First Principles

Is Nothing Sacred?

We have a duty to preserve our earthly lives, but not at all costs. This is true both for individuals and for nations. We cannot help but notice the eagerness with which some leftists have embraced the shutdown of churches.

Easter is coming. We are at the conclusion of Lent, a time of sacrifice and spiritual renewal for Catholics. During Lent, we imitate Jesus’ fasting in the desert. Our small self-denial is rightly understood not as an exercise in masochism, but as a form of spiritual food. Sadly, we cannot go to Mass and celebrate the Resurrection.

The recent coronavirus outbreak and related economic consequences have forced all of us to confront privation and uncertainty, even our own mortality. Not merely a voluntary sacrifice, we are reminded how earthly life is uncertain, contingent, and often filled with suffering. It always ends in an earthly death. For many, this crisis has led to an increased reliance upon their faith.

Most churches, including my own diocese, have suspended services and encouraged believers to follow online and engage in telephonic outreach to priests and other ministries. This is prudent. Religious services, which always entail the close proximity of worshipers, undoubtedly create risks to the health of congregants.

Some churches have not, including Rodney Howard Browne’s “The River” Church in Tampa, Florida. He was arrested last week by our sheriff for violating a statewide quarantine order. This has been a disturbing development for believers. Florida’s quarantine order shuttered most businesses, except so-called essential businesses like the police, sanitation workers, grocery stories, Uber Eats, and even Lowe’s.

While I am not sure the pastor’s decision was the right one, it wasn’t obviously a wrong one, either. Religious life is not merely important, but essential for believers. It is not entertainment—at least it is not supposed to be—but ideally it is the pinnacle of the various subordinate duties people have to their families, employers, communities, and country.

It is certainly more important than Lowe’s.

Respect for Religious Freedom Is a Core American Value

Within living memory, there used to be a shared understanding among Americans that religion was an elevated form of community with unique, non-negotiable obligations. It wasn’t just a club, like the Kiwanis or the Elks, nor was it on the same level as commerce. It was privileged.

It was sacred.

While under our constitutional structure no particular denomination is privileged, religion generally is. It is, after all, protected in the First Amendment. It has also been protected historically in other ways that go beyond mere constitutional protection.

Blue Laws encouraged respect for the Sabbath and limited the ability of commerce to invade it. Tax exemptions and the accommodation of conscientious objectors limited the demands of citizenship for members of dissenting sects. Even the familiar “right to remain silent” has religious roots; specifically, the concern that forced testimony would encourage perjury under oath, endangering the accused’s soul with the sin of blasphemy.

The government’s various powers are ultimately the power to destroy. This is well known in other contexts. This is the reason government cannot impose “prior restraints” upon speech, nor can the government differentiate between publications with tax policy.

Religious people get touchy when the government orders them around. Everyone does, of course. Businesses gripe about regulations. Bikers hate helmet laws. But there is not a constitutional right to operate a restaurant or feel the wind in your hair on a Harley.

These choices, like most things, are subject to taxes and regulations under the rubric of the state’s extensive “police power.” By contrast, those things protected as fundamental rights—free speech, freedom of religion, the right to bear arms—are supposed to be sacrosanct and immune from ordinary exercises of state police power.

Because of the Supreme Court, Religion Is Now Just Another Club 

Traditionally, religion’s privileged status prevailed, even when it conflicted with the police power. In the 1963 Sherbert v. Verner decision, the U.S. Supreme Court held that laws in conflict with religious beliefs had to meet the stringent test of being “narrowly tailored” to serve a “compelling interest.” In other words, even a neutral law had to give way in most cases when it conflicted with sincere religious beliefs.

The Supreme Court reversed itself in 1992 in Employment Division v. Smith, colloquially known as the “peyote case.” This decision held that mere impingement on religion was not an obstacle to the enforcement of a neutral law that invaded sincere religious belief, so long as the law had a rational basis—the lowest form of judicial scrutiny.

While supporters of the specific religious practice at issue in Smith are few and far between, Congress recoiled at the prospect of religious institutions being treated no better than college fraternities and passed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) in 1993 in an attempt to reverse the Court.

That response might as well have taken place 100 years ago. In the 28 years since RFRA became law, it has become fashionable to mock religion, with many activists now piling on and demanding the application of gay rights laws against believers, including a humble Denver bakery, along with casual suggestions that the government should keep churches shut for a year or more due to a virus with a roughly 1 percent mortality rate.

The Left’s Hostility to Christians Is Manifest

Hostility to religious exemptions for shutdown orders has been amplified by the general climate of fear about the coronavirus. Florida’s Governor Ron DeSantis recently classified religious gatherings as “essential businesses,” otherwise exempt from the state’s far-reaching lockdown orders.

The Left went bonkers.

Representative Donna Shalala, a Democrat from Miami, said the state’s exemption for religious services is “inappropriate and scary.”

Slate writer Mark Stern wrote, “It is NOT GOOD to carve out religious services from stay-at-home orders. We know COVID-19 will spread during worship; it does not make exceptions for religious exercise. DeSantis should’ve stood behind the Tampa state attorney and halted all congregations, religious or not.”

Rachel Laser, president of Americans United for Separation of Church and State, sent a letter to the Michigan governor calling similar exemptions “dangerous” and “unconstitutional.”

This is strong language. You hardly hear anyone complaining like this about convenience stores, Lowe’s, or Uber Eats being open. Surely, Amazon warehouses and their multiple workers could lead to the transmission of coronavirus. I presume the Holy Spirit doesn’t swoop in to give Walgreens singular protection!

More important, there is no evidence that all these shutdowns and restrictions actually work. For being so anti-religion, the Left is remarkably credulous. The real faith at work here is their faith in the “experts.” Unfortunately, the experts’ models have proven—as with global warming—unable to make useful predictions.

Something else is going on here.

The Left Hates and Also Fails to Understand Religious Belief

Obviously, commerce, friendship, political and social gatherings, concerts, and other aspects of life restrained by the shutdown orders are important things. These are the things that give life meaning and purpose and zest. I do not believe they should be treated as cavalierly as the public health experts have treated them. I am concerned the cure is worse than the disease.

But even these important things are only devoted to our earthly life and purposes. If we are worried about the potential disaster of an earthly death, how much larger does eternity loom?

This, of course, is a religious way of thinking. I am a religious person and a believing Catholic. It’s quite natural for me to think this way, just as it is quite natural for the country’s other religious Christians and non-Christians to think this way, too. In other words, we know that earthly life is relevant and immediate, but it is not everything. It is of lesser importance to believers than our supernatural and eternal life.

The prospect of eternal consequences, genuinely believed, can motivate men to do great and terrible things. It is what motivated Mother Teresa to devote her life to the poor, and for Catholic Saint Maximillian Kolbe to sacrifice his life at Auschwitz. But it’s also the root of the suicidal determination of the 9/11 hijackers.

In order to reduce friction between earthly power and the uncompromising nature of religious belief, most of the West has protected religious freedom since the age of religious wars. This was an important component of the American constitutional system. We know from that era of European religious violence—the time when most of America’s early settlers fled Europe—that failing to carve out this protection can yield total resistance and total violence on both sides. The Founders wisely enshrined religious toleration as the foundation of social peace.

But knowledge of the foundations of that compromise, along with a rudimentary knowledge of and respect for religious beliefs, is now absent from our ruling class. They are confused by religion at best, and deem it worthy of mockery and contempt at their worst. They simply do not comprehend how anyone might deem religion essential, and they want the state to show religious believers, especially Christians, who’s the boss.

Such an approach will not end well. For believers, the consequences are higher than the temporary and immediate risk of the loss of life from this plague. After all, Christianity has always had martyrs, and martyrdom is a demand of the faith when the state demands apostasy. This is not ancient history; the 20th century was the greatest age of Christian martyrdom. 

In addition to the prospect of violent resistance and violent oppression, the state’s intrusion upon religious gatherings in the name of public safety will be the loss of a way of life. Like organized religion, a nation has a reality that stretches from before we are born and will, we all hope, flourish long after we are gone. In other words, it has a value that transcends any of our earthly lives. It has been deemed worthy many times over for the sacrifice of earthly life by our patriots, soldiers, and other national heroes. But we will not be the same nation if we abandon the American commitment to religious freedom.

Jesus was condemned to death this week nearly 2,000 years ago. But he conquered death, and so can we . . . with faith. We have a duty to preserve our earthly lives, but not at all costs. This is true both for individuals and for nations. As the Gospel of Mark reminds us, “For what shall it profit a man, if he gain the whole world, and suffer the loss of his soul?”

First Principles

Tocqueville’s Lessons in a Time of Pandemic

As the crisis continues, and in the aftermath, the activity of the citizens that Alexis de Tocqueville described so well in his book must always include assessing how well their local and state governments have prepared for ordinary and extraordinary events.

The immediate challenge of COVID-19 has been cast as an examination of how individual Americans will fare should they be exposed to the virus. The effort to arrest the spread of the virus has brought unprecedented changes in the daily routines of all Americans. The limitation of activity is apparent when one walks outside. There is a marked silence, regardless of the time of day, almost eerie, that gives one pause.

The check on movement is accompanied by images of field hospitals and graphs showing curves and spreads displayed across news sites. While many are changing their daily routines to comply with the requirements of staying at home and practicing social distancing, a broader concern is the effect on our American democratic foundation.

Alexis de Tocqueville devotes a chapter of his great work, Democracy in America, to discussing the advantages of American democracy. Each of the five parts in the chapter “What Are the Real Advantages That American Society Gains from the Government of Democracy?” encourages thoughtful reflection. The last part, “Activity That Reigns in All Parts of the Political Body in the United States; Influence That It Exercises on Society,” prompts us to think about both the negative and positive effects that the country is facing with respect to halting the exchange between people and their movement.

The beneficial effects of the activity of a people is described by Tocqueville in his chapter on the advantages of democracy. He contrasts the activity in a democracy and the lack of it in a country that is not free. The activity of a people in a free country leads to greater riches and prosperity and pervades the whole. “It is no longer a portion of the people that sets out to improve the state of society; the whole people take charge of this concern.”

In addition to the bettering of one’s condition, happiness is also a result of this activity. Tocqueville contrasts inhabitants of other countries who begrudge time lost to dealing with common interests with the American who revels in it. “From the moment when the American would be reduced to attending only to his own affairs, half of his existence would be taken away from him; he would feel an immense emptiness in his days, and he would become unbelievably unhappy.” During the stay-at-home mandate, the current offers of free online entertainment may suffice for some, but they cannot long sustain those who recognize them for the mere pastimes that they are.

The economic benefits are but one result of the activity that Tocqueville describes. Political activity also reigns, as he witnessed during his nine months of travel in America. He paints a vivid picture.

Scarcely have you landed on American soil than you find yourself in the middle of a sort of tumult; a confused clamor arises on all sides; a thousand voices reach your ear at the same time; each one expresses various social needs. Around you, everything stirs: here, the people of a neighborhood have gathered to know if a church should be built; there, some are working on choosing a representative; farther along, the deputies of a district go as fast as they can to the city, in order to see to certain local improvements; in another place, it is the farmers of the village who abandon their fields to go to discuss the plan of a road or of a school.

With no firm pronouncements on when the restrictions on activities and movements will end, there is increasing debate about the costs of isolation from the standpoint of mental health, economic consequences, and, if we take Tocqueville seriously, the cost to our social and political well-being. The negatives readily come to mind, but Americans may reap benefits from the dramatic events that the nation is experiencing if they reflect upon and recapture the different roles that governments play and the responsibilities of the citizenry.

When the U.S. Constitution was drafted, it included an enumeration of powers that limited the size and scope of the new national government. The local and state governments that had been established long before had specific grants of authority from the people.

The application of the concept of federalism to this new design of government in America was intended to maintain these separate entities while each fulfilled its specific duties and responsibilities. The intention was to work cooperatively but within designated spheres.

America has lost this clear delineation of the true responsibilities of a national government (what Americans call the federal government). The current crisis demonstrates that local and state governments must focus on the needs of their citizens because they can more readily know and address them. The federal government must tend to those needs that are national in nature.

The current pandemic is gripping the nation, and the federal government is performing the role of coordinating efforts to protect the health and well-being of the citizenry, as it should. As the crisis continues, and in the aftermath, the activity of the citizens that Tocqueville witnessed in the 1830s and described so well in his book must always include assessing how well their local and state governments have prepared for ordinary and extraordinary events.

The success of a democratic republic relies on engaged citizens who tend to their own communities and insist that state and local government officials closest to the people be mindful of why they were elected to office.

First Principles

Experts and Statesmen in the Time of Coronavirus

The war against COVID-19 puts the choice between expertise and common sense front and center. Are we to be ruled by statesmen or experts?

The Chinese virus is a clarifying agent. Among other things, one can see the choice between republican and progressive government—the rule of the people on the one hand and the rule of experts on the other. President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden perfectly embody this choice in response to the crisis.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the way the two men approach the expert advice of Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease and member of Trump’s COVID-19 Task Force.

Trump is adamant that he will listen to and consider what Fauci has to say, but in the end he, as the elected president, will determine the right course of action. For Trump, politics is the overarching art: immunology and epidemiology are subordinate sciences. Biden promises the opposite, saying “If I’m elected president, I will always lead the way with science. I will listen to the experts and heed their advice. I will do the opposite of what we’re seeing Donald Trump do every day.”

Who Rules? 

This is the choice before us. Are we to be ruled by experts as if they are our guardians simply because they might be smarter than us in specific fields, or are we to rule ourselves?

The supposed legitimacy of the former approach comes from fear. We are told the world is too complex. We need the experts to guide us, protect us, and save us. We need an elite guardian class to rule over us because we cannot make it on our own. But this cowardice makes us nothing more than slaves, not citizens.

The legitimacy of self-rule springs from our love of justice and our virtue. In our republican system, it requires a commitment to the truth that all men are created equal, and to the proposition that the just powers of government are derived by consent. It requires courage, moderation, friendship, and grace. It is these virtues that allow us to live free, apart from the “chains of despotism” as Madison says in Federalist 55.

