Posts tagged with: american founding

Blog author: rnothstine
Wednesday, September 17, 2014

United_States_ConstitutionThis afternoon I delivered the Constitution Day lecture at Cooley Law School in Grand Rapids. The school did an excellent job promoting the event and I was thankful for an opportunity to speak about our founding documents and introduce Acton ideas and thought to law students. Much of my discussion centered upon Calvin Coolidge’s notion that there is a “finality” and rest within our founding principles. When we endeavor to move beyond the principles of our founding; we begin to move backwards not forward. It was Coolidge who said, “To live under the American Constitution is the greatest political privilege that was ever accorded to the human race.”

Today, we desperately need to recapture the truth that the whole purpose of our Bill of Rights and Constitution is to limit the federal government. As James Madison declared in Federalist #45, “Those powers delegated by the proposed Constitution to the federal government, are few and defined. In my talk, I stressed the importance of staying faithful to the Constitutional text. My background is theology not constitutional law, but in seminary I was always reminded by my professor Ben Witherington, that “a proof-text without a context, is just a pretext for whatever you want it to mean.” That is true of our founding documents, just as it is true of Scripture.

Our government exists to protect our natural rights. Coolidge, who was sandwiched between the progressive era and the New Dealers, told Americans something that is just as relevant now as it was then: “The pressing need of the present day is not to change our constitutional rights, but to observe our constitutional rights.” Coolidge and Ronald Reagan probably talked more about the U.S. Constitution than any other 20th century presidents. I concluded my remarks by quoting Ronald Reagan’s 1987 State of the Union Address where he talked about the exceptional nature of our Constitution: (more…)

jeff20th Century historian Dumas Malone praised Thomas Jefferson as the exemplar of liberty. “To all who cherish freedom and abhor tyranny in any form, [Jefferson] is an abiding hope that springs eternal,” declared Malone. Jefferson crafted our creed as Americans and once wrote, “Nothing then is unchangeable but the inherent and inalienable rights of man.”

In the April issue of Carolina Journal, I review Long Journey with Mr. Jefferson. You can read the review on page 20 of the issue in PDF form. The book, which is a biography of Dumas Malone, was an enlightening read on a scholar who spent decades studying Thomas Jefferson. His six-volume biography of the author of the Declaration of Independence, titled Jefferson and His Times, spanned from 1948-1981. Malone received the Pulitzer Prize in 1975 and Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1983.

While I haven’t read all of Malone’s volumes, the biography piqued my interest because of the complexity of studying Jefferson and the lengthy duration Malone spent on one man. One of the points I made at the end of the review was the stark contrast Malone provides to an American society that is becoming increasingly ignorant of not just its history, but the meaning and nature of our rights. Studying Jefferson is essential. It’s a great introduction into the whole ethos of the limiting of state power and especially elevating an important truth, that governments gain their legitimacy by their ability to protect the rights that predate government.

Acton Institute Director of Research and author of Tea Party Catholic Samuel Gregg joined host John Pinhiero for a discussion of his latest book and the Catholic influence on the American founding on Faith and Reason, Pinhiero’s new show on Holy Family Radio in Grand Rapids and Kalamazoo, Michigan. The wide-ranging discussion lasted a full broadcast hour, and can be heard using the audio player below.

Coolidge In November of 1925, President Calvin Coolidge delivered an address on the topic of the proper relationship between government and business. His audience was the New York State Chamber Commerce. One of Coolidge’s main aims of the speech was to elevate the spiritual value of business.

As president, Coolidge oversaw unprecedented economic expansion and growth, but he also lived through the rise of America’s progressive era and Russia’s Bolshevik Revolution. New ideas about government and society had already long been popularized in large segments of America by 1925. Coolidge, who saw himself as a civic educator, articulated a much more traditional and conservative view of American ideals. A common recurrence of his public addresses was to praise the truths and virtues of America’s founding principles. At the very end of this address, Coolidge closed with the line, “The truth and faith and justice of the ancient days have not departed from us.” Below is a poignant excerpt from his 1925 address:

While there has been in the past and will be in the future a considerable effort in this country of different business interests to attempt to run the Government in such a way as to set up a system of privilege, and while there have been and will be those who are constantly seeking to commit the Government to a policy of infringing upon the domain of private business, both of these efforts have been very largely discredited, and with reasonable vigilance on the part of the people to preserve their freedom do not now appear to be dangerous.

