Posts tagged with: declaration of independence

Coolidge

If we are to maintain the great heritage which has been bequeathed to us, we must be like-minded as the fathers who created it. — Calvin Coolidge.

The Wall Street Journal published today a timely, and much needed, reflection by Leon Kass on Calvin Coolidge’s address delivered at the 150th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence in 1926. Kass asks: What is the source of America’s founding ideas, and their “singular combination” in the Declaration?

Many have credited European thinkers, both British and French. Coolidge, citing 17th- and 18th-century sermons and writings of colonial clergy, provides ample evidence that the principles of the Declaration, and especially equality, are of American cultural and religious provenance: “They preached equality because they believed in the fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man. They justified freedom by the text that we are all created in the divine image, all partakers of the divine spirit.” From this teaching flowed the emerging American rejection of monarchy and our bold embrace of democratic self-government.

Coolidge draws conclusions from his search into the sources. First, the Declaration is a great spiritual document. “Equality, liberty, popular sovereignty, the rights of man . . . are ideals. They have their source and their roots in the religious convictions. . . . Unless the faith of the American people in these religious convictions is to endure, the principles of our Declaration will perish.”

In his speech, Coolidge noted that the idea that a people have a right to choose their own rulers was “not new” in political history. Here’s part of the passage that Kass referenced:

… if these truths to which the Declaration refers have not before been adopted in their combined entirely by national authority, it is a fact that they had been long pondered and often expressed in political speculation. It is generally assumed that French thought had some effect upon our public mind during Revolutionary days. This may have been true. But the principles of our Declaration had been under discussion in the Colonies for nearly two generations before the advent of the French political philosophy that characterized the middle of the eighteenth century. In fact, they come from an earlier date. A very positive echo of what the Dutch had done in 1581, and what the English were preparing to do, appears in the assertion of the Rev. Thomas Hooker, of Connecticut, as early as 1638, when he said in a sermon before the General Court that –

The foundation of authority is laid in the free consent of the people.

The choice of public magistrates belongs to the people by God’s own allowance.

This doctrine found wide acceptance among the nonconformist clergy who later made up the Congregational Church. The great apostle of this movement was the Rev. John Wise, of Massachusetts. He was one of the leaders of the revolt against the royal governor Andross in 1687, for which he suffered imprisonment. He was a liberal in ecclesiastical controversies. He appears to have been familiar with the writings of the political scientist, Samuel Pufendorf, who was born in Saxony in 1632. Wise published a treatise entitled “The Church’s Quarrel Espoused” in 1710, which was amplified in another publication in 1717. In it he dealt with the principles of civil government. His works were reprinted in 1772 and have been declared to have been nothing less than a textbook of liberty for our Revolutionary fathers.

While the written word was the foundation, it is apparent that the spoken word was the vehicle for convincing the people. This came with great force and wide range from the successors of Hooker and Wise. It was carried on with a missionary spirit which did not fail to reach the Scotch-Irish of North Carolina, showing its influence by significantly making that Colony the first to give instructions to its delegates looking to independence. This preaching reached the neighborhood of Thomas Jefferson, who acknowledged that his “best ideas of democracy” had been secured at church meetings.

Read “What Silent Cal Said About the Fourth of July” by Leon Kass in the Wall Street Journal.

Read Coolidge’s Address at the Celebration of the 150th Anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, Philadelphia, Pa. (July 5, 1926).

On the PowerBlog, read Ray Nothstine’s “Keep Cool with Coolidge” (August 2007) and “Amity Shlaes on Thrift and Calvin Coolidge” (March 2011).

Read a profile of Samuel von Pufendorf in Acton’s Religion & Liberty and Lord Acton’s discussion of his work in “The History of Freedom in Christianity.”

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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My commentary this week is a simple message about the importance of returning to our founding principles and embracing the liberty granted to all of us as Americans. Independence Day should always serve as a significant reminder of the freedom narrative of this country that has provided so many people with opportunities to flourish and live out their dreams:

America’s Destiny Must Be Freedom

Ralph Waldo Emerson described America as “the land that has never become, but is always in the act of becoming.” Many Americans don’t feel that way as pessimism has replaced a once vibrant optimism about the future. Economic malaise, crippling debt, and a mammoth oil gush in the Gulf Coast are daily reminders of seemingly unmovable obstacles.

