30 July 2016

Conservatism and Tradition

The most common description of conservatism  emphasizes adherence to tradition and resistance to change.

At one level, this seems an extension of the idea of conservative temperament that feels more at ease with the familiar. When we think of people with conservative temperaments, the people who come to mind live cautiously while avoiding risks. The appear financially frugal and prefer "risk free" investments.  Perhaps they establish routines in their day to day lives and experience uneasiness when obstacles frustrate those routines. And they do not like changes that threaten those routines. 

This temperament often receives affirmation by means of  connections to some larger community through institutional traditions. All institutions have traditions--families, neighborhoods, schools, churches, unions, businesses, political parties, and even nations. Depending on the formality of the institution, traditions recall the founding of the institution, reaffirm its mission and the ways, celebrate successes and those people behind them, and even begin new traditions--whether it is a church Founders Day or American Independence Day. Conservatism at this level-- devotion to tradition and opposition to change--is more of an emotion than idea and does not necessarily cohere into a political ideology or spur political action.

More commonly, however, conservatism is characterized as an adherence to traditional institutions and practices in the face of broader cultural and political changes. This approach improves upon the simple notion of temperament, but not by much.

Too often academics explore conservatism anthropologically as it manifests itself in societies that may not have much in common at all. Not much of anything can be learned when European monarchs, Islamic ayatollahs, Soviet politburo members, and heads of tribal chiefdoms are all described as conservative. The elucidation  of  conservatism as a devotion to tradition and resistance to change must be historically contingent.

As shall be seen, the only meaningful description of American conservatism notes its devotion to the constitutional arrangements of  1789--that includes among other ideas sovereignty of the American people, federalism, and the separation of powers,

29 July 2016

Religion at the Democratic National Convention

Over at Religion and Ethics News Weekly, managing editor Kim Lawton presents a "behind the scenes" look at religion and the Democratic National Convention.

As Lawton notes, the Democrats for many years have suffered from a religious deficit of sorts. Many Americans, especially evangelical Christians, consider most Democrats hostile to religion, or at least, religion in the public square.

The year the DNC worked hard to challenge that view. Several interfaith gatherings featured prayers and speakers from diverse religious groups. Workshops focused on mobilizing liberal Christians to get out and vote. Largely overlooked with the mainstream media's obsession with "Religious Right" legislating morality is the existence of a "Religious Left" legislating its own morality.

Hillary Clinton's quote of a traditional Methodist exhortation at the convention sums up liberal Christianity quite well:

“Do all the good you can, for all the people you can, in all the ways you can, as long as ever you can.”

Of course, "all the ways you can" means the government.

Liberal or progressive religion emphasizes the what used to be called the social gospel: holding institutional arrangements largely responsible for the debilitating social pathologies that afflict the poor.

The most challenging aspect of changing the anti-religious reputation of the Democratic Party is the christening of  Hillary Clinton "a great Methodist," as one  convention participant called her. Clinton's faith is seen in her values, i.e., progressive politics and not, it almost goes without saying, her personal character.

Clinton demonstrates that the Republican Party owns a monopoly on neither religious faith nor religious hypocrisy.

28 July 2016

Clinton Crowned

British historian A. J. P. Taylor once said that "Nothing is inevitable until it happens."

Well, the inevitable finally has happened.

Hillary Clinton has received the nomination for President of the United States from the Democratic Party.

The inevitable was supposed to happen in 2008. Instead, Clinton found herself blindsided by a relatively unknown (and now arguably incompetent) senator from Illinois--Barack Obama.

Clinton's drive to be The-First-Woman-Nominated-For-President-By-A-Major-Political-Party has somewhat lost its enchantment after The-First-Black-Man-Nominated-For-President-By-A-Major-Political-Party. She gave the milestone a brief acknowledgement in her speech. But most of her speech sounded like Reagan's "Morning in America" address from a couple of decades ago. And that is expected from an incumbent party.

Clinton's speech was well-written. The delivery, however, lacked even the most rudimentary rhetorical skill. Its one more thing that Clinton and Trump have in common.

Anyway, here is the speech:

If you prefer to read the speech, the text is here.

26 July 2016

Crowd Funding the Clintons

Meanwhile, a Clinton long running Clinton controversy raises some key questions that never seem to get answered.

The Clinton Foundation mission statement claims to "convene businesses, governments, NGOs, and individuals to improve global health and wellness, increase opportunity for girls and women,  reduce childhood obesity, create economic opportunity and growth, and help communities address the effects of climate change."

And no doubt the Foundation makes good on some of these claims. And it asserts that nearly 88% of its revenue goes to charitable programs.

It also provides employment for Clinton family political allies. Unlike other charities, the Clinton Foundation does not appear to employ many people with experience at operating charitable foundations. The President of the Clinton Foundation is Donna Shalala, who served as Secretary of HHS under President Bill Clinton. The Foundation paid her $869,520 in 2012. The Foundation CEO is Bruce Lindsey, He served as Deputy White House Counsel. The Foundation paid him $385,046 that same year.

This might be one reason that Charity Navigator declines to rate the Clinton Foundation. The Foundation has, what it calls, an "atypical business model." Imagine that.

