Opening the Box

In many ways a discussion on the nature of life is a tricky thing.  This is because, as Lang points out, such questions are huge and answering them “correctly” requires more time and room than we here have.  Still, as Lang has bravely offered her thoughts on this natural right and the implications for a government whose stated purpose is the protection of this right, I will do my best.

In short, our right to life is simply that: we have the right to live.  This is a right endowed to us by the Creator, and as our life springs from His original miracle, it is deserving of our protection.  We are created equal in our capacity and possession of this right; in that sense, it is inalienable.  For all mankind, this is a fundamental right, one that cannot be taken from us justly without cause.  As with all rights, this right can be revoked if our actions warrant it; but that is a matter of the law, and not one that should ever be determined based on the convenience of others. 

We take the time to state this seemingly obvious reality because, as our generation bears witness, sometimes even obvious injustices are overlooked in favor of the convenience of others.  The weak and the helpless, old and the new, require that we enumerate this right, to prevent the tyranny of the strong from abusing them for our own needs.  We must insist that the law uphold the legitimate claim to life that these demographics possess, and advocate for them in the absence of justice under the law.  We cannot state this strongly or plainly enough; the cause of the unborn (and the disabled and elderly) is the most basic and fundamental responsibility of our government.  A government that permits abortion on demand is a government where the right to life is conditional at best, never inalienable.

Up to this point, unless I am greatly mistaken, Lang and I are in complete agreement.  It is, unfortunately, at this point that our paths must part; for while we agree that the right to life is the responsibility of the government to protect, I cannot unequivocally assent to the argument that “A system that promotes exploitation cannot claim to be a system that fosters the right to life.” 

I should pause; I would assent to that, if I could then assert that the suggestion that our government is such a system is at least mostly flawed.  Such a system would represent a failure to protect the right to life, as Lang’s personal anecdote bears witness.  If the default position of the government was to allow the people to live at the mercy of corporations for the simple purpose of allowing as many big companies to make money as possible, then yes, the government would have failed in it’s sacred trust to we, the people.

However, it is not so.

I am not in Fairy Land, and I have no delusions that the people do not suffer abuse from big companies; I have worked in corporate America (in insurance, actually) and I too read the news.  We all know that Big Business is very susceptible to greedy corruption, and we all agree that if possible, the government should do it’s best to prevent those business’ from grossly exploiting the people.  This has been a true Conservative postion throughout the last Century; after all TR was no friend to business tycoons.

The unfortunate reality of the sort of regulation that would be required to ensure that we all receive a fair shake from the big corporations is that it would put the state into a tyrannical position it was never intended to occupy.  Ultimately, we face a choice; to run the risk of personal corruption for the sake of allowing for personal excellence.  The argument that “Minimal government oversight and restricted government involvement may spell freedom for some, but will inevitably mean tyranny for others, usually those with the least chance of obtaining justice.” seems to forget that if the government expands oversight and restriction, we will assuredly have tyranny for all in the form of a government that has deemed itself capable of discerning what is best for us all. 

Since not even God Himself, who does know what is best for us, has forced humanity to accept governance that would eliminate injustice, the argument in favor of entrusting a body of politicians with that power seems overly optimistic to say the least. 

Our government protects our right to life, in conjunction with the other inalienable rights, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.   To protect these three, deemed equally inalienable by our founders, requires a government which balances the need for oversight with the need to get out of our way; one cannot be said to be the proper possessor of these rights if the government is perpetually in the position of manipulating  society to produce an environment of artificial of social equality.  We should pity those who have less than we do; but the government should not make it It’s business to ensure that we practice virtue.

Finally, I alluded to this earlier; I do believe the government can strip us of our inalienable rights if our behavior warrants it.  How do we determine what behavior warrant’s such a punishment?  Capital crimes; murder, rape; I am fairly traditional when it comes to this question.  Once again, the power to forgive is reserved for we the people; individuals may practice mercy and pity.  The state exists so that I don’t need to take up the sword in my own defense; if I am wronged, I need to be able to count on appropriate justice being served for the crime committed.  It seems criminally wrong that we allow convicted criminals sentenced to death to live on the money of law-abiding tax-payers as they try to search for any loop-hole in the legal process that ended in their sentence for years on end; or that we shoud prefer the sentence of life in prison over the death penalty because it often better accomplishes the goal of keeping the convicted criminal away from the populace. 