The rule of expertise is not politics rightly understood; it is management. There is no deliberation involved. Instead, there is only bureaucracy, administration, and a religious—actually, cultish—devotion to what we now call science.

The rule of the people allows for statesmanship and liberty. Though statesmen might not always be “at the helm,” we the people, as the safeguard of our own liberty, can elect representatives with wisdom and prudence or pay the price when we don’t. We evaluate how well they do, discuss, debate, and then decide who should govern through elections.

Expertise Is Not Prudence 

The rule of expertise, while on the surface promising intelligent leadership, is incapable of prudent government. The rule of expertise leads to incompetence, strife, and corruption instead of scientific precision and impartiality.

This is because the rule of expertise is built on a weak foundation. People’s faith in “science” is often misplaced. Most of what we call science is really just scientism—the foolish belief that men cease to be men when they put on white lab coats and begin charting numbers and lines. Scientism overstates what men can actually know. Moreover, the rule of expertise stands or falls on the belief that men are basically good and scientists are immune to the unjust desire to rule for their own benefit.

Admittedly, it is hard to convince anyone in the grips of this false religion that there is more to governance than the opinions of (necessarily) flawed experts. The warm embrace of the dream world provides great comfort that somehow the right human beings are in control. Most people will fight to stay asleep in the cave of shadows, insisting that they know the truth.

Regardless, the vast majority of “experts” are useless academics and professional bureaucrats. Their fields of study are full of jargon and credentials that lead to conformity and groupthink. Experts learn early that challenging the authorities in one’s field is risky for one’s career. Whatever thinking is involved quickly devolves into vague, abstract theorizing about ideas that are unable to be proven or disproven and thus do not threaten the ideas of one’s peers or superiors.

Often, what is supposed to be science ends up being just another form of cronyism, and what we call “expertise” ends up being knowledge of otherwise useless jargon and how to navigate a career field. The government bureaucracy that results is incompetent, often harmful, and tyrannical.

This is not to say there are not very smart men whom we can legitimately call experts—men like Dr. Fauci. But even at their best, these experts are incapable of prudence. Their knowledge is specific and precise, limiting their ability to consider circumstances broadly. Their skillset is often highly technical, built on years of experience and careful adherence to established protocols, limiting their ability to consider new solutions. And, besides, they typically confront only one problem a nation faces, not the full spectrum of the problems we must face.

In short, science and expertise can be wonderful things that help us to know what is, but they cannot answer the question of what we ought to do. This is the difference between science and politics. One is about knowing; the other is about acting. Expertise and science are subordinate to the art of politics. Experts make terrible rulers.

Prudence and Common Sense 

Those who don’t presume to be experts, on the other hand, tend to be more attuned to actual circumstances. Whereas experts often enjoy the comfort of abstract thinking, regular people are more immediately connected to the harsh realities of life and the consequences of their decisions. A miscalculation might be professionally embarrassing for an expert, if anyone even notices. In real life, a miscalculation hurts one’s business or family.

Likewise, the normal man is often better equipped to consider the highest things. Less enamored of his own knowledge of or power over the world, he tends to rely more on pre-scientific knowledge, or common sense. He tends to be more aware of what he doesn’t actually know, more reliant on conscience, and to have more faith in the divine. In short, normal people tend to be comfortable looking to the heavens for help and guidance.

The American regime is founded on the idea that common citizens with common sense can achieve sensible politics. This can lead to a sort of local statesmanship, often manifested in family, small businesses, and peaceful communities, where people live with the consequences of their actions. Occasionally it leads to statesmanship proper: the ability to look after the wellbeing of the whole nation with prudence, wisdom, and faith.

The Present Moment 

If you listen carefully to the White House press conferences on the coronavirus pandemic, you will notice that Trump emphasizes the newness of the problem, the complexity of the circumstances, common sense, community, and action. Expertise has a place, but it is and must remain in a subordinate role. He sees the inherent connection between Easter and getting through this and doesn’t shy away from prayer. His critics, on the other hand, whine about the need to listen to expertise and science, as if these are gods who will save us if we just submit to them.

It is not by happenstance that the choice between republican and progressive government aligns with a choice between a party of people who worship God, promote families, seek to protect babies, care about local business, and respect science in its place, and a party of people who worship “science,” eschew religion, promote abortion, are cosmopolitan, and sneer at traditional families. It should not surprise anyone that in this crisis one party wants local control with federal support and one party wants local submission to federal control. One is the party of the people; one is the party of scientism.

The war against COVID-19 puts the choice between expertise and common sense front and center. Are we to be ruled by statesmen or experts?

As we emerge from this crisis, I predict that we will find the battle lines between the two camps have only hardened and the stakes are higher than ever. But at least things will be clear.

First Principles

Nurturing Common Sense in A Time of Crisis

We urgently need this common sense in our corporations, in Congress, and in the White House if we are to succeed as a nation, particularly in this time of crisis.

The 2020 election will be all about common sense.

That is important because of the coronavirus pandemic and the need to as the Brits put it, Keep Calm and Carry On.” But it’s also important because one candidate embodies sound, prudent action and the other has no vision and suffers from dementia, simply wanting to return to misplaced multilateralism, multiculturalism, and rule by multinational-transnational corporations and their globalist financiers.

Since common sense is an innate ability, found in all persons to varying degrees, it can be nurtured and developed. The American public knows this. Common sense is inborn in everyone. But it can also be honed, shaped, and learned when it has been usurped by bad habits.

As a form of native intelligence, common sense is then akin to a skill that can be perfected over time and habituated. Like all exercise, it must be practiced in order to perfect and to maintain its qualities. If you don’t employ common sense it can dwindle over time and become ever more elusive. Nurturing common sense in business, but also in politics, is therefore paramount. Common sense equates with prudence—a core tenet of conservative values.

Perhaps we need to take a much more radical approach to common sense—considering the role of life experience, surviving tough conditions, problem-solving that lasts a lifetime, and no-nonsense realism. We are learning this the hard way. After all, this is the kind of intelligence found in people who are put into situations where they need to solve problems.

People who practice common sense also seek social connectivity. Knowing who to leverage and from whom one can learn—and intuitively knowing who is good at what they do—matters. Business leaders and political leaders both have this knack but too rarely use it. Those who do excel. Our president has uncommon, common sense.

As we approach the 2020 election, perhaps we need to assess the options based more on characteristics of common sense than on questions surrounding ideology, identity politics, or party. What would this mean in times of crisis?

Thoughtfulness is a core part of common sense—always asking questions such as “what if?” “is that really true?” and “how do you know that?” are critical. Common sense is the ability to see a complex world in simple terms and then communicate what you see to others to get them convinced of a defined vision or a sound solution.

There are, I think, 15 elements that go into common sense, as we have defined it. Working on all of the elements is necessary and, in some sense, also is never fully complete. Common sense should be considered a work in progress, as well as a skill set. President Trump surely is trying to base his notion of governing around such an understanding of common sense. What works is styled as “practical realism.” It is not overtly ideological but rooted in reality—a conservative understanding of practice and performance, yielding results.

A program to develop each element and then combine them together will make any leader, indeed, any person, more commonsensical in business, politics, or in any other domain. We define each element below and give an example that will help you refine your own common sense.

Combined, the whole list of elements makes for consistent and comprehensive common sense acumen. These elements are brought together in organizations, implemented, trained, and practiced by leaders at every level. In government the same is true. When we vote this year, we should think about common sense as a guiding set of principles informed by these abilities.

They include:


Sensemaking gives us a cognitive edge to deal with the ambiguity that surrounds us. This entails a process of creating awareness and understanding in situations of complexity and uncertainty in order to make sound decisions that transcend time and space and last beyond the specific moment. An example would be futures thinking, proximity, and theories or strategies that anticipate and plan around hard decisions and crises.


Wisdom is the quality of having experience, knowledge, and good judgment—in other words – of being wise. It leads to an optimism that believes problems can be solved and to a sense of calm in hard circumstances. By seeing the big picture, a wise person or leader can get a sense of proportion and introspection. Examples include challenging the status quo, balancing self-interest and the common good, and trying to understand without judging. Wisdom focuses on purpose not immediate gratification or pleasure.


Observation is the action and process of closely viewing or monitoring a thing or person(s). This involves an active acquisition of information and can employ all the senses. Collected data in science is the basis for discovery. An example would be the astronomer gazing for a lifetime into interstellar galaxies to decipher the new, novel, and unique patterns of recognition.


Memorization is simply to learn something so well that you can remember it (perfectly). Some examples are a poem, an actor’s lines, a political speech, or a verse from scripture.


Curiosity means an eagerness to know and learn. It arouses the area of the brain that is excitable, speculative, and centers on the unusual, odd, or inexplicable. The scientists landing the Mars Rover were especially curious about the surface they knew little about.


Creativity is a phenomenon whereby something new and valuable is formed. It can be a physical object or an intangible idea. Innovation through such insights allows us to move ahead. Creativity has been associated with conducive environments, collaboration, serendipity, and even spiritual muses. An example would be the genius of artistic expression, mathematical breakthroughs, and the development of new life or energy-saving devices.


Focus is a cognitive process selectively concentrating on one aspect of the environment, while ignoring all others. In science, focus has to do with computing. In optics, it is the image point where light rays originate. An example of focus would be narrowing studying to a defined subject or fixing the mind in order to solve a single problem.


Verbalization is the act of saying something out loud. As the spoken expression of thoughts and ideas in words, it allows other human beings to emote feelings about thoughts, while communicating with others. By developing content imagery, we can create an image from language to promote higher-level thinking. This verbal ability improves reading, listening, memory, vocabulary, writing and critical thinking. An example is giving a speech to a small or large audience that forces the speaker to communicate by verbalizing his or her most cogent thoughts and ideas.

Spatial alignment

Spatial ability is the awareness of oneself in space. This organizational knowledge of objects in relation to self in a given space provides for alignment and positioning. This makes understanding the relationship of and between objects knowable in changing circumstances and placements. Context, geography, and ubiquity in cartography constitute such awareness. An example would be to know where in the world you find yourself, culturally, economically, and geographically, so that you can position yourself, your firm, or your country.

Social skill

Social skills are any skills that facilitate interaction and communication with others. These rules and relations are communicated in both verbal and nonverbal forms. The process of learning this set of skills is called socialization. Think by way of example, of the constant messages, thoughts, and feelings that we send to others. Connecting with others involves empathy, listening, rapport, self-disclosure, and contact.


Cleverness is an ability to understand and know quickly and easily. This intelligence by design is characterized by brightness and mental agility. By exhibiting ingenuity or imagination in an artful way one is found to be clever or even shrewd. As an example, his peers called Darwin most clever for his findings on evolutionary dynamics.


Organization is an entity or practice of bringing multiple people, institutions, associations, or groups together to achieve a common goal. Organization comes in many sizes, types, structures, and ecologies—both formal and informal. Leadership is the authority position in an organization.  An example is a governmental or nongovernmental authority or agency set out to perform a given task or service on a mission.

Complexity reduction

Complexity reduction helps people and organizations simplify strategy, products, processes, and information technology. More complication negatively affects operating models, leading to slow growth, bureaucratization, higher costs, and poorer returns. Streamlining, for example, allows for more direct decision making to serve core customers or citizens better.


Intuition is the ability to understand a thing instinctively, without the need for conscious reasoning. Such insight, inkling, or hunches allow for direct perception of truth or fact, independent of verification processes or immediate apprehension. Born out of past experiences, these “gut feelings” are not magic but based in past deep knowledge and memory. An example is the perception of a person or a thing giving value or ascribing risk on first premonition.


Inspiration is a thing or feeling that makes someone want to do something or creates a force or influence that inspires action. People, places, experiences all can inspire. As illustration, religion, art, film, literature, music, and dramatic speeches, are all potential sources of true inspiration.

Uniting all these elements is the essence of common sense—something leaders learn and exhibit over a lifetime. We urgently need this common sense in our corporations, in Congress, and in the White House if we are to succeed as a nation, particularly in this time of crisis.


A political cartoon showing South Carolina Representative Preston Brooks beating abolitionist and Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner in the Senate chamber, after Brooks accused Sumner of insulting his uncle, Senator Andrew Butler, in an anti-slavery speech.
First Principles

This article first appeared in the Providence Journal.

Fellow Citizens No Longer?

If we believe that our opponents are not just wrong, but evil, violence against them becomes an acceptable response.

On May 22, 1856, Representative Preston Brooks of South Carolina entered the Senate chamber and proceeded to beat Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts nearly to death with a cane. Brooks’ attack was prompted by Sumner’s earlier “Crime Against Kansas” speech in which he denounced the “slave power” and verbally attacked Brooks’ cousin, Senator Andrew Butler of South Carolina, for his “chivalrous” embrace of “the harlot, slavery.”

The incident was just one more example of the polarization that afflicted the country, which would culminate five years later in civil war. The fact was that Northerners and Southerners had stopped viewing each other as fellow citizens, now regarding their opponents as not simply wrong but evil.

Have we reached such a point today? America is again severely polarized and our language all-too-often intemperate. Indeed, some speak of a “cold civil war,” an apt description of today’s social and political environment. But have we reached the point where intemperate speech is translated into violence?

Just ask Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.) who in June 2017 was the victim of a politically inspired attack reminiscent of Brooks’ assault against Sumner. Or the victims of the ludicrously misnamed “Antifa” (anti-fascist) thugs or white supremacists who have taken their fight to the streets.

Many blame Donald Trump for today’s incivility and intemperate speech, but these problems predate his presidency. Indeed, Trump’s election may be seen as a reaction against the intemperate contempt that some Americans, especially our elites, show for other Americans who do not share their own political views.

The source of the problem lies in a dangerous virus that threatens the American body politic: not the COVID-19 but the Gramscian cultural Marxism that has executed a “long march” through American institutions, especially the academy, resulting in the emergence of identity politics, which has replaced citizenship with tribalism.

Too many Americans now see themselves not as citizens but as members of tribes based on race, sex, or sexual identity, vying with each other to claim victimhood. “Mirror, mirror on the wall. Who is the most oppressed of all?”

