I hope all of you enjoyed this past weekend, as many of us reminded ourselves of the stories of mercy and resurrection that are at the core of our faiths. In the context of this past weekend’s worship, I thought about the political debates this year. In many ways, I find the recent political rhetoric emerging from the Obama campaign to be giving conservatives both a challenge and a rare opportunity to reset the political dialogue about mercy and justice in a free society.
Last summer, during the debate over the debt ceiling, I wrote a post entitled “The Compassion Trap,” in which I warned that the type of rhetoric we are now hearing indeed would be coming from Obama and his followers. Just as they have confused liberty with autonomy, they have confused collective actions of the state with mercy and justice. If we can re-frame this debate properly, we can change the political dynamics of this country toward a more constitutional and more just society. We need to confront and seize this moment, but do so wisely.
To reset this debate requires conservatives to beat the following point like a drum: compassion toward our fellow man is a fundamental principle that has guided the aspirations and actions of all Americans across the generations—both liberals and conservatives. We simply, but profoundly, disagree over the role of our national government to provide compassion to our neighbors.
From the moment our ancestors landed on these shores, Americans wanted to live by the Golden Rule, and every failure to live by that principle eventually has been met, generation after generation, by a re-commitment to it. In fact, this principle was written into the fabric of our Republic by our Founders.
A month before the Declaration of Independence was adopted by the Continental Congress, Jefferson’s fellow Virginian, George Mason, with the help of Patrick Henry and a young James Madison, wrote and published the Declaration’s pre-cursor, The Virginia Declaration of Rights (also known as the Virginia Bill of Rights), which contained these passages:
1. That all men are by their nature equally free and independent, and have certain inherent rights, of which, when they enter into a state of society, they cannot by compact deprive or divest their posterity; namely, the enjoyment of life and liberty, with the means of acquiring and possessing property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety.
15. That no free government, or the blessings of liberty, can be preserved to any people, but by a firm adherence to justice, moderation, temperance, frugality and virtue, and by frequent recurrence to fundamental principles.
16. … and that it is the mutual duty of all to practice Christian forbearance, love, and charity towards each other.
To our Founders, just as with our Settlers, commitment to the Golden Rule was a citizen’s duty that went hand-in-hand with the preservation of a society of free and independent individuals. It is this commitment that spread the America that de Tocqueville encountered, neighborhood by neighborhood, congregation by congregation, across a continent. It is this commitment that created civic organizations that provided charity and assimilation to generations of Americans, and new Americans. It is this commitment that forced us to face our demons and open our society to all Americans of all races, ethnicities, and genders. It is this commitment that guided us to try to reform Europe after World War I, to rebuild Europe and Japan after World War II, to airlift aid to Berlin, to try to find a peaceful resolution to the deep problems of faith and ethnicity in the Middle East, and to come to the aid of victims of disasters all over the world over many generations.
But at some point over the last 100 years, a growing number of Americans began to believe that our commitment to the Golden Rule here at home could no longer be entrusted to our citizens, or to the system of federalism and local communities that protected and allowed for the individual exercise of the Golden Rule. Instead, these Americans believed that the individual and local approach was too slow and too inefficient to meet a modern society’s complex needs. And so, they sought to unburden each of us from our responsibilities to adhere “to justice, moderation, temperance, frugality and virtue,” and “to practice Christian forbearance, love, and charity towards each other,” by delegating the duties of justice, love and charity to the national government and by ignoring the rest. These Americans would have re-written the parable of the Good Samaritan to have the Samaritan delegate his act of mercy to the local constables in the nearest town.
Today, the difference between an American conservative and an American liberal (or a progressive), is that we conservatives know that delegating our obligation of mercy to government doesn’t end with the delivery of mercy; while liberals just want another chance to perfect their schemes, because they firmly believe that with just a little more tinkering and tax money they’ll finally get it right. We conservatives know that had the Samaritan kept on walking, like the others had, the stranger on the side of the road would have died by the time the constables arrived to investigate. We conservatives know that by delegating our obligation to govern our lives by the Golden Rule to bureaucrats, moderation, temperance, frugality, virtue and forbearance have been lost, and government has failed to provide adequate justice, love and charity to anyone. In the process, we’ve bankrupted our country and ourselves, and we’ve condemned whole generations of communities to under-education, under-employment, and over-incarceration. Meanwhile, all we’ve gained is a sense of freedom from each other.
Are our ideals radical? Yes: defining liberty as combining freedom with the duty of the Golden Rule was always a radical experiment; but it was an experiment we as Americans always believed was worth continuing, and that Dr. King described as a promissory note due to all Americans. If the unique, wonderful experiment of America is to last for our children ‘s posterity, we conservatives must resurrect our Founder’s first principles, and challenge our liberal friends and neighbors to prove that our ideals are not just radical, but that they are wrong. Down deep, we know, and they know, that they can’t meet that burden. While they try, we conservatives must persuade our neighbors that living by these principles requires a re-commitment to federalism and to governance through local action.
Finally, we conservatives must convince our neighbors that America wasn’t great because we allowed liberals to delegate our duties to the national government, and because they created failed grand schemes that made them feel good (but that are bankrupting us now). We were, and still are great, because we created a unique society of caring, free people. Our neighbors need to understand that we conservatives aren’t trying to take anything away from them. Instead, we are trying to give them back a modern society based on true liberty, true justice, and true mercy.
If we make this point, we will win the election with a mandate for lasting reform.