May 28, 2016

Sasse Against Trump: Make America the First Amendment Again

Sasse's America
As I mentioned in a prior post, via an open letter, Senator Ben Sasse -- the leading anti-Trump Republican -- has presented the best Christian arguments against voting for Donald Trump, even if this concedes the election to Hillary. In the first part of his letter, he argued that Republican party members were free to vote for whomever they individually thought best to serve their individual goals.

Sasse's argument for his right to walk away from his own party was revealing: A political party is not an association, only a tool. Thus, he claimed membership creates no duties of loyalty to fellow members in its processes. I’ve previously suggested why I didn’t find this argument Christian.

Consistently, in the second part of his letter, he extends his instrumentalist view of political parties to the political nature of the United States as a whole (he thinks it's really an idea and the machinery of government subsists only as a tool for implementing this idea, not as a medium of personal association) and explains why Trump is a bad candidate on that view. For Sasse, (and I think this is clearly wrong), the government is just a tool for preserving negative liberties, and (correctly), he doesn't think those negative liberties are at the heart of the Trump campaign.

To summarize my problem with his argument, Sasse's view of the United States completely omits the Constitution's republicanism, with its focus on the positive organic character of the people in proper association with one another and against the threat of tyranny, and replaces it with liberalism, with its focus merely on mechanically implementing conditions of negative liberty.



His argument, which is pretty easy to make when nestled in the still functioning communities of his native Nebraska, is perfectly consistent with individualistic liberalism which just takes for granted that there will always be a healthy political community grounded in Christian faith and Western political values. But it is logically and morally unsound because it ignores that a government is not and should not be a floating brain, thought thinking itself. Government is the government of a nation, the ruling part of a moral association of the people, whom government will either preserve and protect or destroy.

Our government is currently destroying the nation in the name of leftist idealisms detached from the life of the people, not least by transforming the current population through lawless immigration practices. It has become anti-republican in the old sense; a republican government is a form of government that serves rather than arbitrarily determines the organic social life of its people. A republic is a form of government focused on respecting the popular association and empowering it over the government, not simply on negative liberties. Because it aims to establish a republican form of government, the Constitution is not structured around a list of negative individual rights but the provision of popular and intragovernmental checks on political power, with healthy reserves of power to the people themselves. More than by recognizing specific individual liberties, which is easy as the constitution of the U.S.S.R. demonstrated by incorporating all the negative liberties of the American Bill of Rights, a republican form of government preserves the people in a character effectively to govern itself and to control the government rather than being controlled by it.

Sasse views the state, any government, as man’s voluntaristic, artificial product -- rather than as something which is organically determined by the needs and character of the people. On his view, man rightly make governments just to protect natural rights in the same way he makes medicine against disease. On his account, just as medicine has no function without disease, government has none without sin. But, under the republican understanding, the association of the people which government facilitates has an important value; since government is inevitable, it provides a positive good in facilitating the people's political association so that it can exercise power against the established power's threat of dominance, not primarily through a list of negative rights, but positively by cultivating the character and activity of the people against those whose discretionary authority threaten their free life.

As a mere tool, for Sasse, government is not a method of human association by which a group gives response to God’s institution of political authority in relation to its leaders. It's not a way for people to relate to one another as a people through their rulers. Government has nothing divine about it and is not a form of personal association; it's just another technology of man. The U.S. government, in particular, Sasse argues is not part of a meaningful national association but a creed:
America is first and fundamentally about a shared Constitutional creed. America is exceptional, because she is at her heart a big, bold truth claim about human dignity, natural rights, and self-control – and therefore necessarily about limited rather than limitless government.
This is Sasse's version of the ahistorical and incoherent "proposition" nation dreck so popular among the American left and the supposedly former leftists called "neoconservatives" who run most Republican operations. If America were a creed, then Belgium or Borneo could be America if only they would believe in human dignity, etc.; indeed, if no one believed, there could be America without Americans for the Creed would remain for whomever chose to affirm. Also, if the Constitution were a shared creed, then as our fundamental legal authority, Americans should be required to believe it. But Sasse clearly thinks Americans don't because he's written elsewhere: "Our problems are huge right now, but one of the most obvious is that we’ve not passed along the meaning of America to the next generation." If America is belief in a creed, then is the next generation not American? Should we change our laws to exclude from citizenship anyone who doesn't share Sasse's convictions about the creed? The Constitution is a strange creed since it doesn't propound anything to be believed or confessed.

