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January 24, 2011
Are Americans United in Foundational Principles?
We Americans are largely united in core principles - or are we? We're anti-government and anti-authority - all of us? Our differences - or "disharmonies" - are varying expressions of our shared core principles - or are they?
George Will wrote an interesting and provocative article in yesterday's Washington Post about America's history of "creedal passion." Will borrowed extensively from the late scholar Samuel P. Huntington's writings to make his points.
The upshot of Will's analysis is that America has entered a fifth period of creedal passion. The other periods were "the Revolutionary era (1770s), the Jacksonian era (the 1830s), the Progressive era (1900-20) and the 1960s." One wonders how the 1850s and the Civil War should be designated, but that's for another day.
The "creed" is the anti-government and anti-authority beliefs that Americans have held from the Revolution onward. Think of creedal passion as times when Americans' desire to live more closely to the nation's founding principles causes national life to bubble and roil. Such bubbling up of passion increases the "disharmony" that is a feature of an America always striving to meet its ideals.
Will identifies the tea parties' commitment to "first principles" as typifying the current fifth period of creedal passion. America's periods of creedal passion are history changers, as Will indicates. If that's the case, then the tea party-led fifth period may bode well for a return to first principles.
Given that a majority of Americans are rejecting Barack Obama's further aggrandizement of the national government indicates that, yes, most Americans oppose bigger and bigger government.
Yet the irony is that for nearly a hundred years, Americans have witnessed and approved expansions of government, federal, state, and local. But, perhaps, a majority of Americans have finally reached their limits with government that never tires of growing - and never stops encroaching on paychecks and individual freedom. And it could be that the liberal era has finally run its course; brought down by spendthrift politicians, huge debt and deficits, failed economic policies, and failed social engineering.
The fifth period may prove to be an emphatic rejection of the 20th Century's two periods of creedal passion - the Progressive Era and the 1960s, the former marked by excessive egalitarianism and the latter by permissiveness. Could it be that the Progressive era and the 1960s were really gross distortions - hence, significant departures - from the nation's creed?
The notion that today all Americans share a common creed merits challenge. Certainly a committed and influential minority - the left - oppose the nation's foundational creed. The American left has been influenced more by Marx than Jefferson; more by socialism than classical liberalism; and more by moral relativism than moral universalism. The left is by no means anti-government, though it can be anti-authority - when that authority isn't its own.
The leftism that has invested liberalism is an alien creed. The Democratic Party - the primary vehicle for liberal ideas - would be unrecognizable to Jefferson and Jackson (and, no doubt, spurned by them).
There's a real divide in America today - and not merely a divide caused by passions or expressions of passions in the service of shared core principles. The American left is different; its departure from the nation's foundational creed is deliberate. The left wishes to radically transform the nation.
Today's challenge for believers in the nation's creed is to reassert the primacy of that creed to its fullest. It means defeating the left, and it means drawing stark distinctions that leave no confusion about what divides most Americans from the left.
If that's the result of the fifth period of creedal passions, then we are, indeed, living in momentously historical times.