Declaration of Independence

Below: some preliminary remarks on a terminological issue related to a book in progress. The book: George Will’s The Conservative Sensibility (New York: Hachette Books, 2019). The issue: “This is a republic, not a democracy—let’s keep it that way!” to quote a John Birch Society sticker you’ve probably never seen. The content: main remarks and tangents.

Main Remarks ^

In The Conservative Sensibility, Will brings together various strands of discussion that have grown in prevalence over the last several years—concerning the progressive movement’s efforts since Teddy Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson to overturn America’s founding philosophy; concerning the work of those opposing this to recapture that founding philosophy, bring it back to Americans’ attention, and, it is hoped, make it again central to American governance and jurisprudence; and reiterating the arguments of people like Hayek showing that big-government central planning isn’t just morally and philosophically wrong but is also incapable of working; and so on (which catch-all phrasing I use because I’ve just started the chapter where Hayek comes into play and don’t know what treasures the remainder of the book might hold)—to clarify what philosophy we ought to label “conservative” and what agenda “conservatives” should support. In an America where a big-government populist like Donald Trump is called “conservative” by the media and most of the general public, certainly this clarification is needed. (Noteworthy deregulation alone, though certainly welcome, does not make one a small-government conservative. Someone as unconcerned about unsustainable deficits and mounting debt, as supportive of easy-money central-bank policies that steal from savers to enrich the highly-leveraged-investors class, and as eager to stretch the limits of executive power as far as courts will permit certainly shows little interest in effecting a net reduction in the size and scope of government.) Though I’m told Trump is never mentioned in the book, which Will said in an Aspen Institute interview (quoting his own appearance elsewhere) was true for the same reason that Doris Day is never mentioned (it is a book about ideas, and, I believe he meant to imply, about and for people who care about and grapple with ideas), the book clearly does respond to changes in American politics that Trump’s ascension, to the presidency and to unchallenged leadership of what was once the official home for politically active American conservatives, has brought more clearly into view.

While an excellent book so far, The Conservative Sensibility’s incessant references to America’s “democracy” do annoy me, much as does Fox News’s often-played commercial where Tucker Carlson starts off with the emphatic assertion, “This is a democracy.” I know this is well-established terminology that people outside tiny “fringe” organizations see no point in opposing, but I think the cause of what the Constitution Party might call “constitutionism,” what the general public sometimes calls “constitutionalism,” and what Will calls “conservatism” loses a tiny bit of ground every time a prominent public figure calls America a “democracy” without the countless qualification required to make clear how greatly America’s founding principles and government differ from those of other nations now calling themselves “democracies.” (Zuhdi Jasser, an American Muslim sometimes invited to speak on less-leftist news stations and at conservative conventions, uses incessantly both the term “democracy” and the equally unhelpful term “secular” to describe American government.[1] For my part, I would much prefer he call governments that honor the right to religious freedom “religiously neutral” rather than “secular,” but that is an issue for another time.)

Whenever someone like Will joins progressives in calling America a “democracy,” he helps the progressives make their case that America, since it is intended to be a democracy, must strive to be as purely and fully a democracy as it can be. Belief in individual rights preexisting government, rights that must not be violated by democratic majorities, is not essential to “democracy” per se. It is essential to the unique form of democratic government founded in America, where the sovereign demos has the exercise of its will impeded by separated powers and rights-protecting legal structures, which some of us would prefer to always call either a “republic” or a “constitutional republic” to make clear it is not a “democracy” such as one might have in nations where rights not granted by government are not recognized, but which those attached to the word “democracy” should at least call “the American democracy” (or, perhaps, “a libertarian [liberty-based] democracy”), since much that is essential to it is not essential to “democracies” in general. Democracies in general only require that the people be sovereign; that they, which is to say the majority of them, have final say is all that is essential. If “rights” are seen as granted to citizens by majority vote, not being in any sense innate or inalienable, the “democracy” is no less democratic; in fact, it is more fully and more perfectly democratic because even rights are under its authority. This reality plays into the hands of progressives: people are taught to think of “democracy” as the best of all possible polities; when they then learn how imperfectly democratic American “democracy” is while belief in innate rights prevails, they naturally join progressives in working to make America more democratic, with the will of the majority less impeded by laws grounded in the antiquated theory of innate, natural, God-given rights. Though calling America a “democracy” cannot be challenged on technical grounds—the people do rule, the demos has sovereignty—the progressive baggage that the term “democracy” carries today advises against using it when one doesn’t have to.