More importantly, the Foundation acts as an intermediary between donors seeking favors and the one who can grant them: Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. The Foundation received millions in donations from foreigners while Clinton led the State Department. And although federal law prohibits foreign nationals from donating to American political campaigns such as Hillary Clinton's quest for the presidency, they can donate to the Clinton Foundation.

The Clinton Crowdfunders are an exclusive and somewhat unsavory bunch. It is difficult to imagine that such egregious violators of humans rights such as Saudi Arabia and other Middle Eastern states donate to the Clinton Foundation out an altruistic compassion for human beings.

The stench is so foul that even CNN,  which usually suffers from anosmia when it comes to Democratic Party corruption, actually picked up the malodorous scent and reported on it.

25 July 2016

The Clinton Chameleon

As with the Republican National Convention, time limitations and an interest deficit keep me away. Again, instead of posting reflections or analysis on the Convention, The Rational Right will feature some general observations on the candidate.

To complement the post on Donald Trump's flip flops, a look at those of Hillary Clinton.

Trump's, of course, are more understandable. He is a businessman and citizen. And like most citizens, he has put some thought into current events and attempts to grapple, however inconsistently, with possible solutions to our problems. He failed, however, on the most fundamental aspect of seeking a position of political leadership: solidifying his opinions on the core issues that American citizens want addressed.

Hillary, as a professional politician, seems to dedicate herself to no political principle other than that of securing political power.

From The Guardian:

23 July 2016

Conservatism and Temperament

Conservatism is sometimes described as a kind of temperament or behavioral disposition. Based in part on nature and part on nurture, temperament seems to have more to so with desires, preferences, and even emotions than any coherent system of political beliefs.

No doubt that individuals exhibit different temperaments. We all know people who dress plainly, budget frugally, exercise caution in their day to day activities, and never explore the exotic--whether its food, music, or places of interest. And we know others of an opposite bent. Although there may be social science research out there to the contrary, it is difficult to see how  temperaments serve as the foundation for a people's political and social views.

Although some conservatives posit the notion of a conservative temperament, the idea seems more useful to liberal critics. They contrast the conservatism's barely-able-to-be-articulated-temperament with liberalism's clearly delineated commitment to reason, science, universalism etc. No one ever talks about a "liberal temperament."

And if there is such a thing as a conservative temperament, conservatives and liberals disagree over what it means. The former sees the "conservative temperament" as affection for neighbors and kin rather than abstract "mankind," preference for familiar well-worn paths to uncharted waters, and understanding the value of what is accessible now against the longing for what is beyond the grasp. The latter sees the "conservative temperament" as nationalistic, xenophobic and even racist, fearful of change, and blind to the promises of progress.

Liberals appreciate such "conservative temperament" only as a subject for psychological analysis.

Social scientists have investigated the relationship between temperament, governing style, and prospects of success of individual presidents. The idiosyncratic behaviors of individuals or even personality types shed little light, however, on the existence of a "conservative temperament."

One could argue that a "conservative temperament" regarding politics manifests itself in a reserved approach to governing. This suggests a conception of governing as  limited activity with a cautious approach to change. There may be something to this, but the notion becomes inextricably complex by the play of specific issues and the imperatives of maintaining political power. Depending on the issues, liberal or progressive politicians can become just as cautious and resistant to change as any conservative.

Caution in government seems to be less about temperament than about that other rival definition of conservatism: a commitment to tradition and an aversion to change.


22 July 2016

Religion at the Republican National Convention

Over at Religion and Ethics News Weekly, affiliated with PBS, managing editor Kim Lawton filed this report on religion at the Republican National Convention.

Almost all the religious activity took place outside the convention itself. Various faith-based groups held luncheons and meetings, some of which looked more like evangelical worship services that political workshops.

Some participants expressed satisfaction with the platform, calling it the "most conservative ever."

That's important given the hard sell it will take to convince voters, especially evangelicals, that Donald Trump is their friend.

Chad Connelly, the party's National Director of Faith Engagement, advised that the voters should look at issues rather than personalities.

Lawson noted that although polling shows 78% of white evangelicals plan to vote for Trump, nearly half concede that their vote will serve more as a rejection of Hillary than an affirmation of Trump.

Is that anti-Hillary passion strong enough to move evangelical to the polls? Time will tell.

21 July 2016

Trump and The Truth

While many conservatives express concern about which Donald Trump may end up in the White House--the liberal supporter of Hillary Clinton or her conservative opponent, others see a more a more serious issue.

Ben Shapiro believes Trump is more than inconsistent; he is a liar.

Sonata of a Strongman

A video and link to text of Donald Trump's speech at the Republican National Convention.

In a rambling address to an enthusiastic throng of supporters, Donald Trump officially accepted what many Americans a few months back believed to be an implausible state of affairs--the nomination of the Republican Party for president of the United States.

Trump's theme: "Together, we will lead our party back to the White House, and we will lead our country back to safety, prosperity, and peace."

That theme served as a three point outline for his address--or at least the first half of it. In the remainder of the speech, he returned to this theme, but he seemed to do so in an improvisational way. (Maybe the speech was not a sonata after all. A revised title for this observation might be "Cacophony of a Conservative." But then he is not much of a conservative.)

Trump offered little in the way of substance about how he planned to bring back safety, prosperity, and peace. Perhaps he will develop these themes in the days ahead. 

For now all we need to know is the he is the solution.

20 July 2016

Which Trump?