Bob Herbert wrote a New York Times column echoing the sentiment of an aimless America titled “When Greatness Slips Away.” While many claim to have the answers to our economic woes and lack of confidence, we would do best to return to the principles of the Declaration of Independence, the American Founding, and our freedom narrative. In past crises, they have been sources of American endurance and strength. They can be again.

Those sacred words from the Declaration—“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”—have been an inspiration to billions of people at home and abroad for centuries. Freedom from excessive centralization of power and the right of the citizenry to flourish without undue interference are hallmarks of what it means to be American. And while the federal government has used activism for good at times, most notably for securing civil rights in the American South, it is revealing itself more and more as the obstacle to progress.

Many in the academy and the modern left scoff at what they call the “Horatio Alger myth.” Alger wrote stories such as “Ragged Dick” and “Only an Irish Boy.” He told stories of poor children achieving the American dream through hard work, determination, and virtue. But Alger also depicted an important spiritual component to his impoverished characters. He gave them dignity and natural rights, just as our founding document did. His tales reflected the kind of egalitarianism that asserts that the value and dignity of a destitute human person is equal to that of another born into prominence and prosperity. These ideas grew right out of our religious heritage and founding.

But if Alger’s stories were not myths before, they will be soon. Future generations’ enjoyment of the liberty to flourish is in jeopardy. The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, last week called the $13 trillion national debt the “biggest threat to our national security.” Annual interest on the national debt in 2012 will grow larger than the entire defense budget. Currently 43 cents of every federal dollar spent is borrowed.

This kind of dependency is antithetical to our tradition of self-reliance. Pick up any honest textbook about American history and the march of America is about freedom and opportunity. On the day of the invasion of the greatest army of liberation ever assembled, General Dwight D. Eisenhower told his armed forces “The eyes of the world are upon you. The hopes and prayers of liberty-loving people everywhere march with you.” These men are often called “The Greatest Generation.

Succeeding generations may call our own “the debt generation” as their dreams become enslaved to deficits so colossal that they sap their entrepreneurial spirit, savings, and earning potential.

Big government activists are already using the BP oil spill to double down on their claim that the federal government is too small, even while the federal response is crippled by a multilayered bureaucratic decision making process and excessive regulation. Others say the BP oil spill is the perfect sign that America’s economic and moral might has peaked.

In his 1993 Inaugural address, President Clinton said, “There is nothing wrong with America that cannot be cured by what is right with America.” It’s a simple yet profound point. Similarly, the primary reason Russell Kirk penned The Roots of American Order in 1974 was to remind his country of the moral bedrock at its base, and to thereby show the way to how it could maintain greatness. In the first chapter, Kirk quotes a passage from the book of Job saying if the nation lacks foundation and order “even the light is like darkness.”

As American citizens pontificate about the future of America this July 4th, they should ask themselves what they can do to curb the contraction of liberty and promote its expansion. It is the citizens, thankfully, who will decide America’s destiny.

The Birth of Freedom opens and closes with Martin Luther King, Jr.’s iconic “I Have a Dream” speech. King appealed to Americans to live out the true meaning of this nation’s creed that all men are created equal. The documentary sets that appeal within the broader context of the Christian West’s slow but ultimately triumphant march to freedom.

Send it to a friend or loved one. Let freedom ring.

August 28 at Denver’s Mile High Stadium, the son of a black African delivered a rousing acceptance speech for the Democratic presidential nomination. It occurred 45 years to the day after Martin Luther King, Jr. stood on the steps of the Lincoln memorial and told America “I have a dream.”

Even Americans unconvinced that the Democratic nominee is the right choice for America should take heart from the fact that half a century after King struggled against vicious, institutionalized racism, the United States has become a place that can fairly consider an African-American for the highest political office in the land.

But if as King urged, we are careful to judge a person not by the color of his skin but by the content of his character, the convergence stretching across 45 years begs a question: Has Barack Obama’s political career embodied Martin Luther King’s dream of justice for all?

King dreamed of a day when his nation would “live out the true meaning” of a creed inscribed in the Declaration of Independence: “all men are created equal” and “are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” The reality is, Barack Obama supports policies that aggressively, even violently undermine that dream.

