The Confines of the New Moral Consensus

Riesige Gruppe Wartender, Patienten auf roten Stühlen

The bitter disputes sparked by Indiana’s version of the “Religious Freedom Restoration Act,” and the controversies that provoked the act, are the latest episode in our ongoing culture war. Its sources are twofold: the moral clash between what we call the “Left” and the “Right,” and the increasing scope of government.

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When Thomas Jefferson Read the Qur’an

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Denise A. Spellberg, Associate Professor of history and Middle eastern Studies at the University of Texas at Austin, is the author of the highly regarded work, Politics, Gender, and the Islamic Past: The Legacy of ‘A’isha Bint Abi Bakr.  She was involved in controversy in 2008, when she reviewed the galleys of a novel, The Jewel of Medina, for Random House, and criticized the work on many grounds including warning a number of times that the book might instigate violence among some Muslims, specifically against Random House and its employees.  Random House then withdrew publication of the book, but the novel was subsequently published in a number of countries, including the United States.

In this work with the eye-startling title, Thomas Jefferson’s Qur’an: Islam and the Founders, Spellberg investigates all manner of references among the founding generation to Islam in order to assert two themes 1) that the founders’ references to “imaginary Muslims” led them to include other minorities, such as Jews, Catholic Christians, and Deists, as full citizens, and 2) that America is now in the grip of “Islamophobia,” and many Americans are attempting to “disenfranchise” Muslims from their rights as full citizens. 

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A National Thanksgiving: President Washington and America’s National Holiday

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Thanksgiving is a peculiar holiday, at least in the modern world.   Its roots are religious, and the American nation is, at least in law, secular.   Its very name speaks of thanks, or gratitude, and gratitude is an ancient virtue.  Indeed Aristotle speaks highly of it.  Even so, or perhaps for that reason, it is very American.  In his Thanksgiving address in 1922, President Coolidge called it “perhaps the most characteristic of our national observances.”   He was not wrong for, as Chesterton wrote, America is “a nation with the soul of a church,” and Abraham Lincoln called us an “almost chosen people.”

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On Adam, Eve, Tribes, and Nations

The prospect of Scottish independence has spurred a great deal of discussion here and elsewhere. It’s worth remembering that the Act of Union of 1707, which drew England and Scotland together, factored into the story of the American Revolution. Thomas Jefferson and other colonists believed that each colony had the same relationship to Britain in the 1770s that England and Scotland had to each other before the Act of Union: as an equal state with a common monarch.[1]

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Charles Koch’s Jefferson

JeffersonTo whom does Jefferson belong in today’s political debates? The reality, it seems, is everyone. Quotes can be found on almost any topic expressing virtually any sentiment, in large measure because unlike so many others of his day, Jefferson saved everything.

That’s why I am rarely bothered by either side of the political spectrum quoting him. What does bother me, though, is when people who ought to know better think they can claim Jefferson, exclusively, enlisting his pen in their ideological causes.

Richard Eskrow ought to know better.

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American Liberty and the “Pursuit of Happiness”

In reflecting further on the issues raised by Ted McAllister’s emphasis on the American historical experience of liberty in this month’s Liberty Law Forum, I find myself returning again to consider the meaning of a particular phrase of the Declaration of Independence: “the pursuit of happiness.” I have written about this before in other places, but McAllister’s highlighting of historically lived experience, brings out the significance of this passage even further.

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Liberté, Egalité, Non Merci

The home and birthplace of John Adams—and his son, John Quincy Adams, diplomat, president, legislator and, most important, translator of the indispensable The Origins and Principles of the American Revolution, compared with the Origins and Principles of the French Revolution, more on which presently—sits on Hancock Street in Quincy, Massachusetts. The next time a U.S.-French Presidential duo desires a photo-op at the home of a historic American executive, they might skip Monticello and visit the Adams manse instead.

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To Keep America Will Be to Keep Its Balance

Many long posts ago, this website hosted a discussion of Michael Greve’s wonderfully illuminating Upside Down Constitution. A key part of the thesis was the degree to which local self-governing political bodies in America have steadily ceded administration to national agencies, not as the helpless victims of a national takeover, but as willing, nay eager participants in the national redistribution of our common wealth.

Without a consideration of basic principles, of basic notions of right and wrong, of moral and philosophic ideals, this transfer of self-governance from the local to the national, becomes very hard to criticize.

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The Myth of Constitutional Science

Kevin D. Williamson has posted an excellent takedown at National Review of a National Journal assault on the Constitutional regime. This latter piece, a polemic by Alex Seitz-Wald, argues that the founding document, while innovative in its time, no longer reflects humanity’s best constitutional erudition. Williamson’s critique is definitive—he notes, among other points, that the regime is not defective simply because it has failed to produce results in accordance with a critic’s proclivities—but I would amplify one point. Seitz-Wald argues for a sort of latter-day constitutional technocracy arising from science and divorced from experience that describes neither what happened at Philadelphia nor that for which any political society ought to wish today.

Seitz-Wald writes: “What was for the Founders a kind of providential revelation—designing, from scratch, a written charter and democratic system at a time when the entire history of life on this planet contained scant examples of either—has been worked into science.” Actually, the entire history of planetary life contained the British constitution, which the convention delegates much admired, and, more important, upwards of a century-and-a-half of uniquely American experience with self-government from which constitutional institutions evolved.

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Sam Tanenhaus’ Calhounian Discipleship

I write from the Washington, DC suburbs, now quivering in fear from the violence of the last few weeks, from madmen, our police, and our Redskin-baiting politicians. But a Canadian immigrant (and I don’t mean Mark Steyn) relieves some discontent while producing even more.

In furious rage against the Cruz-sade, this weekend’s New York Times regular op-ed page columnists sputter about President Obama resorting to sinking aircraft carriers; Washington DC Hunger Games workouts led by Paul Ryan; and our sick politics that has produced gerrymandered red-lite districts. But there is an adult in the room, Times writer-at-large and sadly, former Book Review Editor Sam Tanenhaus, who gets to the heart of the crisis in his op-ed, “The Benefits of Intransigence.”

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