, compromise, and interest, the Americans demanded liberty simply and purely as a right. The three-pence tax that provoked the revolution was three-pence worth of pure principle. “I will freely spend nineteen shillings in the pound, Acton quoted Benjamin Franklin, “to defend my right of giving or refusing one other shilling.” Acton himself went further. The true liberal, like the American revolutionists, “stakes his life, his fortune, the existence of his family, not to resist the intolerable reality of oppression, but the remote possibility of wrong, of diminished freedom.” The American Constitution was unique in being both democratic and liberal. “It was democracy in its highest perfection, armed and vigilant, less against aristocracy and monarchy than against its own weakness and excess. . . . It resembled no other known democracy, for it respected freedom, authority, and law.”

National Review Online invited Acton Research Director Samuel Gregg to contribute to a roundup of opinion on the inauguration of a second term in office for President Barack Obama. Gregg, the author of the just-published Becoming Europe: Economic Decline, Culture, and How America Can Avoid a European Future, was also featured yesterday on Ed Driscoll’s blog on Pajamas Media. Driscoll linked his New York Post column on “eurosclerois.

Here’s Gregg’s contribution to NRO’s “Inauguration Day Survival Guide”:

Time is a precious thing, and I, for one, don’t intend to waste it watching the hubris-filled extravaganza and tedious acclamation of identity politics that’s likely to occupy much of the media’s attention over the next few days.

A far better investment of time for those worried that the republic is slowly entering the twilight world of failed states such as California and Illinois would be to forget about the ins and outs of policy debate for a few days, dust off some of the classics of the American Founding, sit down, and, yes, actually read them.

Plenty of people — and not just conservatives and free-marketers — know there’s a more-than-serious risk that the next four years will take the United States even closer to the nadirs of political Detroitification and economic Europeanization. But for all the endless introspection that apparently grips the Right these days, we don’t need to reinvent the philosophical and political principles for the way forward. For although they didn’t agree about everything, the basic agenda for a resurgence of conservative America was penned by those present at the creation in places like Mount Vernon and Philadelphia over 230 years ago. Remembering that is worth more than all the polling and focus groups in the world.

Be sure to pick up a copy of Becoming Europe: Economic Decline, Culture, and How America Can Avoid a European Future (Encounter Books, January 2013).

Blog author: rnothstine
posted by on Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Jefferson_Memorial_StatueIf we asked many of our fellow Americans today “What is the purpose of government?,” undoubtedly, we might be barraged with some vexing or comical answers. But I’m not one to believe that a good deal of our citizens can’t answer this question quite intelligibly. Still, I don’t think it would be enough to embody a healthy republic. It is time for our country to ask these basic questions again. It seems as if the looming chaos of our current national mismanagement demands it.

It was a common belief among the American framers that the purpose of government is simply to secure our rights from God. Unfortunately, I think this is largely forgotten now. That much is evident, given the legislative demands we see today, especially in our nation’s capital. Government overreach is the rule, not the exception. Today we see action taken by the government more oriented toward curtailing our liberties. Instead of natural law, we are inundated with legal positivism, especially when characterized by executive orders contrary to our Constitution. Attacks on the Bill of Rights and the current attacks we are seeing on the 2nd Amendment, is really a fundamental argument against the idea of self-government. In his first Presidential Inaugural Address in 1801, Thomas Jefferson declared,

Sometimes it is said that man can not be trusted with the government of himself. Can he, then, be trusted with the government of others? Or have we found angels in the forms of kings to govern him? Let history answer this question.

The idea that humans can govern themselves was a radical notion in 1776. Jefferson eloquently stated,

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, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed . . .

President Ronald Reagan in 1981, would echo Jefferson’s articulation of self government in his Inaugural Address, while facing the monuments to America’s Founders:

From time to time we’ve been tempted to believe that society has become too complex to be managed by self-rule, that government by an elite group is superior to government for, by, and of the people. But if no one among us is capable of governing himself, then who among us has the capacity to govern someone else?

We as a people need to again ask those fundamental questions about our capability for self government. When it comes to the 2nd Amendment or the entirety of our Bill of Rights, should we trust a government that is already hedging and placing limits on trusting us, when in fact, it was entirely meant to be the other way around?

Blog author: rnothstine
posted by on Thursday, May 17, 2012

Right now I am reading an advanced copy of Os Guinness’s A Free People’s Suicide: Sustainable Freedom and the American Future. The book will be released by IVP on August 6. It’s an essential read and I pledge to publish a future review for our PowerBlog readers. Guinness was interviewed in Religion & Liberty in 1998.

In my recent talks around town I have been asking questions about our capacity and desire for self-government as a community and nation. I recently gave a local presentation on President Calvin Coolidge and he helped inspire a greater desire to ask the foundational questions. In my view, Coolidge saw public service as a chance to educate Americans in civics, elevating the greater truths from our revolutionary and founding period.

Below is a great excerpt from Guinness’s forthcoming book:

Beyond any question, the way the American founders consistently linked faith and freedom, republicanism and religion, was not only deliberate and thoughtful, it was also surprising and anything but routine. In this view, the self-government of a free republic had to rest on the self-government of free citizens, for only those who can govern themselves as individuals can govern themselves as a people. As for an athlete or a dancer, freedom for a citizen is the gift of self-control, training and discipline, not self-indulgence.

The laws of the land may provide external restraints on behavior, but the secret of freedom is what Englishman Lord Moulton called “obedience to the unenforceable,” which is a matter of virtue, which in turn is a matter of faith. Faith and virtue are therefore indispensable to freedom – both to liberty itself and to the civic vitality and social harmony that go hand in hand with freedom.

