(First published here in 2015, when Donald Trump first appeared on the scene and animated a body of voters that hadn’t been seen, considered, or closely analyzed for a very long time.
(It appears that body of voters were why he won, why the 1776 Revolution was fought and who the Constitution was written about, so it’s a subject I believe we need to bring into clearer focus.)
The Transcendence of Liberty
I’ve told this story before, of the time in 1991 I attended a birthday party for a law professor at a university in USSR Ukraine. Around three tables pushed together, in a dimly lit room, in winter, there were twelve, mostly academicians, all standing, glasses held high, while the host’s son would go around and fill each glass with a home-brew vodka in a very traditional Russian round-robin series of toasts. When this parade finally ended at the head the table, the host asked me to speak on his behalf. Just a little in my cups, and having nothing un-foolish to say right off the top of my head, I steadied myself and reached into my inside pocket and pulled out my trusty Cato Institute edition of the Constitution, and read from it aloud, more specifically, Jefferson’s famous lines of the Declaration, one slow couplet at a time, so it could be translated. “We hold these truths to be self-evident…”
At the time I didn’t know these words by heart, but I do now.
What happened next is why.
Common words to many Americans, I swear, I don’t think any of those Soviet professors had ever heard them before, for upon finishing, I looked up to see every person assembled crying, tears pouring down their cheeks. There wasn’t a single smug been-there-heard-that look in the crowd. I’m sure the vodka helped. Then after we had eaten, three of the professors, continuing a constitutional Q & A begun before the meal, rushed up to say “Mister, Mister, now we understand Amerika Constitution. Is simple…even Ivan Ivanovich (the Russian Homer Simpson) can pursue life, liberty, happiness without permission of state.” (Emphasis mine…and theirs.)
Out of the mouth of babes, huh? But scholar-babes…who could get to the nub of a proposition in a blink of an eye…and yet be humbled by a simple truth when they discovered it for the first time. Outside of a revival, when do we ever see that in Amerika anymore? (Yes, I know, almost no one goes to a revival anymore, or even has a memory of one.)
One of the most moving events in my life, I felt like I had been witness to a visitation, only am still not sure who educated who on this visit to the law professor’s cottage in the village 1991.
Sadly, to many Americans, those words by Jefferson are as chestnut as “Ohsaycanyouseebythedawnsearlylight”. Eyes glaze over. And now there are the millennials, who increasingly have never heard those words at all, in part because no one, including teacher, has bothered to explain the American theology of liberty to them in the first place.
In the past few months I’ve come to learn what I’ve suspected for years now, namely that some well-educated men and women, people who have read all the books, and even proclaim themselves “conservative”, haven’t any earthly clue as to what “America” really means, or what it’s purpose is.
You know the type. I recall watching late night television while in law school in the 60s, when a theologian (he professed to be a Methodist), while discussing “How Great Thou Art” (the Hines-Boberg hymn made famous by George Beverley Shea) smugly commented “it was theologically shallow”.
With images of multitudes getting up from their seats and coming down to the altar at one of Billy Graham’s crusades while that song was sung, I decided it was time to throw off my Methodist label, just as I later threw off the Republican label in 2011. But since I was trying to get a degree that would allow me to move among the smarter set, I began an inquiry into the difference between the “corporate church” and “church of the people” seeking to learn which actually sits at the heart of Christianity, and who is “the reason for the season”, the theologians or the Homer Simpsons of the world.
You already know the answer to this, but the process is instructive.
What I have learned may be illuminating to those seeking guidance on how to deal with the rift between “corporate conservatism” and the “native conservatism of the people”. Much has been written about it of late, and much of it is wrong.
The Parable of the Parallel
The simplicity of Jefferson’s truths, and their ability to overpower even the super-educated, if their hearts are “in the trim”, is what makes certain truths transcendent, which, once learned, can be re-born as if brand new.
The lines between the Front Office and the Front Lines are well established, but because of transcendence, exceptions can be found in both Christianity and Human Liberty.
It’s been said about Christianity that it grows one soul at a time by a process of a few simple truths being reborn in a single being. This is how it has re-birthed itself for over two thousand years. These truths never lose their ability to stand the hair up on the back of your neck, or to rend your heart, especially when we see others discover it for the first time. It renews your own faith as you watch a new star being born.
If you’re a regular church-goer you know what I mean.
Truth is literally re-born all over again, new and fresh. Thus, it can forever renew itself, which is why, for almost 1500 years, when Muslims have swung swords over the heads of “infidels”, saying “Recant and accept Islam or die”, there are brand new Christians no more than 25 years old, who still offer up their necks and refuse. Such is the power of this transcendence.
I like to think there are still Americans who will refuse to recant the “doctrine of liberty” under similar inducements. Time may soon tell.
