Seeing Things: The Professor, the Pope, and the Politician

“The salvation of the West must come, if it is to come, from the United States. The salvation of the United States, if it is to come, must come from the Republican party. And the salvation of the Republican party, if it is to come, must come from the conservative movement within it. And the salvation of the conservative movement, if it is to come, must come from the renewal and reaffirmation of the principles of the American Founding, embodied in the Declaration of Independence. . . . If such a renewal is to come, however, it must be by the rejection of the ideas that have dominated American conservatism in the last half-century.” Thus Harry V. Jaffa, the distinguished political philosopher, speaking in Washington at the Claremont Institute’s Lincoln Day Conference this year.

Even in the highly partisan precincts of the District of Columbia, talk of this sort is quite strong. We do not like to see the problem so starkly laid out. But the alternatives to Jaffa’s view of what could save the West are few and weak. Jaffa continued with some excerpts from John Paul II’s welcoming speech to Lindy Boggs, the new U.S. ambassador to the Holy See:

The United States carries a weighty and far reaching responsibility, not only for the well being of its own people, but for the development and destiny of people throughout the world. . . . The Founding Fathers of the United States asserted their claim to freedom and independence on the basis of certain ‘self-evident’ truths about the human person: Truths which could be discerned in human nature, built into it by ‘nature’s God.’

The Holy Father quite rightly did not remark on where in the American body politic that understanding remains. But Jaffa is right to claim the American founding’s kinship with the ideas of John Paul.

Around the same time as the professor and the pope were making these observations, a rare politician, Vaclav Havel, addressed the parliament and senate of the Czech Republic. Before turning to specific policies, he warned that, like many of us in the West, Czechs have come to believe that the primary things are secondary: “Morality, decency, humility before the order of nature, solidarity, concern for future generations, respect for the law, the culture of interpersonal relationships—all these and many similar things were trivialized as ‘superstructure,’ as icing on the cake, until at last we realized that there was nothing left to put the icing on: The forces of economic production themselves had been undermined.”

In the clintonized culture we now inhabit in the United States, Havel’s wise words should give us pause, along with his explanation of why this happened: “They were undermined because . . . they were not cultivated in the strict spirit of the divine commandments.” Or as the professor and pope have already made clear, it is the observance of the laws of nature’s God—call it natural right or natural law as you see fit—that undergird liberty and prosperity, not the liberty and prosperity that allow people to indulge a taste, should they happen to have one, for ethics or high politics.

This brings us back to Jaffa’s claim that only a different conservatism than the one we find in the Republican party can, in the final analysis, save the West from its suicidal course. Jaffa takes to task Chief Justice Rehnquist and Robert Bork for judicial positivism, and Justice Antonin Scalia for a misguided majoritarianism. All three seek a stricter adherence to our constitutional commitments, but, says Jaffa, because they do not go deep enough, make claims that directly contradict the founders’ understanding. No majority and no constitution ratified by a majority can rightly authorize what is wrong, a rebuke to positivism. And, as Madison knew, the despotism of a democratic majority is still despotism.

Jaffa also criticizes Russell Kirk, the leading paleoconservative in this century, and Irving Kristol, the godfather of neoconservatism, because neither has much use for the self-evident truths of the Declaration.

Whatever we may think of these criticisms, Jaffa is certainly right that moral truth and liberty are correlated, not opposed to one another. John Paul wrote in Centesimus Annus that “a democracy without values easily turns into open or thinly disguised totalitarianism.” This is one of the hardest lessons to teach and learn in modern societies. If the United States fails at its historic task of saving the West from itself, it will be because we Americans have forgotten the true and inescapable source of all authentic liberty.

Robert Royal

By

Robert Royal is editor-in-chief of TheCatholicThing.org, and president of the Faith & Reason Institute in Washington, D.C. His most recent book is The God That Did Not Fail: How Religion Built and Sustains the West, now available in paperback from Encounter Books.

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