A call to embrace alternative terminology even less likely to catch on also merits mention. Though referring to America’s War for Independence as the “American Revolution” has been well established since early in our history, I often wonder whether “revolution” is the best choice of words. This severing of the American colonies from the kingdom across the pond did not involve an uprising of the common people to overthrow and replace the government. It was duly elected colonial representatives of the people, in their capacity as legitimate governing officials of the several colonies, who declared America’s independence. The government remained intact in England, and no one here sought to overthrow it. This was a war of secession by American states which, considering themselves sovereign, believed they had the right to withdraw from the kingdom of which they had long been a part.

While I’m skeptical that someone who presupposes no God behind nature can justifiably assert to know that individual humans posses certain rights by nature (Will’s idea that individuals have rights to whatever is essential to the flourishing of beings of their nature doesn’t persuade me, since it, among other problems, simply presupposes a right to flourish), I will certainly grant that some atheists and agnostic do assert knowledge that human individuals have certain natural rights. Setting aside the question of justification of their belief that they have this knowledge, I would still have to ask on what basis people who do not affirm that there exists a moral arbiter above humans, a personal God who can hold violators of others’ rights accountable—on what basis do such people assert that any individual, any group, or any government is obligated to respect, and so not to infringe, the rights of individuals? One may assert a “moral obligation” if one wishes, but in an atheistic order of things, why must anyone not inclined to fulfill moral obligations feel guilty about not doing so? Why, in fact, must person One accept person Two’s assertion that something is a moral obligation, when One may as easily assert that the true moral obligation is to do just the opposite of what Two asserts to be morally obligatory? Who has the authority to declare Two correct and One in error, if there is no moral authority higher than human persons? I suppose atheists and agnostics will propose a reified Reason as arbiter, but why trust any human’s reasoning (the only form, if there is no divine revelation, in which Reason is ever encountered) when that faculty may only exist because it helped ancestors survive and reproduce? Just because a faculty had a survival advantage for one’s predecessors doesn’t mean it can rightly discern moral truth. Some might even argue that the people who survive, thrive, and reproduce most effectively in “the state of nature” are those least burdened by sound reasoning and strong moral convictions.

If my excessive highlighting and profuse annotating permit me to finish this book one day, I shall perhaps have more to say in a formal review. In the meantime, these thoughts, along with the tangents below, will have to suffice. Be seeing you.

Tangents ^

[1] On the subject of Zuhdi Jasser, I’ve noted in another post how Jasser, in at least one instance, has, in addition to lauding “democracy” and “secular” governments, applied the LGBTQ+-invented and invalid “homophobia” label to people who, though they reject violence against those engaging in homosexual activity, remain true to the moral teachings of their faiths by condemning such activity as immoral. While I agree with him that violence against homosexuals is unacceptable—decisions about this sort of activity must be left up to individuals, as must decisions about whether to celebrate or condemn such activity—it troubles me that so many are willing to profess faiths, whether Jasser’s Islam or my own Christianity, while at the same time rejecting some of the clearest, most straightforward teachings of those faiths. Faiths’ moral teachings are not things to be drawn upon selectively as one draws upon the menu items at a buffet; they are comprehensive systems for guiding one’s behavior and enlightening one’s thinking. If you’re going to profess a faith, show that faith’s moral teachings a little respect, please.

Jasser’s misguided adoption of “homophobia” calls to mind others’ similar behavior. Pro-homosexual activists, including “conservatives” who affirm choice of a “gay” lifestyle as legitimate or even self-identify as “gay,” infuriatingly refer to those who oppose homosexual activity on moral grounds as “homophobic,” whether the moral grounds involved are soundly biblical or based on less clearly valid arguments from allegedly neutral premises based on natural reason. The thinking behind this and other pro-homosexual rhetoric[2] seems to be that failing to endorse and celebrate this variety of sexual deviation from God’s creational intent necessarily shows that one hates or fears people who engage in homosexual activity. Thus, the label “homophobic” is applied even to people who are willing to grant that the decision whether or not to engage in such activity must be left to adult individuals to decide for themselves, people who hold that government has no authority to regulate private consensual behavior, if these people fail to also endorse homosexual activity as a morally acceptable choice worth celebrating and an act of “love.” Especially objectionable and sure to be labeled phobic is anyone who suggests that people who experience same-sex attraction should be free to seek out and pay for counseling that refuses either to affirm such attraction or to encourage its indulgence. Lawmakers in my state, California, have been working assiduously to prevent people with homosexual inclinations from seeking out counseling or other help aimed at overcoming such inclinations. I imagine the same in true in other states, as the equivalent has been true online.

