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What standard can revive the good faith of America’s founding?

The Christian Federalist #5

Sometimes usage obscures the truth that lies at the root of a word’s meaning.  Because, from the beginning, it was associated with those who advocated a government that would represent the union of the United States, when we Americans use the word “federal” (or any of its derivatives) the U.S. Government immediately comes to mind.  But though it was always intended to represent the united action of the American people, the federal character of the union was also always intended to preserve respect for the separate and distinct acts of individual self-determination required justly to authorize such action. (Keep in mind here that the word “individual”  may be applied to bodies of people with constitutions ordained and established by agreement among  them, like the individual State governments, as well as to the individual bodies of persons, endowed as such by their Creator.)

The likely etymology of the word “federal” reminds us of this aspect of its meaning.  It appears in the “1640s, as a theological term, from Fr. fédéral, from L. foedus (gen. foederis) ‘covenant, league, treaty, alliance,’ related to fides ‘faith’ (see faith).”  Thanks to those who uphold “States’ Rights” under the U.S. Constitution we are familiar with the view that the U.S. Government is originally a creature of the various States of the Union.  According to this view the Constitution is, as it were, a treaty of alliance among the states for certain purposes, in pursuit of which the Federal Government (i.e., the government established by the treaty) is authorized to use certain powers delegated for those specific purposes, and  limited in their scope to the actions and activities strictly necessary to achieve them.  But even if this understanding of the Constitution is an accurate one, in practice a treaty has only so much actual force as the overall good faith of its adherents allows.  Those who truly wish the success of the treaty must therefore take care to respect and nurture the good faith on which its efficacy depends.

In practice, therefore, we cannot appreciate the true meaning of federalism without taking account of the good faith that makes it possible.  Where a treaty is concerned that good faith has mainly to do with whether or not the adherents to the treaty keep their word, i.e., act in ways that respect the treaty’s provisions.  But even in this restricted sense, it is not possible to respect and nurture good faith without taking account of the qualities of mind and heart that inform the will to do so.  This goes beyond the provisions of any treaty.  It involves the character and disposition of those who adhere to it.  It involves the substance and engagement of their good will.  Keeping their word means more than being true to the words of the treaty.  It means being true to themselves, and therefore preserving and honoring the understanding of themselves and of their own intentions which the treaty’s words and stated aims reflect.

As I have noted once before, the overall intention that informed the words and aims of the U.S. Constitution was to establish and maintain a republican form of government. As Madison (Federalist #39) said:

It is evident that no other form would be reconcilable with the genius of the people of America; with the fundamental principles of the Revolution; or with that honorable determination which animates every votary of freedom, to rest all our political experiments on the capacity of mankind for self-government. If the plan of the convention, therefore, be found to depart from the republican character, its advocates must abandon it as no longer defensible.

The fundamental principles of the Revolution were succinctly stated in the Declaration of Independence.  Human beings are creatures of God, endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, and entitled to the status conferred upon them “by the laws of nature and of Nature’s God.”  On account of God’s will we may take it for granted that we are authorized to exist as He made us to be.  We may take it for granted that it is right for us to act in ways that preserve our distinctive existence, as individuals and as a species.  When we do so we exercise God endowed right with respect to the activities of body, mind and will, involved in such ways of action.  Hence the term “rights” which we apply to them.  According to the principles of the Revolution, we human beings are each of us informed with these rights- by God, in and through the very substance of our being.  They are thus an unalienable aspect of what we are as human beings.  They may be disregarded or abused, but they cannot be taken away.

The totalitarian ideologies that were the scourge of human communities in the twentieth century see people as essentially uninformed masses, possessing no definitive properties except what they may incidentally demonstrate in consequence of their work.   By contrast, according to the federalist understanding, the united action of the people properly arises from consent.  It reflects the coincidence of discrete acts of self-determination by individuals informed (i.e., intrinsically formed, formed from within) by the “laws of nature and of nature’s God” with certain properties; properties that define and constitute their characteristic way of being before they take action.  On account of their possession of this information they are predisposed to know and to recognize themselves, as a distinctive whole, and to take action, accordingly, that preserves what they have recognized.

