The miracle of the Founding Fathers was not the Constitution so much that they created a document of self governance for people not of their class, and gave it away freely, no strings attached.
It was a gift!—but only, as Mr Franklin warned, “If we can keep it.”
This had never happened before in human history. I’m not even sure it had ever been contemplated before, but I’ll leave that for scholars to set the record straight.
This opening line opens up various forks in the road, several lines of inquiry, among them class as the Founders viewed it in the Colonies versus the rest of the educated world, and by comparison, in today’s world. Both are worthy of inquiry in light of what conservatism means today.
Then there is the nature of American specialness itself; our view of ourselves as exceptional, against the world’s majority view, held by its governments, based on at least 500o years of human history in which no idea even remotely resembling a government “by the people, for the people and of the people” could ever germinate and take root.
As I’ve written elsewhere, the “specialness of America” has always been viewed through two entirely different lens, one as a freak of nature, to be hated, and the other, as Man’s hope for liberty and rescue from a history of servitude to a master class.
This in turn begs yet another fork, the question: is America a miracle, and if so, from whose hands, the Founders or an Invisible Hand? Or maybe a collaboration? Billy Graham, who just passed away (RIP) believed in the role of an Invisible Hand, he even went so far to call it by Name. And I agree, only, it has been some years since some types of Christians have been invited to discuss this question with the intellectual right. As you know, on the key elements of liberty, I’ve even argued that Science and God are of one accord, than Man-the-animal needs and seeks it because it is survival-enhancing. But over the years I’ve noticed that the so-called intellectual right has never gone through that open door of inquiry.
Still, in all the years Man has trod this earth there has not been known to recorded history any other rising of a nation of peoples who became their own masters. As the lawyers would say, America was a “case of first instance.” And that was 231 years ago, and with our success, you’d have thought that at least some of the rest of the world would have stood in wonderment at what these people in America had wrought, and decided to try it out themselves. True, they paid lip service to many of our institutions, even adopting many of our terms, such as “Democratik”, a popular label from the mid-20th Century, to appease their masses. (“Hypocrisy is the price vice pays to virtue.”) But at no time did those states ever cut the ties between their ruling class and the ruled. In fact, some of the most virulent forms of governance known to history were brought forth in the two centuries since the founding of America, in part because of America’s mere existence and the threat it posed to autocracy’s 5000 year winning streak. (For proof, follow the genesis of modern masters candidates’ theses in the American academy, largely blaming all of society’s ills on the manner of our Founding.)
In biological science America would be known as a mutation, and by definition should have died out two centuries ago on its own accord, as a thing that had never survived gestation in all the centuries past. Only, our mutation thrived and grew, which signified a long-buried instinct to survive in the first place (which makes sense, by the way) thus causing us to became the instinctive enemy of all the ruling governments of the world, and the patron saint of all the rest of the world, the 99%, who instinctively would like to share in what we have accomplished.
So, the “shining city on the hill” metaphor meets Darwin’s approval too. If I were an apostle of Liberty, as I grew up thinking conservatism claimed to be, this would be a windfall of information that would allow me to sally forth, as my favorite martyr Ramon Llull did in the 13th Century, to lure people of other beliefs (Islam), or no belief at all (modern America, nearly 50% now) using non-doctrinal preaching, but rather teaching.
Seems conservatism doesn’t go after that bunch anymore, at least in any organized way, and certainly not enough to stem the tide of a secularist revolution hell-bent (sic) on returning us to how it was in 1500’s France. Dr Graham was right. That fundamental gift from the Framer’s to the People “not of their class” was a pure act of Christian love and charity, and if you remove God as a main ingredient in defining America, you no longer have the America the Framers intended us to be.
Sorry, George Will, that’s how it is and how it has always been. If “America” is not a moving goal post, then neither can conservatism be.
This too is an interesting fork in the road to follow, for it raises the question about class-distinction; i.e, how much is nature, and how much nurture, a question I can only raise, only to say that the Framers transcended it, and conservatism, true conservatism, should also.
With so many forks, I only want to pursue just one here, about teaching, more specifically about the process of passing on what it means to be American, as parents might their children and a society must its children, in the strictest Darwinian sense, in order to survive.
Modern conservatism is supposed to be a little, no a lot, about being a teacher, a missionary even. If you don’t agree, then call yourself something else.
Teaching to the non-believer (in this case anti- or non-conservative, or even these days, the anti-American in America) brings us to the notion of apologetics, which was the ancient method of debate, argument, and teaching as practiced by early Christians when among people who believed something else.
