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The saving grace of the republican imperative

I have said that the Declaration of Independence is the RINGBOLT to the chain of your nation’s destiny; so, indeed, I regard it. The principles contained in that instrument are saving principles. Stand by those principles, be true to them on all occasions, in all places, against all foes, and at whatever cost. (Frederick Douglass, “Fourth of July” Speech)

As I suspected they might, some of my recent posts have roused opposition from the folks I now think of as the “Ron Paul nationalists.” When it comes to opposing the destruction of America’s national sovereignty, and seeking to restore the economic basis for the sovereignty of the American people, we seem to share a lot of common ground. But we part company when it comes to the distinctive substance of the American national identity, and its consequences for law and policy.

I take seriously the Constitution’s demand that the United States maintain a republican form of government. This imperative has consequences for every area of national policy, domestic as well as international. But in the first place it affects the way we think about policy. It requires that we carefully think through and constantly keep in mind the defining goal of republican government and the principles of justice that determine it, for we cannot reliably conserve what we do not accurately perceive or understand.

Thanks to the summary of republican principle contained in the U.S. Declaration of Independence, we have a succinct basis for doing both. The defining goal of republican government is to secure the unalienable rights with which their Creator has endowed all human beings. On account of this goal, the republican form characteristically confines government to the exercise of “just powers” derived “from the consent of the governed.” Though still very familiar to many Americans, we too rarely pause to consider the full implications of the Declaration’s words. Though consent is the sine qua non for the government’s exercise of just power, consent is not the substance of justice. That substance consists in the Creator’s provision of unalienable rights as an aspect of human nature. The governed may choose from among the range of government powers that secure these rights (government’s “just powers”) those which are suitable to their circumstances. Unjust powers of government (those that do not serve the goal of securing their unalienable rights) are not legitimized (made lawful) by the consent of the governed. So, though it is an essential feature of republican government, the sovereignty of the people is not absolute. It is subject to the Creator’s prior provision for justice, to the higher law constituted by His will.

This is the key point ignored (or else willfully neglected) by the Ron Paul nationalists. It was also neglected (or simply rejected) by the states’ rights advocates for slavery before the Civil War. From a republican point of view, their states’ rights arguments were fatally flawed because no state government can claim the power to legitimize (make lawful) that which contravenes the Creator’s provision for justice. The people’s consent cannot supersede the Creator’s authority because His authority is also the ground or basis for the right by which the people lay claim to government based on consent.

I have always considered this to be foremost among the saving graces of the Declaration’s understanding of republican self-government. The very logic by which the people claim the right to be the ultimate arbiters of sovereign power limits their exercise of that power. They are constrained to respect the provision of justice that demands security for the unalienable rights of every individual. Because the authority for that provision is the same as the authority that requires that government be based on their consent (the will of the Creator God), the people cannot abuse their sovereignty without destroying their just claim to exercise it. In this way, republican self-government respects the constraints implied by the Bible’s Golden rule: if the people act unjustly toward others, they destroy the basis for justice toward themselves.

Both the Obama national socialists and the Ron Paul nationalists turn away from the beautiful symmetry of the Declaration’s wisdom. Both treat the idea of limited government as if it were simply about the good or bad results of action, with respect to the particular aspect of justice they hold to be paramount. The Obama faction does so claiming to seek social and economic equality. The Ron Paul nationalists do so in the name of personal freedom. They either fail, or else refuse to see the essential purpose of limited government, which is to establish the exercise of government power on a basis that keeps the pursuit of particular goods within boundaries that respect and preserve the possibility of justice for all.

I first began to appreciate the Declaration’s wisdom years ago, during the preparation of my doctoral dissertation when I first immersed myself in the thought of the founding period. I was then still deep in the throes of a very personal struggle to reconcile the hurt and anger I felt as I learned about the terrible injustices that slavery and racial prejudice inflicted on black Americans. As I think it did for Frederick Douglass, so for me the knowledge of America’s essential commitment to the law of justice for all helped to kindle first respect and then an abiding love for the idea of the American nation, on account of the moral and spiritual encouragement this commitment to justice has given to people of good will throughout the nation’s history.

But it’s also on account of the salutary reminder it involves, that every particular quest for justice must be tempered by respect for justice itself, so that no claim of just purpose in itself calls for or justifies the exercise of morally unconstrained power. I learned that liberty involves more than freedom, even as justice involves more than getting good results. Both have an intrinsic source and foundation, to which respect is due at every step along the way. So I came to the paramount truth on which the substance of republican government depends: the presence and authority of the Creator God. This is the truth in which America’s identity truly abides: “in all places, and against all foes, and at whatever cost.”

There are many who profess, at least in their hearts, to recognize this truth. When will they mobilize the ultimate saving grace of the republican imperative, and unequivocally act on their profession?

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