But you first have to look at the simplicity of this American theology, this doctrine of liberty, to understand how such people can exist. But then, first, you have to know to look for it, and where to look for it. This was once supposed to be foundational in the conservative thinking, for the great ideas of liberty are transmitted in the same manner. Becoming a Christian and becoming a liberty-lover are not dissimilar, for each touch a primal need inside all Mankind. Each involved a handshake, one of which was on the knees.
Christ promised spiritual liberty while the American Constitution provides men with the freedom to pursue life, liberty and happiness “without the permission state”. Not that long ago, so powerful was this right that men would fight, in rolled-up sleeves scrappin’ mode, defending a Constitution they had never read, or in many cases, were unable to read. They only knew it by name.
They simply knew it was the source of their freedoms.
Today in America men and women still fall at the altar of freedom without once having to resort to a catechism, or a handbook, to guide them to this new freedom that has been revealed to them.
It’s the same thing, just different doors of the spiritual universe.
So, how does the native conservatism of the people stand against the conservatism of its priesthood? Who is the “reason for the season” here?
Again, early Christianity provides a clue. I’m an apologist for the churches in America, so study this subject. I was working on a book which will never be finished, The Devil’s History of the United States, encouraged by Mark Twain, and the following is excerpted from a section on parallels of Christ’s ministry and the founding of America:
Christ preached for three years, and the things He preached, as recorded in the New Testament, could all be written down longhand onto a few sheets of lined paper. His words were simple and directed at ordinary people. He didn’t aim His remarks at the Establishment of the day, government and religious officials, businessmen or teachers at the lyceum. And He didn’t need a chalkboard or syllabus to lay out how to find inner peace, God, or the path to salvation and freedom. “And the common people heard him gladly” was how Mark (Mk 12:37) spelled this out. Christ wasn’t trying to impress anyone inside the Judean or Roman Establishment. The common people were the reason for the season.
But then a funny thing happened on the way to the Forum.
Christ was executed (Fact) and then arose and ascended into heaven (Belief, so you don’t have to believe this part, even though the circumstantial evidence is pretty overwhelming), and then 50 days later 120 men and women departed Jerusalem headed in 120 different directions to preach the story of what they had personally known of this Man. (Again, Fact). What is also fact is that they took no textbooks with them, as the Gospels would be some years in the writing, and Saints Peter and James having not yet written their story, and St Paul was still running around persecuting Christians under his Roman name, Saul.
(And they were mostly martyred, again Fact, which proves they weren’t scamming a bogus product.)
So, what message did these first missionaries carry orally to the far-flung world? Christianity began with 120 versions of eyewitnesses to Christ’s sermons so in all likelihood none of those 120 versions were exactly the same. In fact, we know they weren’t because issues arose almost immediately. The first century of church fathers and scholars were curious, inquiring and devout, using the best evidence available to settle disputes, trying to create an orderliness to the intellectual chaos. Still, by the 4th Century, (300 years) hundreds of different interpretations of Christ’s words had been created. And churches.
The makings of a corporate church began taking shape in Nicaea in 325 AD, but that was not necessarily a bad thing at the beginning. In fact, it was a natural progression of man’s intellect and his need to collate and standardize. What we know is that, beginning at Nicea, eventually the corporate church (after three centuries of persecution and literally holding church meetings underground) went one way, toward what students of organizational studies now know to be a series of historical crucibles that define its rise in power through protection, and through a long period of bureaucratic consolidation, before later near-collapse…all according to fixed laws of bureaucracies, and which, in almost all human enterprises, saps the transcendent idea that started it in the first place right out of most enterprises.
But note!… that while the corporate church was heading in one direction, the corpus of the church, the parishes, where the common people lived, largely continued on their original course; one soul at a time.
And for two thousand years, the essence of that message, often called the Good News, was heard and understood by millions despite the variations in its telling, even as attempts were made in the front office to create doctrine and rites as unbending and orthodox as an EPA regulation, including a full menu of sanctions against those who strayed off the reservation.
So, predictably, the corporatization of the Church occurred in phases. At Nicaea, having arrived at a “consensus” (250 churches represented of approximately 3500 actually invited to attend) the Church first declared itself to be The Universal One True Church, then decided what was canonical (what could go in the New Testament and what could not), then granted itself the power to excommunicate dissident churches and thinkers.
