History and Knowing Who We Are

The late and great historian, and Librarian of Congress Daniel Boorstin, said that trying to plan for the future without a sense of the past is like trying to plant cut flowers. It is critically important that we not cut our roots so to speak, and never learn to grow where we are. Unfortunately, you would think modern textbooks are written and published to kill any interest anyone would ever have in history! Most are dreary works, written by committee, often hilariously politically correct. Teachers too often have degrees in education but haven’t mastered the subject of history or any other. Moreover, if they don’t share a love of the subject, it is hard for students to catch that love. So as with many things, the simple antidote begins at home. Those of you who are parents and grandparents really should be taking children to historic sights, talking about those books in biography and history that you enjoyed, and about those characters in history that mean something to you. Talk about what it was like growing up “in the olden days,” and children will pick up amazing amounts of information. More critically, they will develop empathy for those who lived before, and they will start to create impressions in mind and a sense of context they’ll need to integrate further knowledge. The secret to teaching history and making it exciting is telling stories. Properly understood, history is a grand narrative—the story of man, literally his story.

By learning the history of our parents and grandparents, history comes alive, as it should. Consider that nothing ever really happened in the past, because nobody lived in the past. Jefferson, Adams, Washington weren’t standing around saying, “Isn’t it fascinating, living in the past?” No, they lived in the present the same as you or I. The difference was it was their present. And just as we don’t know how things are going to turn out for us, they didn’t either. And nothing ever had to happen the way it did. History could have gone off in any number of different directions in any number of different ways at any point along the way, just as your own life can. You never know. One thing leads to another. Nothing happens in a vacuum. Actions have consequences. It all sounds so self-evident, but it isn’t—especially to a young person trying to understand life. That’s what I mean by developing historical empathy, which has everything to do with today and so-called “relevant” topics. It is easy to stand on a mountaintop as an historian and find fault with people for why they did this or didn’t do that, because we’re not involved in it, we’re not inside it, we’re not confronting what we don’t know—as everyone who preceded us always was.

There never was a truly self-made man or self-made woman either. Family, friends, rivals, and competitors—they’ve all shaped us. And so too have people we’ve never met, never known, because they lived long before us. They shaped us too—the people who composed the symphonies that move us; the painters, poets and authors who have written the great literature in our language. The laws we live by, the freedoms we enjoy, and the institutions we sometimes take for granted, are all the work of other people who went before us. Ingratitude is a shabby failing, and no less shabby born of ignorance. How can we not want to know about the people who have made it possible for us to live as we live, to have the freedoms we have, to be citizens of the greatest country of all time? It’s not just a birthright. It is something others have struggled for, strived for, often suffered for, were often defeated for and died for—for us: Posterity and our generation. If it sounds like ancestor worship, it isn’t. A bit of veneration, you bet.

Yet my celebration is tempered knowing full well those who wrote the Declaration of Independence that hot and fateful summer of 1776, weren’t superhuman. Every one of the Founding Fathers had his flaws, his failings and weaknesses. Some ardently disliked others among them, and every one did things in his life he regretted. But the central fact is they could and did rise to the occasion, these imperfect human beings. After all, we are not known only by our failings, by our weaknesses, by our sins (thank God). We are known by being capable of rising to the occasion and exhibiting, not just a sense of direction, but inspiration and incredible strength. The Greeks said that character is destiny, and history has confirmed that for me concerning both men and nations. Almost none of the other nations of the world know when they were born, but we do—we know exactly when we began and why we began and who did it. There’s a line in a letter by John Adams to his wife Abigail that illustrates that special measure of character and destiny we are heir to. Writing home to his wife, he paraphrases a line out of the play Cato: “We can’t guarantee success in this war, but we can do something better. We can deserve it.” Now think how different that is from the attitude common today, when all that matters is success, being number one, getting ahead, getting to the top—however you betray or gouge or claw is immaterial. That line Adams wrote is saying that however the Revolutionary War turns out is in the hands of God. We can’t control that, but we can control how we behave; and we can deserve success. May we always listen to the past and deserve our success, as fully as the Founders deserved theirs.

Clarion Call to Conservatives

We can argue whether it was real conservatism or faux and mistaken conservatism that lost the last election in November 2008. Regardless, 28 years of a nominally conservative governing philosophy is the proverbial baby that was thrown out with the bath water. Nor is the current crisis only a partisan political thing. The nation’s economy is the worst since the Great Depression, such that capitalism and even the whole idea of having free markets are under siege and, with this president and ineffectual Congress, at risk. Nobody has done anything either to solve our porous border situation or to rein in illegal, much less legal immigration. The military is run ragged and not even completely transformed to its new generation of equipment or training. Equipment breakdowns across the services are increasing at an alarming rate. Tens of thousands of veterans rightly demand long-term care, and now the government talks about an indiscriminate $500 billion in defense spending over ten years!