I do not think we should relish the deaths of anyone, even the worst criminals.  I have taken a long road to get to this position; like Lang, my natural tendency is to reach for the sword rather than the Bible when I see injustice.  However, I do believe my first duty is to reach for the Bible; and thus my argument is that, as this is my duty, it is entirely appropriate to recognize what the responsibility of the state is, with regard to balancing the scales of justice. 

I have been thinking about this post for too long, which is part of the reason it has taken so long to get it on-line.  It is a difficult topic; I have no delusions that I have offered the best answer; merely my best thoughts on a hard subject.

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Calling on Mulready

I’ve posted my response to the Honorable Justice Mulready’s question ‘What is the right to life?’, and we’ve had a lively debate in the comments on the post.  I’d love to hear more of your thoughts (and debate Mulready a bit more!), but I’m also interested in his definition of the next inalienable right.

I must admit, I feel a little awkward initiating the disucssion at this point.  This morning, my pastor wisely (and rightly!) reminded us that the Declaration of Independence is not perfectly sound theology.  The inalienable three, while good guides for a secular government, are not the highest calling of Christians.  Paul’s exhortation in II Corinthians 4:17 that “our light affliction, which is but for a moment, worketh for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory” is a much better guide for our action.

But we’re talking of a secular state.  So I ask Mulready, as we continue our conversation of the right to life, what would you define as the right to liberty?

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Above my pay grade

Yes, the title is a cheap joke.  But I’m in the midst of submitting grades for the quarter, maintaining props for a major theatre production, and writing a thesis for my graduate degree, so I’m in need of some frivolity.  And I am, as a historian, merely a social scientist, living in a culture that values only hard science.

Mulready asks ‘what is the right to life?’  My concise answer: a lot more than the pro-life movement champions.

I was in DC for the inauguration, and on the day when my students and I were scheduled to meet our local House representative on Capitol Hill, the annual March for Life crowded the National Mall.  We arrived just in time for the scheduled concert, and even joined with the various groups marching for the cause of the unborn.

It burdened my heart, however, to see something ugly in that march for what I believe in.  The hateful manner of those marching had nothing to do with the cause of life.  Yes, abortion is the greatest evil of our generation, and yes, it deserves nothing but contempt.  But if we truly care about saving lives, we must change our approach.  Hate only breeds hate.  Grace is transformative, and only grace toward the opposition will change hearts and minds.

Okay, rhetorical critique aside, the question is: what is the right to life?  I have to answer with a quotation from my favorite children’s novel, because it’s in children’s stories we can most clearly see the truth.  We lie to ourselves, but not to our children, which is our saving grace.

At the end of Johnny Tremain, Esther Forbes puts a critical line into the mouth of Rab, the revolutionary hero wounded in battle who Johnny idolizes.  When asked what his sacrifice is for, Rab responds: That a man can stand up.  It’s a simple phrase, but it ecompasses great truth.

The right to life must ensure that the weak among us survive.  Darwinism was an attempt to explain observed phenomena, not an attempt to define right action for a species’ survival.  It cannot guide human action.  Of course, I’m presupposing the existence of the soul, but this is a political discussion, not yet a metaphysical one.  With that assumption, however, every human life is precious.  The unborn, who live but live within the protection of a womb, must be protected and nurtured, whether through natural or artificial means.  The weak, the ill, the elderly, must be allowed the best care possible.  We cannot lock them away in substandard care facilities, or sequester them from human society due to inconvenience.

But these should not be controversial (and if they are, I’m writing a thesis on Nazi Germany and the Holocaust, so don’t give me an opportunity to unleash my research on that slippery slope here!).  I think, however, that Mulready and I might not find common ground in my next point.

A system that promotes exploitation cannot claim to be a system that fosters the right to life.

