At my alma mater, I was privileged to study The Three Pillars of Zen with Huston Smith, a friend of the author, Roshi Philip Kapleau. Kapleau made it clear in his timeless classic that Zen Buddhism has three pillars.
Using the idea of pillars as an analytical tool worked wonders for Kapleau. What if we were to follow his example, and ask what are the pillars of the American idea?
Two pillars come instantly to mind: the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. Even American Progressives would be hard pressed to deny these two are central to the American idea. After all, Progressives have spent more than a century attacking them. They began their project of fundamentally transforming America—that is, putting an end to the founders’ America and replacing it with an all-new Progressive country occupying that part of North America once occupied by the United States—by attacking the principles of the Declaration and setting to work dismantling the Constitution.
If those two founding documents weren’t at the core of the American idea, why would the Progressives bother expending such an enormous effort to get rid of them? Progressives have been willing to pay an astonishing price of destroying American higher education—and much else—in an attempt to reduce these two founding documents to no more than mere curiosities of America’s early history.
Because of what the Progressives have accomplished, a few remarks about the Constitution and the Declaration are in order.
They are not what they once were to us. The words are still there, but the nation that once embodied them has been changed away from them. The federal government we have today in America is not the government limited by the Constitution the founders envisioned. Instead, it is precisely the ever-expanding centralized government the founders tried to prevent. We call it “the federal government” though it is no longer “federal” in the founders’ meaning of the term. The 10th Amendment promised Americans the federal government would be a limited government; the great 10th Amendment is a dead letter today.
To say the government in Washington, D.C. is no longer the government envisioned by Washington and the other founders is to say America no longer uses the Declaration of Independence as its guiding star. After all, the Constitution, great as it is, is properly understood as the founders’ brilliant attempt to design a new form of government according to the principles of the Declaration. To discard the founders’ design is to abandon the founders’ principles.
The Progressives have rejected those principles from the beginning of their effort to transform America. Here is what Woodrow Wilson, the very model of a modern Progressive, thought of the Declaration’s claim that we have unalienable rights:
No doubt a great deal of nonsense has been talked about the inalienable rights of the individual, and a great deal that was mere vague sentiment and pleasing speculation has been put forward as fundamental principle . . .
The influence of Progressive thinking is pervasive. It animates the dominant political party in America, the Democrats. Even more tragically it is all too easy to find alleged conservatives who reject the founders ideas. (I discuss a number of them here.) Perhaps it is fair to say these thinkers “identify” as conservatives as some people identify as members of the opposite sex.
So, because of the damage that has been done by the Progressives, our first two pillars need to be defined a bit more precisely. They are the founders’ Constitution and the founders’ understanding of the Declaration. My book Common Sense Nation is my attempt to present those two pillars once more in the resplendent condition they were in when they were given to us by the founders.
It goes without saying that the American idea cannot stand on two pillars. What is missing? We have so far considered America’s founding principles and the founders’ radically new design for a government by, for, and of the people—but we have not yet considered the founders’ radically new vision of a role for the people.
At the time of the American founding, it was everywhere the same: there were rulers, and those ruled. The founders’ radical claim was that the people are sovereign. In a world where royal sovereigns were the rulers and the people were the ruled, that was more than a wild and crazy idea; it sounded like a contradiction in terms.
We have considered the noble principles of the new government stated beautifully in the Declaration and the Constitution’s brilliant design for how the people will rule. Now we must ask what qualifies the people to be a sovereign people? For guidance, we can turn to that other great American document of 1776, Tom Paine’s Common Sense. The Founders placed their reliance on the common sense of the American people. And the common sense of the American people turned out to provide a more reliable sovereignty than royal prerogative; the deep thinkers who predicted America would fail without a royal sovereign were proven wrong. America’s shining success put royal sovereigns on the road to extinction. Today, with a few exceptions among Islamic countries, kings and emperors no longer rule.
Common sense, then, gives us a third pillar of the American Idea.
Once upon a time in America, three pillars would have been enough. Because the idea of common sense has been under such relentless attack, however, as part of the Progressives’ effort to transform America fundamentally, our understanding of common sense is not as robust as it once was. We must take care to include a dimension of common sense that was once a natural part of that robust understanding but today requires a separate and additional term—moral common sense. Common sense is the human capacity to be rational creatures and moral agents, to know right from wrong, and to deliberate and choose. My book Reclaiming Common Sense is my attempt to present these two pillars in the resplendent condition they once enjoyed in America.
So, America has four pillars, or if common sense is given its full, robust meaning, it makes sense to say that America, like Zen Buddhism, has three pillars. It is interesting to consider Kapleau’s three pillars—teaching, practice, and enlightenment. They seem to apply in an interesting way to what we have been considering. We might think of it this way: the founders’ teaching, the practice of living in America as citizen-sovereigns, and the elevated condition of life that is ours as free citizens living the American Idea.