Trump’s election can be seen as a reaction by normal Americans against identity politics run rampant. But in response, Trump’s opponents paint his supporters as at best, nose-breathing, knuckle-dragging bumpkins and at worst, irredeemable racists.

While Trump has not hesitated to mercilessly mock his political opponents, to my knowledge he has not attacked voters. Contrast this with the behavior of liberal elites.

Who can forget the recent CNN panel with Don Lemon and guests mocking Trump supporters as hopelessly ignorant rubes? Or Joe Biden’s propensity for verbally attacking voters who have confronted him on the campaign trail? All of this is just a continuation of Hillary Clinton’s description of Trump supporters as “deplorables.”

The problem with a war of words is that it can lead to violence. As the Scalise shooting and Antifa street violence illustrate, if we believe that our opponents are not just wrong, but evil, violence against them is an acceptable response.

Intemperate language inflames the passions, the enemy of a republican government. Abraham Lincoln confronted the issue in his 1842 address to the Springfield Washington Temperance Society. Although the speech focuses ostensibly on temperance regarding liquor, it is really about temperance or moderation in speech, the manner in which citizens go about persuading one another on a given social or political issue.

“When the conduct of men is designed to be influenced, persuasion, kind, unassuming persuasion, should ever be adopted. It is an old and a true maxim, that a ‘drop of honey catches more flies than a gallon of gall.’”

The central teaching of Lincoln’s speech applied not only to alcohol but to the intemperate rhetoric that characterized the slavery question. As was the case in the antebellum period, viewing each other as enemies rather than fellow citizens is a recipe for national ruin.

First Principles

The Real Goals of ‘The 1619 Project’

Teaching young people they have no country, that there is neither God nor justice, but only their own anger to right wrongs leads not to civilized self-rule but to fanaticism and self-destruction.

From Frederick Douglass to Martin Luther King Jr., many Americans have tried to bridge America’s racial divide. America’s newspaper of record believes it has discovered a new way.

No longer preaching faith in the Constitution or civic brotherhood, the New York Times hopes that—by creating enough hatred for the nation’s founding, its ideals, and for America’s majority group—justice and harmony will somehow emerge. This, anyway, is the idea behind its “1619 Project.”

Its lead essay, written by activist Nicole Hannah-Jones, falsifies important parts of American history with a view to engineering this new approach. While it has been roundly debunked by a chorus of renowned academics for gross factual and thematic inaccuracies, its most outlandish claim is that the American Revolution was fought to protect slavery. The preeminent historian of the American Revolution, Gordon Wood, points out that he does not know “of any colonist who said that they wanted independence in order to preserve their slaves.” Nor does anyone else. There is no historical record.

After months of embarrassing criticism, the Times finally issued a non-apology apology, which it comically calls an “Update.” What looks like a redaction is really a hardening of their original position—for they “still stand behind the basic point.”

Had the Times simply admitted its many errors, it could have begun to claw back what remains of its reputation for honest journalism. But it will not retract or apologize.

No longer really a newspaper, the Times more and more represents the postmodern age of propaganda; its goals of moral and political transformation, distinct from honest reporting, are barely hidden. And the 1619 Project seems to have at least three such goals.

Get Them When They’re Young

For at least a generation, many colleges and universities have taught students that America fundamentally is a white supremacist regime in need of deconstruction. By offering an accompanying school curricula, the 1619 Project explicitly targets middle- and high-schoolers, so far largely untouched by this propaganda. But since the 1619 Project’s publication last August, tens of thousands of students in all 50 states have been taught parts of its curriculum.

Last month, the administrators of Buffalo Public Schools announced their district will “infuse 1619 Project resources into the mainstream English and Social Studies . . . at grades 7-12.” Montgomery County, Maryland, and Chicago Public Schools have followed. Others will join them soon.

The overriding lesson is clear: young people must learn to despise their nation—its Constitution, ideals, economic system, and its Founders. They must resent and reject their past; possess an aggressive, contemptuous, and disobedient attitude toward the present; and strive forcefully to create a triumphant future where the enemies of old are punished, and the innocent finally rule. Teaching young people that they have no country, that there is neither God nor justice, but only their own anger to right wrongs leads not to civilized self-rule, but to fanaticism and self-destruction.

Hannah-Jones has spoken openly about the project’s second goal: “When my editor asks me, like, what’s your ultimate goal for the project, my ultimate goal is that there’ll be a reparations bill passed.”

In other words, as Americans learn to despise their country and their fellow citizens, they should demand a moral buyout, where moral debts are settled in cash. Of course, remaining unanswered is what will happen when neither equality nor moral wholeness emerges as a result of cash transfers?

Identity Politics Über Alles

But the real goal of the project, as Hannah-Jones explains, is to get “white people to give up whiteness.” This statement appears opaque at first, but follows the unmistakable logic of identity politics. Getting rid of “whiteness” means that whites must stop thinking of themselves as a group. To accomplish this, they must learn (or be compelled) to practice unreflective deference to the morally innocent—the marginalized. This means #believingher without facts, or taking the victim’s self-styled narrative (like the 1619 Project) as sacred and beyond rational scrutiny. As “whiteness” dissolves, however, all other marginalized groups must adhere even more strongly to their own group identities.

Since this final goal will surely require more than just propaganda, Hannah-Jones settles for reparations as a second-best arrangement. Obtaining reparations, after all, is “more realistic than, like, can we get white Americans to stop being white,” she notes. Nevertheless, Hannah-Jones seems to think that both reparations and the dissolution of whiteness should be attempted, even if neither is likely to occur.

America’s liberal elites, represented by and educated in the moral fashions of the Times, are remarkably short-sighted. It is not difficult to see that a new spirit of vengeance created by such “journalism” will lead neither to political stability nor to justice. Nor is it difficult to see why mainstream journalism has rightly fallen out of public favor.

First Principles

Tolerance Is Not Enough

While it is important for us to come together and work to address shared concerns and strive to reach shared goals, it is important to remember that cultures and religions have fundamental and occasionally contradictory principles.

Last week, the Hudson Institute and the European Leadership Network hosted a panel discussion on anti-Semitism featuring many high profile religious and interfaith engagement leaders, including Imam Hassen Chalghoumi, a renowned moderate French Muslim who maintains close relations with Jewish organizations in France.

The discussion, which took place in the Hudson Institute’s beautiful Pennsylvania Avenue offices and featured an open bar, predictably featured what some may call platitudes about building bridges between communities and fostering dialogue to fight hate. But while such “platitudes” can seem tired and cliché, it is important to remember that they became clichés, that is, repeated ad nauseam, for a reason—precisely because they contain valuable advice.

Of course, it is easy to talk about building bridges and fostering dialogue. But actually doing it requires hard and dangerous work. It often requires putting yourself in uncomfortable and foreign situations where your audience, at best, is skeptical and at worst, hostile.

Remarkably, most of the panelists at this event had put in the work to convert platitudes into action and actually have built bridges and fostered dialogue.

Most panelists agreed that it was important to focus interfaith conversations on the concrete issues that each community faces and to address particular instances of religious intolerance case by case, while attempting to put them in their broader contexts. It is far easier to work together and find compromise when an issue is narrowly defined and there is a well-defined goal in sight. Most of these panelists spoke from experience.

The imam later showed me pictures he had taken with a wide variety of religious and political leaders from both the Jewish and the Muslim communities. He told me about events he had organized to bring the two communities together to have conversations and to foster friendships. He spoke glowingly of his dream to export love and good relationships through his example and to create strong friendships that would last through difficult times.

The Anti-Defamation League’s Washington director for international relations for highlighted the Bearing Witness program as a particularly successful example of cooperation between prominent Jewish and Catholic organizations to address the history of anti-Semitism, the role of the Church during the Holocaust, recent changes in Catholic teachings, and practical strategies for teaching students about the Holocaust and anti-Semitism.

The other panelists spoke with passion about how they engaged faith leaders in various communities to help reduce sexual exploitation of children, bolster national security, and increase the civic engagement and assimilation of Muslim-American voters—all admirable causes that most, if not all, Americans would and should support.

The event was worthwhile for the exchange of good news about improvements in various areas that most people support. It is good for various community leaders to come together to develop working relationships to address issues where there is already common agreement. But such meetings, however useful, should not be considered successful “interfaith exchanges. These engagements rarely address, let alone resolve, fundamental irreconcilable differences between religions and cultures. They are palliative—not permanent.

Irreconcilable differences are—as the name suggests—irreconcilable. And while tolerance may help various cultures and religions to co-exist, it is naïve to believe that tolerance will be or even can be a cure-all.

France’s ban on full-face veils in public areas (a ban that Imam Chalghoumi said he supports) is a perfect example of an irreconcilable difference that cannot be alleviated by tolerance. The very existence of a law prohibiting any action is a societal claim that the action is intolerable. And the pervasive contentiousness in politics about such actions is ample evidence that people may disagree vehemently about what should and should not be tolerated.

Kumbaya moments arise from shared assumptions and beliefs. One such shared assumption could be that tolerance should be an overarching principle in our civics. But even the most tolerant-minded among us can quickly find themselves advocating South Parkesque death camps of tolerance. Those who preach tolerance are typically intolerant of ideologies that they view as intolerant. And so it becomes a circular argument. We find ourselves unable to be completely agnostic.

Another shared assumption could be that we should mitigate violence at any cost.

Depending on how we decide to implement this principle, however, it is possible we may find ourselves held hostage by whichever group is willing to be the most violent—forced to bend to their will, lest innocent people die. Or we may find ourselves in an increasingly totalitarian state that excuses its threats of violence as necessary to stop violence, as speech and action are increasingly restricted.

Once again, we cannot be agnostic.

In our attempts to be tolerant and to avoid violence, we must remember the things that we value enough to fight and possibly, die for. We must not forget that we viewed Great Britain’s Coercive Acts as intolerable enough to start a revolutionary war and that we viewed the dissolution of the Union as intolerable enough to endure a prolonged and bloody civil war. We cannot be, nor should we be, perfectly tolerant. We should not delude ourselves that every disagreement can be resolved through dialogue.

While it is important for us to come together and work to address shared concerns and strive to reach shared goals, it is important to remember that cultures and religions have fundamental and occasionally contradictory principles. To pretend that they are all compatible and ultimately interchangeable—just with different veneers on the same feel-good message—in addition to being a dangerous self-deception, would be to disrespect the rich intellectual, historical, and spiritual traditions that lie behind them.

First Principles

Socialism Extinguishes the American and Biblical Ideal

The call for socialism, even so-called “democratic socialism,” is an attack on America itself.

Those today pitching democratic socialism as a safe and benign form of socialism are hiding the truth about it. By nature, socialism disregards any aspect of democratic will when it is in conflict with its fixed social agenda and goal of economic leveling. Thus, democratic socialism is an oxymoron, a seductive syntax and play on words.

Socialist candidates running for office do not do so to offer greater liberty, income, opportunity, or greater speech rights, but to institute heavy social engineering aimed toward conformity and sameness. History shows how in the name of “fairness” socialist rulers and bureaucrats disregarded democracy, as well as citizens who do not accept the deprivations needed to bring about the “ideal state.”

Too many among our young assume that socialism will provide the same level of prosperity and easy consumption they currently enjoy, with an added feel-good patina. They see no downside. But current and past real examples prove that prosperity, abundance, and ease of purchase and opportunity, including free speech, dramatically decline with the advent of any form of socialism. Political and religious freedom is inexorably tied to economic freedom. There is no “right” type of socialism or a right time for it or even a right person to oversee it.

Today’s fashionable cultural Marxism puts in jeopardy even more freedoms than that of the economic Marxism of years ago. It attacks and severely diminishes freedom of speech, assembly, and religious freedoms. The intent of indicting “America as racist from top to bottom,” as do many on the Left, is to provide political license to tear down and rebuild America according to socialism’s leveling and confiscatory blueprint.

The Lie of American Socialists

Proponents of socialism, such as Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Representative Alexandra Ocasio Cortez (D-N.Y.), employ a clever formula from the old playbook to disparage free markets while pointing to socialism as the only solution. Spotlighting a person who, for example, didn’t have enough money for insulin or food, they proclaim that capitalism is heartless and inequitable and must immediately be replaced. Instead of exploring remedies already available within our existing capitalist structure, they demand its nullification with a socialist system controlled by them.

We know, however, that between government programs already in existence as well as America’s generous and historic ethic of volunteerism, no one here seeking basic necessities of life would be denied if brought to the attention of authorities or the public. While socialists spotlight and exploit the occasional neglected person, it is only because of capitalism that hundreds of thousands have insulin to begin with and millions have a full array of high-quality medicines, healthcare, goods and services that would not exist for anyone on this earth absent the creativity and ease of production borne of capitalism. Even with robust full employment and more jobs available than those seeking work, socialist candidates dishonestly agitate about a lack of opportunities for employment.

Caring and sensible people do not deny the miracles proffered to millions of people by capitalism because a few people momentarily fall under the radar. Only those seeking power or envious of the wealth and success of others would succumb to such irrationality and seek to destroy that which has been the best source of invention, production, and distribution of goods and services for virtually everyone.

Too many Americans intentionally are being taught in schools that capitalism is something filled with warts and prejudice, while socialism is judged only by its theoretical fantasy. It’s given a pass for its historical failures because it promises something equal and fair because all are said to share equally in what is available, even though that which is available is most often nondescript, erratic, and far from the best.

Beyond the economic dearth and loss of freedom redolent in socialism, once America crosses the Rubicon into socialism, we will negatively change forever—both in national character and in regards to the aspirations and potential of individuals. Those who love what this country is and what it has offered should be alarmed and fight against such a transformation.

Socialism nullifies the individual on the altar of the masses, creating the opposite of the American spirit and essence. America has sparked the embers of individual initiative and eagerness and has summoned us to find and burst forward with the God-given potential within each of us: to become the best we can. This is because, not in spite of, free market capitalism and the Judeo-Christian ethic that supports it. But, those individual sparks are readily snuffed out when people are forced to submit to mass conformity and the artificial equalizing endemic to the Marxist utopia.