Capitalism is a flawed economic system.  Our democratic republic falls into the same moral trap.  Though some (including my esteemed colleague) might claim that it offers maximum freedom and therefore offers the most opportunity to men to act on their greatest virtues, it also rewards those who trample people on their own path to power.  Class warfare aside, what this leads to is a direct violation of the right to life.  Let me illustrate my point with a personal story.

My mother’s mother smoked like a chimney.  Everyone in her generation did, and she was a model and a local talk show host, so she had an image to maintain.  Eventually that led to cancer, as it always seems to do.  Grandma Junie didn’t have health insurance (few did at the time).  When it became apparent she was in serious medical trouble, she tried to purchase it.  The law, on the other hand, in the interest of the free market, allowed health insurance companies to act as they saw fit.  They saw fit not in the interest of aiding the sick, but rather in aiding their pocket books.  They had the power to deny my grandmother treatment due to her ‘pre-existing condition.’  Before they would insure her, they claimed, she would need to go without treatment for six months.  Because she was not independently wealthy, she did.

It killed her.  My grandma Junie died of bone cancer, which had matastasized from lung cancer to breast cancer to bone cancer in the six months without treatment.  On the day of her death, she sneezed and broke ribs from the force of it.  It was painful, degrading, and completely unnecessary.

Did my grandmother kill herself by smoking cigarettes?  Without engaging in a debate on the ethics of the tobacco lobby’s advertising, I’ll admit yes, she did.  Did that justify this painful, humiliating death?  I can’t see how it did.

I realize this is an extremely personal example, and I’ve had more than one person tell me that they literally couldn’t argue with me because I had such a personal, emotional connection to it.  But isn’t that just avoiding the point?  People die because we venerate the free market over human experience.  People suffer so we can retain our economic freedom.

This isn’t the right to life.  It’s the right to stuff.

The last thing Mulready asked was about the government’s right to take a life.  This is hard for me.  I have a rather violent personality.  An eye for an eye makes a lot of sense to me, and grace seems strange.  As a historian, I’m fairly well-acquainted with what evils man is capable of committing.  And that leads me to crave violence in response.  That’s why I don’t let myself see movies like Taken or Last House on the Left.

Why?  Because I know the Gospel is more powerful than my desire for vengeance.  It makes no earthly sense to me, but the sacrifice of Alban, whose head was displayed on the battlements of a Roman fort, means more than a father’s brutal vengeance of his daughter’s abuse.  I want to cheer on Liam Neeson in Taken, but it is more True to pray for the transformation of the villain.  I want catharsis – Christ offers regeneration.

Should the state kill its citizens for the sake of the safety of the rest of them?  Pragmatically, yes.  But I’ve never been a pragmatist.  Killing the enemy doesn’t make anyone truly safe.  Transforming him into a friend does.  As a Christian, I believe this is only possible through the work of the Holy Spirit, but the moment we adminster the lethal injection, or fire the bullet at the terrorist, we end the possibilty that the transformation will ever occur.  And, given the fallibility of the state, the idea of denying that possiblity in even one life frightens me.

What is the right to life?  It is, first of all, the right to the vital elements that sustain it: food, shelter, air, and the like.  But in a bountiful country such as ours, it is also the faciliation of that life.  It is its protection economic, environmental, medical and otherwise.  It is the encouragement of a system that recongnizes these needs and promotes their exercise.

Yes, that’s vague.  Necessarily so.  But we must do it, so ‘a man can stand up.’

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The Inalienable Three

As is no doubt clear, the desire to post regularly vies with the priorities of the rest of our lives.  Hopefully we will manage a fairly regular discourse until we get to Summer, when our schedules might become a little more free.

However, my thoughts are never far from the issues we would like to address and discuss here, and positing a good question and allowing it to brew can often be more worthwhile than opining with frequent regularity (notice my subtle attempt to paint our infrequent posts as a clever exercise in restraint). 

