Saturday, July 5, 2008

Deconstructing the Declaration

America has now celebrated her 232nd birthday, and the world celebrates with her. If any secular nation could be a "city upon a hill," as John Winthrop, founder of the Massachusetts Bay Colony put it, then America is. The greatest nation the world has ever seen, whether in terms of wealth, power, influence, liberty, equality, tolerance, or true religious devotion. America is the fruit of the pan-Western common law tradition, and the single greatest hope this world has for the continuation of that tradition.

That being said, there are some issues that make the celebration problematic. Not that America is destroying the planet, using up all its energy, engaging in cowboy diplomacy, invading defenseless little dictatorships. All of that is perfunctory pusilanimous posh. Not to mention poppycock. No, what I have in mind is something of another order. It is the ideology in terms of which the American Revolution was conducted, as enshrined in the Declaration of Independence. The rhetoric of the Declaration is unforgettable, as high-flown as there has been in the history of nations; but for all that it is dangerous. It contains in it the seeds of the liberalism which we as conservatives must oppose with might and main. I do not say that liberalism originated with the Declaration; I do say that the resort to the Declaration to defend America and her principles against the attacks of liberalism hamstrings that defence.

Let me get specific. I wish to address perhaps the most important clause in the entire document. It is contained in the second paragraph, and runs thus:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

The argument is that rights precede government, that government is instituted to protect these rights, that these governments derive their powers from "the consent of the governed."

So then, rights are the source of law. The problem is, everybody has an opinion about rights, what they are, how far they extend, what they encompass. We now have rights to transgender operations, to homosexual marriage, even polar bears have rights to be protected from your carbon dioxide emissions. But according to this doctrine the law cannot contravene these rights. This is the heart of judicial activism. When rights are the source of law, judges, not legislatures, have the legislative power.

But for me the really serious problem in this formulation is this, that government derives its powers from the consent of the governed. This is to turn matters on their head, both historically and logically. Historically, the governed derived their powers from the consent of the government, i.e., the sovereign. Rail against this as much as you like, it is the historical fact. Liberty is an outgrowth over time of subjects gaining ever more freedoms in a covenantal process with the sovereign, in exchange for services, i.e., tax revenues. That is the nutshell history of the growth of representative institutions. So what happened in the American Revolution is that historically acquired liberties, derived from the consent of the sovereign, were being infringed, thus breaking the historical covenant between sovereign and subject. This is a far cry from government deriving its powers from the consent of the governed.

But even logically the statement makes no sense. For if the governed give power to the government, then what is governed and what is government? Government is instituted to rule over citizens and subjects, but if the citizens and subjects have to consent to that rule -- otherwise they may overthrow it -- then where is subjection? We are then all chiefs and no Indians. We then end up with pandering government acting as if it is there to meet all your wants and needs, all the while making you completely dependent upon it. No, government is instituted by God and invested with power by Him, and those powers are not to be disputed by the subject nor the citizen. Those powers are established in terms of the outline given by Paul in Romans ch. 13. They do not require the consent of the governed. What is required is the keeping of covenants, whereby liberties acquired by the governed must be respected, whereby life, liberty, and property must be upheld, not by virtue of human right but by virtue of the Ten Commandments. Citizen participation in government is a great good, and a fruit of the history of liberty; it is not a declaration of the governed as the source of the powers of government.

If Christians and conservatives do not learn these lessons, and learn them fast, I fear the Republic's days are numbered.

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