It is difficult to know what to make of Trump, who a couple of years back may have been more likely considered a candidate for the Democratic Party.

He tapped into the uneasiness, indeed frustration, that many Republicans and even working class Democrats shared about the direction of our country. Jobs, trade, and immigration proved to be the driving issues of his run for office. Identifying problems

His campaign theme, "Make America Great Again," is rhetorically attractive but is as empty as President Obama's theme "Change You Can Believe In" foreshadowed in his book. In fact, Trump reissued his campaign manifesto as Great Again to replace the less moving Crippled America. Some of us more wary Republicans think that his other books, Art of the Deal or better yet Think Big better capture the spirit of his campaign.

Because I have not read his books, I cannot access their specificity or soundness. Trump's public speeches are a little short on exactly how he will make America great again. Moreover, they lack consistency.

Politicians are notorious, of course, for changing position as fast as they can keep up with public opinion. Political chameleons like President Obama and his likely successor Hillary Clinton have become notorious for "growth" and "a new maturity" in their judgments. Donald Trump, too, apparently has revised some of his opinions. No one is sure if he changed because he devoted more thought to them or because he never has thought about them at all.

And which opinions he finally comes down upon may determine who will be the next president.

For some of this revisions, see below:

Making American great again

19 July 2016

Trumping the Tea Party

As the Republican Party National Convention begins, a reflection on how the nomination of Donald Trump came to pass.

Everyone is aware by now of how Trump divided the party. Establishment “caretakers” of conservatism consider Trump's nomination to be The-End-Of-The-Republican-Party-As-We-Know-It. They disagree about which scenario would be worse in November—a Trump loss or a Trump victory. Many “establishment” party members have vowed “Never Trump” in the name of their own personal integrity. Others still harbor delusions of a third party candidate that might tilt the election to Hillary.

Trump has also split an influential constituency of the conservatism--the tea party. In fact, Trump's ability to capture the support of self-identified tea party members contributed significantly to the success of his candidacy. Although he garners more support from moderate Republicans, polls indicate Trump somehow has won over large number of tea party members and sympathizers, who are usually considered unrealistic purists when it comes to supporting candidates for any office. This support came at the expense of his chief rival--Ted Cruz.

This split in the tea party movement is best symbolized by the divergence of the two tea party movement's founders, Jenny Beth Martin and Amy Kremer. In 2009 Martin and Kremer organized some of the earliest tea party rallies in the Atlanta area. Their groups soon joined with hundreds of other grass roots tea party groups around the country to form the Tea Party Patriots. Martin remains President of the Tea Party Patriots and the Chair of the Tea Party Patriots Campaign Fund.

The group's core values famously include fiscal responsibility, constitutionally limited government, and free markets. To those ends, the tea party movement engineered a stunning reversal of the Democrat triumph of 2008. The Republican Party captured the House of Representatives and the Senate during the off year elections of 2010 and 2014.

And in 2016, the tea party purists finally found their Presidential candidate—Senator Ted Cruz. In February 2016 the Tea Party Patriots Campaign Fund endorsed Cruz for President. Since that time, Martin has played the role of conservative Casandra in the pages of the Washington Times, advocating for Cruz and futilely warning readers about the “narcissistic” Donald Trump and the threat he poses to conservatism.

Politics has led Amy Kremer down a different path. She left the Tea Party Patriots and briefly led another tea party organization called the Tea Party Express. Although it grass roots are shallower than those of the Tea Party Patriots, the Express has profited from more high profile supporters such as Sarah Palin. Kremer resigned her post in 2014 and now leads the Great American PAC, supporting the candidacy of Donald Trump.

So how did this come about?

First, the tea party fueled triumphs failed to yield political results. The Republicans controlled Congress but--either through lack of will or lack of ability--proved ineffectual at stopping President Obama's progressive agenda. The belief that winning elections would bring fiscal responsibility, limited government, and free markets to Washington D. C. proved to be a chimera.

Second, while the core economic goals seemed to recede further and further out of reach, issue of illegal immigration advanced to the forefront. President Obama failed in the most fundamental duty of sovereign authority: securing the borders. Moreover, he exhibits incredible duplicity regarding the treatment of state and local authorities when it comes to illegal immigration. When Arizona attempted to enforce federal immigration laws, it brought down the ire of the federal government. When so-called sanctuary cities flaunt immigration law, they operate with impunity. Finally, he blatantly disregards federal laws through his executive orders that for all intents and purposes revise federal statutes without the approval of Congress.

Enter Donald Trump.

He offers no delicate and nuanced pronouncements about the need for “common sense immigration reform.” For better or worse, he calls it as he sees it.

He knows that it is not our immigration system that is broken.

Mexico is broken.

El Salvador is broken is broken.

Guatemala is broken

And in his mind we stupidly serve as the safety valve for releasing all the potential social and political problems for the benefit of the elites of Latin America.

And one more thing. When attacked by the left and its fluffers in the liberal mainstream media, Trump pushes back. The tea party emerged as a fundamentally decent, middle-class reform movement. Alarmed by government excesses, average citizens took time out of their personal private lives to exercise a little civic virtue. For this they found themselves savaged by the left as racists and bigots. Sadly, many establishment conservatives stood by silently. They, like the left, saw the the tea party as a problem.