At this point at least, this was just a paper exercise, and those distant churches were unfazed inasmuch as the Church had not yet obtained a blam stick. Then, in 800 AD it got one, when the Church inked a power-sharing agreement with the king-system of Europe by crowning Charlemagne (a Frank, if that give you any clue as to kind of deal the Church was making—at least in Mark Twain’s eyes) as the Holy Roman Emperor. Fully half of Christendom lay outside the reach of this Church in Europe, but blam stick fully in its grasp, the Church no longer had to dilly-dally with apostates within its territories and began burning people at the stake as if they were cordwood. No more need to bother with scholarly disputations…although, if the record of the trial of Joan of Arc is any indication, Church tribunals had become excessively tedious and long-winded (compare with the Jan6 Congressional Hearings) even when they were driving toward a pre-determined outcome. All sorts of sects disappeared completely over these five-six hundred years, undoing half a millennium of shared piety.
Finally, during the corporate Church’s watch Europe was also jailed into feudalism, making the 90%’s (Homer Simpsons’) physical life worse than it ever was at the time of Christ, thus making their quest for spiritual freedom even more problematic.
(If the Devil were in charge of this circus you’d have to say it looked like he was winning.)
If any of this sounds familiar it’s because the Church followed the path of kings, and every kingdom that had come down the pike since the pharaohs, even the enlightened ones, eventually failed. No one ever did a real study, but by the 14th Century, fewer than half the clergy were even religious, including a few popes, and the common man and woman (serfs) were so beaten down and poor they were unable to make personal decisions about God that did not include fear.
Worse, Christ’s simple message had gotten much less simple.
Still some of Christianity’s greatest giants lived in those days; creating the monastic orders, which saved western civilization and scholarship in the darkest of days, and saving the Church at important turns, (e.g.,Catherine of Siena) and everywhere there were friars who shepherded their flocks just as they had done since the 1st century. (Historians, for reason not pertinent to this discussion, but always king-centered, overlook these essentials altogether, just as modern corporate conservatism now overlooks its own roots in log cabins.)
For you see, the Church didn’t go the way of the Bourbons, or General Motors. The rank-and-file Church had something corporations and top-down governments don’t have in their seed, and it’s that transcendent fire that never really goes out at its base. So, in the early 16th Century, outlier churches rebelled, both over the arrogance and suffocating power of the Church, but also its doctrine, only rescuing it instead of burning it. It was called the Reformation, and insofar as the history of the “churches in America” is concerned, saved the Catholic Church, for the passion of its parishes here still defines it, not its corporate front office.
History Sidebar: It was during this period that America was first incubated (1607), and I wonder if any of you can see a connection? (Read Larry Schweikart’s Patriot’s History of the United States for it was not a coincidence.)
So, whither Conservatism?
American conservatism is founded on the simple principles framed in the Declaration by those words (above) by Thomas Jefferson that brought Soviet scholars to tears, about man’s unalienable right to pursue life, liberty and happiness. Their transcendent connection with the people is undeniable.
My friend David M Poff recently published a book, Unwashed Philosophy: A User’s Guide For Our Imperfect Union, available at Amazon.com. It covers the history of covenants standing at the foot of mankind’s search for the renewable transcendence that we want to pass onto the next generations and the next. I contributed a couple of chapters of my own. We agree that the glue that has kept this process together since at least Noah, through Abraham, Moses and finally, to all of Mankind (still only 50% accomplished) was the idea of “a covenant with the Creator”. Christ’s message to the common man proved it was something that could be reborn anew with every new convert and generation. “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the Kingdom of God!” (Mark 10:24-25).
So look for another volume and more essays on this subject.
That is the transcendent handshake between the Declaration and the Constitution, perhaps Jefferson’s and Hamilton’s only handshake. That’s the reason for our season. That is the purpose of “conservatism”; to enlighten and protect the common man and woman as they first discover, then pursue those few simple things. And yes, most still begin as immigrants.
If you have not knelt at that altar and dedicated yourself to that purpose foremost, you are no more a conservative than Obama is a scholar, or Bill Clinton a choirboy.
Did you think I could write all this and not mention Donald Trump?
Donald Trump has been a Godsend. For 20 years we have had a Great Spiritual Awakening just beckoning around the corner, waiting to happen, only this time it is as much about the American theology of liberty as it is about the underlying issues of faith and morality that we are seeing mocked…only no longer just by the Left but GOP Establishment. Today, our country is besieged with enemies who wish to eradicate both of these freedoms, in no particular order, so it only stands to reason that both the apologists and defenders of these freedoms have to at least know where their heart is, and that they are more than just vain repetitions.
Donald Trump is gathering up the faceless-nameless vote, people who are supposed to be conservatism’s constituency, but have been cast off. They have been abandoned at the altar of an Establishment that long ago buried trite, simplistic chestnuts as a justifiable cause for any movement, as any Methodist theologian would. Obviously the connection was ruptured long ago, and the time for a reformation is upon us.
Trump is jeopardizing their rice bowls. He is on the cusp of dismantling the establishment’s entire support system.
American history needs to be shed of these faux-corporate conservatives, just as all the Great American Tories from the first Revolution have faded into dust.