The Dreary Future Socialism Promises

America’s national personality has always been optimistic and cheerful, with a philosophy of fair play, and one which generally eschewed envy and bitterness. These positive characteristics are a consequence of liberty and free markets that suffuse society with an aroma of unlimited potential for all, where one’s achievements and place among the stars is not stymied by the success of others. The pie in capitalism is not finite but open for unlimited growth.

All of this, that which makes America exceptional and a magnet for achievers around the world searching for a platform, is in jeopardy with the deployment of socialism that feels irked and threatened by the outstanding success of others, frowns upon unbridled confidence, promotes fear, and speaks ill of the idea of meritocracy that is capitalism’s and America’s foundation.

Meritocracy allows people to feel upbeat and happy, to expect that things will be fair. This comes from knowing their accomplishments and upward mobility depend not on cronyism, but on their own individual hard work, investment and risk, and perseverance. In contrast, socialism is tied to cronyism and depends on connections to the right people in government bureaucracies and, in today’s world of intersectional preference, one’s race or religious views.

Three of the most important American characteristics depend on free markets and the condition of meritocracy: self-reliance, personal responsibility, and independence, all three being attributes favored by the Bible. The Bible equally enshrines liberty: “Proclaim Liberty throughout the Land, to all the inhabitants therein.”

The call for socialism, even so-called “democratic socialism,” is an attack on America itself. No doubt this is intentional, to malign what and who we are so as to upend what has been handed down to us.

Inequality Imposed from Above

The push for socialism cannot be considered a moral endeavor. Capitalism is not incidental to America, but rather the engine and springboard behind Americanism itself. Without it America is not America, nor will its people adhere to that which we proudly call Americanism.

No one in America has become poorer because of capitalism’s opportunities. In contrast, socialism makes people poorer. Capitalism allows people to become wealthier and better off. No one in America became poorer because Bill Gates became very wealthy. On the contrary, because of what he did (as with Ford, Rockefeller, and Carnegie before) society benefited greatly and vast numbers of people found jobs lifting up their standard of living.

The much-heralded “income equality” is not possible unless imposed from above. It is accomplished by dragging entrepreneurs, talented and hardworking people down to unfair levels. Income equality is not a sign of good societal health, for it reflects a society bereft of overachievers and wealth creators, where no industrial breakthroughs are happening. It is not greedy to wish to keep that which we earn, though it is greedy and immoral to demand for yourself as an entitlement, things for which others worked and sacrificed.

Much of the income equality jargon is rooted in envy, envy that has become approved when done in the name of politics and equality. But, envy in any form it takes shape is a cardinal sin, marqueed in the Ten Commandments itself. Furthermore, when the Bible speaks of equality it does not aspire to sameness or wages disassociated from what we produce; it means we are all entitled to equal justice under the law.

Free this and free that is not a noble paradigm. “Six days shall you work” replaced the care-free Garden of Eden. Nor is the culture of entitlement and envy the seed that sprouts inner strength, rather the virus that induces frailty and feebleness, lowers the horizons, and atrophies the heroic struggle.

Thus, socialism is especially detrimental to younger people beginning life’s journey into adulthood and responsibility. Free markets and the life of personal responsibility are demanding, but they provide what the Bible precisely envisioned: liberty and ingenuity for a humanity created in the image of God.

First Principles

A Resource for Religious Liberty

Religious Liberty is the latest in the Ashbrook Center’s series of document collections covering major periods, themes, and institutions in American history and government. 

For anyone interested in the fate of religious freedom in America Religious Liberty: Core Court Cases may be the most important guide to contemporary controversies over religion in the public square a nonspecialist can own. At least the price is right; the text of the 244-page book is also available free on the internet, in keeping with the civic education mission of the publisher, the Ashbrook Center. Nonetheless, many readers will prefer the inexpensive paperback, as they may prefer to spare themselves the cost of replacing a destroyed computer or cell phone, which is likely to come after reading some of the court’s opinions.

By selecting a diverse array of opinions on religion and the law, we at the Ashbrook Center produced a book that encourages non-specialist readers to examine the legal strife surrounding issues such as the constitutionality of “under God” in the pledge of allegiance or a prayer recited before a football game at a public school, whether a law may violate the conscience of a religious business owner, or whether a cross may be erected on public land. 

The need for this collection was striking even before the Supreme Court accepted for argument a case involving a Philadelphia law requiring the inclusion of same-sex couples as adoptive parents and faith-based adoption agencies who have rejected them. Is the law discriminatory against religious institutions or are the religious adoption agencies violating a general law against discrimination?  

How has America come to such a situation, one might ask, where the fate of children is dependent on the constitutionality of laws restricting charitable religious institutions? After all, churches have always been involved in children’s welfare, including adoptions.

Moreover, one might ask, how is that such a law does not restrict the “free exercise” of religion, as the First Amendment to the Constitution states: “Congress [or any government] shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof….” The texts in our book permit the reader to explore how the courts as interpreters of laws and our fundamental law, the Constitution, have come to such conclusions, which seem so contrary to common sense. 

As the principal editor, I did not seek to produce a book of advocacy leading to one conclusion or another but rather to offer the strongest arguments for the various sides of the controversies under scrutiny. Throughout Religious Liberty the modest study guide raises questions that encourage skepticism of all the justices’ arguments. These questions and the selection of opinions pit Supreme Court justice against justice not only within each case but over the decades. 

Contrary to most case books, we recommend that beginning readers start their inquiry from the most recent cases we include, where the controversies are clear and most striking, and then move on to the earlier precedents. To illustrate our approach, we deploy Trinity Lutheran v. Comer (2017), where the court decided, 7-2, that Missouri had violated the First Amendment by failing to permit a religious school, Trinity Lutheran, to compete for a state recycling grant to pave its playground. 

Our abridged version contained only excerpts from Justice Neil Gorsuch’s concurrence and Justice Sandra Sotomayor’s vociferous dissent. Gorsuch argued that Missouri discriminated against the school’s constitutional right to freely exercise its religion and compete for state funds. 

Sotomayor defended Missouri’s power to prevent an unconstitutional establishment of religion. The state, in her view, was trying to prevent “an unlawful fostering of religion.” Because the church school has a religious mission, its “playground surface cannot be confined to secular use….”  

Sotomayor’s puzzling attitude reflects one conclusion of almost 70 years of cases that would confine religious liberty to mere “freedom of worship,” which exists pretty much within the walls of a religious institution. Reflecting the thrust of the most recent cases, Gorsuch was arguing for a far more robust conception of religious free exercise, a pillar of a free society.   

Clashing interpretations of free exercise and establishment have led to this odd confrontation between parts of the First Amendment. Instead of taking prohibition on the establishment of religion to mean no official or established church, and all the implied political, legal, and financial advantages that go along with that, it has come to mean permitting no advantage to religion generally. Religions may not be discriminated against, but they may not, even in general, be given any advantage by government, either. The late Justice Stevens argued that the “religious neutrality” demanded by the establishment clause means neutrality between religion and non-religion. (But has any president failed to say “God bless America”?)

Furthermore, the free exercise clause has come to mean a free exercise preference for minority sects, such as Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Amish, and the animal sacrificing religion of Santeria—all victors in free exercise cases. Might “free exercise” justify these religions’ seeming defiance of general laws involving flag salutes at school, compulsory school attendance, and sanitation? 

In a pivotal case involving a state law against drug use, Employment Division of Oregon v. Smith (1990), Justice Antonin Scalia denied that religious freedom created “a private right to ignore generally applicable laws” and permit drug use for religious observers. Dissenters insisted that his opinion undermined religious liberty, and Congress passed a law, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, limiting the court’s decision. 

So how should we apply these cases from our book to the Philadelphia adoption agency? Oddly, the late Justice Scalia, hero of conservatives, seems to have supplied ammunition to both sides, with his limitation on religious liberty claimants against general laws, on the one hand, and with his emphasis on “history and tradition” in understanding the meaning of religious establishment, on the other, from his powerful dissents in school prayer and religious monuments cases. 

We can see how Sotomayor would adopt Scalia’s Oregon v. Smith argument against religious exemptions from valid general laws and emphasize Supreme Court opinions such as Obergefell v. Hodges (2015) that made same-sex marriage a constitutional right. Her argument that allowed Missouri to prevent religious schools from receiving state funds would also prevent adoption agencies (or bakeries or other businesses, such as Hobby Lobby) from restricting their services based on their religious beliefs. She would use Scalia against the court’s most recent decisions, which have expanded free exercise and restricted the meaning of establishment, as Gorsuch advocates. This is just one element of the arguments that the court is likely to use in deciding the adoption agency case.

Religious Liberty is the latest in the Ashbrook Center’s series of document collections covering major periods, themes, and institutions in American history and government. When complete, the series (45 volumes in all) will be comprehensive, and also authoritative, presenting America’s story in the words of those who wrote it. These primary document works will be invaluable resources for undergraduate and secondary school instructors, as well as for engaged citizens.

First Principles

The 1619 Project and its Critics

Nikole Hannah-Jones ought to step up, be courageous, and debate the historians with whom she disagrees. They’re waiting. All historical claims, particularly those with as wide-reaching and radical ramifications as these, must be discussed and scrutinized by trained scholars.

The 1619 Projectthe New York Times campaign launched in August 2019 to transform American history into a tale of racial oppression and nothing but for the last 400 years—has attracted a great deal of critical attention. Much of this attention has come from professional historians who are nonplussed by the numerous misstatements of fact, the disappearance of key historical events, and the forced march of polemical interpretation that the Times attempted to hang on American history.

The dissenting historians themselves have found various outlets to express their views. Among the most intriguing of these platforms has been the World Socialist Website, which has featured interviews with such luminaries as Gordon Wood, university professor at Brown University, and James McPherson, professor emeritus of U.S. history at Princeton University.

The socialists, upset with the Times for preferring racial grievance to class grievance, rounded up other prominent historians, including Victoria Bynum, James Oakes, Dolores Janiewski, Richard Carwardine, and Clayborne Carson, to express their critiques of the Times’ fanciful attempt to rewrite history.

The socialists’ foray is welcome as it demonstrates that scholars who by no means can be classified as conservatives are eager to point out where the Times went wrong. But the field of Times critics isn’t limited to those who have sat for interviews with the World Socialist Website. Others include Sean Wilentz of Princeton, who took to the pages of The Atlantic to explain how the 1619 Project “has been undermined by some of its claims;” and Lucas Morel, who explains that “America Wasn’t Founded on White Supremacy,” on The American Mind.

In fact, a small industry has grown up consisting of historians and historically minded social scientists who are, one by one, refuting all of the serious claims of the 1619 Project.

I’ve been printing these out and my stack is several inches thick. The reader who wishes to wade in deeper to these waters will get an assist from Philip Magness’s bibliography on “The 1619 Project Debate,” at least as it stood on January 3. Still more assistance can be found on John Fea’s website, “The Way of Improvement Leads Home,” which has been tracking “The 1619 Project: Debate Continues.” And one shouldn’t miss the efforts of Robert Woodson and the Woodson Center to counter the 1619 Project with its own “1776 Project.”

For my part, I am working with my colleagues at the National Association of Scholars on what we call the “1620 Project,” which suggests that if we are going to look for the founding of America in early years of the 17th century, the 1620 Mayflower Compact may have a better claim to our attention than the arrival of a pirate ship in Jamestown, Virginia with a handful of African captives in August 1619. I am working on a book about that right now—which has taken me deeper into the details of the Times’ roll-out of its project than I expected to go.

The following adds nothing of substance to the scholarly critique of The 1619 Project, but it illuminates the attitudes of the Times towards its critics. Those attitudes were prominently displayed in late December when five prominent historians—Victoria Bynum, James M. McPherson, James Oakes, Sean Wilentz, and Gordon S. Wood—wrote a letter to the Times to “express our strong reservations about important aspects of The 1619 Project.” The Times printed the letter and added a snarky rebuttal by editor-in-chief Jake Silverstein, who explained that the Times would be making no corrections, because—well, because it is all a matter of interpretation.

“Historical understanding is not fixed,” and the Times was succeeding in what it really wants to do, which is to “expand the reader’s sense of the American past.” Expanding that sense in the direction of fictions and fabrications is, apparently, a worthwhile undertaking.

The Times has continued to promote The 1619 Project in this spirit, with full-page self-glorifying advertisements that explain that the project “sparks important dialogue.”

Well, I am all for dialogue, though there hasn’t been much visible response from the project’s progenitors to those who have found fault with its methods and its conclusions. But I didn’t want to rest on a mere impression. The key figure in The 1619 Project is Nikole Hannah-Jones, who leads it and who penned its lead manifesto, “Our Democracy’s Founding Ideals Were False When They Were Written. Black Americans Have Fought to Make Them True.” In this essay, Hannah-Jones contends that the Founding Fathers did not actually believe that “All men are created equal,” because they wrote these words as slave owners.

Since the launch of The 1619 Project, Hannah-Jones has booked at least 40 speaking engagements at colleges, universities, and nonprofit organizations. At these events, she presents the “1619 Project-view” of history on her own or as part of a panel, often followed by a Q&A with the audience. Dialogue? Yes, but not with critics.

According to Hannah-Jones’ personal website, at the scheduled 40 speaking engagements since The 1619 Project’s launch, 18 of these featured her speaking solo. The other 22 events featured other speakers and were often marketed as a “dialogue” or a “conversation.” These 22 events included a total of 49 interlocutors.

Exactly three of her interlocutors have been trained historians who hold a doctoral degree in the field. None of those three are known critics of the project. Speakers have received advanced, post-bachelor academic training in nonhistorical fields, including journalism, English, comparative literature, law, the arts, and public policy. If you squint hard, you can see the small slice labeled “history” representing a mere 6.1 percent of the total.

The interlocutors described above only appeared in a fraction of Hannah-Jones’ speaking engagements. In the remaining 18 events, constituting nearly half of her talks, she speaks on her own. Figure 2 shows that over 90 percent of Hannah-Jones’ events lack a single historian. The result is a series of overwhelmingly nonhistorical monologues and dialogues designed to achieve an overtly historical end.