Now Trump has emerged as an anti-establishment leader whose following includes a huge throng of working class Americans. They see jobs shipped abroad and American workers displaced at home by immigrants. Trump may not be able to boast of the conservative credentials like Ted Cruz. He cannot even claim consistency. For better or for worse, however, he now represents conservatism--or at least a kind of conservatism--and the Republican Party.

Only time will tell if the remaining skeptics in the tea party, as well as the establishment opponents of Donald Trump, eventually come around and vote for him—even as they hold their noses.  

18 July 2016

Trump and The Establishment

The Republican Party National Convention begins. Owing to lack of time and lack of interest, I will not watch it.

As a reminder to readers about the controversy generated by the soon to be Republican Party standard bearer, a  link to a National Review symposium (of sorts) on Donald Trump. An assembly of traditionalists, neo-cons, religious right, and libertarians  explain why they do not support Donald Trump. Some Trump supporters dismiss the National Review as part of "The Establishment" or as Republican Party elites. William F. Buckley founded the National Review as a fairly expansive enterprise, ideologically speaking. Rare is the conservative not welcomed to its cocktail party.

 The money quote from economist Thomas Sowell:

"What is even more remarkable is that, after seven years of repeated disasters, both domestically and internationally, under a glib egomaniac in the White House, so many potential voters are turning to another glib egomaniac to be his successor."

16 July 2016

Conservatism: Prolegomena, Problems, and the Plan

One of the challenges of describing and making a case for conservatism is that people hold so many different conceptions about what it means. 

Conservatism has been described as a temperament--a disposition that certain people exhibit as they interact with the world.

Conservatism has been described as a commitment to traditional ways  and resistance to change.

And conservatism has been described as a belief-system or ideology--a more or less coherent set of principles that provide the goals for organized political action.

Perhaps these all are facets of conservatism, or at least one kind of conservatism or another. Some are more helpful than others.

A series of posts uploaded every Saturday will describe and make a case for conservatism--in this case for a secular conservatism. Attention will be drawn to what conservatism is, what it has been, and what it ought to be--hopefully without conflating any of the three. Along the way conservatism will be distinguished not only from liberalism, but also from those well-known "fellow travelers" of the conservative movement--the so-called "religious right" and libertarians. 

Sundays, of course, will be devoted to religion--"blogging the Bible" if you will. The Rational Right is dedicated to a conservatism based upon reason not revelation. By reading the Bible, one can discern what truths--if any--can be found there and consider what relevance the "Good Book" has for citizens living in a 21st century republic. 

During the week  posts will offer reflections upon currents events or provide links to interesting reads elsewhere, whether conservative or liberal.

11 July 2016

The Declaration and the Meaning of America

Jefferson's Declaration began as simply a political document announcing the separation from Britain and the birth of a new independent nation. It has become much more than that. It is now an American creed, assuming an almost religious significance about what we believe as Americans:  liberty, equality, and republican government. And in the absence of traditional components of nationality, those ideas in the Declaration of Independence have become a substitute for those components. It is the ideas of the Declaration of Independence that constitute our national identity.

Traditionally, any people's national identity rests upon geography, language, ethnicity, and religion. People groups generally identify with some geographic location where they have lived. Regardless of how well their land has provided  material needs, they romanticize it as their homeland. They lay some claim to it based upon historical or mythological narratives about how they settled there. They are unified by a common language. Speakers of other languages are often seen as less civilized. Finally, a shared religious tradition adds to their social cohesion and provides myths about origins and destiny Often their government provides legal and financial support to their historic faith.

These traditional elements of national identity only had shallow roots in the New World. Over the two centuries of our history as an independent nation, there roots have withered. First, America’s sense of place is not as deep rooted as that in other nations. Many of the first settlers, especially the wealthier leadership behind the colonization efforts never intended to make North America their permanent home. They hoped to strike it rich like Spanish conquistadors and return home to Britain to assume the life of  country gentlemen. Most of those who stayed did so because they never became prosperous enough to make it back home to Britain. For others, the North American wilderness offered opportunities for the future, not a basis for a historic homeland rooted in the past.

 Second, Americans do not have their own language. We speak a foreign language: English. Even the regions accents of American speakers of English derive from the different regions of England fromw which they originated.

Third, America’s ethnic diversity is hardly a recent development. Britain’s colonies from the beginning possessed a diverse population. Europeans from Britain, Sweden, Holland, Germany, and France established enclaves of settlement. Africans from that continent’s West Coast lived throughout the colonies, though chiefly in the Southern region. A general sense of Northern European identity that Americans shared gradually disappeared with the later arrival of Eastern and Southern Europeans, Asians, and in more recent times, Hispanics. Because of this immigration and ethnic diversity, Americans possess no distinct physical characteristics of an ethnic group.

 Finally, America has no national, government supported religion. This circumstance, too, results from our long standing diversity. Anglicans, Congregationalists, Presbyterians, Quakers, Dutch Reformed, Baptists,  Lutherans, Unitarians, and Deists populated the early colonies. Some colonies established a particular denomination as the government sanctioned faith. This resulted in some persecution of Quakers by Congregationalists in Massachusetts, and of Baptists in Virginia by Anglicans. Partly because of this religious diversity, the Constitutional Convention created no nationally established religious denomination. The Constitution of 1787 left the legal status of religion to the states. Gradually, however, even the state establishments disappeared. Americans shared a general sense of Protestantism (that accompanied their self-conception as ethnic Northern Europeans) for many decades. The immigration that brought new ethnic groups also brought new religious faiths. Adherents to Catholicism now outnumber any Protestant denomination and a wide range of non-western religious faith now dot the cultural landscape.