All this, when foreign policy challenges are quite serious: from Mexican instability and drug violence spilling over the border; to North Korea feeling its oats and shooting off missiles (at the same time it implodes under demographic pressure and famine); from a crazy man in Iran resisting pressure for democratic change, to the tough guy in Russia killing off political rivals (both shades of Evil Empire); and always that Red Chinese dragon lying in lurch—silently building its military, becoming an economic powerhouse too; not to mention those bad guys we call terrorists lodged in failed or failing states, searching for safe havens to launch future attacks against our people; and least perhaps but very sad, our European brethren who inherited directly the great Western tradition, now losing all religion and becoming a mere secular shell, submitting blithely to self-loathing and to the sense of inevitable decline.

Almost the only thing we can agree with President Obama about is, well yes—this is indeed “a critical moment”! Counter intuitively perhaps, this may also be a most auspicious beginning for the next conservative change making political movement in America. Indeed, it is my strong conviction that it is from this great place, figuratively and geographically nearest to the heart of Texas—it is from this place, that Americans will learn what to do and how they ought to respond to the criticality of this moment. It is from Central and North Central Texas conservatism they will be reminded of certain principles and of what it means to be American in key, essential ways. This conviction is born of a faith that we can and will meet the challenges I’ve mentioned, and any other challenge, if we have the heart; if we give it our all; if we live up to the character of our forebears and invoke the name of the same Almighty, who helped them on behalf of the righteous cause of Liberty.

This State whose battle cry is, “Remember the Alamo!” appreciates and understands this better than any other. This place where the Chisholm Trail runs through knows. Central and North Central Texans have known glory in victory, valor in defeat; they have persisted through tough times, drought, fires and floods. They know if you want to get on with it, sometimes you have to get back up and dust yourself off; and if you want to get from one place to another, you’ve got to ‘get a move on.’ Not all trails lead to the same destination, and few are what we’d call totally “Happy Trails.” Bluebonnets have a short season, as it were. And yet the trail you embark on will convey you, through time and experience—and the same trail that takes you to a new place, dotted with a few other places along the way, can also take you back on your journey home.

The conservative leads his or her country home as it were; or the next best thing, the conservative will pack up the relics, the essential tools, seed corn, keepsakes, brands, favorite recipes, and the family Bible. He or she will stow them safely in the wagon as he heads off to parts yonder or parts unknown. When he gets there, the new home will surely bear a resemblance and continuity with the old, even in the midst of a new environment and more changes to come. In this way, the old remains vital and relevant while still moving forward. And it is not a joyless trek either, because part of the kit involves Texas optimism, as big as the Texas sky.

Texans have a penchant for finding the silver lining, as well as adjusting their own attitudes when necessary—in order to bend nature to the will, and to visualize the prize against any background whatsoever, because they know (to borrow a folk song lyric) that ‘everywhere you go, you take the weather with you.’ Texans are funny that way because they’re cock sure they got the best, no matter what it is or what condition it’s in! Their attitude, if you will, is always more than equal to any task. Which is a good thing, because we shall need this quality in spades. Nevertheless, I tell you from a political standpoint, this is ground zero of the next political Revolution, one that rivals the Jeffersonian and Reagan Revolutions—and this is an exceeding great day to be called a Patriot!

Hardcore Conservative Principles

There was this young man who rode a bus to work every day. On the bus he’d always notice a pretty young woman sitting up front. Well the ride lasted about a half an hour, so his mind would typically drift off. He’d wonder what she was like, and he’d think about how they might meet one day and come to know each other better… Maybe she’d get on the bus and come sit by him, maybe she’d smile and say hi, and then he’d ask her name. If things went really well she’d probably start saving him a seat by her every day! If she did, they’d no doubt become close. Well, sure as rain one day this pretty young thing did in fact get on the bus later than normal so that the only seat available was right beside him. Just like in his mind, she came on over, smiled and gently said “Hi”—but instead of asking her name, he blurted something out about getting married and how many kids did she want. She left the bus in a hurry.

The moral of this rather awkward story is that you really do have to take your time and proceed by steps, at least if you expect things to turn out well. It’s true with life and political coalition building too. While it is important to have a vision and keep your eyes on the prize—you can dream and dream big and say “Yes We Can” till the cows come home, but there’s still no substitute for hard work and smart work. What I’m talking about is taking one thing at a time, all things in succession. And one of the first things we have to do as conservatives is to get our act together. It starts by defining what we’re about—after which, we may begin to attract a broad coalition and shape policy positions, and also lead the next conservative change making political movement. In May 2009 I laid out to the Central Texas Conservatives what I believe to be our hardcore conservative principles. We must advance from these six principles with a resoluteness of purpose and deliberate active work if we are to win back America.

To Restore the Republic meaning we demand a return to representative government. For instance we call our country what it is—a republic and not a democracy, a democratic-republic if you must. The national majority does not rule the States or the Nation in fact. Minority rights are never subject to the whim of 50% plus 1. We choose to follow the Founders’ Original Intent—their vision of peace and prosperity, virtue and happiness, that of a ‘Shining City on a Hill.’

