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15 March 2011

Patriotic Virtue

I'm reading The 5000 Year Leap,and loving every minute of it. I read with my notebook in hand and prefer to have two colors of pens handy for my note taking. What can I say, I'm an office supplies geek. But the best part is the ideas in the book. Cleon Skousen, the book's author says this about the purpose of his book:

A short time before, a brand new majority in Congress had been swept into power, and our professor of Constitutional law was constantly emphasizing the mistakes these newly elected "representatives of the people" were making. He would demonstrate how they were continually seeking answers to the nation's ills through remedies which were not authorized by the Constitution, and in most cases by methods which had been strictly forbidden by historical experience and the teachings of the Founders.

As I talked to some of these enthusiastic new Congressmen, it soon became apparent that their zeal was sincere and that any mistakes they might be making were the results of ignorance, not malicious intent. In fact, all of us belonged to a generation that had never been taught the clear-cut, decisive principles of sound politics and economics enunciated by the Founders. Somebody had apparently decided these were not very important anymore.

To this extent it could be said that, ideologically speaking, we were a generation of un-Americans. Even those of us who had come up through political science had never been required to read the Federalist Papers, John Locke, Algernon Sidney, Montesquieu, Adam Smith, Cicero, or the original writings of the men who put it all together in the first place. (Preface)

The first thing I thought when I read that was, "Yes! Exactly! Why isn't this stuff being taught?" Later, I realized that I had no idea who Sidney, Montesquieu, Smith or Cicero are, and only the vaguest idea of who Locke was. And although I have a copy of the Federalist Papers, I have yet to finish it. Clearly, my education is rather incomplete - and I took "AP" American History, which prided itself on looking at "original documents," but spent no time at all on the ideas in them.

Skousen goes on to outline briefly 28 ideas that guided Founding thought. The first idea is this thing called "Natural Law." I was excited to see that, because I'd run across tantalizing bits about Natural Law, but never found a satisfying definition. I'd never been able to answer the question, "What is Natural Law?" Turns out, Cicero (contemporary with Julius Cesar) answered that question quite some time ago:

Cicero's compelling honesty led him to conclude that once the reality of the Creator is clearly identified in the mind, the only intelligent approach to government, justice, and human relations is in terms of the laws which the Supreme Creator has already established. The Creator's order of things is called Natural Law. (page 34)

To me, that means that Natural Law is basically the Gospel, applied to government and politics. Skousen quotes directly from Cicero toward the end of the chapter:

"As one and the same Nature holds together and supports the universe, all of whose parts are in harmony with one another, so men are united in Nature; but by reason of their depravity they quarrel, not realizing that they are of one blood and subject to one and the same protecting power. If this fact were understood, surely man would live the life of the Gods!"

This idea of the necessity for a virtuous and moral people becomes the second principle Skousen addresses. He quoted a number of the Founders' writings on the topic:

Only a virtuous people are capable of freedom. As nations become corrupt and vicious, they have more need of masters. -Benjamin Franklin (page 41)

Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports. In vain would that man claim the tribute of patriotism, who should labor to subvert these great pillars of human happiness, these firmest props of the duties of men and citizens... Let it simply be asked, where is the security for property, for reputation, for life, if the sense of religious obligation desert the oaths which are the instruments of investigation in courts of justice? And let us with caution indulge the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion. Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education ... reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle. -George Washington (page 45)

And one more, not in the book, which I have liked for a long time:

"Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other." -John Adams

These sayings from the Founders make so much more sense now that I understand what is Natural Law, and that our Constitution is built on a framework of Natural Law. Education, that is, the transmitting of these principles from one generation to another, becomes a most important concern under these circumstances. Jefferson spoke of a "natural aristocracy" made up of men of virtue, talent, and patriotism. Interestingly, at the time there was also an expectation that those who could afford to do so would serve their country without pay. Although there was pay available, George Washington apparently did not accept payment for his time in the Presidency. He also was not paid for his services as the commander of the Continental Army. Franklin, in particular, is quoted in the book, warning about the dangers of high salaries for high public office.

And of what kind are the men that will strive for this profitable preeminence, through all the bustle of cabal, the heat of contention, the infinite mutual abuse of parties, tearing to pieces the best of characters? It will not be the wise and moderate, the lovers of peace and good order, the men fittest for the trust. (page 52)

But the thing that is most interesting to me is that the solution they offered was a sort of national faith. Congress, the very year they were organized (1787), passed the Northwest Ordinance, organizing government of the Territory of the United States northwest of the Ohio River, which included the following:

Religion, morality, and knowledge, being necessary to good government and the happiness of mankind, schools and the means of education shall forever be encouraged.

Notice that religion is listed as one of the reasons education needs to be encouraged. The first reason they listed! So what happened to the whole separation of church and state thing? Skousen quotes de Tocqueville to shed a little light on this question:

"Religion in America takes no direct part in the government of society, but it must be regarded as the first of their political institutions... I do not know whether all Americans have a sincere faith in their religion -- for who can search the human heart? -- but I am certain that they hold it indispensable to the maintenance of republican institutions. This opinion is not peculiar to a class of citizens or to a party, but it belongs to the whole nation and to every rank of society. (page 62-63)

Again from de Tocqueville, with commentary from Skousen:

"This lead me to examine more attentively than I had hitherto done the station which the American clergy occupy in political society. I learned with surprise that they filled no public appointments; I did not see one of them in the administration, and they are not even represented in the legislative assemblies."

How different this was from Europe, where the clergy nearly always belonged to a national church and occupied seats of power. [de Tocqueville] wrote:

The unbelievers in Europe attack the Christians as their political opponents rather than as their religious adversaries; they hate the Christian religion as the opinion of a [political] party much more than as an error of belief; and they reject the clergy less because they are representatives of the Deity than because they are allies of the government.

In America, he noted, the clergy remained politically separated from the government but nevertheless provided a moral stability among the people which permitted government to prosper. In other words, there was separation of church and state but not separation of state and religion. (pages 64-65)

As it turns out, the Founders never intended for an atheistic government, such as we have now. That was not at all what Jefferson was talking about when he penned those fateful words about a wall of separation between church and state. He was not saying that he thought God had no place in government; if so, why on earth would he have referenced God so clearly in the Declaration - and laid all his logic for the necessity of the separation from England on the Creator and His endowments on men? The patriotic virtue these inspired men held indispensable for the continuation of our republic was always intended to rest on a foundation of solid Christian morals.


Jeannetta said...

Yes, yes, yes! I have been saying all along that the Constitution is akin to Scripture; just because it doesn't say "thus sayeth the Lord", doesn't make it any less inspired!
I've got to get back to my books :D

Ritsumei said...

Did you ever pick up a copy of "A Glorious Standard"? A number of our leaders have said just exactly that: it's national scripture. In so many words. I'll look for the quotes when I get a few minutes.


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