In his neglected mid-century essay “The Direct Glance” Whittaker Chambers sought to understand the smugness of the West and America regarding Soviet Communism. The struggle against it was marked, Chambers thought, by a “boundless complacency” rooted in the West’s belief in its material superiority. And this failure of understanding left the West, Chambers argued, listless and without appeal.
How can reasonable men and women reclaim equality over and above egalitarianism? The first principled step is to get right with our compromised Declaration of Independence. This Declaration both affirms equality in self-government and reconciles our deeply contrasting Lockeanism and Calvinist Christianity as the basis of our liberty. This is an American Thomism of sorts, a reconciliation of seemingly opposed principles on the head of deliberative republicanism. It’s probably our best hope.
We should, however, look even deeper into our compromising. In doing so, we can recover John Courtney Murray’s notion that “Civilization is formed by men locked together in argument.” I offer Murray’s account to underscore his American Proposition. Its components are human dignity, constitutionalism, government limited by law as given to America by the common law tradition, self-government as faith in citizens to exercise the duties of moral judgment in basic political decisions, and the constitutional consensus that forms the Proposition and serves as the basis for rational argument and the compromises that it forges. This is the deep background that enables “the deliberate sense of the community” effectuated by our republican institutions to be reasonable.
So we need a theory to justify the practices of our constitutional order. We can start with the Declaration of Independence and move forward.
We can accept the Declaration of Independence as providing “a few basic political principles that undergird our constitutional order without having to insist on an orthodoxy of first principles.”[i] As James Stoner argues in his thoughtful essay, “Is There a Political Philosophy in the Declaration of Independence?”
To be true to the spirit of the Declaration means, from my perspective, not that we are bound to the most radical reading of its most abstract truth, but that we ought to recover the spirited aspiration to self-government that gave the American Revolution its force and its justification. Rather than look to an unelected judiciary for the formulation of our ideals—or to the liberal philosophers who want to rule through them—we should neither shy away from free debate on important social questions nor demand that every consensus work out its derivation from first things in order to count.[ii]
The theory required is one that mediates the compromises that allowed a regime of ordered liberty to emerge that was superior to the competing notions that were actually compromised.