Thursday, April 19, 2007

Some Politics, Pt. I

I hadn't intended to write about politics in this blog. Not because it doesn't interest me, but I thought I would share my thoughts on religion. However, writing and thinking about religion has resulted in my backing into politics. Incidentally, my Masters Degree is a dual concentration in Political Theory and American Government.

Conservative Christianity in the United States seek to assert ownership of our Founding Fathers. It is hardly surprising that documents from the late colonial, revolutionary, and early republican periods are treated the same way as the Old Testament is treated in proving that the crucifixion was foretold in every mention of a twig and piece of wood. If the Founding Fathers are largely silent on religion, and on Christianity in particular, this only proves that Christianity was assumed and taken for granted. Remarks that are hostile to religion, and to Christianity in particular, then those remarks must have been directed against the excesses of certain denominations. And of Mr. Jefferson, the less said the better.

The problem with the political thought of the Founding Fathers is that it is so rarely taken seriously. The fact that the Framers of the Constitution succeeded is a testament to their practicality, and not to their theoretical and philosophical abilities. The Federalist Papers are read in historical context. That means that they are interpreted as a product of their time, which means in turn that a continuity with European political thought is unquestioningly assumed.

In On Revolution Hannah Arendt sensed that something was amiss with the standard readings. In comparison to European thought, Americans are peculiarly inept and ashamed of their own products. If the Framers had known what they were doing, they would very likely been horrified: at the heart of the Constitution of 1789 is conflict and ambition. The life blood of the Constitution is not peace, is not static harmony, and most assuredly is not any of the Christian virtues of hope, charity, or faith.

A careful (or even a not so careful reading) of the Federalist Papers should lead to the conclusion that the properly American feeling for power is that unlimited and unchecked power is inherently illegitimate. Further, as the twin to this insight: only power holds power in check. Only power can bring an illicit exercise of power to account. Power checks power, not good intentions, not promises of just this one time.

Consequently, when a political leader, in particular the president, claims that his office is special and exempt from traditional limitations, he is making a play at becoming a tyrant. It is irrelevant to tyranny whether his intentions are pure, whether he has only national security in mind, or some other noble patriotic piety that resonates the heart strings of his listeners. His intent is not a political fact. His desire for power and the power that he possesses, those are political facts.

Apart from the obvious application to tyranny and overweening ambition, the recognition that power checks power presupposes diversity of opinion, of interests, and of belief. Further, the division of the federal government into three co-equal branches created interests and sources of power that are rooted in the offices and powers of each branch. Senators and Representatives find the justification for the powers of Congress in the capacity given by the Constitution not only as representatives of The People, but in powers specifically created to regulate and limit the other branches. Just as the President finds that part of what the President is and does is defined in terms of Congress and the Judiciary, so it is with the Judicial Branch.

This vision of plurality, competition, and ambition is profoundly anti-Christian.

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