If the Foundations Be Destroyed

Tim Dunkin One night about two weeks ago, as I was driving home from the library, I tuned my radio to a local talk station. I had no idea what to expect, since this particular timeslot has seen a lot of turnover in the past few years, having been occupied at one time or another by nearly everybody from Neal Boortz to some boring local guy who I'm sure only had a show because he was the station manager's brother-in-law or something. Anywise, I soon ascertained that there was yet another new voice coming across the airwaves. This one was some guy named Jason Lewis, who labeled himself a number of times as a libertarian.

At any rate, I was listening to the show, marginally interested in the talk about the deficit and about how Obamacare had recently been ruled unconstitutional. However – and I wasn't following closely enough to catch how the discussion got onto this subject – Lewis wound his way around to the subject of “separation of church and state.”

“This ought to be disappointing,” I thought to myself, knowing that the host had already told me he was a libertarian. And he didn't disappoint in being disappointing. In the monologue that followed, Lewis made just about every basic, elementary mistake that people typically make when they talk about church/state issues, and the influence of Christians and social conservatives in the political realm:

• There is a constitutional provision for the “separation of church and state,” (actually, there isn't).

• Passing laws based on moral principles constitutes “violating the separation of church and state” (actually, it doesn't).

• Christians and social conservatives just want to force their personal religious beliefs off onto everyone else (actually, they don't).

And so on.

The problem with these myths is not just that they are wrong, but that they are so in a way that completely undermines everything that America really is about.

Contrary to what libertarians may think, the Founders were not libertarians. You can quote the old saw from Jefferson about “neither picking his pocket or breaking his bones” all you want, but the fact of the matter remains that Jefferson was simply not a libertarian in the sense that the word is used today. Let's not forget – Jefferson was the guy who authored a bill in the Virginia Assembly that would have made castration the punishment for homosexuals. A pretty far cry from even the most socially conservative stances on this issue today, don't you think?

The Founders were not Deists. Again, this is a trope we hear all the time – but let's actually think about this for a second. What actually is a “deist”? A Deist is a person who, while believing in God, does not believe that He intervenes in any meaningful way in the affairs of men at all. A Deist isn't just a “rationalist” who maybe “doesn't believe in miracles” or whatnot. A Deist is a person who basically thinks that God wound it all up, let is go, and went back to sleep, doing nothing as the universal system winds its way back down.

Now, even the most “infidel” of the Founders, aside from Thomas Paine (whose actual importance is typically overrated by libertarians), do not fit this description. Certainly not Jefferson, who said that he trembled upon considering that God is just, and that His justice could not sleep forever. This statement presupposes that God will act in judgment one day – i.e., that He will intervene in the affairs of men in a real and decisive way. Likewise, Ben Franklin observed that if a sparrow cannot fall without God's notice, that an empire could not rise without His aid. Again – that's a statement which presupposes divine intervention.

So, while these two, and some of the others, may not have exactly followed Christian orthodoxy in their religious beliefs, to call them Deists (and to imply from this that they intended for religion to play no role in our nation's public life) is simply dishonest terminology, designed to buttress a dishonest approach to American history.

Further, the Constitution nowhere calls for “separation of church and state,” at least in the way that the socialists and libertarians (who generally tend to be allies on this constellation of issues) mean it. The Constitution basically does two things, with respect to religion. It forbids the federal government from “establishing” (a very specific term that, contextually, describes government support for a specific creedal apparatus) a state religion, and it forbids the government from forcing those who occupy positions in the government to have to swear allegiance to any particular religious creed. In other words, the Constitution lays out the plan for religious freedom – but not freedom from religious influence in the public square (even in the government).

Again, let's look to the Founders' examples. Would people who had just framed and enacted a Constitution have then turned around and made one of the first acts of the new Congress be the printing and distribution of Bibles, at taxpayer expense, if the modern day socialist/libertarian definition of “separation of church and state” were what they had intended with the document? Obviously not. Obviously also, the “separation of church and state” crowd are quite wrong on this regard.

In one of American history's great, if little-known, ironies, the phrase “wall of separation of church and state” is found in one of Jefferson's personal letters, written to a group of Baptists in Virginia. This letter was written in response to the petitions of these Baptists for the inclusion of true religious liberty (as opposed to mere “toleration”) into the proposed Bill of Rights. Jefferson and Madison were both prevailed upon by early American Baptists to push for religious liberty in our Constitution. “Separation of church and state” was not, and never was intended to be, a secularist bully-throttle to be used against public expressions of religion or against laws based on Judeo-Christian moral ideas. Quite the opposite – the idea was intended to prevent the government (including if and when secularists controlled it) from preventing any religious group from having access to the public square.

Yet, by clinging to these myths, hard-core libertarians – just like the leftists across the aisle – seek to justify a worldview that is the very antithesis of the natural law foundation upon which America was built. And by rejecting the foundational worldview of our Founders, libertarians cannot truly claim to be “constitutionalists” anymore than those on the Left can.

I will grant that there are a lot of things that libertarians and constitutional conservatives have in common. We both value economic liberty. We both support individualism and personal responsibility. We both believe in minimizing illegitimate intrusion of the government into the private life of the citizen (more on that below).