After this creedalist interpretation of the Constitution, Sasse argues that because "the beating heart of Mr. Trump’s candidacy" has not "been an impassioned defense of the First Amendment" that Trump -- who is obviously more impassioned about protecting the American people from the universalistic social-engineering policies of the free-trade, globalist, human-rights open-borders crowd currently governing -- cannot be supported. The First Amendment is central to Sasse because, in addition to the Founders' teaching, that's essentially all America is -- it's the seminal creed within the creed:
“Our Founders said that God gives us rights by nature, and that government is not the author or source of our rights. 
Government is just our shared project to secure those rights. Government exists only because the world is fallen, and some people want to take your property, your liberty, and your life. Government is tasked with securing a framework for ordered liberty where “we the people” can in our communities voluntarily build something great together for our kids and grandkids. That’s America. 
Freedom of religion, freedom of the press, freedom of association, freedom of speech – the First Amendment is the heartbeat of the American Constitution, of the American idea itself.”
America, for Sasse, is not an actual people with a character and a republican government which needs to harmonize with that character; it's the First Amendment. There are some silly things here, like the claim that an amendment to the Constitution is the heartbeat of the Constitution. Obviously, if the "American idea itself" was the First Amendment (which by the way was the Third Amendment in the original proposal of Congress), then the Founders were idiots for forgetting to put it in the Constitution proper. They left the heartbeat out of the heart. When they proposed the Bill of Rights, they didn't even think to propose the First Amendment first, but offered it as the third instead.

But, even if it were central, the First Amendment never taught the universal value of laïcité. The First Amendment did not aim to teach the general value of secularization because it applied only to the federal government. No one wanted to secularize the various states, as Sasse claims, in order to teach some general conviction about disestablishment. Unlike Sasse, the Founders denied that either the Constitution's "creed" or some idea of negative liberty created America (they knew America was a nation, not an idea or creed or a "framework" for securing liberty). The Constitution united an existing nation federally while preserving its constitutive states and without general derogation from the people's preexisting laws, customs and religious institutions, including their establishments of religion.

Here's how John Jay, Federalist Paper No. 2, explained the need for the Constitution to reflect the preexisting national (geographic, linguistic, ethnic, historical, religious) unity of the people, or as he put it, a "band of brethren":
It has until lately been a received and uncontradicted opinion that the prosperity of the people of America depended on their continuing firmly united... But politicians now appear, who insist that ... instead of looking for safety and happiness in union, we ought to seek it in a division of the States into distinct confederacies or sovereignties.
[But] I have as often taken notice that Providence has been pleased to give this one connected country to one united people
--a people descended from the same ancestors, speaking the same language, professing the same religion --
attached to the same principles of government, very similar in their manners and customs, and who, by their joint counsels, arms, and efforts, fighting side by side throughout a long and bloody war, have nobly established general liberty and independence.
This country and this people seem to have been made for each other, and it appears as if it was the design of Providence, that an inheritance so proper and convenient for a band of brethren, united to each other by the strongest ties, should never be split into a number of unsocial, jealous, and alien sovereignties.
The Founders didn't think the Constitution was an idea or a big truth claim. They didn't seek some kind of Jacobin revolution against the existing social order, conforming laws and customs to radical ideas of equality or negative liberty.