So what holds such diverse elements together? The ideas contained in the Declaration of Independence. The devotion to the ideas of  liberty, equality, and republican government provides the cohesion that in many other diverse countries can only be achieved through authoritarian governments.

As historian Richard Hofstadter put it, "It has been our fate as a nation not to have ideologies, but to be one."

In other words, we are not Americans because of who we are geographically, linguistically, ethnically, or religiously. We are Americans because of what we believe.

10 July 2016

"Our Lives, Our Fortunes, and Our Sacred Honor"

 Jefferson, after the addition by other editors of the passage professing their appeal to the Supreme Judge of the world, incorporated Richard Henry Lee's resolution declaring independence. Lee's resolution referred to "these united colonies." Because this declaration asserts a change in the existing states of affairs, Jefferson introduces Lee's resolution as a declaration by representatives of  "the united States of America."

We, therefore, the Representatives of the united States of America, in General Congress, Assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do, in the Name, and by Authority of the good People of these Colonies, solemnly publish and declare, That these united Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States, that they are Absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved; and that as Free and Independent States, they have full Power to levy War, conclude Peace, contract Alliances, establish Commerce, and to do all other Acts and Things which Independent States may of right do.

After an editorial addition by others expressing their "reliance on the protection of Divine Providence," Jefferson ends with this pledge:

 And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of Divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes, and our sacred Honor.”

Although the Continental Congress passed Lee's resolution for independence on 2 July 1776, we celebrate the birthday of the nation on the day that the Congress approved Jefferson's Declaration of Independence. For the Declaration  is more than a political document altering the relationship with Britain or a philosophical statement of the American theory of just governments. It has become of statement of what we seek to become as a people and the source of our national identity. For this reason, we celebrate Independence Day and uphold the "sacred honor" of the men who made it possible.

09 July 2016

"Let the Facts be Submitted"

After Jefferson developed the American philosophy behind equality, liberty, and government by consent, he finally began the primary purpose for the writing of the Declaration: to explain to the world why America chose to separate from Great Britain.

He conceded that such action should not be taken without careful consideration:

“Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed.”

Jefferson characterized British policies regarding the colonies, however, neither "light" nor "transient.” Americans had enjoyed a great deal of autonomy in the relations with Britain. Because of what Parliamentarian Edmund Burke described as a “wise and salutary neglect” by the mother country, Britain's North American colonies had grown prosperous. In addition, they had enjoyed a great deal of autonomy and local self government through their colonial legislatures. After the end of the French and Indian War in 1763, however, Britain embarked on a systematic effort to tighten their control over the colonies through new regulatory and tax initiatives.

The colonists interpreted these initiatives as omens of something much more sinister. From their widespread reading of polemical writing from radical Whigs in Britain, Americans became predisposed to see in British actions a conspiracy of power against liberty. Edmund Burke, a friend of the colonies, warned his fellow representatives in Parliament of the “fierce spirit of liberty” among Americans and that they “auger misgovernment at a distance and sniff the approach of tyranny in every tainted breeze.”

Jefferson confirmed Burke's insight into the perspective of the colonists in the next section of the Declaration. He drew a conclusion, however, that Burke could not share: although they did not live under a tyranny,  they believed they saw one in the making.

“But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security. Such has been the patient sufferance of these Colonies; and such is now the necessity which constrains them to alter their former Systems of Government. The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States. To prove this, let Facts be submitted to a candid world.”

Then follows the great body of the Declaration: the charges against the the king. Many of these charges only repeated what Jefferson already had leveled at the king in his A Summary View of the Rights of British America (1774). He had written this to express the views of the colony of Virginia regarding the imperial crisis. Some additional charges came from other petitions and protests originating from other local assemblies in the colonies over the previous decade.

So why blame the king for the actions taken by Parliament?

He probably blamed the king because by this time the colonists had rejected Parliamentary sovereignty over them. Americans had come to conceive of the British Empire as much like the British Commonwealth of Nations today: each province with its own lawmaking body but united by ties with the British monarchy. They blamed him because he cooperated in Parliament's attempt to subject the colonists to its authority. Americans showed prudence and patience in their appeals, protests, and boycotts. In response, the Parliament continued to subject the colonies to their tax and regulatory powers.

“In every stage of these Oppressions We have Petitioned for Redress in the most humble terms: Our repeated Petitions have been answered only by repeated injury. A Prince, whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free people.”

Even the British public appeared deaf to their appeals. Under such circumstances, the only course of action possible by the colonists was independence. Jefferson described it as he did in the opening paragraph of the Declaration: one of necessity.

"Nor have We been wanting in attentions to our British brethren. We have warned them from time to time of attempts by their legislature to extend an unwarrantable jurisdiction over us. We have reminded them of the circumstances of our emigration and settlement here. We have appealed to their native justice and magnanimity, and we have conjured them by the ties of our common kindred to disavow these usurpations, which would inevitably interrupt our connections and correspondence. They too have been deaf to the voice of justice and of consanguinity. We must, therefore, acquiesce in the necessity, which denounces our Separation, and hold them, as we hold the rest of mankind, Enemies in War, in Peace Friends."