On that note, I offer the next subject for our joint review: to express, as best we can, the meaning of the inalienable rights and what the government should look like to best promote and protect those rights.  Rather than try to envelope all three into one post, lets take it one issue at a time (although it will likely become apparent that these right are, apart from inalienable, somewhat co-dependant and support one another); let us begin with the Right to Life.  What is it?  How should the government establish and defend it?  Who is qualified to appreciate it?  Are there circumstances in which the government could (and possibly should) have the ability to take it away?

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Government & the People

Lang takes us to Lincoln; very apt, given my question.  After all, Lincoln vies with Washington for the top spot in the halls of our leaders, and rightfully so; they were the leaders whose individual tenacity and leadership created and preserved this union. 

Under their respective eras of leadership, our nation faced the most critical moments in our history, where survival and not merely prosperity hung in the balance.  As a result, and not coincidentally, our government also grew under their leadership in ways that changed the very nature of our experimental Republic.  Washington was the figure head of a new Federal government that laid the foundation to remove significant sovereign powers from the individual states.  Lincoln went to war with half the country, instituted the draft and suspended habeus corpus to preserve the Union Washington had fathered. 

Of the many similarities between these two statuesque statesmen, their stalwart guidance amidst crisis is the most notable.   Of course, that is the point; they led in times of crisis, and the power granted them was taken up as a last resort.  Government, under their watch, grew; for the good of the nation, for the sake of the people, some civil liberties were surrendered to the state.  It is hardly daring to suggest that it is better so, but it is worth noting; it was as a last resort that they wielded (and expanded) the power of the state to solve the problems we faced.

This is my preamble in answer to the question.  Our Government is a tool, used to provide an environment in which the liberties of our people may thrive, in which we may strive after prosperity and work to achieve individual success.   As such, it is dangerous to assign to the government the responsibility of championing the cause of equality for our citizens.  Equality of condition is not a guarantee amongst free men; only equal opportunity to pursue the condition of our choosing. 

Some will argue that the monumental spending of our new government, as well as the taxes levied to provide for it, are the necessary steps to provide that equal opportunity.  The trouble with this proposition is that these steps are radical, and hark-en back to the revolutionary actions taken by leaders in the midst of life and death struggles.  While our current prospects are grim, they have not yet ripened to full-blown disasters; yet our government would propel us forwards as if we were struggling to overcome our very death-throes.  This is not the careful leadership of a government intent on protecting the rights of the people, loathe to take up power lest it rob it’s citizens of the ability to determine their own best course; this is an expansive government eager to take from it’s citizens the ability to make mistakes, which will necessarily hamper our potential for success. 

If this Republic would weather the challenges we face, it would be wise to consider the examples of those leaders who faced real and difficult challenges to our continued survival; those who took up the power of the government as a last resort, who used it sparingly, knowing that once expanded, the government is nearly impossible to shrink.  It is wrecklessly rash to employ such an instrument as the solution to the social problems of health-care, education, and mortgages; yet this is almost prudent when compared with the disastrous policies that would allow the government to unlock the credit of the nation without accountability.  For liberty to remain the highest ideal in our nation, it must not be the default position of our government to envelope the burdens we the people face; it is for us to rise to the challenges we face.  Failure to shoulder this burden represents more than merely an inability to realize our potential or a stumble on the road to prosperity; relinquishing such sweeping power to the government, absent of an actual cataclysmic disaster, is a failure of the people to live up to the responsibility which accompanies the privilege of freedom.  Failures of this kind have produced tyrants, from Caesar & Bonaparte to Hitler & Stalin. 

If we would be free, we must remember that this Government is “for the people” and we are not for it.

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Take It From Lincoln

My esteemed colleague has posited the question of all questions: what is the purpose of government?  Nothing like a nice, light inquiry to start things here, eh?

I take the basic premise of my answer from the Gettysburg Address.  It seems to be a safe bet, to start.  After all, slap our 16th president’s name on the cover, and a history book will shoot to the bestseller list in a flash.  In seriousness, Lincoln delivered the most succinct, beautiful description of our government in one brief phrase.  Our government is ‘of the people, by the people, for the people.’

