It’s sobering to consider the degree to which we have lost our knowledge of and connection to our American heritage. As a result, William B. Allen notes that we have been transitioning increasingly from a society of “independent yeomen” to a society of “wards of the state.” The challenge before us is to determine whether we can rediscover our heritage, and relearn the requirements for becoming good and free citizens while also reclaiming the sovereignty we have ceded to the state.
The first step toward recovery, after our recent celebration of the 241st anniversary of our Declaration of Independence, is to remind ourselves of its unique proposition that because we are endowed by our Creator with certain inalienable rights, equality and our common commitment to the political implications of that equality—not race and blood—are the founding principles of our nation. This principle of justice, where all citizens would be equal, replaced the interest-of-the-stronger principle otherwise found throughout history.
Next, the famous claim that politics is downstream from culture tends to miss the bigger picture and the deeper meaning of the American Founding. Diagrammatically, here is how the functioning of American society under its founding principles has been radically altered by the Progressive revolution:
The American Founding: The Declaration’s Natural Rights ⇒ Individual Character Formation to Create Good Citizens Capable of Self-Government ⇒ Culture with Vibrant Mediating Institutions ⇒ Limited Government
Today’s Progressive Revolution: Relativism in a Naked Public Square ⇒ Society Dominated by a Powerful Elite ⇒ Atrophied Culture ⇒ Individuals as Wards of the State
Let’s now compare and contrast the respective steps of these two alternative worldviews in order better to understand the differences between them and the consequences to society inherent in adopting either one.
The American Founding: The Declaration’s Natural Rights
The Declaration’s famous preamble relied on the existence and authority of a transcendent higher power when it asserted the self evident truth that all men are created equal and are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights. In other words, our rights are a gift from God. Richard Reeb once observed, “America’s founders were scrupulously neutral between the numerous religious sects that existed in their time. But it is not true that they were hostile to the God worshipped by all of them.” There is nothing secular or relativistic about the Declaration or the founding, a view reinforced by the words of George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and other founders. Each of them understood the value of a secular government but saw a secular society—one without religion—as a threat to the American experiment in ordered liberty.
Similarly, Calvin Coolidge described the Declaration as a great spiritual document because equality, liberty, and our natural rights are based on religious convictions:
…It is often asserted that the world has made a great deal of progress since 1776…that we may therefore very well discard their conclusions for something more modern. But that reasoning can not be applied to this great charter. If all men are created equal, that is final. If they are endowed with inalienable rights, that is final. If governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed, that is final…If anyone wishes to deny their truth or their soundness, the only direction in which he can proceed historically is not forward, but backward toward the time when there was no equality, no rights of the individual, no rule of the people…
The American Founding: Individual Character Formation and Political Humility
We can avoid sliding backwards by recognizing how culture is downstream from individual character formation. In other words, what matters most to changing the state of our culture and enabling the rediscovery of our Declaration heritage is focusing on the important task of forming individuals who possess the character required to live the virtues that make free government possible.
This means having habits and dispositions to be and do good, including acknowledging the existence of certain moral constraints on behaviors. As such, the Founding draws on our instinctive knowledge of right and wrong that is connected to the laws of nature summarized in Micah 6:8, which Washington referenced in 1783: “He has shown you, O man, what is good; And what does the Lord require of you, but to do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God?”
Lawrence Reed explains that individual character matters because of its direct connection to liberty, and thus to self-government: “If you value liberty, you must understand that character is an indispensable ingredient—a necessary pre-condition—for a free society…no people who lost their character kept their liberties. That may be the most important lesson from the last five thousand years of human history.”
The American Founding: Creating Good Citizens Capable of Self-Government
Citizenship represents the interactions between individuals and their community. “Political prosperity” results when people of character act as good citizens, forming a good regime by blending together the virtues with “institutions and habits of freedom,” all free from an overbearing state.
Among these good citizens, there is no collective guilt, in either direction, based on race or by role in society. None of us owns any personal responsibility for the sad historical fact of slavery just because we are white. However, we all own personal responsibility for having hearts that hold no hatred for people based merely upon the color of their skin. Similarly, some of us come from families who have been living the American Dream, seeing improvements in educational and financial status generation-over-generation. That doesn’t equate to white privilege or a mandatory feeling of guilt even as we are called to assist those who need a helping hand so they can share in similar opportunities.
The American Founding: Building a Culture with Vibrant Mediating Institutions
A strong culture results from good citizens committing to participate actively in exclusive and reciprocal obligations with other citizens, based on the laws and customs of their communities. They do this through what Alexis de Tocqueville described as the constant formation of associations and Edmund Burke called “little platoons,” efforts that bind people together in the pursuit of aligned purposes—some even altruistic in nature—that also develop a refined sense of individual moral responsibility.
Social justice, properly understood, is then a virtue, a habit associated with individuals of character (instead of society at large), who appreciate how voluntary associations of fellow citizens of varying ideological preferences are the most productive way to effect genuine and lasting societal change.
These activities strengthen the community’s mediating institutions—smaller groups of family, churches, schools, fraternal organizations, and other local efforts—all voluntary activities that build ties between American citizens and have the added benefit of limiting the power of the state. Within these groups, informal norms (often called the “hidden law”) allow judgment and common sense to be applied as a means of regulating daily behaviors and interpersonal conflicts. Along the way, good citizens show their love for America by displaying affection for other Americans, thereby contributing to the building of a national character whose “summit of worth” consists of what Allen calls “independence in character and circumstance.”