Jefferson's rhetorical reached a crescendo at last with the incorporation into the Declaration of Richard Henry Lee's resolution for independence passed by Congress on 2 July 1776.

08 July 2016

"To Secure These Rights"

After Jefferson asserted the equality of human beings in their possession of natural rights, he turned to other self evident truths on why men form governments and why men dissolve them.

“That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.”

In a state of nature without government, men possess their natural rights precariously. They possess claim rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness against interference from all other men. Not all men, however, respect the natural rights of others. Men are vulnerable to threats from others to their lives and property. Consequently, men form governments to protect those rights. Of their own consent, they empower those governments with whatever means they deem necessary to protect those rights.

Moreover, men have the right to dissolve their governments. Not all men honor the rights claims of others; not all governments fulfill their proper purpose to protect those rights. When governments fail to protect rights, the people can replace that government with another one that will.

"That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness."

After laying out the political philosophy behind forming a just government and dissolving an unjust one, Jefferson presented the charge that the administration of George III was exactly that kind of government.

07 July 2016

"All Men are Created Equal"

So what are the truths that Jefferson asserted?

“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.”

Jefferson asserts three self-evident truths: that men are created equal, that they possess rights given to them by God that cannot be taken way, and that these rights include the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. These truths do not stand alone. Through his structure and punctuation, Jefferson connected them with each other and separated them from a second set of self-evident truths. To understand his meaning (as best we can), the reader must interpret them within that context.

So what did he mean when he claimed all men are created equal? In the context of the chain of propositions in the argument as it unfolds, Jefferson seems to have meant that God created men equal in their common humanity and human nature.  No one is created to rule over others or to be ruled over. There is no room for a hereditary aristocracy. This is what his original draft suggests, where he wrote that “all men are created equal and independent." 

A comment he wrote in a private letter shortly before his death sheds additional light. In this letter he paraphrased Algernon Sidney:

"The general spread of the light of science has already laid open to every view the palpable truth, that the mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately, by the grace of God."

(As a side note, the idea of creation, of course, is not all that self-evident. If Jefferson had written the proposition as "all men are by nature equal," the proposition might be more self-evident.)

This concepts of  equality entails the next self-evident truth: that men possess God given rights that cannot be taken away. Because men are created or by nature equal, they possess equal rights. (Again, rights as gift from God is not self-evident. Because Jefferson was not a Christian, he did not find these rights in the Bible or in any creedal statements. I doubt any Christian can). He derived them from human nature. This can be seen in his original draft, in which he wrote that "from their equal creation they derive rights inherent and inalienable." The most general or fundamental rights include the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Every man has the right to defend and protect his life. Every man has the right to exercise natural or personal liberty in fulfilling his potentiality through rational choices. And every man has the right the pursuit happiness through those rational choices.

Two caveats, however, must be added. First, the idea of happiness is an ancient term with a long history of meaning that differs from how it is conceived today. We think of happiness as the pleasurable psychological state that results from acquiring whatever it is we want. The traditional meaning,  going back to Aristotle, was "thriving" or "flourishing." It meant fulfilling one's specific human nature. In other words, pursuit of happiness implied seeking those things that help one thrive and succeed at being human. Second, natural rights claims are reciprocal. Because of common human nature, every man's rights claims must be respected by every other man.

 Sometimes men do not respect the rights claims of others. That leads to the next self evident truths of Jefferson regarding the purposes of government.

06 July 2016

"We Hold These Truths"

Jefferson begins explaining the reasons for the break with Great Britain with these well-known words:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident . . . .”

Just what does the expression “self-evident” truths mean? Basically, it means that the truth of a given proposition is clear without the inclusion of additional propositions or evidence. Once one understands the terms contained in the proposition, its truthfulness is clear. This implies that a state of affairs contradicting the proposition is not worth serious consideration. Jefferson implied as much in his original phrasing which said the truths were “sacred and undeniable.” A self-evident truth is undeniable in that it's opposite cannot seriously be considered.

The proposition to which Jefferson alluded concerned natural equality, natural rights, and republican government. Whether the propositions really are self evident may depend upon what Jefferson meant by them. The same goes for whether or not they are true at all. Whether true or not,  they have nevertheless become the ideas justifying a war for independence and the ideas on which our nation is founded. The next post will look at those ideas.

05 July 2016

"When in the Course of Human Events"

Thomas Jefferson opened his Declaration of Independence with a paragraph explaining its purpose:

“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.”

Jefferson asserts that events have made it “necessary” to sever our political ties with Britain. This statement almost carries the ring of determinism. Events have forced Americans into this action. They can envision no other way to preserve their natural liberties than to assume “the separate and equal station” of an independent country.

Interestingly, Jefferson seems to suggest that the British colonists of North America do not become a separate "people" through establishing their independence, but rather already are a separate "people." And it is unnatural through political bands for one separate people to live in subjection to another. By declaring independence, the Americans assume the right to independence and sovereignty to which they are entitle by the Law of Nature and to Nature's God.