Nevertheless, to the extent that libertarianism rejects the fact that moral self-government is a necessity for true liberty, it actually serves to undermine that liberty. As John Adams said, our Constitution is only capable of governing a moral and religious people, those who exercise self-government (which means far, far more than just “doing whatever I want, when I want to”). When a nation succumbs to moral libertinism – social liberalism, social libertarianism, whatever you want to call it – the natural, end result is that the people of that nation will no longer respect their foundational law. Ironically, the very libertarianism that purports to revere our Constitution has been helping to create a generation of Americans who ignore that same document.

And the problem is that if people refuse to self-govern, then they will be other-governed. When people refuse to control their own behavior, they will have to be controlled by force, if civil society is to be maintained in any recognizable form.

And I would challenge any thinking person to observe the state of our society and political system today and argue that this hasn't already progressed to a pretty advanced stage.

One of the major problems with doctrinaire libertarianism is that it refuses to ask people to even engage in the most basic of self-government. As a result, it seems that any sort of stand for traditional moral positions that would presume objective right and wrong is an abomination to many libertarians. An abomination that they then try to suppress by making the sort of bogus “separation of church and state” and “you can't legislate morality” arguments that are so common.

Sure you can legislate morality. Morality is legislated all the time. Any time you pass a law, you're legislating somebody's morality. A law against murder in a statute book assumes a social moral standard against unjustified killing of other human beings. Passing a law like Obamacare puts into place a particular moral code that says that it's okay for society to force some of us to pay for everyone else's health care.

So yes, you can legislate morality. It's not that morality is legislated – but whose, and what the morality is. So, when somebody whines that “you can't legislate morality,” in the context of our discussion here, what they really mean is, “I don't like the particular law you're proposing, and am trying to use bogus 'church-state' arguments to keep it from happening.”

The thing is, our Constitution and the whole, comprehensive social, political, cultural, and ideological milieu in which it was created, supports Judeo-Christian morality as the basis for right and wrong in our political and legal system. I hate to tell Jason Lewis this, but the Bible is the basis of our nation's foundational worldview. While the Founders certainly did not take the Torah and the Gospels and codify them word for word as our fundamental law, nevertheless our whole system presupposes this biblical basis.

This is true, whether you like it or not. If you don't, and wish to change it, that's your business and right, but you cannot claim the mantle of “conservative” while doing so. What is being conserved is that foundation worldview which is as much a part of Americanism as our Constitution itself.

Hence, is it illegitimate – as many socially libertarian types will tell us it is – to use the power of the state to prevent a woman from killing her baby in the womb? Certainly not. And I would challenge any libertarian to make a rational case for how Jefferson, Washington, Henry, Madison, or any of the rest would agree with you instead of with me.

Is it “anti-liberty” to oppose the imposition of the radical gay agenda onto our public life – such as gay marriage, gays in the military, and gay indoctrination in the public schools? Of course not.

And that's the point – because these things, abortion, gay marriage, and the like – are public expressions rather than private, behind-closed-doors behavior choices, they cannot claim “liberty” as their palladium for protection.

I can't kill somebody in my home, and not expect the public to have an interest in it, just because it was done on private property. Likewise, abortion is not a “personal choice” between a woman, her doctor, and God. It is a purposeful taking of a human life – and that makes it my and everybody else's business.

Those who want to remove their lifestyle choices from their own homes, and thrust them into the public square, must then accept that the public square will have a say in “legislating morality” with regards to these. If two gays want to do their thing behind closed doors, that's their business. When they demand that society put its stamp of approval on their lifestyle choice, then society can legitimately debate, and deny, doing this.

This is why I can say as I said above that conservatives, with libertarians, believe in minimizing illegitimate intrusion of the government into the individual citizen's private lives. I, and most other social conservatives, have no interest in telling you what you can or can't drink, eat, look at, listen to, etc. etc. in your own home, on your own time, so long as you're not hurting someone else. . We really don't.

But when you want to put it into the public square, making it a public act of public concern, don't be surprised if somebody starts “legislating morality” about it.

That's the tradeoff you have in a free society that was intended to be robustly religious while also being non-theocratic. What you do on your own time – even if it violates the underlying Judeo-Christian morality and worldview – is your business if you're not hurting another. What you do in the public square, where your behavior and your actions will affect others, doesn't have the same protection. It's subject to review by the democratic processes under which our representative society operates. It is only this tradeoff that maintains the balance between the moral self-government that the Founders knew needed to be encouraged, and the maximization of individual freedom of action that we all want to have.

To summarize, we need to understand that our nation was built on this balance. Religious freedom, individual liberty, but also a firm basis in the Judeo-Christian moral worldview that helps to keep a society from sliding into the anarchy of subjectivism and the rejection of self-government. To blithely argue that the inclusion of religious principles into our lawmaking, our social system, etc. is violating some sort of non-existent secular humanistic principles supposedly held by our Founders and codified into our Constitution is not only historically inaccurate, but is destructive to the very Constitution and subsidiary system upon which our nation was founded.