This is not to imply that nonhistorians cannot contribute to the historical discourse, but rather that an unambiguously historical project ought prominently to feature historians. Hannah-Jones, trained as a journalist, founded a project designed to reframe all of American history. She then goes on to engage with fewer historians than I can count on one hand. This is a mockery of authentic historical scholarship and exposes Hannah-Jones’ ulterior motives.

To clarify, while the National Association of Scholars maintains that The 1619 Project’s depiction of history is blatantly incorrect, we do not oppose Hannah-Jones’ speaking engagements on these grounds. She and the New York Times have a right to propagate the views they choose to support, however wrong we believe they are.

Rather, our problem with Hannah-Jones’ 1619 events is the combination of a nonhistorian founding a campaign with the explicit aim of “recasting all of American history;” and her demonstrated refusal to engage substantively with any of the myriad historians who criticize this recasting.

Nikole Hannah-Jones clearly has no interest in engaging with historians or having her historical arguments challenged. The 1619 Project’s claims are unorthodox and controversial but are presented as unquestionable truths. A bevy of accomplished historians have come out against these ideas and have been all but entirely ignored by Hannah-Jones and the New York Times. Why are they so afraid?

If the writers of The 1619 Project are concerned with earnestly presenting a new historical theory, then they should gladly accept scrutiny and critique from credible sources. This is how history works, to separate truth from falsehood. Instead, Hannah-Jones leapfrogs straight from historical theory to established fact. The 1619 Project is not concerned with uncovering historical truths, but instead uses pseudo-history as a means to undermine rational, non-partisan historical inquiry.

After all, what is the ultimate implication of the “1619 view” of history? All of America was built upon a lie. Freedom, liberty, and natural rights are swept away with a broad brush. The real founding principles of America are oppression, inequality, and suffering. The country, therefore, needs to be torn down and rebuilt. By whom? The New York Times, their sympathizers, and the future generation indoctrinated with these ideas during their schooling. Only then can the true America be realized.

This is the endgame of The 1619 Project, a radical, political campaign thinly veiled behind a façade of dubious pseudo-scholarship.

Nikole Hannah-Jones should step up, be courageous, and debate the historians with whom she disagrees. They’re waiting. All historical claims, particularly those with as wide-reaching and radical ramifications as these, must be discussed and scrutinized by trained scholars. The failure to  engage in this way will result in the widespread proliferation of lies that have disastrous consequences for the future of our country.

First Principles

Socialism’s Inequalities

In full-blooded socialist systems, access to government power is the paramount avenue to success.

Few statements are more revealing of ignorance than the standard conservative indictment of socialism for “equally spreading poverty.” According to this critique, poverty happens when socialism’s insistence on equality of conditions deprives people of the incentive to work. Such statements so offend reality as to lead one to ask whether those who make them have ever opened their eyes in a socialist country.

No. Socialism makes for the most radical of inequalities among human beings, and enforces them through the state’s absolute power.

Note: Places like Denmark and Sweden, and even Germany, France, Italy, or Argentina, though their governments spend about half the national income, or more, are not socialist. Instead, they have a greater or lesser degree of corporate capitalism, a system first introduced by Benito Mussolini in Italy in the 1920s, in the United States in the 1930s, and that thereafter was copied throughout much of the world.

Under this system, as government power mixes with, counterbalances, and often overrides private enterprise, people often find government favor to be an adjunct to success—or even the main avenue to it. Everywhere in the modern world, having the government on your side makes up for much lack of talent, enterprise, decency, etc. But you can still do all right on your own, so long as you don’t get the corporate state down on you.

But in full-blooded socialist systems—the Soviet Union was prototypical—like Cuba, China, and Venezuela access to government power is the paramount avenue to success. So much so, that all assets pale in importance by comparison.

Talent and enterprise seldom hurt. But if you see someone prosper, you can be sure that he is well connected with the powers that be. Under real socialism, prosperity and power are two sides of the same coin. Always. Invariably.

Food is the most fundamental feature of prosperity or lack thereof.

Having grown up amidst the widespread hunger of immediate postwar Italy, I was all too familiar with the difference that food makes in how people look. The faces of people who are short of any and all calories are gray, sallow, as well as thin and haggard. Eyes are sunk. Those who get enough starchy food but little if any meat or fish, or maybe even fat, tend to be white and a bit puffy. Their skin does not shine. Those who get the fat and protein they want but lack fresh vegetables and fruit tend to be heavy, shiny. Only those who eat well-balanced diets look the way people are supposed to look.

My first visit to the Soviet Union in January 1979 brought back these visceral memories. Along with the senators whom I served as an expert on weaponry, I dined at Brezhnev’s table in the Kremlin. Good food. The high-ranking Soviets with whom we were surrounded would not have looked out of place in California.

But theirs was a thin social stratum. As we left, some of them pocketed some of the oranges from the table’s centerpiece. The people who attended them and who drove us around looked like they had little if any access to such things as oranges. The attendants at the elite hotel where we were staying were fat but pasty. As we walked the streets, I was struck by how many looked haggard.

When we conferred with the generals, I noticed that food-dependent physiognomy matched rank. The generals looked like us. The colonels obviously did not eat as well.

We managed to get to see the great Andrei Sakharov, in his humble two-room flat in a fifth-floor walk-up at the Academy of Sciences. His wife brought out a tiny apple cake that must have been a rare treasure for these out-of-favor folks.

In 1989, after the Berlin Wall fell, there was a brief and quickly forgotten spate of stories in the media about the lavish lifestyle that East Germany’s Communist elite lived within a compound walled off from the surrounding poverty. How could such things happen in a country dedicated to equality?

The answer is not just that the people who run socialist systems are as selfish as anybody else on the planet. It is that the power of redistribution that is inherent in socialism further corrupts those who dispense favors, and much incentivizes the ordinary people over whom that power is wielded to corrupt themselves into becoming favor seekers.

Yet another human reality contributes to making socialism the degrading horror that it is. The power to control who gets what, especially who gets to eat what and who does not get to eat at all, is the most powerful lever of control over the general population. Because of that, Lenin figured out right away that poverty, especially hunger, are to be sought for their own sake. Keeping the people worried where their next meal is coming from, and reminding them that their bread is literally buttered only on the regime side is socialism’s indispensable element.

Fidel Castro in Cuba, Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, and Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua made redistribution of poverty into their regimes’ very foundation.

In 1985, just after I got to Stanford, I was asked to meet with a group of undergraduates who were on their way to “learn” about Nicaragua’s Sandinista regime, and to “help out” the Campesinos in the fields.

The most expressively progressive attitude belonged to a very fashionable girl, who sat cross-legged on the floor, her perfectly groomed blond hair washing over decidedly un-muscular thighs. Looking at her, I asked how many hours of field labor they planned to contribute, what they thought the Campesinos were paid for that many hours, and what they thought might be the relationship between the worth of the labor they provided and the price of the food they would eat.

They had not thought of that. Since they would be eating with their Sandinista guides, I asked whether they would be eating like the guides eat or like the Campesinos eat. They had not imagined there would be a difference. I assured them that the Campesinos knew the difference too well. What would they be thinking of you, who worked less than they and ate better than they?

I suggested that, if they paid attention to the difference between what the party eats and what the people eat, as well as to the difference between what their un-muscular pseudo-labor was worth and the value of their food, they might be able to figure out why the Sandinista regime wanted their presence. And if they figured that out, they might want to ask themselves how honest of an enterprise socialism is, especially its claim to be equality’s champion.

First Principles

The Enduring Counsel of George Washington

Charity is warranted respecting political divisions when the objects of the parties are in accord. Washington’s advice for healing our divisions then and now involves remembering what ought to be our common object. But do we?

The ratification of the Constitution in 1788 ushered in a new era in the United States. The times were not without discord—domestic, foreign, and within the government itself—as the nation implemented a new structure that inevitably brought forth many opinions on how best to govern the nation.

Among the most dramatic changes in the new Constitution was the presidency, first held by George Washington. Noted for many accomplishments, Washington is the only president to have swept the Electoral College as he was elevated to the office. Despite his stature and popularity, he was beset by conflict within his Cabinet and in the nation.

In letters to members of his Cabinet (Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton, Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson, and Attorney General Edmund Randolph) in 1792, Washington described the trials and the dangers that the new nation faced and proposed remedies. The similarity to modern times is striking, but more importantly, we would do well to remind ourselves of his counsel on this 288th anniversary of his birth.

The president expressed to Jefferson his regret “that whilst we are encompassed on all sides with avowed enemies and insidious friends, that internal dissensions should be harrowing and tearing our vitals.” To Hamilton he observed that “differences in political opinions are as unavoidable as, to a certain point, they may perhaps be necessary; but it is exceedingly to be regretted that subjects cannot be discussed with temper on the one hand, or decisions submitted to without having the motives which led to them improperly implicated on the other.”

To Randolph, he lamented “the Seeds of discontent, distrust, and irritations which are so plentifully sown, can scarcely fail to produce this effect.” He continued with a comment on the ensuing result of such conduct: “to Mar that prospect of happiness which perhaps never beamed with more effulgence upon any people under the Sun; and this too at a time when all Europe are gazing with admiration at the brightness of our prospects. And for what is all this?”

Washington not only attributed to political figures the conditions that filled him with “painful sensations,” he recognized that gazettes and newspapers exacerbated the tensions. He wrote to Randolph, “I shall be happy in the mean time to see a cessation of the abuses of public Officers, and of those attacks upon almost every measure of government with which some of the Gazettes are so strongly impregnated.” He added that “the constant theme for News-paper abuse” is carried out “without condescending to investigate the motives or the facts.” The charge recurs in the letter to Hamilton. “I would fain hope that liberal allowances will be made for the political opinions of one another; and instead of those wounding suspicions, and irritating charges with which some of our Gazettes are so strongly impregnated, & cannot fail if persevered in, of pushing matters to extremity, & thereby tare the Machine asunder . . . ”

The dangers of the internal dissension and the external attacks were real to Washington. Should they not heed his call for “mutual forbearances and temporizing yieldings on all sides,” he wrote to Hamilton, he feared for the governance of the country: “Without these I do not see how the Reins of Government are to be managed, or how the Union of the States can be much longer preserved.”

Washington offered counsel on the posture that he wished all should adopt in response to the “wounding suspicions and irritating charges” as the gazettes risked “pushing matters to extremity.” To Hamilton he expressed his earnest wish “that balsam may be poured into all the wounds which have been given, to prevent them from gangrening.”

Washington also invoked the theme of charity to the recipients of his letters. He lamented on the one hand “that men of abilities, zealous patriots, having the same general objects in view, and the same upright intentions to prosecute them, will not exercise more charity in deciding on the opinions and actions of one another” and on the other hand that their ideas risk being forejudged “without more charity for the opinions & acts of one another in Governmental matters . . . before they have undergone the test of experience.”

A call for charity toward the opinions and actions of one another may seem wanting in a politically charged climate, but instead of exacerbating tensions, Washington aimed to encourage the deliberation that must be present in the representative democracy that America embraced only years before.

The French phrase plus ça change, plus c’est la mȇme chose (“the more things change the more they stay the same”) may well be applicable to Washington’s times and ours, but his counsel points us to a necessary correction for the good of the country:

How unfortunate would it be, if a fabric so goodly, erected under so many Providential circumstances, and in its first stages, having acquired such respectability, should, from diversity of sentiments or internal obstructions to some of the acts of Government . . .  should be harrowing our vitals in such a manner as to have brought us to the verge of dissolution. Melancholy thought! But one, at the same time that it shows the consequences of diversified opinions, when pushed with too much tenacity; it exhibits evidence also of the necessity of accommodation; and of the propriety of adopting such healing measures as may restore harmony to the discordant members of the Union, and the Governing powers of it.

First Principles

States’ Right to Recall

The right to recall can be enacted and states should take the lead to regain power over the swamp.

One side called him, “One of those ambitious politicians!” “A Party Scavenger,” a “popularity seeker,” and urged him to “Return to thy Country! Assist not in its destruction! Consider the consequences!” The other side called him “a fair and honorable man,” an “independent” man, “the greatest ornament and the ablest member of the American Senate, who if he but persists in his dignified course must one day attain to the highest station in our republic.” Of course, I’m referring to John Quincy Adams, the senator from Massachusetts in 1808, who effectively was recalled from office for voting against his political party, the Federalists.

As Congress grows increasingly out of touch with the people who elect them, states need to assert the right to recall all of their elected officials, including United States senators.

“We, the People” established this country and delegated limited powers to the federal government. It is time for states to exercise their 10th Amendment rights and limit the power of the federal government. One important way to do that is through recalling U.S. senators who vote against their constituents during their lengthy terms. While no member of Congress has ever been recalled from office, that doesn’t mean reforms aren’t necessary—especially when it comes to the Senate.

Thirty-nine states have provisions allowing for the recall of some elected officials. The traditional view of federal recalls has been that the Constitution mentions “Expulsion of a Member of Congress” in Article I, section 5, clause 2 and the courts have deferred to the congressional practice of letting Congress decide how expulsion works.

There is a case to be made, however, for the removal of senators via recall (which is different from an expulsion). The Constitution is silent on the question of recall. Under the Articles of Confederation of 1777, states had the right to recall delegates. At the Constitutional Convention a decade later, the Virginia Plan included a recall provision. Ultimately, the Framers chose not to include one. Importantly, they allowed for states’ to exert some control over Congress through the selection of U.S. senators and reserved powers to the states in the 10th Amendment.

In 1808, the Massachusetts state legislature began a process to recall John Quincy Adams (electing his successor sixth months earlier than they would usually elect someone). Rather than submit to this tempest, however, Adams ultimately resigned from his seat. As described in John Quincy Adams and the Foundations of American Foreign Policy, “[i]n effect the legislature of Massachusetts had ‘recalled him.’”

When the 17th Amendment was ratified in 1913, state legislatures lost their power to select senators, something the Founders did not envision. The amendment took away states’ rights and the power of the people to alter the terms for Members of Congress in a way that previously had been possible.

Several states have recall provisions in their state constitutions, with some of them being broad enough to include U.S. senators. Article XIII, section 12 of Wisconsin’s constitution, for example, says the people “of any congressional, judicial, or legislative district may petition for the recall of any incumbent elective officer” (emphasis added). Article II, section 8 of Michigan’s constitution states: “[l]aws shall be enacted to provide for the recall of all elective officers” (emphasis added).