They thought the Constitution was made by and for a providentially and previously organically united people, in a territory, with a common history, language, religion and law. It was not about idealism; it was about establishing a republican form of government to protect the existing nation and its posterity. The aim of the negative liberties, even in the amendments, was as much to ensure the republican form of government, to protect the capacity of a "band of brethren" to rule themselves.

By comparison with modern America, the Founders were already living in a libertarian utopia. Their objection to the British rule was not that they had insufficient freedom of choice, though they had some complaints, but that all their liberties were threatened by any discretion of government officials outside their control. They didn't rebel because they had a good argument that the tax rates were inefficient; it wouldn't matter how justice the tax rate was because taxation without republican checks on governmental taxing power constituted a kind of enslavement. Kind of like living in a nation were nine tyrants can change the marriage laws ....

To return to the First Amendment, there is no debate that the First Amendment applied only to the federal government and was consistent with state establishment of religion, which was not terminated among the states until 1833. So, it didn't teach any general political principle about disestablishment. The First Amendment was never applied to state establishments in the early republic, has never directly been so applied even in later generations and was never invoked against state establishment even indirectly until 1947 under the preposterous theory of "incorporation," at the beginning of our contemporary experiment in radical politics. Even then, it took decades more for the radicals in our government, with ideas identical to Sasse's about the Bill of Rights as some kind of super-constitution within the constitution, to root out what would today be considered un-American establishment of religion -- ordinary things that once held our nation together like prayers in schools or public display of the Ten Commandments. As the reinterpretation of America into a kind of pure idealistic, creedal project to carve society into conformity with abstract rights has succeeded, the American people have indeed suffered an almost complete loss of moral compass and social cohesion. This idea encourages reckless and prideful social engineering of the kind typified in our current "bathroom" wars. The cult of negative liberties among leaders like Sasse has left them unable to explain why social revolutions like same-sex marriage forced upon us by judicial tyrants in the name of negative liberty were oppressive acts.

Sasse's reductionist claim that “Government is just our shared project to secure those rights” is, therefore, quite dangerous. Our interpretation of negative rights, which are quite important, must be informed and constrained by national character and the maintenance of a republican form of government. The actual republican principles of the Founders taught that rising above tyranny requires more than predictable negative freedom; it requires a government where the people can protect their own rights against the government, including the Supreme Court. Their focus was not on some list of human rights that governments had to provide, as if a machinery of government could protect liberty, but a kind of human association were the people had sufficient cohesion practically to resist the government. They, therefore, favored a republican form of government that limited the government not merely with a list of negatives but by giving the people control. The existence and maintenance of a popular character is the sine qua non for republican forms of government; this is why the Supreme Court's tyrannical social engineering and the President's non-enforcement policies to dilute the social cohesion of the country with lawless immigration run contrary to the real essential principles of the Constitution.

Sasse's liberalism -- his focus on a politics of negative liberty-- forces him in some odd theoretical directions. Sasse claims that God gives natural rights, which is fine, but also that God does not institute government. God institutes rights in nature, but man institutes government by his own artificial production. This is no part of the Founders understanding. They thought the government was a "union," which in addition to protecting natural rights, would "promote the general welfare" for "ourselves and our Posterity." It was a union of the people, a human association with bonds of loyalty arising out of shared beliefs, culture, religion, history and identity. Their vision was not simply of a negative project against infringement of natural rights, but a positive building up of the existing people and their posterity.

Note how Sasse contrasts natural rights and government. The rights, he implies, arise because of our created nature, while government, he states, “exists only because the world is fallen.” He argues that government is only a reaction to the fact that sinful people “want to take your property, your liberty and your life.” But then he unintentionally undermines himself by suggesting an alternative role for government that would be needed without the Fall: “government is tasked with securing a framework for ordered liberty.” Even without sinners trying to kill me and take my stuff, wouldn’t men need a framework for ordered liberty? Wouldn’t unfallen man need to know what side of the road to drive on? How much to pay in contribution to common tasks of building roads or dams? Where and when to send contributions? How to establish claims to the use of limited resources? How to recompense for unplanned contingencies where a specific promise couldn't be performed because of impossibility or mutual mistake?