When I have been referring to business, I have used the word in its all-inclusive sense to denote alike the employer and employee, the production of agriculture, and industry, the distribution of transportation and commerce, and the service of finance and banking. It is the work of the world. In modern life, with all its intricacies, business has come to hold a very dominant position in the thoughts of all enlightened peoples. Rightly understood, this is not a criticism, but a compliment. In its great economic organization it does not represent, as some have hastily concluded, a mere desire to minister to selfishness. The New York Chamber of Commerce is not made up of men merely animated with a purpose to get the better of each other. It is something far more important than a sordid desire for gain. It could not successively succeed on that basis. It is dominated by a more worthy impulse; it rests on a higher law. True business represents the mutual organized effort of society to minister to the economic requirements of civilization. It is an effort by which men provide for the material needs of each other. While it is not an end in itself, it is the important means for the attainment of a supreme end. It rests squarely on the law of service. It has for its main reliance truth and faith and justice. In its larger sense it is one of the greatest contributing forces to the moral and spiritual advancement of the race.

American_Revolution_Statue_6The Great Awakening (1730 – 1760) was central to America’s revolution and independence. It united the colonies and gave them a new spiritual vitality. It made churches more American and less European. These changes wedded with enlightenment thought allowed Americans to see the world with new eyes. Ties to Europe, and England especially, began to unravel. “The Revolution could not have taken place without this religious background,” says historian Paul Johnson. “The essential difference between the American Revolution and the French Revolution is that the American Revolution, in its origins, was a religious event, whereas the French Revolution was an anti-religious event.”

These truths are too often dismissed today and the kind of liberty that emerged from the colonies is being forgotten.  As Lord Acton said so well, freedom is “not the power of doing what we like but the right of being able to do what we ought.”

At my church service Sunday, my minister delivered a sermon on the Apostle Paul’s conversion in Acts 9 , legalism, and spiritual pride. At the end, he took a few minutes to address events going on in America and even read a portion of Justice Antonin Scalia’s recent dissent on the ruling of the Defense of Marriage Act. Foreshadowing the coming religious persecution he quoted Scalia’s line, “It is one thing for a society to elect change; it is another for a court of law to impose change by adjudging those who oppose it hostes humani generis, enemies of the human race.” My pastor made the point that because of the looming threats to conscience and long established worldviews held by Christians, America is setting itself not as indifferent but hostile to Christian teaching and truth. We are and have been experiencing a new revolution against our foundations. It’s a harrowing thought, that points to a puffed up pride by leaders who can exact change with little precedent and unconstrained by a higher accountability.

Contrasting that kind of rebellion, there are some great sources that highlight the importance of America’s brand of spiritual liberty. One of the best is Political Sermons of the American Founding Era 1730-1805 published by Liberty Fund. Below is a great excerpt from “A Sermon on the Anniversary of the Independence of America” by Samuel Miller. Delivered in 1793, Miller was an ordained Presbyterian minister and professor of church history and government at Princeton. Miller simply lays out the significance of the Christian contribution within American independence and government:

Christianity, on the one hand, teaches those, who are raised to places of authority, that they are not intrinsically greater than those whom they govern; and that all the rational and justifiable power with which they are invested, flows from the people, and is dependent on their sovereign pleasure. There is a love of dominion natural to every human creature; and in those who are destitute of religion, this temper is apt to reign uncontrouled. Hence experience has always testified, that rulers, left to themselves, are prone to imagine, that they are a superior order of beings, to obey whom, the ignoble multitude was made, and that their aggrandizement is the principal design of the social compact. But the religion of the gospel, rightly understood, and cordially embraced, utterly disclaims such unworthy sentiments, and banishes them with abhorrence from the mind. It contemplates the happiness of the community, as the primary object of all political associations—and it teaches those, who are placed at the helm of government, to remember, that they are called to preside over equals and friends, whose best interest, and not the demands of selfishness, is to be the object of their first and highest care.