Nevertheless, the courts have been reluctant to let states recall elected federal officials, pointing to the Constitution’s expulsion clause. For instance, a Michigan county circuit court, in 2007 ruled that the recall of a member of Congress proceed for that reason. This decision was not appealed.

While several state courts and administrative proceedings have ruled against congressional recalls, a Wisconsin attorney general’s opinion in 1979 advised the state elections board that it should not prohibit a congressional recall from proceeding. The attorney general concluded “removal by recall does not on its face conflict with Congress’ power of expulsion.”

The American Civil Rights Union made powerful arguments for a congressional recall in an amicus curiae brief in a case involving the prospective recall of Senator Robert Menendez (D-N.J.). In it, the ACRU’s former general counsel, Peter Ferrara noted that:

If a state wants to adopt a recall election process effectively providing the right and opportunity for citizens to make a political statement regarding their elected federal representatives, there is nothing in the U.S. Constitution that prevents it from doing so. A state is not limited to holding elections only on subjects approved by the federal government.

States wishing to assert their right to recall U.S. senators could amend their state constitutions to create a recall process. With the U.S. Constitution silent on the matter, a state constitution would not be in conflict with it, but it would create a major constitutional fight in the courts. Special interest groups and lobbyists with too much sway in D.C. would spend millions trying to halt recall efforts through litigation and other measures.

Yet “We the people” should prevail over the powerful. The right to recall can be enacted and states should take the lead to regain power over the swamp.

First Principles

Subverting the Irrational Narrative of America

Christopher Flannery’s podcast “The American Story” works to dispel the irrational leftist narrative about America, one true and beautiful story at a time.

In an age when few people under the age of 40 can recall—either from personal memory or from some retelling in a book, a movie, or a classroom presentation—a single story about their country that moves them to unalloyed admiration, what can it even mean to exhort them to “Make America Great Again”?

Older generations probably remember a time when most Americans considered their country a genuinely great country. But the doubts and questions our inevitable imperfections once inspired have metastasized and now are weaponized by the Left in ways that few normal people in that older generation seem to grasp. They hear the stories of campus outrage and they witness the ever more shrill invective that seems to poison our politics. They forget that their own love of country, which steadies them in these storms, comes from something deeper than their experience of politics in our time—that it was inspired by something other than the ongoing back and forth debate over policy prescriptions.

Fortunately, Christopher Flannery of the Claremont Institute has not forgotten what inspired his own feeling for America and he isn’t shy about sharing his love letters to America inspired by this informed sentiment.

Flannery’s podcast, “The American Story,” offers short, well-produced, and cogent stories that hark back to an older way of talking about our country and to the people who made it great. Quite deliberately, it steps over rather than engages with what has become the authoritative, if blinkered, narrative of America. The assumption is that these stories can be understood by any reasonable person who has not already been anesthetized by progressive doctrines insisting America’s past is nothing but shameful and in need of hair-shirt repentance.

Flannery explains that the “identity politics behind this narrative [of the Left] is irrational. You can point out this irrationality and its bad consequences and show rational alternatives to it, as American Greatness, the Claremont Institute, and other good places do on a daily basis. But to tell America’s story in its true dimensions, you have to go around this irrational narrative.”

So these stories do not address the premises of the Left. They just present a way of thinking that is both true and reasonable. The hope is that they will also present something refreshing to souls left parched by the incessant drumbeat of America hating academia.

A theme central to Flannery’s work, inevitably, is love.

“There is an inevitable connection between love and our rational nature as human beings,” he explains, “If people understand America, it is inseparable from the idea that animated our Revolution as long as America is America. And that idea is intrinsically lovable because it contains in it a notion of human goodness that is inherently lovable.”

America, in other words, is a country that not only needs to be loved—as all countries do—but it deserves to be loved.

But this deserving is not to be taken for granted, either. These stories are designed to remind Americans that every generation needs to do what it can to keep the country worthy of that love. It has to be worthy of what Lincoln called the “last full measure of devotion.”

America’s creed, Flannery says, recognizes that the human mind by nature is free and that this freedom, when cultivated and respected, makes men capable of recognizing things that are worthy of love. But if Americans are not asked to love their country, if they are not given reasons to do so, they are bound not only to be poor citizens but also to be unhappy. Being a good citizen through recognizing the virtue of one’s country and in keeping her worthy of affection is a big part of the “pursuit of happiness” and the fulfillment of human nature.

“The American Story” is an effort to provide those reasons for a new generation of Americans that, through no fault of its own, is deprived of them because of the poverty of our education and popular culture establishment. This is less about saving American education than it is about restoring an oral tradition and conversation between citizens about who they are.

To that end, there is a certain cadence to the stories Flannery recalls. As all good writing has a certain rhythm or poetry inherent in it, this is all the more vital in any oral presentation. The podcasts are certainly engaging on that level and draw the listener in, not only to a story but also into a mood.

When asked whether video might become a part of some future presentation of these stories, Flannery demurred. Possibly. But its absence, for now, is intentional.

“There is something about the spoken word on its own that grips the mind with more focus and satisfaction than when you add video to it,” he told me. “I love movies, but these stories, at least so far, are not meant to be like that—in the conviction that there is some kind of attention that the mind pays to the spoken word that is different from when it is accompanied by visual effects. This medium has a certain power of its own. A listener can enter the world of that story for five or six minutes and be fully engaged without distractions.”

This also explains the way the stories are set to music. “My sense is that when they work, the music somehow enhances the effect of the words,” Flannery explains. “There is a sense in which these essays are like country songs. The music is chosen in a way to evoke a fuller sense of the time and the point. The sound combination is meant to have an effect and appeal both to the mind and the heart of the listener. That is, in other words, the whole point of political speech.”

And that gets to the central point of “The American Story” in more ways than one. The stories are meant to be the highest kind of political speech rather than mere anecdotes or lofty, but difficult to translate, scholarship. They are the kind of speech that is meant to reach citizens both in the heart and in the mind but, more importantly, it is meant to produce an effect in them—one of love, gratitude, and of striving to be worthy in our politics today of the greatness that has preceded us.

You can listen and subscribe to “The American Story” at or with your favorite podcast application.

Listen to all of them, but here are some of my favorites:

And, of course:

Totus Porcus

First Principles

This essay is adapted from an address to the annual Lincoln Day Dinner of the Boulder County, Colorado Republicans, February 8, 2020.

What It Means for America To Be the ‘Last Best Hope of Earth’

The fundamental task is not so much to imitate the actions of Abraham Lincoln, as it to imitate his acceptance of the weighty responsibility to preserve the last best hope of earth. Unless we stand up, America cannot stand out.

Once a great people roamed through the forests and open plains of North America. Those great people were the various tribes of what appropriately can be called the American Indians, the indigenous peoples of what was mistakenly thought to be the Indies. In the late 18th and early 19th centuries, those peoples were described as noble savages. They were thought noble because of their hardihood and fierce independence. They were a people infused with an animist confidence in the brute forces of nature. They were not, however, buttressed by confidence in reason and faith in the Providence that ordained reason as the basis for the governance of mankind. As a result, they receded in the face of the arrival of a people from Europe who possessed a combined faith in reason and God.

Over the course of the last two centuries, the indigenous peoples have undergone severe inflictions at the hands of the nation that grew out of the European settlements and at their own hands. During this long travail of alternating gestures of peace and blood-stained conflicts, that new nation has relentlessly moved to incorporate the indigenous peoples in a unified nation conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. That process of incorporation has not yet been completed. The wars ended, but the growth of a political community has been impeded by hesitations and misconstructions. 

Those misconstructions included the early missteps by too many tribes of allying themselves militarily with the adversaries to the historical force of liberty and self-government. In the Seven Years War, they chose the losing side, suffering, as a result, the loss of independence and a considerable degree of territory.

Then, scarcely a decade later they repeated the same mistake in the American Revolution, attaching themselves to the British military and, in the resulting defeat, losing again territory and independence (eventually being essentially abandoned by their ally in the peace settlement). The result was to leave them powerless in the hands of a new empire rising under the flag of the United States of America.

I remind you of this story in this hour of commemoration of Abraham Lincoln for a specific reason. For, when in December 1862 Lincoln enrolled the United States in the providential mission of preserving the “last best hope of earth” he did so with a vision to cease internecine conflicts in North America for all its peoples. We typically think only of slavery when we reflect on Lincoln’s vision. But it should not be forgotten that his annual message to Congress included necessarily references to continuing Indian wars, and particularly a bloody season in Minnesota that depopulated a substantial region. The preservation of the Union meant not only preventing the extension of slavery but also establishing the prevalence of national authority in a manner that could secure the continent as a unified community. That included resolving conflicts with the Indians in a manner that would at last resolve policies and practices inconsistent with the idea of a unified community.

Freedom as Moral Asylum for Personal Salvation

Lincoln spoke notably not of the last best hope of the United States when he painted an optimistic picture of a growing population (expected to reach 200 million by 1930 from the 31 million present in 1860). He spoke of the “last best hope of earth.” Here is how he concluded that message:

As our case is new, so we must think anew and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves, and then we shall save our country.

Fellow-citizens, we can not escape history. We of this Congress and this Administration will be remembered in spite of ourselves. No personal significance or insignificance can spare one or another of us. The fiery trial through which we pass will light us down in honor or dishonor to the latest generation. We say we are for the Union. The world will not forget that we say this. We know how to save the Union. The world knows we do know how to save it . . . We shall nobly save or meanly lose the last best hope of earth. The way is plain, peaceful, generous, just—a way which if followed the world will forever applaud and God must forever bless.

Those words have since fallen trippingly from the lips of other statesmen who imagined, too easily, that Lincoln was describing the people then, and by inference us, as the last best hope. He meant, however, something far more profound than the boasting eloquence of ill-lettered declaimers. He meant to invoke the relationship between man and God, a relationship that has been in play since the fall of man in the garden of Eden.

The new covenant that arrived in the form of Christ was directed toward reclaiming man for the Kingdom. But there could be no reclaiming without reclamation, and the possibility of reclamation lay squarely in the human acceptance of responsibility to redeem the hope held out to them for the last time. The last, best hope, accordingly, recognized the reality that not only our earthly hopes but our heavenly hopes reposed in bearing that responsibility in a credible manner—a manner worthy of the praises of a heavenly choir.

The work that has fallen to our hands is not the ephemeral work of a by-election or new policy innovation. Those things are important. They constitute the ongoing work of citizenship. Yet there is the greater work of redemption that is in play. That is not a work of preaching and conversion, or retail evangelism. Those are valuable and necessary works and all praise to the angels who undertake them. But a larger work surpasses these, and that is the work to preserve, protect and defend the existence of a nation within which the promise of salvation can be made real for all—from the first to the last inhabitant.

The freedom of conscience is the bulwark of self-government. Only a nation that honors the duty to obey God before man can preserve self-government. The last best hope of earth is the nation that realizes that possibility so powerfully that all humankind will benefit from its example. It is not our interventions in the affairs of others that can save them. The realities of international relations and national security impose seasons of prudential judgment concerning interventions, assistance, and even propaganda. But it is the creation of a moral asylum for humanity that offers the greatest benefit to mankind. That has been and remains the providential mission of the United States.

Perhaps no president in our history has faced so grave a crisis as the one that confronted Lincoln.

And what does a moral asylum offer? It rejects mammon as master. It sustains a clear understanding of human nature and the human relations that flow from it. Thus, it affirms that it is not we who have made ourselves—or can make ourselves anything we choose. Rather, we bear the imprint of Divine creation and ordination.

The moral asylum reinforces the claims of those who choose to walk in the light of Divine purpose. A moral asylum makes it possible for men to grow from birth to death secure in the understanding that our paths have been directed and are not open-ended. We cannot invent genders, disfigure ourselves, rearrange prescribed relationships or mandate beliefs of our own manufacture without violence to the fundamental order of soul that enables man to yield to the will of God.

Our ability and right to consent to mutual political and social relations among ourselves derives from our duty to obey God and not the reverse. God’s sovereign authority makes us free from man’s tyrannical pretensions.

Tyrannical Pretensions Threaten Freedom

Freedom from tyrannical pretensions underlies nearly all the political stresses of our day, from the still lingering and inadequate resolution of the status of American Indians to the issue of the sanctity of life to issues of religious and personal liberty. In each of these areas, there is work to be done to secure American citizens from overweening government. 

For the American Indian, we have yet to communicate with clarity that the last best hope of earth is also their last best hope. Although most persons of Indian descent have thoroughly integrated into U.S. society (following the explicit grant of citizenship in 1924), we still maintain specific racial exceptions that foster false notions of independent sovereignty and create the impression that Indians are not included in the promise of the unified community. Arbitrary tribal and reservation decisions about individual status are inconsistent with full participation. And the continuing racializing of children of even remote Indian descent deprives them of the opportunities that ought freely to be available to them.

Similarly, the fracturing of our society through identity politics threatens not only the fundamental unity of society (there are some who reject altogether the concept of unity, stigmatizing as “white privilege” any notion of an American national character), but it also threatens fundamental liberties such as religious freedom. 

The Masterpiece Cakeshop case in Colorado is but one example. There are others bubbling just beneath the surface throughout the country. One that I am aware of has led the owner of a wedding venue, who declines to provide sacralizing ceremonies for same-sex weddings, to liken the situation to that of a Kosher deli being sued for refusing to provide ham sandwiches. While these examples will seem to some understandings not to rise to the level of significance of the Civil War, the War for the Union, I hasten to urge a reconsideration. Whatever undermines both the vision of a unified community and, at the same time, claims of personal conscience are no less significant than the antebellum efforts to force acceptance of slavery upon regions of the country opposed to slavery. As such, they pose just as much of a threat to the true vision of the “last best hope of earth.” 

“The Peacemakers” by George P.A. Healy, from the White House Collection/GraphicaArtis/Getty Images

Moreover, the efforts of secession following the election of 1860 are not altogether remote from the efforts of “resistance” following the election of 2016. If anything, the former were more honest, as more open and not abusing offices of trust to overthrow the elected government, as has been done by agents in the intelligence community and co-conspirators throughout the government. In that sense, the threat today is more grave because it is more insidious.