The role of the Law of Nature are problematic. Although the Law of Nature has a long pedigree, like many subjects of philosophical exploration, ambiguity and vagueness abounds. And Jefferson did not elaborate. In general, anything subsumed under the Law of Nature derives from human nature. And in most versions of natural law, God created our human nature. It is human nature for a "people" who possess a self-conscious identity as a "people" to establish the "separate and equal station" for their self preservation and happiness.

A brief note on Jefferson's religion. He grew up  in the Anglican Church but certainly by adulthood became unorthodox in his faith. He was not a deist in the strict sense of the word. He believed that a supreme being not only created the world, but also acts upon it. He is best described as  a Unitarian. Jefferson believed that the spread of education would retard the growth of orthodox Christian denominations, which he called "fanatical" as would the spread of Unitarianism. He believed that Unitarianism "will, ere long, be the religion of the majority from north to south, I have no doubt."

Jefferson asserts that a decent respect for the opinions or judgments of mankind requires that we state the causes that have forced or , his words, impelled, the decision for independence. He probably had three audiences in mind. First, the Declaration addressed other Americans. At the Continental Congress, nearly a month passed before a delegates reached a consensus on declaring independence. Moreover, John Adams believed that only about one-third of Americans fully supported the the movement for independence. The remaining holdouts were undecided or loyalists to the British crown. Second, the Declaration addressed the British public. Many British citizens wondered why subjects to the freest government in the world rebelled against it. Finally, the Declaration addressed foreign leaders. The Americans needed financial and material support from foreign countries in order to win independence. No foreign power cared during the years that the colonists asserted their ancient rights as British citizens. Once America made it clear to seek independence, other powers found it in their interest to encourage the break up the British Empire.

04 July 2016

A Declaration of the Representatives of the United States of America

After approving Richard Henry Lee's resolution declaring independence on 2 July 1776, the delegates of the Continental Congress began discussing the text of the document expressing the reasons why the British colonists felt compelled to take this course of action.

When Lee introduced his resolution a couple of months earlier, the Continental Congress appointed a committee to draft a declaration. The most prominent members included Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and Benjamin Franklin. The committee in turn delegated the task to Jefferson.

Jefferson submitted his draft to the committee, which made some revisions. The committee then submitted the completed document to the Continental Congress. The delegates devoted much of their 3 July agenda completing additional revisions of the document, including the ending professing their "reliance on the protection of Divine  Providence."

On 4 July 1776 the Congress approved the final text of the Declaration of Independence.

If you have not read it through since high school, the still stirring words can be read here.

And Jefferson's words still still hearts today. Because the Declaration of Independence is so intertwined with the creation and definition of a new people, it has assumed a quasi-religious standing not unlike the Ten Commandments to the ancient Hebrews.  In fact, some observers have referred to the Declaration as the American testament or American scripture. And the power of Jefferson's rhetoric has elevated in prestige this man of words to the level of the Father of our country George Washington, the stoic and aloof man of action.

But the ideas contained in the Declaration did not originate from Jefferson. They consisted of a synthesis from many sources. As Jefferson himself explained in a letter written  in 1825, shortly before the fiftieth anniversary of the Declaration:

"This was the object of the Declaration of Independence. Not to find out new principles, or new arguments, never before thought of, not merely to say things which had never been said before; but to place before mankind the common sense of the subject, in terms so plain and firm as to command their assent, and to justify ourselves in the independent stand we are compelled to take. Neither aiming at originality of principle or sentiment, nor yet copied from any particular and previous writing, it was intended to be an expression of the American mind, and to give to that expression the proper tone and spirit called for by the occasion. All its authority rests then on the harmonizing sentiments of the day, whether expressed in conversation, in letters, printed essays, or in the elementary books of public right, as Aristotle, Cicero, Locke, Sidney, &c."

The next few posts will look at those sentiments.

02 July 2016

The Birth of a New Nation

On this date 240 years ago thirteen of Great Britain's twenty seven North American colonies declared independence from their mother country.

The First Continental Congress had met during the summer of 1774 to coordinate the colonies in a response to a group of laws passed by Parliament called the Coercive Acts. The Continental Congress initiated a boycott of imported goods, hoping that suffering British merchants would lobby Parliament to repeal the acts.

A Second Continental Congress met the summer of 1775 to assess the progress--or lack thereof. Before it assembled, however, fighting broke out in Massachusetts. During that summer session, the Continental Congress operated as a provisional government, coordinating the defense of the thirteen colonies. Even while the Congress prepared for war, it sought reconciliation. It sent the so-called "Olive Branch Petition" to King George III.

The Second Continental Congress re-convened on 10 May 1776.

The situation had worsened.

The previous October King George III charged in a speech before Parliament that opposition in the colonies was “carried on for the purpose of establishing an independent Empire.” The colonists, he continued, make “vague expression of attachments to the parent state, and the strongest protestations of loyalty to me, whilst they were preparing for a general revolt.”It was time, he concluded, “ to put a speedy and to these disorders by the most decisive exertions.” In response to the King's charges, Parliament passed the American Prohibitory Act. This act declared the colonies outside the protection of the empire, prohibited all commerce with the colonies and initiated a naval blockade, and announced that all colonial ships and cargo forfeit to the Crown as enemy vessels.

Then on 7 June 1776, representative Richard Henry Lee of Virginia introduced the following resolution:

“That these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent States, that they are absolved from all allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain is, and ought to be, totally dissolved. That it is expedient forthwith to take the most effectual measures for forming foreign Alliances. That a plan of confederation be prepared and transmitted tot he respective Colonies for their consideration and approbation.”