To Reinforce adherence to the Constitution, which is to say that words mean something, that the text of the written document itself has a fixed meaning, that while enumerated powers are subject to some interpretation they are also largely defined; and there are constitutional processes for determining how best to interpret the Constitution’s meaning. There are political possibilities based upon the separation of powers amongst branches, and also based upon sovereignty inherent in the states. The Constitution moreover has an amendment procedure, and that’s the only way to legitimately change constitutional parameters. Reduction of the Constitution by the Supreme Court to a so-called “living” document amounts to a gross malfeasance on the part of judges-turned-legislators.

To Reinvigorate Federalism meaning that we recognize implicitly the compound nature of our Republic, the fact that it is and by design was made to be a Republic of republics to preclude tyranny and magnify the possibilities of Liberty. Federalism lies at the heart of the original constitutional edifice and is a primary contribution from the Father of the Constitution, James Madison. States ceded specific, enumerated powers to the federal government while retaining everything else. The Ninth and Tenth Amendments are explicit in this regard. To Respect the Flag, which affirms our commitment to the Union as conceived by the Founders and discretely altered by constitutional amendment or tribunal of arms. We respect the Flag as that primary symbol of our country and that Republic for which it stands, and the nation amongst all others on earth to which we owe primary allegiance and to which we hold the love of countrymen for our native or adoptive homeland. We respect the Flag also, as symbol of the highest ideals to which men and women can aspire and to which the nation has mostly been true, as it has progressed through history at great sacrifice and expense in blood and treasure. We are proud Patriots, who celebrate also those various symbols of national and regional heritage.

To Rigorously exercise Freedom is our commitment to living according to our lights without hypocrisy and with utmost personal integrity, to do as we say and believe, to attempt in this life to implement what we have planned and visualized and worked so hard to accomplish. This is our political commitment too, to do as our ancestors did by pledging ‘our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor’ to the great project before us into which we have enlisted; to walk as freeborn individuals, possessing Rights from Heaven which no man may put asunder or play God to undo, or unduly restrict. Fundamentally this means that we insist upon self-determination, in accordance with those natural and freely chosen responsibilities we should acknowledge—chiefly those to God and conscience and family; and to our various avocations and social networks; to neighborhood and community; State and Nation.

To Remain Steadfast in Faith recognizes the indispensable relation between faith and freedom, whereby they raise and support each other. True faith presupposes a conviction of the heart made freely and without coercion by state or religious authority. Freedom moreover demands that a people exercise self-restraint, the regulation and discipline born of good conscience and drawn to perfect and Higher Law to which man is tenderly and lovingly obliged to choose. We understand that in the order of things, all the Earth is subject to Him and so we trust in the God of our Fathers. Moreover, as Americans we acknowledge the special role the Nation has fulfilled in the advancement of mankind and in the continuous unfolding of Providential Plan.

Market Entrepreneurs

Between the generation of our Founding and World War II, there have been other “greatest” generations too.  Perhaps the least appreciated in our time has been that post-Civil War generation of market entrepreneurs, who led America from being a second tier economic power to being the industrial powerhouse of the world.  In today’s economic downturn, it is perhaps helpful to remember the method that led to the most success before, as well as those ways that did not work in the past.  One distinction that needs to be raised immediately is one between market entrepreneur and political entrepreneur.  Businessmen aren’t angels and neither are congressmen or plain folk, but competition tends to bring out better performance in people, whereas subsidization from public (tax) money risks funding and perpetuating substandard performance and inefficiencies.

Businessmen will often try to get favors or handouts from the government, because it may be easier than gathering together the necessary venture capital.  Very often after that first taste, they return again and again to the same trough rather than wean off the public dole.  The market entrepreneur pursues his business privately through private means.  The political entrepreneur is in league with government, to the extent that he pursues his business semi-privately but through means that are exclusively or partially public.  Then as today, political entrepreneurs are hard to avoid and even harder to get rid of, even though they are a drag on economic vitality and injurious to the wellbeing of the country.  Market entrepreneurs go about their business freely and mostly wanting to be left alone, creating wealth and growing the economy.  Government gets big off taxing productive market entrepreneurial activities, ironically enabling far too many government payouts to leeches in the business community of a political entrepreneurial bent.

Regulated bailouts could be the worst of all worlds if it institutionalizes business dependency on the government over the long haul and/or results in the permanent bureaucratic management by government of a private sector activity.  Some historical examples are instructive.  In the 1840s a political entrepreneur approached Congress to help him develop the U.S. steamship route between New York and Liverpool, and to cut into the business of rival English ships.  Since the British government subsidized shipping, our man Edward Collins said he would need $3 million of taxpayers’ money to construct five vessels and then an annual subsidy of $385,000 to drive passenger fares down low enough to compete.