Apologetics was in vogue for about the first 800-900 years of Christianity, and largely practiced by people of letters, but slowly decreased as the need for Christian leaders to tend to their flocks increased, and the need to spend time far afield missionizing among the barbarians diminished, which had also become very dangerous. In 800 AD the Church allied itself with Europe’s kings, partly for protection, but also for ease of conversion, for under the rising “feudal system” the liege lords could simply bring their minions to the Church for baptizing rather requiring missionaries to range far and wide to convert them.
Besides the security considerations, there was also an orderliness to this process that suited both Church leaders and the existing king-system, so the relationship lasted until the king-system fell, over a thousand years.
In a short period of time virtually everyone was baptized, which quickly became the approved substitute term for “being a Christian”. How much teaching and actual learning went into that process no one can say, as they occurred one parish at a time, but with the need for missionizing ended, I suspect little. Barbara Tuchman offers a frozen picture of time in 14th Century France, England and Italy (A Distant Mirror) if you’re interested, and if her details are accurate, it would seem the idea of “becoming Christian” and “being Christian” were greatly diluted, which might partly explain the giant convulsion within the Church’s empire, called the Protestant Reformation, in 1517, lasting over a century and costing hundreds of thousands of lives in Europe.
The settling of America was a partial result of those European religious convulsions, our colonies becoming a refuge for many of the persecuted sects of Europe. Instead of answering to a single religious authority in Rome most American practitioners of Christianity usually answered to a single parson in a building down at the end of a street.
And in the process, the ancient practice of apologetics was revived, at least in America, for with dozens of Christian sects, including Roman Catholic and Friends, a whole lot of competition for people’s souls entered the America religion market, where teaching and debate and persuasion could be entertained without anyone being killed. These events even earned a place in American history as “Great Awakenings”. (History mentions two, but I believe we’ve had others, measured generationally, and believe we are witnessing one now.)
“Does Anyone Teach Conservatism Anymore”?
That was a long preamble to get to my main theme here.
Apologetics is a form of teaching. In Christianity, it’s not simply telling the story of Christ, and God’s word, but attempting to make those things relevant to the mind of the listener.
Underscore “relevant” here.
It’s the same in the secular political sense. Conservatives should understand how seriously missed “relevance” is in the teaching of history, government, and economics in public schools today, especially now that faith-based notions of morality have been driven from them and replaced by a man-made system of ethics with no fixed stars in the heavens to guide our culture.
For a few years I taught American Government, History and Business Law in a small college in Cincinnati. I largely taught young women who had to get off welfare under Newt’s Welfare Reform Act. They were in pursuit of associate degrees, mostly in IT, but had to have the Government courses for graduation. Snoozer courses, especially since most had had the same courses in high school only a few years earlier, and probably slept through those lectures as well.
So, what the hell, I decided to teach those courses entirely from the point of view of relevance in their lives (and their babies in the nursery across the hall), as they prepared to go out into the world for the first time in their lives as real citizens.
Turns out I was a star for several terms, until I began traveling regularly to the Russias and had to give it up. It was very illuminating.
The only college professor I ever had who taught the relevance of a subject was the last course I took before I graduated in 1968, Political Science 501, Origins of the US Constitution. And it was all about “political relevance” as it discussed Charles Beard’s theory that the Framers of the Constitution were primarily concerned with protecting their economic interests. An early progressive theory in the time of Wilson. I argued vigorously against the prof’s thesis and was accordingly docked a letter grade for my effort, as he explained in a long note that accompanied my returned exam book.
But this was a good lead-in to law school, where many courses were taught with great stress on relevance as well. I learned that all the relevance that was taught in law school was politically-laced, and that the Left owned 95% of it. If a lecturer said “Why this matters…” I knew I was going to get ten minutes of leftist indoctrination.
In modern education, the Left owns the “relevance” market, starting around 3rd-4th Grade, and why Mommy and Daddy are wrong about so many things. Left-wing apologetics seem to rule.
Conservative political pundits use this “relevance” device all the time, only they are not engaged, as if they were teaching a roomful of unbelieving students, trying to bring them over, or even cause them to think twice. Conservatives and their venues are designed for speaking to a known roomful of shared beliefs. (As we’ve seen repeated over and over again this week, the “relevance” of the Second Amendment takes on an entirely different meaning when shared with a group of like-minded conservatives, and a roomful of non-believers, or hostile un-believers.)
William Buckley and his National Review had the knack for speaking to both. WFB would intentionally set up one of his Firing Line debates at a prominent up-east, left wing private school, fill the hall with their student body, thoroughly trounce a team of left-wing scholar as to fact, logic and ideological purity, then submit the debate to a vote, and his side lose 200-3 or somesuch. Then WFB would walk away with a smile knowing he had won over three and left at least a few dozen having second thoughts.