After a couple of days debate, the Congress postponed additional discussion until July. At the time, only slightly more than half the colonies supported independence. A consensus had to be formed. Meanwhile, the Congress appointed a committee of five to draft a declaration of independence for adoption if the colonies reached a consensus. The committee delegated to one of its members, Thomas Jefferson, the task of writing a draft.

Finally, on 1 July, the Congress resumed debate on Lee's original resolution. Although no new points emerged, a virtual consensus had been reached. Only the delegates from the state of New York had failed to receive any instructions to support the resolution. So on 2 July 1776, the Continental Congress voted to pass the Lee resolution declaring independence. The United Colonies became the United States.

Richard Henry Lee

The Continental Congress then completed debate on Thomas Jefferson's draft of the Declaration of Independence. After some revisions that more accurately reflected the consensus of the delegates, the voted to approve Jefferson's Declaration on 4 July, 1776.

01 July 2016

Prospectus of Conservatism

Reflections from the Rational Right contains commentary on politics, history, and religion and how they intersect in American public life.

As this blog's title implies, these reflections come from a conservative perspective. 

Three primary areas of interest include assessing the progress of conservatism as a political movement,elucidating key conservative ideas, and justifying conservatism as a political philosophy--or ideology, if you will.

Contemporary American conservatism first emerged as a distinct political and intellectual movement during those tumultuous decades that witnessed the New Deal transformation of American political traditions at home and the communist challenge to Western civilization abroad. Dubbed the “New Right” by its detractors, it combined opposition to government expansion through the New Deal at home with an intense antagonism to the expansion of communism abroad. 

The movement manifested a strong religious undercurrent. The core ideas of the movement were largely the product of Catholic intellectuals, many of whom worked with William F. Buckley and his National Review magazine.These intellectuals attempted both to unearth the historical roots of their conservatism and to articulate an explicitly conservative philosophy of society and politics. Some of these conservatives, most notably Russell Kirk, found the first in eighteenth-century British parliamentarian and writer Edmund Burke. They embraced Burke's conservative principles rooted tradition and religion, especially as he expressed them in his polemics against the French Revolution. Kirk, in his groundbreaking book, The Conservative Mind, distilled the conservatism of Burke and other like-minded thinkers into six basic principles. These included among others a belief in a transcendent moral order under natural law, an organic unity of society, the necessity of orders and classes, a inseparable link between freedom and property rights, and a healthy respect for custom and convention.

The movement was hardly monolithic. Other conservatives challenged Kirk's conclusions. They articulated a conservatism rooted more in the American experience rather than European tradition. This led them to different conclusions regarding the central goals of conservatism. They argued for a more liberal or libertarian conservatism. One of these writers, Frank S. Meyer, characterized this fissure in the early conservative movement as a disagreement over the relative merits of virtue and liberty. Kirk and his European style conservatism stood for virtue. Meyer and his more libertarian conservatism acknowledged the importance of virtue. He believed, however, the virtue must be voluntary. That requires liberty. Actions exhibit virtue only when freely chosen. This precluded efforts by the government to cultivate virtue in its citizens.

Although this “New Right” attracted  interest (and hostility) from academics, it attracted little popular support and made insignificant headway politically. While the readership of the National Review gradually expanded, the ideas of the “New Right” failed to win broad based ascent among American voters. The post-war political scene was dominated by a center-left consensus that supported many New Deal reforms at home and containment of communism abroad. When “New Right” political activists secured the nomination of Senator Barry Goldwater as the Republican Party nominee for the Presidency in 1964, the campaign ended in a disastrous defeat.

This conservative movement experienced a resurgence of religious-based enthusiasm in the 1970s, when liberalism slowly transmogrified into progressivism.  The outbreak of the culture wars over the sexual revolution, abortion, narcotics, and the role of religion in American public life led to the emergence of a new “Religious Right.” A loose coalition of evangelical Protestants, this new religious conservatism exhibited a populism that the older conservatism lacked. The new “Religious Right” proved a major factor in the election of Ronald Reagan to the Presidency and the subsequently domination of the Presidency by the Republican Party in the last decades of the 20th century. Since that time religious conservatism and political conservatism became synonymous in the minds of many people. Conservative politicians, pundits, and television personalities often make some obligatory allusions to the Bible, faith, morality, or--more euphemistically-- family values.

Several varieties of conservatism have emerged and endured over the last half century. And some of the most well-known conservative writers even have “out of the cloister” so to speak, severing the connection between conservative political philosophy and religion.  Conservative intellectuals that have revealed themselves as atheists or agnostics in the last few years include George Will, Charles Krauthammer, Charles C. W. Cooke, S. E. Cupp, Heather MacDonald, and Robert Tracinski. Each espouses some version of social and political conservatism but without any appeal to religion.

Mainstream contemporary American conservatism, however, can be distilled somewhat simplistically down to classical liberalism on economic issues and traditional religion on moral issues.

The reflections published here explore what conservatism as a philosophy might look like without liberalism and Christianity. They resume a conservative tradition rooted in the pre-Christian world of classical Greco-Roman world--a perspective based upon reason rather than religious revelation.

 Long before the Religious Right there was the Rational Right.