Where secession threatened to dissever the unified community geographically, morally, and politically, #TheResistance threatens to fracture it into conflicting identity groups of infinite variety which it can then dominate politically throughout a unified geography without a unified community. That is a greater danger than the danger of 1860, for it would disable the entire nation for the work of preserving the last best hope, the moral asylum for mankind. 

Lincoln confronted the first threat with a two-fold initiative to defeat the threat militarily while preserving the fundamental purpose eventually to restore the disaffected portion of the nation to full membership in the unified community in friendship with all other members. The latter work remains incomplete 150 years later, which is what has provided the latter-day disaffected (who disdain the idea of America as a providential blessing) with the opening to try once again to break apart the Union. As a consequence, we have inherited the task of defeating the new secessionists—not militarily but politically—and to do so in a manner so compelling as to revive the commitment to the beloved community, the unified community, in which all (including the disaffected) participate alike in freedom from the secular coercions of illegitimate political authority. 

We undertake that work with due humility, recognizing, for example, that it is more important to preserve a Union that can protect unborn life than it is merely to proclaim our recognition of the sanctity of that life. That is what heightens the value of the political undertakings we must now engage in, omitting no exertion to prevail in the political struggle.

Humility in the Face of Our Duty

What Lincoln provides, therefore, is a lesson in avoiding tyrannical pretensions and preparing every resource to resist them. Lincoln has sometimes been thought to have been political in his frequent expressions of humility regarding the performance of his duties as president. When he insisted that he did only what he had to do preserve the Union—and always abstained from doing what, upon his abstract judgment, seemed right—he was not evading responsibility to free or not to free the slaves. He was rather enunciating the fundamental truth that his overriding responsibility was to assure that such a nation as could end slavery would endure rather than merely to perform a ceremonial act of condemning slavery.  

We see the full force of this in the series of decisions he made that led to the Emancipation Proclamation. He arrived at the judgment of the necessity several months before publicly announcing it, and even then, in September 1862, he only announced that he would do it in the future. Moreover, he explained that he had to do it as a matter of military necessity—that is, to ensure winning the war and saving the Union. He crafted it carefully enough to convey that he doubted that he had any authority under the Constitution to emancipate slaves apart from military necessity. At the same time, he realized that the decision (a mere executive order at the end of the day) would not be secure on its own. Thus, he worked relentlessly to secure a constitutional amendment to end slavery in a legitimate and binding manner.

He expressed his reasoning as follows:

I am naturally antislavery. If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong. I cannot remember when I did not so think and feel, and yet I have never understood that the presidency conferred upon me an unrestricted right to act officially upon this judgment and feeling. It was in the oath I took that I would, to the best of my ability, preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States. I could not take the office without taking the oath. Nor was it my view that I might take an oath to get power, and break the oath in using the power. I understood, too, that in ordinary civil administration this oath even forbade me to practically indulge my primary abstract judgment on the moral question of slavery. I had publicly declared this many times, and in many ways. And I aver that, to this day, I have done no official act in mere deference to my abstract judgment and feeling on slavery. I did understand, however, that my oath to preserve the Constitution to the best of my ability imposed upon me the duty of preserving, by every indispensable means, that government—that nation, of which that Constitution was the organic law. Was it possible to lose the nation and yet preserve the Constitution? By general law, life and limb must be protected, yet often a limb must be amputated to save a life; but a life is never wisely given to save a limb. 

Perhaps no president in our history has faced so grave a crisis as the one that confronted Lincoln. Nevertheless, every president has carried out the duties under the same moral necessity that Lincoln faced.

Some have done it well; others have done it very poorly. Some have imagined that they had no power to effectuate substantial change; others have imagined that they had all power to govern in accord with their own abstract vision of what would be good for society. In these distinctions, we observe the challenge of evaluating presidential performance. And to that end, we can have no better guide than to demand the humility of Lincoln coupled with Lincoln’s secure understanding and articulation of the true foundations of our political life.

He concluded the letter to Hodge with a profession of that humility:

I add a word which was not in the verbal conversation. In telling this tale I attempt no compliment to my own sagacity. I claim not to have controlled events, but confess plainly that events have controlled me. Now, at the end of three years’ struggle, the nation’s condition is not what either party, or any man, devised or expected. God alone can claim it. Whither it is tending seems plain. If God now wills the removal of a great wrong, and wills also that we of the North, as well as you of the South, shall pay fairly for our complicity in that wrong, impartial history will find therein new cause to attest and revere the justice and goodness of God.

The political party that Lincoln led has always borne the special burden of trying to live up to his example. It has sometimes wavered in the face of the pressure of public opinion or the temptation of political opportunity. It is a safeguard against such distractions to recall that the fundamental task is not so much to imitate the actions of the party’s founder, as to imitate his acceptance of the weighty responsibility to preserve the last best hope of earth. Unless we stand up, America cannot stand out.


First Principles

You Can’t Have Representation Without First Having a People to Represent

If we have no sense of this land, this history, this language, these songs, these heroes, and no love for them, what “America” is there at all? And perhaps that is the progressive aim, at last: that there should be no America.

In the senior section of our Humanities curriculum at Magdalen College, we are now reading Eric Voegelin’s The New Science of Politics. That is a fine coincidence, because this week is the New Hampshire primary, and we fight on the field of a great war for the hearts and minds of all Americans, who will go to the polls in November to determine which of two directions the nation will take.

Will it turn toward a massive welfare state which gives a little more than residual respect to the family, the church, private business, and local schools? Or will it go further toward a massive welfare state that offers less than residual respect to those things, and perhaps treats them with suspicion or contempt?

Please forgive me for my trace of irony. I do not mean to suggest that the latter choice would be anything but a disaster. It would surely prove calamitous for many a school like Magdalen College. In nearby Massachusetts, that state wherein Puritanism hardened into secular intolerance once it shed its Christianity, a new outpost of Thomas Aquinas College was permitted (permitted!) to open its doors as a Catholic school respecting a Thomistic and therefore rational view of sexual being and sexual relations, only on the severe condition that they enroll and hire no one who is not Catholic. That is to concede freedom of speech, so long as you stay in your straitjacket. Or maybe it is the other way around. You can move about so long as you keep your mouth taped shut.

So I am grateful that the Trump Administration is not getting out the straitjackets and the duct tape. I will vote accordingly in November.

But I have something else in mind here. It’s our misplaced trust in the machinery of democratic representation. Think of the purple-inked fingers that new voters happily raised up during the early days of what was supposed to have been a democratic Iraq. “Our own foreign policy,” says Voegelin, thinking of Woodrow Wilson and his casus belli, to make the world safe for democracy, “was a factor in aggravating international disorder through its sincere but naïve endeavor of curing the evils of the world by spreading representative institutions in the elemental sense to areas where the existential conditions for their functioning were not given.” (Emphasis mine.)

That is, you can have the structure of representation without the thing itself—without the being-represented. And you can have the latter only when the social conditions allow it.

Voegelin does not mean that elected representatives often fail. He means that representation “is by far not an appurtenance of the nature of man.” It does not exist outside of certain historical and cultural traditions. There must be a people to represent, a people animated and ordered by ideas and values; not just a gathering of rival clans, or, what we have now, a great mass of men and women who are one in not much more than the television commercials they watch.

Our problem is not just muddy thinking. It is also clear thinking from wrong premises.

Suppose you define science not as a body of knowledge about a subject, but as a certain method of investigation, such as the method of value-free empirical analysis imported by Auguste Comte from physics and applied to sociology. That, says Voegelin, “perverts the meaning of science on principle,” because the method you use must be determined by the character of the thing you are studying and not the other way around.

“Even Aristotle,” he says, “had to remind certain pests of his time that an ‘educated man’ will not expect exactness of the mathematical type in a treatise on politics.” We may say something similar about democratic processes or electoral methods of representation. The process, the method, is not the thing itself. As “different objects require different methods,” so different cultures, or different occurrences of a culture over time, will admit of different kinds of “representation,” if they admit of any at all. There is no magic in either the method or the machinery.

Allow me to illustrate. The soul of Western democratic man, it seems to me, is implied in the Odyssey, when Homer describes the ways of the Cyclops and his fellows. The barbarity of the one-eyed monster is revealed not simply by his bad table manners and his anthropophagic diet, but by what is missing from his existence. The Cyclopes have no large-scale agriculture or viticulture; they have no trade; they do not meet in assemblies to promote the common good.

The men of Ithaca during Odysseus’ long absence have slid back into barbarism in this sense. When the boy Telemachus calls them to assembly to beg their assistance, because their sons have descended upon his father’s estate to court his mother and devour his substance, we learn that it is the first time the Ithacans have met since Odysseus was dragooned into embarking for Troy, 20 years before. Homer takes for granted that it is one of the proper activities of man to hold such a meeting, where people are given leave to speak by turns, to reach some agreement about what to do. Here, the presence of the king had brought people together in what is essentially a democratic action, while his absence has allowed the people to keep apart, each man minding his own business and caring little for anything or anyone else. The king, far from being an impediment to democracy, was the symbolic representation of authority in Ithaca, which gave to those who happened to dwell in that area the sense that they were Ithacans, a people; and as a people they might come together.

Americans may not need a king, but they do need something, lest the term “American” come to imply no more than an area of longitudes and latitudes. If every man and woman in America went to the polls, but if ordinary people were not assumed to be capable to unite in their natural and local groups to pursue the ordinary common goods of human life, then of what use would an election be?

It is a confidence scheme. And if we share no sense of what a good human life looks like, then how can we be represented, either as to ends or as to the means to secure them?

To be more specific still: if we have no sense of this land, this history, this language, these songs, these heroes, and no love for them, what “America” is there at all? And perhaps that is the progressive aim, at last; that there should be no America.

Whether it is their aim or not, they and we are well on our way to attaining it.

First Principles

What Americans Can Learn from F. W. de Klerk’s Great Betrayal of South Africa

Universal suffrage is not to be conflated with freedom. As Iraqis learned after their “liberation,” ink-stained fingers don’t inoculate against bloodstains—or rivers of blood.

In what should serve as a lesson for Americans today, recall that 30 years ago on February 2, 1990, F. W. de Klerk, South Africa’s last white president, turned the screws on his constituents, betraying the confidence we had placed in him.

I say “we,” because, prior to becoming president in 1989, De Klerk was my representative, in the greater Vereeniging region of Southern Transvaal, where I lived. (Our family subsequently moved to Cape Town.)

A constellation of circumstances had aligned to catapult De Klerk to a position of great power. A severe stroke forced the “The Crocodile,” President P. W. Botha, from power in 1989. Nothing in the background of his successor, De Klerk, indicated the revolutionary policies he would pursue.

In response to a 1992 referendum asking white voters if they favored De Klerk’s proposed reforms, we returned a resounding “yes.” Sixty-eight percent of respondents said “yes” to the proposed reforms of a man who sold his constituents out for a chance to frolic on the world stage with Nelson Mandela.

For it was in surrendering South Africa to the African National Congress that De Klerk shared the Nobel Peace Prize with Mandela.

Why was De Klerk trusted to negotiate on behalf of a vulnerable racial minority? For good reason: he had made his views abundantly clear to constituents. “Negotiations would only be about power-sharing,” he promised. At the time, referendum respondents generally trusted De Klerk, who had specifically condemned crude majority rule. Such elections, in Africa, traditionally have amounted to “one man, one vote, one time.” Typically, such elections across Africa have followed a familiar pattern: Radical black nationalist movements take power everywhere, then elections cease. Or, if they take place, they’re rigged.

Among much else, De Klerk’s loyal constituents agreed to his scrapping of the ban on the Communist-sympathizing ANC. Freeing Nelson Mandela from incarceration was also viewed as long overdue as was acceding to Namibia’s independence, and junking nuclear weapons. Botha, before de Klerk, had by and large already dismantled the most egregious aspects of apartheid.

What De Klerk’s constituents were not prepared for was to be legislated into a permanent position of political subordination. President de Klerk, the man entrusted to stand up for crucial structural liberties, went along with the great centralizers. He caved to ANC demands, forgoing all checks and balances for South Africa’s Boer, British, and Zulu minorities.

By the time the average “yes” voter discerned the fact that De Klerk had no intention of maintaining this opposition when push came to shove, it was too late.

Thus, with De Klerk’s collaboration, and under the wing of the American eagle—in particular, U.S. negotiators like Herman Cohen, undersecretary of state for Africa—the Afrikaner, Anglo, and Zulu minorities were ordered to forgo minority veto power, meaningful power-sharing, and checks on power in the form of a second chamber in the legislature. Substantive devolution of authority to the regions of South Africa was also denied.

Yet somehow, a new generation of South Africans, Afrikaner and English, reveres F. W. de Klerk, even crediting the former South African president as a “reformer” who led “the country out of the political dead-end [in which] it found itself.”

“Today,” declares De Klerk adulator Pieter du Toit, “South Africa is a democracy, with rights-based guarantees.” The writer, editor of a large internet news site, is perfectly serious when he touts South Africa as a country that affords its citizens “rights-based guarantees.” For this reason, Du Toit should not be taken seriously.

Universal suffrage is not to be conflated with freedom. As Iraqis learned after their “liberation,” ink-stained fingers don’t inoculate against bloodstains, or, rather, rivers of blood.

As the democratic South Africa amply demonstrates, political rights and a paper constitution don’t secure the natural rights to life, liberty, property, and the pursuit of happiness. 

A civilized society, ultimately, is one in which the individual can go about the business of life unmolested. If he can’t do that simple thing, of what value is the vote or a constitution? Extant societal structures that safeguard life and property can always be improved upon. But once these bulwarks against mob rule and mayhem disintegrate, as they have in South Africa, they’re seldom restored.

Far and away the most perplexing paragraph in Du Toit’s ode to De Klerk is his historical justification for De Klerk’s giving the shop to the ANC.

