The season is upon us. I should like someday to read the speeches of political candidates through our nation's history, and the editorials favoring them, to see whether we have dropped in evident intelligence, and eloquence, and historical knowledge, and practical reason. Whether we have dropped — I leave it open for question, although I know well how deliberate and articulate were the debates between Lincoln and Douglas, and how steeped in American and classical history were the nineteenth century orations in that august body of statesmen and blowhards, the United States Senate. Even allowing for the orotundity of the overrated Dan'l Webster, it seems to me, at a cursory view anyway, that we are rather like half-Greek babblers from Thrace trying to vie with the political insights of Plato, or with the argumentation of Isocrates and Demosthenes. With this qualification: the Thracians were not lazy and effeminate. But I leave the matter open for question. If anyone can point me to a compendium of popular political writing from the time of Jackson or Cleveland or Coolidge, I'd be most grateful.
When I view the comments to the See Jack Run postings on the internet political magazines, I wonder whether the partisans of the major parties, apart from the time of the civil war, were ever so quick to attribute wickedness (rather than old-fashioned folly) to their opponents than our partisans are now. Ah, maybe they were. But it is strange, that some of us should persist in the astonishing notion that it is religion that divides people, while politics, that great bamboozling substitute for religion, unites. I'd like somebody sometime to point me to said unity.
I'm thinking about this, because of what happened the other day in a debate for the Senate seat in Delaware. Now I am not going to attribute eloquence or clear thinking to any great number of candidates I've heard about this year. But the Republican in the Delaware race, Christine O'Donnell, challenged the Democrat to show her where in the Constitution "separation of church and state" appears. You'd think that he or she or the moderator or somebody might have thought to clarify matters, by asking, "You mean the words 'separation of church and state,' don't you?" But nobody did. If anyone had, then we might have been spared the depressing and embarrassing laughter from the audience of law school students, and the depressing and embarrassing high-toned dismissal of Mrs. O'Donnell by the Grand High Mystic Poobahs of the media.
For of course the words "separation of church and state" appear nowhere in the Constitution. They appear in a private letter written by Thomas Jefferson to the Baptists of Danbury, Connecticut, to allay their fears that he was nothing better than an infidel, and also to win them over to his way of looking at things, seeing as they had formerly been pushed around by the established Episcopalians of their state. We know that the First Amendment protects the free exercise of a host of things, among them speech, by which the drafters meant principally political speech; assembly, by which the drafters recognized the rights of people to gather together for their own purposes, within the constraints of civil order; and the exercise, the vigorous and public exercise, of religion — for religion is by its very nature public and unitive. In a wonderful inversion of judicial insight, we now turn dirty pictures into "speech," but limit the expression of certain political opinions; we assume the right to bully private organizations into following our prescriptions for membership, activities, and mission; and we wish to cleanse the public square of all trace of religion, relegating it to the bedroom, as if it were suspicious or obscene.
We know too that the "establishment clause" of the First Amendment prohibited the federal government from following the example of the European states, in establishing an official religion. That it therefore meant that the federal government, much less state and municipal governments, must be severely neutral as to religion or irreligion would have struck them with amazement. I daresay that if that is what the clause had been understood to mean, one would hardly have found a legislator of the day in any of the thirteen colonies to ratify it, and that would have included the sometimes Unitarian and sometimes Who Knows What, Jefferson himself. We don't have to guess at these things. All we have to do is to take notice of their behavior: the laws they then went on to pass, for instance.
What distinguishes the self-styled conservatives of our time, more than anything, seems to be a residue of a very old-fashioned virtue, hardly talked about today. The virtue is that Roman thing called pietas. It is consonant with patriotism, but more deeply founded — it reaches down into the core of a person's being. The "pious" American, by the Roman definition, reveres the Constitution as it was written by the framers, because he reveres the framers themselves, perhaps considering, if but vaguely, that a group of men who reintroduced democracy to the world, men who were steeped in learning that the pious fellow himself no longer attends to (as Adams was steeped in the analysis of the Roman republic written by Polybius, friend of Scipio Aemilianus), men as brave and modest as Washington, as fiery as Jefferson, as astute as Madison, probably ought to be given the benefit of the doubt in all of our political controversies. We ought, in other words, to pay attention to what they wrote and said and did, not to imitate it blindly, but to learn wisdom from it.
One wise thing we might learn, if we attended to these men — and not just to a few obiter dicta by the secuarist's darling, Jefferson — is that none of them believed that democracy could last without its being supported by the pillars of religious faith. Their view of faith, rather than of denominational controversy, was incomplete, but what they did see they approved of heartily, and most especially for its irreplaceable role in forming the virtues of a free people. They knew, as we did not, that virtue is a difficult thing to attain, and is as high above some lazy "tolerance" and mere refraining from breaking laws as the mountains are above the sea. They wanted more than a people who generally did not steal or kill. They wanted a "land of the noble free."
And they knew, too, that free people will naturally gather to celebrate what means most to them, and will want to pass on to the next generation not only their technical knowledge, but their wisdom and their objects of love and devotion. That is, after all, the essence of what it means to be a people, and not just a congeries of persons. So for nearly two centuries, America boasted public schools in which students could sing national hymns (like, for instance, the National Hymn, "God of Our Fathers"), or say a prayer together, or read passages from Scripture; and they could do so, while somehow managing, more or less, to admit to their halls Catholics and Jews and others, alongside the dominant Protestants. All of this was ruled out of bounds by the archons of the Supreme Court some decades ago, about at the time when the archons would begin to take more and more authority from the people in their localities, and tell them what they must do for their own good. Thus we have the irony, as our Touchstone writer Bill Tighe put it to me the other day, that Americans are supposed to govern themselves in matters about which very few people know anything of substance, while they are incapable of determining matters about which everybody knows quite a lot, as for instance marriage, child rearing, and schooling.
Christine O'Donnell, I suppose, was trying to say, "I do not agree with an interpretation of the First Amendment which privileges irreligion over religion, because the supposed 'neutrality' gives the game over to the secularists eo ipso." But all our political speech must be aimed at the electorate such as we are. Run, Jack, run.