Which, in a hostile world, is the best we can ever ask for.
It’s no wonder the best conservative minds don’t want to venture out there any longer and are content to practice their “preaching” to their own like-minded friends; a mutual admiration society where relevance plays very little, but the applause never ends.
Because the pay is good, job security is good (unless you call a female in your office “Honey”) many don’t notice the swamp water rising up around their waists. This marsh and its gas has been a work-in-progress in conservatism for almost an entire generation, nearly 30 years, and many of conservatism’s finest articulators today never knew it to be any other way.
What got lost, of course was the teaching, or even the need to teach. And what was once an audience that needed to be instructed, the relevance of the Framers intentions made more clear for them, are now the same audience that most conservatives shun and speak derisively about…and never directly to.
We’ve almost come full circle, back to my original proposition, that the miracle of America was a gift, either from God or some incredibly selfless men.
The undeniable fact is that the Framers passed on a design of government for the use of people not of their class. People not like them….and that seems to be the prime directive of the conservatism I’d always known, as expressed in Richard Brookhiser’s biographies of both Washington and Lincoln, Founding Father and Founding Son, about how the ideals of America can be passed through a variety of vehicles over a century, to a kid reading by the open light of a fireplace so to then strive to be like one of those founders, and go on to lead America through one its existential trials.
I’m not sure Bill Buckley ever knew the great disadvantage our own class-based vanities have placed us in. Sure we have Hillsdale, but the Left has almost the entire public school sector at its disposal, K-thru- PhD/JD and virtually the entire private college sector, where affluent school districts in blue cities and political districts can now turn their children into little Young Pioneers brigades, as we noted after the recent school shooting in Florida (not the first, nor the last, in that type of educational environment.
The actuarial math doesn’t favor conservatism from this angle of its current repose.
The teaching of conservatism has fallen out of favor at a time when a resurgence, a great awakening in fact, is greatly needed and seems to be moving forward without it—hence the bile about Trump voters, who, I repeat, the Framers bequeathed the Constitution to.
Buckley was a great teacher. He even taught me how to knock a fairy’s block off so that it would stay knocked, or tell a customer to cancel his own goddam subscription, which no one on my Protestant side of the aisle would ever do; a lesson, with the help of Mick Hensley, I have remained eternally grateful.
Like CS Lewis and Billy Graham, William Buckley had only to open his mouth to establish his authority over a myriad of matters that go into that giant vat called conservatism. When people speak with authority most people stop and listen. Modern conservatives don’t do that anymore. In fact, they can’t. I’m sure there are several teachers out there, Jordan Peterson comes to mind, Victor Davis Hanson, who still contributes to NR, Thomas Sowell, teacher extraordinaire, and others. Hayek taught relevance to people he originally never thought would read his books. Limbaugh teaches and proves the old English maxim about teaching that repetition works, but he doesn’t seem to want to start a genuine missionary movement unless he can be paid.
I stopped reading all sorts of subjects written after 1990, much to my loss I’m sure, but history especially took a turn toward political fashion in those post-Reagan days, so I read very little written after 1992. Interestingly, Richard Brookhiser, a former NR alum who doesn’t like Trump or (I think) his lower-class voters, writes very teachable history, easily translatable to their classroom, even single moms, for his are filled with relevance to ordinary citizens. I could do a 3-hour lecture or semester course on any of his biographies, and leave students edified.
Then there’s Larry Schweikart and Mike Allen’s Patriot’s History, a must reference on the modern citizen’s bookshelf. I once posited, in 2011, even before Trump emerged, that the modern Tea Party had become the intellectual successor to National Review, at least on the Constitutional design, and much of that came to them courtesy of “The Patriot’s History of the United States”.
“The people” as the Framers knew them, up close and personal, were not the conservatives we see today representing themselves as the Founders’ heirs, but rather who the Framers bequeathed the Constitution to. They largely voted for Trump.
In the Constitution’s four corners resides a passion for liberty and country, a genuine theology of liberty, but one whose candle may indeed burn out, unless modern conservatives return to the ancient art of apologetics and learn how to speak directly to citizens not of their class— with love and charity. Very few that I read any longer do that.
I quit being a liberal in part because the liberals I knew and grew up with in the 60’s all defined themselves by who they were not.
With that kind of conservatism and those kinds of conservatives abroad today, as a storekeep on the porch of his country store in Letcher County once told me, when I asked for directions to Harlan County, “You can get there from here.”
Publications: Famous Common People I Have Known and Other Essays
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