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Is this liberty’s greatest domestic enemy?


This week included Lincoln’s birthday. It is therefore a good context in which to consider the relationship between America’s liberty and its obligation to God. We find an allusion to this relationship in the thought Lincoln expresses in this passage, taken from his 2nd Inaugural Address:

If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, …and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him? Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”

 We derive our unalienable rights from the determinations of God’s will for our nature, i.e., our good as human beings. Governments are instituted “to secure these rights”: to make sure the exercise of right is safeguarded against those whose attempts to do wrong would otherwise forestall or suppress it.

The just powers of government are derived from the common action of people who are committed to the exercise of right. Walking the same righteous path, and consenting to implement on His determination of natural human right, they come together to institute a government that can, on account of their consent, wield as one the greater than individual power made possible by their conjoint commission.

Thus the people’s right to institute government for themselves depends on their acknowledgement of an obligation to respect the will of the Creator, and on the choice they have made as individuals to act accordingly. Taking God’s will as law, they are free to represent themselves as agents and executors of the law, and to commission others to represent them in that capacity as they carry out the law amongst themselves. The critical prerequisite of this institution of self-government, however, is their consensual decision, taken as individuals and antecedent to the establishment of government, to acknowledge and act upon “the laws of nature and of nature’s God.” In every individual and in every generation the perpetuation of self-government depends upon the reiteration of this consensual decision. On the whole, when the stock of individuals willing and able to make this decision falls below the level needed to determine the will of the whole people, self-government must fail.

Everywhere in our nation’s life today we see signs that the American people have crossed this fateful line of demarcation for the failure of democratic self-government. Perhaps the most important sign is the fact that so many of our political leaders utterly disregard the essential connection between our right of self-government and our respect for right, as endowed by the will of our Creator. They speak carelessly (though for some it is surely malice rather than carelessness) as if self-government is all about freedom and not at all about the consensual decision to make use of that freedom as God intends. Yet unless by our action we consent to do right, we cannot claim the unalienable right to act as we do.

As Lincoln recognized, right is not determined by our whim, but by the judgments of God. Freedom abused in a way that takes no account of God’s judgment (like the freedom to enslave others) must therefore bring its consequences against the nation until the requirements of His righteous sentence are satisfied.

These days, of course, the critical challenge to decent liberty in America is not just that some of us seek to enslave others. It is that all of us are tempted to let ourselves be enslaved. I saw a video this week that put me in mind of this temptation. Ken Cuccinelli, the reputedly conservative GOP Attorney General of Virginia, was talking about legalizing marijuana. The internet headline read “Cuccinelli: ‘It’s Appropriate’ for States to ‘Experiment with legalizing Marijuana’.” Comparing marijuana and crystal meth, Cuccinelli spoke of the issue as a matter of deciding the most cost-effective way to deploy the limited resources available to combat drug trafficking. Since crystal meth is a far more potently addictive drug, he suggested that spending less on efforts to suppress the marijuana trade may make budgetary sense.

As a matter of administrative judgment, Cuccinelli’s observation may have some merit. But legalizing marijuana is obviously a matter of legislation, not just administration. By definition a law implies and is supposed to provide a practical standard of judgment. In this respect, what if one of the states of the union decided to establish a dictatorial form of government. Would that be appropriate experimentation? Whatever some elitist faction ideologues are seeking these days, the U.S. Constitution forbids it (Article IV Section 4).

Now consider the fact that drug addiction suppresses an individual’s capacity for consent. The craving for the drug assumes dictatorial control of the individual’s will. Therefore, those who can control the dictator (i.e., by giving or withholding the drug) gain the power to control the individual’s will. If and when such a dictatorial regime is widespread among the people, what becomes of their capacity for consent? Doesn’t this strike at the very root of self-government? Does it make sense for representatives of the people to treat so radical a threat as a purely administrative matter, even though they are all sworn to preserve constitutional self-government?

Of course, chemical addiction is not the only passionate craving that can poison the root of self-government. Any passion that slips the bonds of reasonable discipline; that moves people to ignore the natural boundaries of just behavior; that substitutes the rule of individual whim and physical satisfaction for the rule of right proclaimed for humanity in God’s natural law; pollutes the wellspring of government derived from the consent of the people. What does it say of our future as a free people that these days this simple fact about self-government is everywhere ignored, denied or treated with contempt? In pondering this question you ponder the corrosive smog of demoralizing corruption that is rapidly extinguishing the flame of America’s liberty, from deep within.

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