“When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989,” writes Du Toit, “along with a series of governments in the Eastern Bloc, [De Klerk] knew it was a matter of time before the Soviet Union fell, and with that the ANC’s biggest support base. De Klerk recognized the moment to move forward.”

Let me see if I grasp the logic of surrender without defeat.

The ANC’s biggest backer, the USSR, was on the verge of collapse. Therefore, goes the author’s logic, the time was ripe to surrender South Africa to the Soviet Union’s satellite, the ANC? This is worse than a non sequitur. It’s nonsense.

At the time De Klerk, pushed by American negotiators, gave away the store, the ANC heroes were a ragtag bunch of exiled has-been Communists, scattered all over Africa and Europe, whose main admirers were their Swedish groupies.

By contrast, someone who did have real power was Constand Viljoen, a military hero and former chief of the South African Defense Force. General Viljoen represented the hardliner Afrikaners and the security forces. Viljoen believed, correctly, that De Klerk had shirked his responsibilities to the electorate. He planned on leading a coalition that would have deposed the freelancing De Klerk and negotiated for an Afrikaner ethnic state.

Ditto Mangosuthu Buthelezi, chief minister of the KwaZulu homeland and leader of the Zulu people and their Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP). His championship of self-determination had been denied.

Buthelezi was fed up to the back teeth with being sidelined. He and his Zulu impis (warriors) were every bit as fractious as Viljoen; every bit as willing to fight for their rightful corner of the African Eden.

For setting his sights on decentralized sovereignty in Zululand, the Zulu royal and his following (close on 20 percent of the South African population) were condemned as reactionaries by the West, whose interests De Klerk was, by now, championing.

Alas, the African gentleman Buthelezi and the Afrikaner general Viljoen were no match for the conniving Communists in the ANC and their knavish collaborator, F. W. de Klerk.

First Principles

The System Worked

Even all the powers of a concentrated, entrenched establishment, corrupted political institutions, and monopolized media and education systems could not defeat the Madisonian constitutional system.

As irritating as the last three years of political turmoil have been (especially the bizarre and idiotic impeachment fiasco), Americans can rejoice that the Madisonian constitutional system of “checks and balances” has proven its wisdom once again.

This system of divided and overlapping powers in branches and levels of government (unitary executive, bicameral legislature, and a judicial branch; along with national-state federalism) is the wonder and envy of the world: other countries right now cannot believe how the United States managed this crucial political battle without a bloody revolution or merciless dictatorship, but relatively peaceably and rationally.

This American system of “separation of powers” provides that if one branch of government, representing some major interest or “faction” tries to force its will over all the rest of society, there will be push-back, as “ambition checks ambition” and balance is restored.

Such Madisonian pluralism comes from a long history of political philosophy and theology that informed the Founders about the “reality” of human nature, society, and politics. Aristotle’s “mixed regime” of the one, the few, and the many—creating in England the monarchy, House of Lords, and Commons, and in the United States the presidency, Congress, and the courts, which also drew from Roman law and Biblical truth. Our tradition of the rule of law, reason over passion, due process, rules of procedure and evidence, all contributed to this happy situation.

But for Madison and several other Founders, it was a Christian appreciation of human evil, sin (especially when tempted by money and power), and the “reality” of admitting that you couldn’t rely on the “virtue” of anyone, even the best, when temptations of domination and abuse of power threaten. Ironically, this perspective holds that you have to accept a certain amount of constant tension and conflict (within bounds) to avoid total warfare and tyranny. We have to accept the reality of human weakness and evil in order to maintain overall strength and goodness.

For James Madison, often called “Father of the Constitution,” this realization came from his education in Christianity from devout Anglican tutors at the “New Light” Presbyterian College of New Jersey (Princeton). As I show in my book, The Political Philosophy of James Madison, Madison imbibed an Augustinian/Calvinistic appreciation for the human sin and frailty that historically caused social turmoil, political tyranny, unrest, and economic and military disaster. The solution was to recognize the truth of flawed human nature and harness it for good.

Madison noted in Federalist 10 that “the latent causes of faction are thus sown in the nature of man . . . self-love . . . different leaders ambitiously contending for preeminence and power . . . more disposed to vex and oppress each other than to co-operate for their common good.”

Such “depravity in mankind,” he observed in Federalist 55, commends a “distrust” of everything he does, especially in politics, where his “imperfections and weaknesses” cause “quarrels, jealousies and envy” prompted solely by “love of preeminence” and “wounded pride.”

Accepting this reality requires us to structure a system that pits “ambition against ambition” acknowledging and allowing many conflicts to avoid total oppression and tyranny of one person or group.  “The only remedy” Madison wrote to the Constitutional Convention “is to enlarge the sphere . . . divide the community into so great a number and parties, that in the first place a majority will not be likely at the same moment to have a common interest separate from that of the whole . . . and in the second place, . . . they may not be apt to unite in pursuit of it.” So “divide the [public] trust between different bodies of men, who might watch and check each other.”

What we have seen over the past week is that our constitutional system worked. Even all the powers of a concentrated, entrenched establishment; corrupted political institutions (even federal law-enforcement); almost monopolized media and education systems; enormous economic and criminal influences, did not defeat the Madisonian constitutional system.

And another benefit of these trying times, which a faith believing that Good can be brought out of Evil helps to mitigate, is that the American people (and the world) got a practical civics lesson in these principles. The eloquent and learned Republican lawyers during the impeachment trial reminded us of our precious heritage in reason, the rule of law, due process, and justice.

The system worked.

First Principles

The March for Life Proves that Cowering on ‘Social Issues’ Is Politically Stupid

Conservatives need to stop letting progressives define the limits of acceptable viewpoints and start “fighting for those who have no voice.”

This past weekend, along with an 800-person contingent from the University of Notre Dame, I marched in the 47th annual March for Life. It was my second time at the event and truly an historic occasion. I say this not simply because the march is the largest, regular demonstration in America (and probably the world) but because, for the first time, the president of the United States addressed the crowd in person—a crowd that was several hundred thousand strong.

President Trump spoke powerfully and to great applause about how “every human soul is divine, and every human life—born and unborn—is made in the holy image of Almighty God.” He declared his explicit support for the central claim of the pro-life movement, one rooted in our founding—in the Declaration of Independence, specifically—that every single person has the inalienable, God-given right to life.

Given the massive political debt the Republican Party owes to ordinary pro-life Americans—in the form of their precious votes, campaign contributions, myriad volunteer hours, grassroots mobilization and organization, and day-to-day rhetorical advocacy for nearly 50 years—one would think that, by now, we would have seen significant movement on the question of abortion. Public opinion is largely pro-life. But abortion remains legal and is becoming ever more monstrous in its reach and application. Why?

Because, by all appearances, the swamp of “conservative” politicians, strategists, and think tanks—i.e., “Conservatism, Inc.”—would prefer to milk the issue in perpetuity so as not to lose support.

Think about it: If the issue disappears completely—if the Supreme Court, say, were to overturn its 1973 decision in Roe v. Wade—so-called pro-life conservatives might actually have to work for their daily bread (quelle horreur!). Then how would these sort of Republicans—unable to offer their opportunistic, polished, but hollow pro-life rhetoric—fund their campaigns and win elections?

They wouldn’t—and a GOP populated primarily by these kinds of hucksters would probably collapse.

Why doesn’t Conservatism, Inc. have the stomach or the spine to push hard on this issue, an issue central to the justice of the American project and hearts of the people they claim to represent? Why do they only dust off pro-life talking points and gin up faux outrage come election season, never translating much of it into concrete political victories? Why have we only just now, in 2019, graduated from legislating mandatory (hours-long) waiting periods to heartbeat bills and outright bans?

Because movement conservatism is trapped in an elite ecosystem that is rabidly pro-abortion, and this has blunted their sense not only of what’s possible but of what’s right. Their friends, neighbors, and colleagues in all the wealthiest zip codes view access to abortion as the summum bonum of liberty and (economic) life. The prestigious universities they attended all teach bodily autonomy as a sacred doctrine. And their fellow attendees at fancy D.C. cocktail parties are sure that abortion on demand and without apology is the moral, enlightened position.

This environment has neutered their ability to understand that the average American recoils in disgust at the horrendous procedure, one in which an innocent human being is always sacrificed for some lesser end. They fail to recognize the vast majority of the rest of the country instinctively intuits that a monstrous injustice is wrought each time an abortion is committed—the horror of which is compounded by the mind-boggling reality that since 1973, our nation has been the site of a consistent slaughter of the most innocent among us on a scale several orders of magnitude greater than the Holocaust.

Truly, what good is a roaring economy erected atop a mound of babies’ corpses?

Conservatism, Inc. has been so browbeaten by the constant, inane refrain of “my body, my choice” that the best its members can do is act like they really want abortion gone. Sadly, I submit that they don’t really, deep down in their gut, want that world to arrive. But they’ll say whatever they need to say to fill their campaign bank accounts and cash their checks.

The most basic right is the right to life; the very concept of “rights” is rendered nonsensical without it. Life is the prerequisite for the exercise of any other rights—be they natural, political, or civil.

President Trump understands this, which is why he spoke at the March. In his telling, the Democratic Party “ha[s] embraced the most radical and extreme positions taken and seen in this country for years, and decades—and you can even say ‘for centuries.’” Awkward phrasing aside, he is indisputably correct on this point, and he offered a series of examples to illustrate the claim:

“Nearly every top Democrat in Congress now supports taxpayer-funded abortion, all the way up until the moment of birth.”

“Last year, lawmakers in New York cheered with delight upon the passage of legislation that would allow a baby to be ripped from the mother’s womb right up until delivery.”

“The Governor [of Virginia] stated that he would execute a baby after birth.”

Finally, “Senate Democrats even blocked legislation that would give medical care to babies who survive attempted abortions.”

The crowd vocalized its displeasure at being reminded of these ghoulish events with loud boos.

Conservatives need to stop letting progressives and the “professionals” gaslighted by them define what are and are not acceptable positions for them to take and start “fighting for those who have no voice.” They need to get over their squeamishness about boldly tackling “controversial” social issues; after all, the Left will oppose them tooth and nail no matter how hard they fight, so they may as well go all in. They need to recognize their political duty to “protect, cherish, and defend the dignity and sanctity of every human life” and then stand with the “strong women, amazing faith leaders, and brave students who carry on the legacy of pioneers before us who fought to raise the conscience of our nation and uphold the rights of our citizens.”

If that isn’t a winning message, what is?

First Principles

The Intersection Between Civilization and Barbarism

The forces of savagery are closer than you think.

Last week, I was in Santiago, Chile, delivering eight lectures at the Universidad de los Andes on “The Moral Foundations of a Free Society.” I was speaking to a group of 50 students, most of whom were from Latin American countries from Mexico to Patagonia.

Observant Americans know that Chile has been hit in recent months with violent street protests and demonstrations that have led to serious loss of life (28 people), physical injury (2,500 people, including 2,000 police officers), and high levels of property destruction and looting ($2 billion in losses and damages). At one point, the government declared a temporary state of emergency and briefly put the military in control.

As a result of these coordinated protests, 300,000 Chileans (primarily low-skilled workers) are now unemployed. As usual, these kinds of protests that are said to be in the name of the poor almost always hurt the poor exclusively.

At the end of my week, I got into an Uber and headed for the airport. My driver, for reasons I don’t understand, did not take the fastest and safest route.

Instead, he decided to drive through the heart of the city and through the area known to host the most violent street protests. Traffic was backed up and moving at a snail’s pace. I was growing increasingly concerned that I would be late for my flight. Off in the distance, we could see smoke billowing up in the sky. We both assumed it was some kind of fire.

After about 45 minutes and only having moved a couple of miles, we got closer to a major intersection, where a bottleneck had formed. Off in the distance, I could see little plumes of smoke, people standing on cars waving their arms, and I could hear loud “pops.” As we inched closer to the intersection it became obvious that some kind of serious disturbance was taking place, but we had a truck in front of us, so we couldn’t really see what was happening.

And then we finally got within about 25 yards of the intersection and realized that we were driving into a violent street protest and had nowhere to go but forward into the breach.

As we approached the intersection, it was clear that we were now at Ground Zero of a violent anarcho-Communist street riot with no way to escape. (Their ideology was clear from their placards and the graffiti in the immediate area.) My driver was visibly and audibly worried.

At the intersection, about 20 masked and armed vandals had put spiked chains and barbed wire down on the road, thereby preventing cars from either moving forward through the intersection or turning left.

Five masked thugs wielding bats and large rocks then surrounded our car and started pounding and rocking it. They also had big red fire extinguishers that they were spraying cars with and threatening to throw through car windows. They screamed at us in a way reminiscent of a scene from the film “The Killing Fields” as the Khmer Rouge entered Phnom Penh. The driver pleaded with them to let us through, which only made them angrier.

Even though these thugs were wearing bandanas over their faces, you could clearly see their eyes—and the eyes are the entry point to the soul.

At the crucial moment, as they were banging the car and car windows, one of them pressed his face up on my passenger side window. His face was no more than a few inches from mine. In that single moment, I saw the deranged eyes of a rabid jackal setting on its prey. I have never in my life seen this kind of ideological non compos mentis. It was sheer savagery.

The rioters forced us to turn down a small side street, which was unnerving given that we didn’t know where it would take us or to whom. As we turned onto the side street about 15 police in full riot gear with tear gas rifles made a charge. The vandals then responded by hurling large rocks. Panicked civilians were running in every direction. It was total chaos. This was a full-on riot and my driver and I were in the absolute middle of it.

My greatest concern was that the anarcho-communist thugs would see that I was wearing a U.S. Army t-shirt (in honor of one of my sons), which almost certainly would have meant, at the very least, a good beating.

I can tell you that what I saw at that moment was terrorism. In the car directly beside us, there was a young family with small children. The parents were absolutely terrified and trying to show the vandals that they had small children in the vehicle. The terrorists had zero concern.

We eventually got through and I got to the airport with no time to spare. My driver was very shaken by the whole thing, and I was relieved to get on a plane back to the United States.

For just a few minutes and in the light of day, I was in the heart of darkness. Civilization is a fragile thing. It must be nurtured and protected. The forces of savagery are closer than you think.