Burke wrote in full agreement, “Manners [or moral standards] are of more importance than laws.” Rousseau had written similarly that mores, customs, and traditions, which are “engraved neither in marble nor in bronze but in the hearts of the citizens” form “the true Constitution of the State” and the “Keystone of the Republic.”

Tocqueville emphatically agreed. His objective in writing Democracy in America was not to turn Frenchmen into Americans, for liberty should take many forms. “My purpose has rather been to demonstrate, using the American example, that their laws and, above all, their manners can permit a democratic people to remain free.”

Religion & Liberty’s summer issue featuring an interview with Metropolitan Jonah (Orthodox Church in America) is now available online. Metropolitan Jonah talks asceticism and consumerism and says about secularism, “Faith cannot be dismissed as a compartmentalized influence on either our lives or on society.”

Mark Summers, a historian in Virginia, offers a superb analysis of religion during the American Civil War in his focus on the revival in the Confederate Army. 2011 marks the 150th anniversary of America’s bloodiest conflict. With all the added attention the conflict is receiving, a piece focusing on faith is especially poignant. “The Great Harvest” by Summers notes that the revival was “homespun,” meaning one that was organic in nature and spread among the common soldier.

I offer a review of Darren Dochuk’s new book From Bible Belt to Sunbelt. Dochuk tells the tale of the great migration from the American South to Southern California. This development ultimately transformed evangelicalism and national politics. It also helped in wedding many religious conservatives to economic conservatism.

“The Separation of Church and Art” is an excerpt from the forthcoming book, Wisdom & Wonder: Common Grace in Science & Art by Abraham Kuyper. Available for the first time in English, Christian’s Library Press will publish Kuyper’s work in November. The Acton Institute has played a tremendous role in the translation project. You can find out more about that role here.

The “In The Liberal Tradition” figure is American Founder Oliver Ellsworth. Ellsworth, a strong proponent of federalism was instrumental in the shaping of our Republic. American President John Adams called Ellsworth “the firmest pillar” of the federal government during its earliest years. In a new biography about Ellworth, author Michael C. Toth argues that Ellsworth’s Reformed faith not only shaped his personal life but the model of federalism he supported also had deeply religious roots within Connecticut.

There is more content in this issue. Past issues of Religion & Liberty are also available online.

A brilliant assessment of where we are. (HT: American Orthodox Institute Observer).

Subject to the governor of the universe: The American experience and global religious liberty

March 1, 2011 – Most Rev. Charles J. Chaput, O.F.M. Cap., Archbishop of Denver, addressed the Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs at Georgetown University.


A friend once said – I think shrewdly — that if people want to understand the United States, they need to read two documents.  Neither one is the Declaration of Independence.  Neither one is the Constitution.  In fact, neither one has anything obviously to do with politics.  The first document is John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress.  The second is Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Celestial Railroad

John Bunyan

Bunyan’s book is one of history’s great religious allegories.  It’s also deeply Christian.  It embodies the Puritan, Protestant hunger for God that drove America’s first colonists and shaped the roots of our country. 

Hawthorne’s short story, of course, is a very different piece.  It’s one of the great satires of American literature.  A descendant of Puritans himself, Hawthorne takes Bunyan’s allegory – man’s difficult journey toward heaven – and retells it through the lens of American hypocrisy: our appetite for comfort, easy answers, quick fixes, material success and phony religious piety.

Bunyan and Hawthorne lived on different continents 200 years apart.  But the two men did share one thing.  Both men – the believer and the skeptic — lived in a world profoundly shaped by Christian thought, faith and language; the same moral space that incubated the United States.  And that has implications for our discussion today.

In his World Day of Peace message earlier this year, Pope Benedict XVI voiced his concern over the worldwide prevalence of “persecution, discrimination, terrible acts of violence and religious intolerance.”i   In reality, we now face a global crisis in religious liberty. As a Catholic bishop, I have a natural concern that Christian minorities in Africa and Asia bear the brunt of today’s religious discrimination and violence.  Benedict noted this same fact in his own remarks.

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Here is the new trailer for the 7-part Birth of Freedom DVD Curriculum, created by Acton Media and released next month by Zondervan.

You can pre-order the curriculum at the Acton Book Shoppe.

More audio from this year’s Acton Lecture Series. In “Virtue and Liberty in the American Founding,” Dr. John Pinheiro examines the American Founders’ understanding of liberty as rooted in a classical and Christian understanding of virtue. His talk touched on the reasons why George Washington argued that public happiness could be attained without private morality and why John Adams wrote that, “[I]t is religion and morality alone which can establish the principles upon which freedom can securely stand. The only foundation of a free constitution is pure virtue.”

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Dr. John Pinheiro

Dr. John Pinheiro is associate professor of history and director of Catholic Studies at Aquinas College in Michigan. He holds a Ph.D. in history from the University of Tennessee. Dr. Pinheiro co-edited volume 12 of the Presidential Series of the Papers of George Washington and is author of Manifest Ambition: James K. Polk and Civil-Military Relations during the Mexican War. His publications also include articles on Washington and the Jacksonian Era in academic journals. Consulting Editor for the Polk presidency at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center of Public Affairs, Dr. Pinheiro also hosts “Past is Prologue” on WPRR, 1680AM, Grand Rapids. His scholarly interests include American identity and evolving American views on republican citizenship.