Playing on congressional fears of British domination in trade, Collins got his money.  He only built four ships, but who’s counting.  While he promised to phase out the annual subsidy, he was soon lobbying for more, and more, and more (up to $850,000 per year).  Cornelius Vanderbilt tried to get in on the action too but by offering a cheaper deal, however the Congress had formed a cozy relationship with Collins so it turned him down.  Forced to compete entirely, he used privately financed and self-insured vessels, slowed the ships’ speed down to save on fuel, and invented a new, cheaper passenger class called steerage.  A year later, Vanderbilt’s operation was flourishing while Collins was even worse off and returned again to Congress asking for higher subsidy.  When two of his ships sank because of poor maintenance and running the engines too fast, Collins had to resort to Congress for their replacement value.  The Senate finally got wise after looking into the management practices, and no doubt comparing results and bottom line with that of Vanderbilt’s operation.  Collins lost his subsidy and within a year went bankrupt, enabling Vanderbilt to pick up more of the business privately, at less cost and far better value to customers—not to mention dominance of the seas from an American side.

A decade or so later Congress began subsidizing political entrepreneurs representing transcontinental railroad ventures: the Union Pacific, the Central Pacific, and later the Northern Pacific.  The government gave these companies tens of millions of acres of free land and tens of millions of dollars, and because the companies had no incentive to be efficient, the railroads evidenced shoddy construction, as well as circuitous routes and uneven grades.  The privately funded railroad called Great Northern, however, was a success that put the others to shame.  James J. Hill built his line for durability and efficiency and without government money, taking the shortest distance, lowest grades and least curvature that he could.  He also supervised construction and imported the very highest quality Bessemer rails.  Although these cost more up front, they also lasted a long time and were more dependable.  He took the same approach to his railroad bridges, constructing the solid granite Stone Arch Bridge 2,100 feet long and 82 feet high across the Mississippi River—a Minneapolis landmark for many decades.

Similar stories mark the success of Andrew Carnegie in steel, and John D. Rockefeller in oil.  These men were market entrepreneurs not “robber barons.”  They created wealth and propelled the United States to first rank economically in the world.  Moreover, so far as generations go, they stood head and shoulders above the risk-averse, sycophantic and slinking political entrepreneurs, who pass for so many CEOs and leaders in American business today.

U.S. Government Quitting on Itself

These are anxious times, teetering on a proverbial edge towards dreamlike fall to something and somewhere else. President Obama has frequently characterized this as a “critical moment,” and I do tend to agree. The difference is that I do not want to teeter us off into an abyss of socialism, but rather to roll us back gently from it. American history hasn’t been so bad after all, and freemen and free markets have never substantially failed and have certainly never quit this country, no matter what else may have gone wrong. On the contrary, it is the country’s Government that appears ready to quit on itself, but this would be a singular tragedy with irreversible consequences for the world.

According to Professor Donald Kagan of Yale, historian and subject matter expert on Western Civilization, all law and indeed every constitution rests ultimately on force. If the citizen will pause to think about it, he knows it is true even for ours. It is only by granting a monopoly or near monopoly on the use of force, normally through the aegis of government, that civilized and orderly, and indeed modern life is made possible. That’s what the president and congressmen, policemen and soldiers in our system, are all about. Nevertheless from the standpoint of justice not all regimes are alike or equal.

A tyrant will make laws, maybe even some good ones. He will induce stability and room perhaps for the favored few or favored class to thrive. The majority who mind their corners may even find in them a modicum of freedom, or at least comfort there.

“Stay out of politics” is a wise saying in many parts of the world where strong leaders rule and a single party controls things. If one does this, he may live longer and prosper more on crumbs. In general, however, based on the most ancient American criterion of freedom, only those constitutions that rest on the freely expressed consent of the people, responsibly its citizens are legitimate.

Today as in the time of Socrates in Athens, citizens are free to question the law and to try and change it by legal means, free indeed to leave their country without penalty if they find it offensive. In the meantime we have a moral obligation to peace and to obey the law, however little we may like it. To the point, at least, according to the Declaration of Independence, when Government becomes destructive of the ends to which it has been justly established. This is the point at which the Government quits itself, and the people in order to remain free must alter or abolish their Government and institute a new one.

It is similar to the idea of changing political affiliations when and if the party you belonged to radically changes its platform in key respects. You didn’t leave that party, but rather the party left you; and likewise, it is possible though more difficult and rare for the Government to so debase the Constitution and its founding traditions that it may no longer be truly called the Government of the United States of America.

There will be turbulent markets. That being said, Government as such ought to remain consistent to its purpose and its core animating principles. The same rights it secures according to the Constitution are the rights that must be secured in good times and in bad. Indeed, the stronger the challenge facing us, the more have the people counted on leaders in the Government to serve with integrity and be that steady anchor and not to throw everything to the whirlwind. That’s why we have elections as scheduled, in peace and in war. That’s why taxation without representation is never allowed and always a call to arms.