This potential for self-conscious action is the ground and condition for the capacity freely to choose, which capacity is the precious, baneful, Godlike jewel of human nature.  In light of the principles of the American Revolution, acting in good faith means to act with respect for this capacity, but from a conscientious commitment to follow the inclinations or routines of our nature as they have, on the whole, been pre-programmed by our Creator for our good.  In this respect good faith assumes that we accept the intention of God for human existence, and that we are willing to determine our will in conformity with that intention, to the best of our judgment and ability.

To the extent that federalism requires and reflects this good faith commitment of our will, it is not just about our freedom. It is also about our commitment rightly to exercise it.  In the preamble to the U.S. Constitution the people of the United States say that their first goal in establishing the Constitution is to form a more perfect union.  Too often we fail to note that this phrase refers to the full realization of something that already exists.  Except they had, in good faith,  sustained their unity of purpose and will during the American Revolution that first generation Americans would have had no opportunity to refine it.  They pledged their lives, fortunes and sacred honor.  They kept their pledge.

The understanding articulated in the words of the Declaration was the seed of this good faith.   By nurturing it through the vicissitudes of war the American Revolutionaries confirmed the community of allegiance and conviction that constitutes the common identity of the nation.  It then provided the purposeful context for deliberation and persuasion from which the Constitution emerged.  Because they have already abandoned it, the anti-American elitists who have currently hijacked America’s political process are adamantly unwilling to admit that the perpetuation or abandonment of this good faith is the fundamental issue now at stake in our politics.  Does the American people still hold to an understanding of human nature that acknowledges the intrinsic worth of each and every human being?  Does the nation still adhere to a definition of that worth is not the afterimage of human works and wealth and power.  Rather it is an aspect of man’s endowment by God in His image and likeness; a property of human being inseparable from our nature as human beings.

If the elitist challenge to America’s good faith is in fact the overriding issue of the day, what use are political parties that purposely work to distract us from it?  And what greater need is there than for a party that calls upon all people still willing to act in that good faith to come together, so that the overriding issue of its abandonment will be raised, articulated and discussed before, by incompetent negligence or silence we simply let it fail.  Except we do so now, we will have reached the moment John Jay foresaw in Federalist #2; the moment when “America will have reason to exclaim, in the words of the poet: ‘FAREWELL! A LONG FAREWELL TO ALL MY GREATNESS.’”

How ironic!  America’s Founding generation saw fit to act in good faith when the greatness of which Jay spoke was just a vision for the future.  Yet we, who still live in the era that unequivocally proves, in worldly terms, the accuracy of their vision, are timid and afraid to trust in its truth.  Why is this so?  Because the greatness of which Jay spoke depended in the end on Christian leaders willing to acknowledge, proclaim and rely upon the providence of their Creator.  When will contemporary Americans who still profess to be followers of Christ find the courage to lead as those Christian Founders led, not just saying with their lips “one nation under God”, but unafraid to act as if they mean it?

Franklin Graham laments the fact that America has turned its back on God.  James Dobson says that he is sick at heart over the failure of Mitt Romney and the GOP “to lead America back to its roots in faith and morality.”  But why should other Americans turn back to God and faith and moral principle in our politics when Christians will not boldly do so, without shame, or hesitation or apology?  What better first step than to raise up a party avowedly, openly aimed at rallying the faithful? What better standard to raise than the disused but faithful banner of the Federalists, round which our founders rallied those who ratified the U.S. Constitution.  Could it not serve again as the standard of sacred honor for those Americans willing to act on the good faith that was, and still could be, the God-acknowledging root of America’s federal, republican self-government.

Series NavigationUnion under God, but not against His lawIf we have the daring to acknowledge Him
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