What's the correct account? Obviously, the idea of government precedes the Fall for Christians. Most importantly, God rules over creation and man, governs and gives commands. God does not become a King because of the Fall. There is a sense in which Christians want to say "No King but King Jesus!" But, man in one aspect of his imaging God rules as well: Ge 1:28 “God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth, and subdue it; and rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky, and over every living thing that moves on the earth.’" Even if this is understood not to include human coordination, ordered interpersonal association and the hierarchy of family life certainly precedes the Fall:
Ge 2:18 ¶ Then the LORD God said, "It is not good for the man to be alone; I will make him a helper suitable for him." ... 22 And the LORD God fashioned into a woman the rib which He had taken from the man, and brought her to the man. 23 And the man said, "This is now bone of my bones, And flesh of my flesh; She shall be called Woman, Because she was taken out of Man." 24 For this cause a man shall leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave to his wife; and they shall become one flesh.  
Man and woman are created in a derivative hierarchy of substance, which is indicated in their names. And as Paul explains in the context of head coverings, hierarchical rules reflect on the created differences between men and women, rather than on differences created because of the Fall:
1Co 11:3 Now I want you to realize that the head of every man is Christ, and the head of the woman is man, and the head of Christ is God. ...[man] is the image and glory of God; but the woman is the glory of man. 8 For man did not come from woman, but woman from man; 9 neither was man created for woman, but woman for man. 10 For this reason, and because of the angels, the woman ought to have a sign of authority on her head.
Man, created male and female, finds himself divinely established in hierarchical relations that govern his conduct both in families, with relation between parents and children, and in marriage. For this reason, the Reformers routinely found an obligation to respect political rulers in the Decalogue's command to honor mothers and fathers. Denying this was an important theoretical commitment of modern liberalism, motivating Locke's prolonged against Filmer. But, for the Reformers, political authority is not a tool of man, but one expression of human association , instituted by God, that grows out of familial obligations.

Whatever else we want to say about rulers, Romans 13:1-2
Everyone must submit himself to the governing authorities, for there is no authority except that which God has established. The authorities that exist have been established by God. Consequently, he who rebels against the authority is rebelling against what God has instituted, and those who do so will bring judgment on themselves.
makes it impossible for Christians properly to talk as Sasse does about government just as a project of men, a human technology. In fact, it's precisely such naturalized "tool" talk about divine institutions like government and marriage that has led us to our current crisis. Government, considered as the rulers over us, are charged with a divine authority that cannot be reduced to a human project to protect liberty. God stands with the one who judges and judges him; rulers should remember that. Men who obey rulers obey for God's sake; men should remember that.

The Founders in the Declaration of Independence were correct to say that fundamental political acts involve God. They spoke in their day of collectively of the government "appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world" and acting with "a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence." But if government is just a creed about what we shouldn't do, just a project of negative liberty, just a tool, with what capacity did the Congress act in this pious and faithful way toward God?

They acted as the rulers and agents of a People, a nation and band of brethren. They thought government acted for the People. Just as individual men can appeal to God and rely on God, so can governments. Government is more than a human project against sin because it should involve, following the Framers' example, appeals to and reliance on God. Their Christian and republican vision of the nation and government was wholly antithetical to Sasse's reductionistic "project."

1 comment:

  1. Chico and the ManMay 28, 2016 at 8:35 PM

    The legitimacy of government (and of a particular leader like Trump) is judged based on how well that government protects individual human rights. This has led to catastrophic results as cucks like Sasse think they can, through magic words, impose democracy and rule of law on any people group. Or, even worse, that magic dirt will transform legal and illegal immigrants into Americans. (No one in their right mind would say that living 10 years in Korea makes one "Korean.")

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