In order to appreciate its beauty, we have remember how it was delivered (according to eyewitness reports).  Today, even Disney’s late Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln presented it with the wrong emphasis.  We tend to focus on the prepositions, probably because they’re what changes and they automatically draw our attention.  But Mr. Lincoln didn’t deliver the speech that way.  He emphasized the most important part of the phrase: the repeated noun.

Government is of, by and for the people.  And I’m sure this isn’t a controversial statement on its surface.  But as I’ve explored its implications, I find it leads me into opposition with my conservative friends.  I understand the minimalist approach to government, that it exists solely to guarantee our security and freedom, and that it works best when it steps aside to allow people to be their best, unhindered by government intervention.  I agree that in some cases, this is the best possible role for the government to play.

But it’s not always the right role, and quite often, it’s the worst.

A government established of the people must take its orders from the people.  Their values must shape its actions.  While that requires a firm foundation that binds the people together as a community, it also requires a level of flexibility as that community grows and changes.  The America of 1789 is not the America of 2009.  That shouldn’t distress us too greatly.  We’ve rejected slavery, institutionalized misogyny, class-based elitism and many more evils.  It should distress us a little.  We’ve embraced evils our Framers never dreamed were possible, from abortion to the atom bomb.  But in all of this, our government still represents us, the living who live in the legacy of the past.  It’s the struggle to reject what’s bad of our past and embrace what’s good of our present that keeps its role in motion.

A government established by the people must act in the people’s best interest.  Sometimes that interest is to stand aside and wait to be called into action.  Sometimes, that role is to intervene, to defend its people not just from external threats, but also from themselves.  Lest you think I’m advocating an Orwellian Big Brother, let me clarify something.

Government works best when it encourages its people to be good.  Government can never take the place of the true source of Good, and cannot be trusted to define that Good either, but that is no excuse for government to remain morally neutral.  Just as it must step aside to allow religious organizations to act charitably without hindrance, it must intervene when strong members of society exploit the weak.  And it should never facilitate that exploitation.

And government is for the people.  Its purpose must be to facilitate the success of its citizens, financially, politically, personally – life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness (of course in the Aristotelian sense).  If government regulation hinders that success, it must be examined.  If its absence hinders that success, it deserves the same scrutiny.  The needs of the Wall Street executive must be tempered by the needs of the homeless veteran.  We can’t reject either for the sake of the other.

Because government isn’t an institution.  It’s people.  People designed its structure, and people enact its policies.  There’s nothing faceless about it.  It cannot stand aside and only intervene when faced with foreign invasion or the latest crime wave because government is the people.  And while it can’t take the place of a church when it comes to moral guidance, or a school when it comes to education, it can’t be separated from them either.  Our president attended our schools, and our congressmembers attend our churches.

So what is the purpose of government?

That’s a very good question.

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The Question Is…

I was given the honor of posting the first substantial contribution to our shiny new forum on Government, Politics and Faith…and promptly drew a blank.  Perhaps it was the result of the growing amount of work in other areas of my life, or perhaps it was the pressure of writing the FIRSTpost to attempt to live up to the high ideals we have laid out for this forum; regardless of the why, the result was the definite: no words would come. 

Finally an article about the Economy struck a chord, and I found words once again.  Although I did attempt to impart my thoughts on the current trend in California politics to embrace financial ruin in favor of continued government spending, since crafting that initial post I have had the opportunity to reflect on the grander vision for this blog.  While we don’t want to take ourselves too seriously, I think that Lang would agree with me when I say that I would like to see this experiment aspire to greater heights than another day-to-day political commentary blog.  Nothing against those forums (I read several of them), but there are plenty of those already, and it is our goal to accomplish something else here.  We want to examine the real differences between our political worldviews, especially as enlightened by our faith in the same Savior.  A certain amount of political commentary will necessarily be involved in such a discussion, but it will not be the scope of the discourse here held. 

With that in mind, I offer this as a restart, a better version of what should have been initially.  The Coke you ordered, rather than the Pepsi you were mistakenly given.  And to kick us off, I think it would be best to start at the very beginning, and address the elephant in the room by asking this question:

What is Government for, and what would such a vision look like in the America today?

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