If King George III in effect justified the American Revolution for having “combined with others to subject us to a jurisdiction foreign to our constitution, and unacknowledged by our laws; giving his Assent to their Acts of pretended Legislation…” then presumably the Chief Executive who does the same today runs the same risk. Borrowing terminology Star Parker has used, president Obama seems intent on moving everyone onto Uncle Sam’s Plantation. I’m sure Uncle Sam will be a benevolent master, but while we have the choice we may think twice. Parker writes, “Americans can accept Barack Obama’s invitation to move onto the plantation. Or they can choose personal responsibility and freedom.”

In point of fact, the American people can choose much else besides—and they have the political tradition of doing so whenever the Government quits on itself. Yet citizens shouldn’t have to, when as Kagan explains, they want and “they need leaders who understand that individual freedom, self-government, and equality before the law are of the highest value…. And they especially need leaders with the talents to persuade their impatient citizens that these political institutions are the necessary first foundation for a decent regime and a good life for all.” The exigency of the moment, critical or otherwise, demands no less.

Religious and Free

Faith and freedom coexist in Western Civilization, not as adversaries as some would have it but in a symbiosis. Faith begets freedom and freedom, faith. When Thomas Jefferson declared the self-evident truth that all men are created equal, he presumed to speak to a people steeped in a certain kind of learning. Self-evidence requires thinking after all.

People aren’t all the same height, weight, color, strength, skill, wealth, IQ or anything. The proposition he makes is accepted as truth only in terms of moral equality. The moral worth of every single individual under heaven is such that rights inhere in them—from a street sweeper to the bank president, from unemployed to self-employed or retired, from blue collar to white collar, from penniless to rich. The proposition is only accepted as truth by Western societies and cultures that emerged through hundreds of years of historic experience with Christianity. Ultimately individuals have rights—rights bound to be respected, because they are children of God and made in his image and likeness.

It may come as surprise to some people today to learn that the most basic and common standards of conduct are all directly linked to systematic codes of behavior based on the morality stemming from religion. ‘Ye shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free’ in one sense alludes to an enlarged physical realm for action, opportunity and a realized potential when (and only when) a majority of people aren’t stealing your stuff; ripping off your limbs; accosting wives, husbands, sons and daughters; tearing down fences; and burning down your house and barn.

If Western societies continue to secularize without regard for religion, then they do so benefiting from a residual good will and habits instilled by millions of people over centuries, who lived their religion and fought to live it; and fought again to keep the freedoms won, in order to follow their faith according to conscience so long as they did no harm to others. It is interesting that so many years removed from the factual dependence of freedom and legitimacy of civil authority on religion, that we have come to view religion and its expression as being dependent somehow on secular authority for legitimacy. Many see freedom as somehow threatened by religious exercise, whether in the public square or on private compounds, instead of seeing religious life as an outgrowth of freedom and the most concrete emanation of freedom possible. Metaphysically, one has to ask whether life has a purpose external to materiality. If so then it is first and foremost the province of religion and spirituality. If not, then life is all a matter of the state belonging to the state.

Fortunately a few states like Texas have court jurisprudence friendly towards parental rights and religious liberties, and the Texas Supreme Court has upheld again and again that religious institutions possess autonomy free from significant oversight by state agencies and courts. The recognition is vital to promoting liberty as understood by Thomas Jefferson and the other Founders. Its presumption is deference by the state to God’s own purpose for every human being and the individual’s prerogative-imperative to seek and find, and to pursue life’s spiritual journey. Any other ordering in terms of respect or priority vis-à-vis the secular state and religion descends into fascism, communism or an autocracy where freedom dies.

Fortunately faith is substantial and hardly powerless, and the greatest achievements in American secular freedom were accomplished on the heels as it were, after a season of revival. The Great Awakening fueled support for ideas animating the American Revolution. The Second Great Awakening served as ideational basis for changes leading to women’s suffrage and an end to slavery. Revivalism led to labor reform and the amelioration of urban problems after the period of rapid industrialization. Now is time for hope and fervent prayer for yet another great Revival to reclaim the legacy of freedom and to meet the unprecedented challenges facing us in the twenty-first century: May future generations be free enough to be religious; and may enough of them also be religious, so that all may keep their freedom.

Rekindle the Gift

No matter what your gift is or how much success you may have with it, there are times you get discouraged. No matter how much you enjoy, there will be times you get weary. That goes for a lot of dedicated folks you may not even think of, who generally enjoy their work. At a regional meeting of ministers, ask the same simple question to every one of them: “Are you enjoying your work?” You may be surprised, but those who know will tell you, almost none respond with a smile and enthusiastic “Yes!” You’re more likely to hear something like this: “Well, there are times when it is fulfilling but…” or “Well, the church politics gets to me but…” or “Well, it certainly has its downside.”