[2] Concerning “pro-homosexual rhetoric,” some remarks I jotted down back in May seem relevant. Due to the remarkably poor ability of the algorithms Google uses to recommend new videos based on those you’ve viewed before, or due to algorithms intentionally crafted to try to persuade you to adopt the opinions of Google corporate, I’ve happened upon a few videos by professing Christians obsessed with demonstrating that Sodom’s destruction was not brought about by the homosexual perversion of her citizens. Typically, the argument is that God rained down fire upon the city because its people were “inhospitable,” not because they were involved in homosexual perversion. This argument can seem plausible to people because a small part of it is true: God destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah for pervasive, “very grievous” sin (Genesis 18:20), for willful depravity so universal among these cities’ denizens that not even a dozen people could be found in Sodom who were not in the grips of it (Genesis 18:31–32). It is also true, certainly, that demanding that Lot’s angelic guests, who appeared in the form of human males, be sent out so they could be raped by “the men of Sodom…both old and young…from every quarter” of the city—well, one can’t deny that wasn’t very hospitable.

But one reading with a pious eye of faith cannot fail to see that God intentionally points to the homosexual perversion of the Sodomites as indicating just how wholly depraved these people were (at God’s allowance for our instruction, his common grace having so been withdrawn from these people as to let them degenerate to a rare extremity of evilness). Granted, had the Sodomites believed in the libertarian non-aggression principle and merely asked Lot to tell his guests they were welcome to join the homosexual orgy if they had nothing better to do, God might have left the cleansing of Sodom to a later time—who knows? That wasn’t how things went down, however. The Sodomites’ behavior was as follows:

[4] But before they lay down, the men of the city, even the men of Sodom, compassed the house round, both old and young, all the people from every quarter: [5] And they called unto Lot, and said unto him, Where are the men which came in to thee this night? bring them out unto us, that we may know them [know them carnally, sexually, that is]. [6] And Lot went out at the door unto them, and shut the door after him, [7] And said, I pray you, brethren, do not so wickedly. [8] Behold now, I have two daughters which have not known man; let me, I pray you, bring them out unto you, and do ye to them as is good in your eyes: only unto these men do nothing; for therefore came they under the shadow of my roof. [It seems Lot placed “hospitality” above the welfare of his own daughters, or else he knew well that the men of Sodom would reject this offer, in which case he only made the offer—was only led by God to make it—in order to make clear just how evil the men of Sodom were. The latter understanding might fit better with 2 Peter 2:7, if it is not too eisegetical to tolerate.] [9] And they said, Stand back. And they said again, This one fellow came in to sojourn, and he will needs be a judge [in modern terms: “Don’t you dare judge us, you homophobe!”]: now will we deal worse with thee, than with them. And they pressed sore upon the man, even Lot, and came near to break the door. [10] But the men put forth their hand, and pulled Lot into the house to them, and shut to the door. [11] And they smote the men that were at the door of the house with blindness, both small and great: so that they wearied themselves to find the door. (Genesis 19:4–11)

Lot’s inappropriate offering of his daughters in place of the male guests (male in the human form in which they chose to manifest themselves, at any rate) seems meant to emphasize that the men of Sodom were so thoroughly perverse that they would rather force sex upon male strangers than accept Lot’s daughters.

Before the degeneracy of today, where even Christians often strive more to alter than to obey what Scripture says, Matthew Henry commented as follows on Genesis 19:4–11:

Now it appeared, beyond contradiction, that the cry of Sodom was no louder than there was cause for. This night’s work was enough to fill the measure. For we find here,

I. That they were all wicked, [Genesis 19:4]. Wickedness had become universal, and they were unanimous in any vile design. Here were old and young, and all from every quarter, engaged in this riot; the old were not past it, and the young had soon come up to it. Either they had no magistrates to keep the peace, and protect the peaceable, or their magistrates were themselves aiding and abetting. Note, When the disease of sin has become epidemical, it is fatal to any place, [Isaiah 1:5–7].