The American Founding: Limited Government
People of character exercising their natural rights and freely building communities of good citizens is the very definition of a uniquely American freedom, a freedom that does not need more than the limited government necessary to protect such pre-existing natural rights.
In contrast, today’s Progressive revolution has created an entirely different societal dynamic.
Today’s Progressive Revolution: Relativism in a Naked Public Square
Relativism’s rule across American society means all subjective feelings are deemed valid and, when combined with political correctness and multiculturalism, conversations about “justice, rights, and moral common sense” have become well nigh impossible.
Lost in this assertion that there are no universal moral truths is the irony, described best by William Voegeli, that “no one is really ’value-neutral’ with respect to his own values” as he adds that relativists “always dismiss other people’s beliefs, but spare their own moral preferences from their doctrine’s scoffing” which then leads to there being “no reasons to choose the standards of the wise and good over those of the deranged and cruel.” This is crazy, but consistent with what we see building throughout our society. Roger Scruton offers the antidote: “A writer who says that there are no truths, or that all truth is ‘merely relative,’ is asking you not to believe him. So don’t.”
Freedom untethered from moral truth risks self-destruction. For if there is only your truth and my truth and neither one of us recognizes a transcendent moral standard by which to settle our differences, then either you will impose your power on me or I will impose my power on you . . . Freedom uncoupled from truth . . . leads to chaos and thence to new forms of tyranny.
Such nihilistic power plays have become the new social currency and anyone who disagrees is labeled intolerant and in need of re-education. If this persists, it will not end well as no society has ever survived after basing its existence on relativism.
Today’s Progressive Revolution: Society Dominated by a Powerful Elite
As relativism exerts greater control, all forms of religious faith must become privatized and be taken out of the public square, continuing the destruction of our Western Civilization’s cultural heritage dating back to Athens, Jerusalem and Rome. We see this with today’s attacks on religious liberty and the exercise of rights of conscience. These occur because, as Richard John Neuhaus reminds us, the “vacuum will be filled by the agent left in control of the public square, the state . . . In this manner, a perverse notion of the disestablishment of religion leads to the establishment of the state as church” where the state “displace[s] religion as the generator and bearer of values . . . the public square has only two actors in it—the state and the individual” where “religion as a mediating structure . . . is no longer available as a countervailing force to the ambitions of the state,” regardless of whether the state is defined in national or globalist terms.
As a result, we have gone backwards, becoming increasingly a regime based on the interest-of-the-stronger, about which the Greek historian Thucydides said: “Questions of justice arise only between equals. As for the rest, the strong do what they will. The weak suffer what they must.” And the Progressives think this is progress!
Today’s Progressive Revolution: Atrophied Culture
Instead of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s famous words where he wished his children to be judged by the content of their character instead of the color of their skin, we now hear group blaming derived from identity politics and the resulting cry for “social justice,” which we increasingly see for what it is, a demand for coercive power plays by the state, as special interests seek favors or to play god.
With an increasingly unchallenged, centralized, and rules-based bureaucratic state run for the benefit of elites, mediating institutions and voluntary associations wither away. Hidden law is destroyed, replaced by the rule of a remote, unelected, nameless, faceless, and unaccountable administrative state that seeks to regulate an ever-increasing span of societal activities. One result of these efforts has been the over-criminalization of ordinary life that enables the state to target anyone, only further tightening the noose around liberty’s neck.
Today’s Progressive Revolution: Individuals as Wards of the State and Political Hubris
The incentives to be charitable to others diminish as citizens become incentivized to relinquish all personal responsibility to get involved with and care for the needy because, after all, the state is deemed to be responsible for that. In accepting that worldview, we have passively agreed that a distant bureaucrat can be a better judge than us of how to meet our neighbors’ needs. We know from history that these programs will be ineffective and the costs will only be higher. Soon enough, it gets worse when the recipient of charity begins to feel entitled instead of grateful, eliminating any incentive to modify their behaviors.
Whether the Progressive revolution—having long ago become a form of religious fundamentalism, albeit one without a transcendent power—is viewed through a public choice lens or a Declaration lens, the revolution presumes it can adversely alter economic and behavioral incentives but still achieve better outcomes through centralized state power. Never in history has that approach succeeded but its proponents only argue for more of the same, the very definition of hubris. As Michael Walsh has said, “the Left never stops, they never sleep, they never quit. If you think you’ve beaten them, you haven’t.”
Rediscovering Our Declaration of Independence Heritage
We are in a cultural crisis, as we recently saw in the Progressive reaction to President Trump’s speech in Poland, a situation that cannot begin to resolve itself until after we first conclude a serious public debate that favorably answers the following four questions, building a new societal consensus that rediscovers our Founding heritage and rejects Progressive idolatry.
Question 1: Do we believe our rights come from the Laws of Nature and Nature’s God or from government?
Question 2: Is it individual character formation, based on universal moral truths and the virtues, to create good and free citizens or is it the nihilism of relativism, with its political correctness and multiculturalism relatives?
Question 3: Should voluntary associations and mediating institutions or the state dominate the public square culture?
Question 4: What is the most effective way to dismantle the administrative state, thereby allowing a sovereign people to reassert their natural rights?
Only after a new consensus has been realized can the second part, the hard work of recovery and living differently, begin in earnest. We have a lot to do if we are going to have any chance of reclaiming our uniquely American heritage of liberty and self-government.