St. Paul wrote to young Timothy who was just starting his ministry, to “Rekindle the gift.” Indeed no matter how great the gift, it must be rekindled now and again. No matter how high you are today, you are going to face challenges that will take away the luster. When I was a boy, we would visit a backwoods cabin in Arkansas that had an old wood stove. That’s where I learned about kindling—small slivers and slices of wood that helped to get a really good fire going. You could roll up a newspaper and stack a little kindling around it, and then lay a big log on top of that. As the kindling got going, it would start the log burning, slowly but surely almost every time.

No matter how much bliss you find in your work, the fire is going to get low now and then. Sometimes you get a good idea and the internal wet blanket will say, “Why do it…no one will notice or care…it won’t do any good,” etc. The only way to handle an internal wet blanket is to put some kindling under it and get the fire going. Unless we become our own best encouragers, we will falter and fail. It is good to have friends to support us and to appreciate what we do. They can stoke our fires, but we must be our own best friend. It helps to realize what we do well IS a gift. How many people can do what you do? One thing for sure: no one can do what you do exactly like you do it. And if you don’t do it, it won’t get done.

Maybe we should not just tithe our money, but also “tithe” our time and talents, because if we don’t do what we are here to do, it will never be done. Take time to nurture yourself and your gifts. Gratitude for them is a little pile of kindling. No matter how little or how great a success we may feel ourselves to be, be grateful you are here to do the work you are gifted to do. Marry your gifts. Dedicate yourself to them for better or worse, for richer or poor. That may be in part what the virtue of “longsuffering” is all about too: dedication to cause, to mission, i.e., to the gift God gave you—even under adverse circumstances or a depressed personal mental attitude.

Cal Ripkin said that hard work is the process through which you obtain your results. It is true for baseball and true for life. Hard work at your particular gift is a way to glorify God in particular—a way to glorify Him in a way that nobody else can. “Even so faith, if it hath not works, is dead, being alone” (James 2:17 , see 14-26).

Excuse me now. I’ve got to cut some more kindling.

Memorial Day Matters

Memorial Day was originally designated as the 30th of May, but starting in 1971 it has been held the last Monday in May creating a convenient 3-day weekend. Memorial Day is observed today as a public holiday dedicated to the memory of the fallen who died in service to their country in wartime. Its origin dates to the terrible War Between the States. The day was actually inaugurated in 1868 as a holiday on which graves of Civil War veterans serving the Union were decorated. The South did not recognize the day as such, but set aside separate days on which to decorate graves belonging to its Confederate veterans. Indeed, organized women’s groups in the South had been decorating graves even before the end of the Civil War. Ironically the last Confederate Widow, Alberta S. Martin actually died on Memorial Day, 2004 in Alabama.

The word “memorial” (serving to help people remember some person or event) is ignored too often on Memorial Day by those of us who are the direct beneficiaries of thousands of men and women, who bore the ultimate sacrifice. It is perhaps a hard thing to come to grips with the fact that it is the willing sacrifice of life that has secured for us our blessed freedoms, and continues to do so every day. The least that we should do is to actively remember those who gave their all—our ancestors, family members, neighbors and loved ones who served in uniform and died in service defending and advancing our way of life. Traditionally we are invited each year on Memorial Day to do the following: to visit cemeteries and place flags or flowers on the graves of fallen heroes; to attend memorial services and other public events; to fly the U.S. Flag at half-mast until Noon; to observe moments of silence for special reflection and remembrance; to renew pledges of support and aid to the widows and orphans of veterans, as well as to disabled veterans; and to salute the fallen and/or to play Taps in their honor (Taps is a bugle call written during the Civil War, which dates to 1862 and was used by both sides).

Memorial Day of course has its counterpart in other nations, and amongst the Western nations in particular there is a very similar ethos surrounding the honoring of the dead, who died for freedom and the safety of their homeland. One of the most famous poems of remembrance was written by Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae, MD (1872-1918), Canadian Army called “In Flanders Fields” and written in 1915. A beautiful response poem was written by Moina Belle Michael (1869-1944), a native Georgian and American professor, called “We Shall Keep The Faith” written in 1918. Moina Michael became known as the Poppy Lady after she conceived of the idea of using poppies (based on the poem by McCrae) as a symbol of remembrance for those who had served in World War I. A U.S. Postage Stamp was even issued in her honor. Together the two poems do much to bring to mind the importance of Memorial Day, its meaning and why the day matters so much.

John McCrae in his third stanza writes: “To you from failing hands we throw/The torch; be yours to hold it high. /If ye break faith with us who die/We shall not sleep, though poppies grow/ In Flanders fields.” Moina Michael writes this rejoinder in the first stanza of her poem: “Oh! You who sleep in Flanders Fields, /Sleep sweet—to rise anew! /We caught the torch you threw/And holding high, we keep the Faith/With All who died.” And in the third stanza Moina Michael refers to that one thing all soldiers and those who remember them ask and must reaffirm every Memorial Day and in all the days between, and that is that none of those who died shall have died in vain: “Fear not that ye have died for naught;/We’ll teach the lesson that ye wrought/In Flanders Fields.” It is up to us from generation to generation to teach the lesson wrought as it were, of life and blood and treasure, that so far has kept the Torch of Liberty burning bright in the heart of all true patriots. The lesson reduced to its core is that Freedom isn’t free. God bless those who died for it and those who fight for us still.