One might assume I’m referring to the rights of the unborn, and certainly Obama has voted consistently to deny unborn babies the right to life. Obama even blocked modest attempts to end the gruesome practice of partial birth abortion. After the cervix is dilated in this procedure, the baby–who often is old enough to survive outside the womb–is partially delivered, feet first. The abortionist then sticks a needle into the back of the child’s head and suctions out her brains. As an Illinois state senator, Obama twice refused to support a bill banning the practice.

While this is worth noting, I had in view a more startling instance of Senator Obama deviating from Dr. King’s vision of justice for all. Recently California pastor Rick Warren interviewed Obama as part of the Saddleback Forum and, at one point, asked the candidate, “At what point does a baby get human rights in your view?” The senator said that answering the question was “above my pay grade.”

Most of the subsequent media analysis assumed that his answer applied only to unborn babies. But the senator’s voting record tells a different story.

In 2001 and 2002, as an Illinois state senator, Obama repeatedly declined to vote for the Born Alive Infant Protection Act, a bill to protect newborns who survive late-term abortions. Senator Obama has asserted that problems in the wording of the bills drove his decisions not to support this and the partial-birth abortion bills. But in 2003 the Born Alive Infant Protection Act was sent to a committee Obama chaired, giving him the chance to modify anything about the bill he disliked. He never called the bill up for a vote.

Obama has presented himself as a pro-choice moderate. In fact, Obama is far to the left of his own party on the born-alive issue. A similar bill in the U.S. Congress was opposed by only 15 members of the House and was passed unanimously in the U.S. Senate. The bill was even supported by NARAL Pro-Choice America. This is not surprising: the bill outlaws infanticide. What is surprising is that Senator Obama could not find a way to support the bill.

In his “I Have a Dream” speech, King said, “Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of God’s children.” But Obama has refused to extend justice, even the most basic human right, to a segment of the youngest children among us.

Some people have tried to minimize the difference between King and today’s abortion-on-demand lobby by pointing to an award King accepted from Planned Parenthood in 1966. But in a Feb. 25 written release, King’s niece, Dr. Alveda Scott King, noted that King accepted the award when “abortion was illegal in every state and before Planned Parenthood started publicly advocating for it.” In Planned Parenthood’s citation for the award, “not only is no mention of abortion made, it states that ‘human life and progress are indeed indivisible.’”

King’s niece added, “Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., said, ‘The Negro cannot win if he is willing to sacrifice the future of his children for personal comfort and safety,’ and, ‘Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.’ There is no way my uncle would condone the violence of abortion, violence that Planned Parenthood has always tried to mask, which brings painful deaths to babies and can result in torn wombs, serious infections, and emotional devastation for their mothers.”

The Declaration of Independence, and the U.S. Constitution that followed, called for a limited national government that protected the inalienable rights of its citizens. At least as regards health care, Senator Obama is advocating something quite different: an ever expanding nanny state intimately involved in our medical choices, and yet one unwilling to protect a newborn child’s inalienable right to life.

In his interview with Warren, Obama emphasized that as a nation we “still don’t spend enough time thinking about the least of these.” But who counts as “the least of these”? A newborn who has survived an attempt on her life strikes me as a pretty good candidate.

In this week’s Acton Commentary, I review Will Smith’s latest movie, The Pursuit of Happyness, which stands as an extended argument underscoring the truth of conservative values. This may sound like an improbable anomaly given the traditional political, ethical, and social allegiances of Hollywood, but the power of the story lies in its basis in fact, the real-life story of Christopher Gardner. This in turn prevents it from being appropriated as a tool for liberal political ideology.

The movie’s depicts American life as a meritocracy, and after opening in mid-December, the film has grossed over $150 million domestically. The movie is up for only one Oscar, however, and this is perhaps a testimony to the incompatibility of the movie’s message with mainstream Hollywood political culture. Indeed, Will Smith is nominated for Best Actor, but this is perhaps as much due to the respect he commands from his peers as it is for his role in this particular film.

The Pursuit of Happyness grossed more than any of the nominees in any other of the major categories, most by a large margin. But what the Hollywood elites can’t see, the American public can, and they’ve voted with their feet.

S. T. Karnick reviews the film here, be sure to check it out. And you can read my review in full here.

This review has been crossposted to Blogcritics.org.

Happy Independence Day, everyone:

Even self-evident things should at times be set down.

IN CONGRESS, JULY 4, 1776

The unanimous Declaration of the thirteen united States of America

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. (more…)