II. That they had arrived at the highest pitch of wickedness; they were sinners before the Lord exceedingly ([Genesis 13:13]); for, 1. It was the most unnatural and abominable wickedness that they were now set upon, a sin that still bears their name, and is called Sodomy. They were carried headlong by those vile affections ([Romans 1:26–27]), which are worse than brutish, and the eternal reproach of the human nature, and which cannot be thought of without horror by those that have the least spark of virtue and any remains of natural light and conscience. Note, Those that allow themselves in unnatural uncleanness are marked for the vengeance of eternal fire. See [Jude 1:7]. They were not ashamed to own it, and to prosecute their design by force and arms. The practice would have been bad enough if it had been carried on by intrigue and wheedling; but they proclaimed war with virtue, and bade open defiance to it. Hence daring sinners are said to declare their sin as Sodom, [Isaiah 3:9]. Note, Those that have become impudent in sin generally prove impenitent in sin; and it will be their ruin. Those have hard hearts indeed that sin with a high hand, [Jeremiah 6:15]. 3. When Lot interposed, with all the mildness imaginable, to check the rage and fury of their lust, they were most insolently rude and abusive to him. [It seems Antifa has been around longer than I thought.] He ventured himself among them, [Genesis 19:6]. He spoke civilly to them, called them brethren [Genesis 19:7], and begged of them not to do so wickedly; and, being greatly disturbed at their vile attempt, he unadvisedly and unjustifiably offered to prostitute his two daughters to them, [Genesis 19:8]. It is true, of two evils we must choose the less; but of two sins we must choose neither, nor ever do evil that good may come of it. He reasoned with them, pleaded the laws of hospitality and the protection of his house which his guests were entitled to; but he might as well have offered reason to a roaring lion and a raging bear as to these head-strong sinners, who were governed only by lust and passion. Lot’s arguing with them does but exasperate them; and, to complete their wickedness, and fill up the measure of it, they fall foul upon him. (1.) They ridicule him, charge him with the absurdity of pretending to be a magistrate, when he was not so much as a free-man of their city, [Genesis 19:9]. Note, It is common for a reprover to be unjustly upbraided as a usurper [or a homophobe]; and, while offering the kindness of a friend, to be charged with assuming the authority of a judge: as if a man might not speak reason without taking too much upon him. (2.) They threaten him, and lay violent hands upon him; and the good man is in danger of being pulled in pieces by this outrageous rabble. Note, {1.} Those that hate to be reformed hate those that reprove them, though with ever so much tenderness. Presumptuous sinners do by their consciences as the Sodomites did by Lot, baffle their checks, stifle their accusations, press hard upon them, till they have seared them and quite stopped their mouths, and so made themselves ripe for ruin. {2.} Abuses offered to God’s messengers and to faithful reprovers soon fill the measure of a people’s wickedness, and bring destruction without remedy. See [Proverbs 29:1], and [2 Chronicles 36:16]. If reproofs remedy not, there is no remedy. See [2 Chronicles 25:16].

III. That nothing less than the power of an angel could save a good man out of their wicked hands. It was now past dispute what Sodom’s character was and what course must be taken with it, and therefore the angels immediately give a specimen of what they further intended. 1. They rescue Lot, [Genesis 19:10]. Note, He that watereth shall be watered also himself. Lot was solicitous to protect them, and now they take effectual care for his safety, in return for his kindness. Note further, Angels are employed for the special preservation of those that expose themselves to danger by well-doing. The saints, at death, are pulled like Lot into a house of perfect safety, and the door shut for ever against those that pursue them. 2. They chastise the insolence of the Sodomites: They smote them with blindness, [Genesis 19:11]. This was designed, (1.) To put an end to their attempt, and disable them from pursuing it. Justly were those struck blind who had been deaf to reason. Violent persecutors are often infatuated so that they cannot push on their malicious designs against God’s messengers, [Job 5:14–15]. Yet these Sodomites, after they were struck blind, continued seeking the door, to break it down, till they were tired. No judgments will, of themselves, change the corrupt natures and purposes of wicked men. If their minds had not been blinded as well as their bodies, they would have said, as the magicians, This is the finger of God, and would have submitted. (2.) It was to be an earnest of their utter ruin, the next day. When God, in a way of righteous judgment, blinds men, their condition is already desperate, [Rom. 11:8–9].

{2.} Abuses offered to God’s messengers and to faithful reprovers soon fill the measure of a people’s wickedness, and bring destruction without remedy. See [Proverbs 29:1], and [2 Chronicles 36:16]. If reproofs remedy not, there is no remedy. See [2 Chronicles 25:16].

In addition to being a man who knew how to construct the sort of suitably long paragraphs so rare in today’s writing, Henry knew well how to clearly set forth and properly apply the truths of Scripture. Henry’s commentary is in the public domain, and I encourage readers who don’t have a copy to seek one out for purchase or free download. I’ve quoted from the digital version included with BibleWorks 7 (Norfolk: BibleWorks, LLC, 2006).

Those who label “phobic” people who take their scriptures seriously turn secular psychology into an idol. Worship of this idol does no one any good, and it will do many engaged in homosexuality eternal harm, preventing them from listening to or even hearing the dire warnings of which God’s people are duty-bound to inform them. Secular elites in academia, and secular not-so-elites in entertainment, do those burdened with an inclination toward the sin of homosexuality a disservice when they present homosexual indulgence as something normal and healthy to be affirmed and celebrated. Of course, this is not the first sin to be portrayed as normal and desirable by the degenerates who produce most popular entertainment and drive most popular culture, nor will it be the last. The greatest tragedy may be that so many people think the refuse these degenerates produce is something they can binge on without suffering any harm.