Theory of America’s Founding, (Part 2): Consent, Revolution, God and Honor

Besides Equality and Natural Rights (discussed last week), the ideas or principles that comprise the American theory of government, i.e., the proper conceptual building blocks for righteous government are Consent, Revolution, God and Honor. Consent is needed to form legitimate government. The Declaration of Independence says that to secure the rights of life, liberty and pursuit of happiness, “Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.” Indeed, people must join to form governments to secure all their natural rights, but governments do not derive unlimited powers to perform that function! Just powers are only those consented to by the people. The Founders believed that a republic was that form of government that best reflected consent, in that, all powers are derived directly or indirectly from the great body of the people” (The Federalist 39). I have observed, however, that consent may be measured differently from culture to culture–and not always democratically. Some people in the world don’t even value their vote. All I can say is that we Americans possess a political culture and explicit heritage that measures consent exclusively through democratic republican means. Notwithstanding, consent in and of itself is not the sole standard of legitimacy or goodness. The people do not have the right to consent to unjust powers. According to Thomas G. West and Douglas A. Jeffrey, the Founders would tell us we cannot rightly consent to powers of government that violate the unalienable rights of individuals. Consider then that the people are not supreme to the standard of Right per se. The standard of Right would be God’s province. Democratic majorities may not redefine what is right. The inalienable rights are set for all time by Nature and Nature’s God, and they are written and fixed in our founding documents. The Founders would not recognize any such thing as a “living” Constitution. They would impeach half our judges today for suggesting it.

Hence the real challenge of self-government: people must be of such character that they will only give their consent to good and just measures. And this extends to establishing government and to operating it. The Founders essentially took care of establishing a just government with the people of the first generation. They made a “social compact” with fellow citizens, and I would argue that they covenanted not only with each other but with God as their Witness and Gaurantor. But that still leaves the ongoing matter of consent in the operation of government. That’s something you should be doing on a regular basis, at least by casting your informed ballot on election day. But no matter what ballot initiative you consent to, you always retain the unalienable right to liberty and may never delegate to the government permanently. In a sense, the government rests on a renewable source of consent, which you give it through participation, acquiescence or peaceful protest.

The right to Revolution naturally follows. West and Jeffrey again: “Government exists to protect natural rights, and government derives its just powers from consent. If it is not doing this, the people should get rid of it and set up a new one. [Indeed], the right to revolution is reflected in the early American conviction that the people have a right to keep and bear arms and to govern themselves in all local matters through local governments close to the people.” Of course, the right to revolution doesn’t mean it is right or good to overthrow government at the drop of a hat. If government is doing a tolerably good and decent job, you put up with its shortcomings and mistakes. If the system remains open to a redress of grievances, you continue to participate. The Declaration says, “Prudence . . . will dictate that governments . . . should not be changed for light and transient causes.” Prudence is what we might also call “horse sense.” Revolution is dangerous–it throws men back into the state of nature, where destructive passions and violence may become uncontrolled. For that reason secession is probably the preferential form of revolution, should revolution ever be justified in America.

Additionally, the Founders placed God and Honor ahead of narrow self-interest when they established the government. They commended us to do the same in its ongoing operation. The Declaration says that when a people are subjected to a long train of abuses aiming at absolute despotism, it isn’t only their right– “it is their duty,” to change the government. The duty is higher than one’s own personal survival or selfish interest. The Founders’ sense of honor taught them that they must be ready to sacrifice their lives and property for the sake of their duty. In order to establish and preserve free government, they pledged their lives, fortunes, and “sacred honor.” In the Declaration of the Causes and Necessity of Their Taking up Arms (1775), Thomas Jefferson and John Dickinson wrote: “We have counted the cost of this contest, and find nothing so dreadful as voluntary slavery. Honor, justice, and humanity, forbid us tamely to surrender that freedom which we have received from our gallant ancestors. . . .” It was a notion behind much Southern chivalry before and during the War Between the States, i.e., the Founders’ conviction that political slavery and dishonor are worse even than death. As honor is a keen sense of right and wrong, it implies integrity and an adherence to right action or principles above else. In this view, people are legitimately supreme to government when it comes to upholding standards of Right. For standards of Right on earth become a nexus ultimately, where God and the individual meet in man’s conscience. Government may not arrogate to itself the legitimate power to speak for any individual at this level of communion or duty. There is no collective conscience and no collective Soul. One person at a time may redefine what is right, if and when government gets it terribly wrong. The inalienable rights are set for all time by Nature and Nature’s God. We end then where we started, with the Creator. Indeed, there are four distinct references to God in the Declaration of Independence. To the Founders, separation of church and state was meant to prevent a single religious sect from becoming official religion for the whole country. But the principles of this nation in fact constitute religious doctrine, the Declaration’s own theology–with God as author of Law and Source of rights for mankind, eternal and unalienable on earth as it is in Heaven.