On the other hand, Christianity, wherever it exerts its native influence, leads every citizen to reverence himself—to cherish a free and manly spirit—to think with boldness and energy—to form his principles upon fair enquiry, and to resign neither his conscience nor his person to the capricious will of men. It teaches, and it creates in the mind, a noble contempt for that abject submission to the encroachments of despotism, to which the ignorant and the unprincipled readily yield. It forbids us to call, or to acknowledge, any one master upon earth, knowing that we have a Master in heaven, to whom both rulers, and those whom they govern, are equally accountable. In a word, Christianity, by illuminating the minds of men, leads them to consider themselves, as they really are, all co-ordinate terrestrial princes, stripped, indeed, of the empty pageantry and title, but retaining the substance of dignity and power. Under the influence of this illumination, how natural to disdain the shackles of oppression—to take the alarm at every attempt to trample on their just rights; and to pull down, with indignation, from the seat of authority, every bold invader!

Gadsden_flag.svgAmerica, for the obvious reasons, holds strong ties to Europe. But it is a country that has primarily been associated with a distinctness and separation from the turmoil and practices of the continent. In his farewell address, George Washington famously warned Americans about remaining separate from European influence and declared, “History and experience prove that foreign influence is one of the most baneful foes of republican government.” Class strife, conflict, and instability already long characterized the European fabric at the time of the American Revolution. Likewise, many American colonists already thought of themselves as free and distinct before the revolt. At the time of the revolution, some 400 wealthy noble families controlled Great Britain. America had an aristocracy for sure, but it was much more merit based than Europe. It embodied a more egalitarian spirit, local communities were culturally connected and would have been suspicious of attempts at centralization. So obviously countless problems ignited and there was a fanning of flames when the Crown started making decrees and commands of the American colonists.

I have a copy of Sam Gregg’s Becoming Europe, which is next on my reading list. The recent calls for gun control and the curtailing of 2nd Amendment Rights out of Washington immediately reminded me more of the American – European divide. I’d point you to Gregg’s work for the formative economic study on our evolution towards European democratic socialism, but I want to make a few short observations on the topic, which might be beneficial to expand on after I read Becoming Europe. (more…)

Is Christianity and the Christian worldview the path to a free society? Chinese bloggers are asking that question. Many believe the fascination with American politics and democracy is at an all time high in China. Technology and internet access is surely responsible for much of the trend. From one report,

Obama’s inauguration was a top trending topic on Sina Weibo, China’s massive microblogging site, with over 25 million posts on Jan. 21. Of these, one comment by a Weibo user by the name Wugou1975 was forwarded over 2,000 times, garnering over 500 comments. The blogger posted a photo of Obama taking the presidential oath with Supreme Court Justice John Roberts:

‘Some Chinese find it unbelievable that this secular country’s democratically elected president was sworn in with his hand on a Bible, not the Constitution, and facing a court justice, not Congress. But actually, this is the secret of America’s constitutional democracy: It’s not just the Constitution or the government’s “separation of powers.” Above that is natural law, guarded by a grand justice. And below is a community of Christians, unified by their belief.’

Undeniably, there has been and continues to be a systematic attack upon the Christian roots of the West and this nation. Marcello Pera, who teaches at the Pontifical Council in Rome, sums it up well:

“With its words, liberal secularism preaches freedom, tolerance, and democracy, but with its deeds it attacks precisely that Christian religion which prevents freedom from deteriorating into license, tolerance into indifference, democracy into anarchy.”

There is a level of irony in Chinese bloggers recognizing the significance of the religious foundations of democracy, while many Western scholars have abandoned or even attacked such notions. America’s religious heritage is vibrant and was a unifying factor promoting shared values and purpose throughout its history. The American framers knew religious vibrancy was required for ordered liberty and virtue to reign and prosper throughout society. Alexis de Tocqueville praised these characteristics and noted it was the foundations of America’s freedom and strength of its people. When it comes to the basis of our rights and foundations of government, Jefferson asked,

“Can the liberties of a nation be thought secure when we have removed their only firm basis, a conviction in the minds of the people that these liberties are of the gift of God? That they are not to be violated but with his wrath?”