Being out on the ocean prompts reflection…
When I taught Law and Public Policy, I approached the material through a constitutional lens, because I was–and remain–convinced that a basic understanding of American history and the philosophy that shaped what I call “the American Idea” is critically important for anyone hoping to understand today’s politics.
The American Constitution was a product of the 18th Century cultural, intellectual and philosophical movement known as the Enlightenment. Most of us know that the Enlightenment gave us science, empirical inquiry, and the “natural rights” and “social contract” theories of government, but what is less appreciated is that the Enlightenment also changed the way people today understand and define human rights and individual liberty.
We are taught in school that the Puritans and Pilgrims who settled the New World came to America for religious liberty; what we aren’t generally taught is how they defined liberty.
Puritans saw liberty pretty much the same way current politicians like Mike Pence and Mike Johnson do– as “freedom to do the right thing” as they definied it. That meant their own freedom to worship and obey the right God in the true church, and it included their right to use the power of government to ensure that their neighbors did likewise.
The Founders who crafted the American constitution some 150 years later were products of an intervening paradigm change brought about by the Enlightenment and its dramatically different definition of liberty.
America’s constitutional system is based on the Enlightenment concept of liberty, not the Puritan version. It’s an approach we sometimes call “negative liberty.” The Founders believed that our fundamental rights are not given to us by government (nor necessarily “God given” either). Most of them–especially the Deists– believed that rights are “natural,” meaning that we are entitled to certain rights simply by virtue of being human (thus the term “human rights”) and that government has an obligation to respect and protect those inborn, inalienable rights.
That philosophical construct is why–contrary to popular belief–the Bill of Rights does not grant us rights—it protects the rights to which we are entitled by virtue of being human, and it protects them against infringement by an overzealous government. As I used to tell my students, the American Bill of Rights is essentially a list of things that government is forbidden to do. For example, the state cannot dictate our religious or political beliefs, search us without probable cause, or censor our expression—and government is forbidden from doing these things even when popular majorities favor such actions.
Most Americans today live in a post-Enlightenment culture. We accept and value science. We understand liberty to mean our right to live our lives free of government control so long as we are not harming others, and so long as we respect the right of other people to do likewise. But there is a persistent minority that has never accepted an Enlightenment worldview, and that minority currently controls the Republican Party. These contemporary Puritans–who, along with their other religious convictions tend to see Black people and non-Christians as unworthy subordinates– use the word “freedom” in the older, Puritan sense of “freedom to do the right thing” as their reading of their holy book defines “the right thing.” They also believe it is government’s job to make other citizens do the “right thing” –to impose their version of “Godliness” on the rest of us.
These contemporary Puritans are throwbacks to the early American settlers who defined “liberty” as the imposition of the correct religion on their neighbors. The Enlightenment construct of “live and let live”–the notion that each of us should have the right to believe as we wish, the right to follow our own set of moral imperatives (again, so long as we are not harming the person or property of someone else) was utterly foreign to those original Puritans, and it is evidently equally inconceivable to their philosophical descendants.
(Interestingly, these throwbacks to Puritanism never seem to doubt that they know precisely what God wants–that, as a friend once put it, God hates the same people they do. But that’s a phenomenon for a different post.)
If you had told me ten years ago that American government would once again be under the thumb of Puritans, I wouldn’t have believed it. But here we are–with a Speaker of the House of Representatives who is a full-blown Puritan throwback and a Republican Party that has rejected the Enlightenment.
When I have computer problems, I reboot. That usually returns my laptop to working order. Can we reboot America?