Theory of America’s Founding, (Part I): Equality and Natural Rights

The principles of America’s founding amount to a remarkable and radical departure from government, as practiced for centuries prior to the American Revolution. To be sure, a tradition is tied to the theory and to the men responsible. We are, however, quite remarkable as a nation today, because the Founders were indeed radical in their definition of liberty and their uncompromising demand for freedom. The theory of America’s founding may be said to be embodied in the Declaration of Independence. If anyone reads it, he or she finds that it is stated rather clearly, not hard to understand unless you’re a modern day bureaucrat or store bought politician. What comes as shock and discouragement to many, is the realization that it is no longer the dominant theory in our government or in American politics. A new political theory arose during the Progressive Era, which came to dominate outright during the 1960s. Popular and powerful today, it has already changed our government and society and now threatens remaining liberty. But let action proceed first from understanding, and to understand what’s happened, we should review the theory of America’s founding. The material that follows will borrow heavily from work by Thomas G. West and Douglas A. Jeffrey, two eminent historians associated with the Claremont Institute (www.claremont.org) in California.

The ideas or principles that comprise the American theory of government are posited as self-evident truths in the Declaration. They are universal in their application and may be true for men everywhere and for all time, because they are based on the “Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God.” They are the proper building blocks for human reason in matters of politics. They are themselves inherent in human nature. To be governed accordingly, is to be governed as well as man can be. These conceptual building blocks for righteous government are: Equality, Natural Rights, Consent, Revolution, God and Honor. The Declaration’s statement of principles begins: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal . . . .” Of course, humans are entirely different from each other in terms of their gifts and attributes. The Founders, however, meant to observe that regardless of differences like looks, talents or strength, etc., human beings are all equal in the life and liberty they are born with and deserve to keep. This kind of equality confers on everyone responsibility as well. James Madison explains in The Federalist 54 that every human being, but no cow, is held morally accountable for violence committed against others, because every man is free to choose his behavior. Moreover, because of the innate temptation to abuse power (part of human nature), equality as the Founders understood it meant that no one should have inordinate power over others.

Men are therefore equal in their potential towards depravity and cruelty, if entrusted with too much power. Madison observed that men are not angels; if they were, there would be no need for government in the first place. As it is, government should not concentrate too much power in the hands of anyone or any group of people. Note that if you deny personal responsibility or pass it along to someone else or worse, to some drug or psychosis or whatever, you practically lose your basis for equality as understood by the Founders. People recategorize themselves with cows all the time, and that’s just not good horse sense. The Founders expected us to walk on two legs and to get up off all fours–to behave like responsible moral agents, because we are equal in that respect. Only in this way are the great mass of men, to paraphrase Thomas Jefferson, unfit to be saddled, booted and spurred by the favored few.

The Declaration continues that human beings are “endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” A right, according to the Founders, is a claim that a person may rightfully make against someone who would deprive him of what is his own. You own your clothes for instance, and you have a right to them. If someone takes them from you, you have a legitimate claim against that person. He or she owes them back–or rather, he or she has a duty not to take them in the first place. A natural right is a claim to what one rightfully owns by birth, or by way of one’s nature as a human being. Natural rights are unalienable, because they cannot be alienated or given away to someone else. A right from this point of view is a duty from another. If you have a right to liberty, I have a duty to respect that right. The Declaration specifically mentions three unalienable rights. No one may rightfully deny us these things. Note the third one mentioned above is the pursuit of happiness and not happiness itself. But the Declaration also says these three are “among” our natural rights, so there must be others. Additional natural rights may be gleaned from official documents and writings of the Founding era, and they include the rights of conscience and property, free speech and free press, freedom of religion, and others protected in what became our Constitution’s “Bill of Rights.”

The Founders would never have said that you have a right to decent housing, health care, recreation, or anything else before you have worked to get them. It is only after you have acquired your property in some legitimate way that your right to own property comes into play. That said, property rights can be seen as part of the right to liberty and the right to pursue happiness. There is also a natural right to work, and property comes into play here too. We own ourselves and our labor by human nature; ergo, we are free to work and to keep the fruits of our labor. The right to earn property, and to keep the property one earns is fundamental to the conception of Natural Rights shared by the Founders. Moreover, the right of religious liberty was not a right to exclude religion from public life. Indeed, the right to religious liberty flows from the duty that all human beings have towards their Creator. The most basic reason for freedom of religion understood by the Founders, was not to free man from obligation to God or religion, but to free him to perform his duties to God, without obnoxious coercion into modes of worship by fallible human beings in government.