Ethics & Public Policy Center

What We Are For — An American Cultural Catechism

Published in National Review Online on March 12, 2016


Senator Ben Sasse (R., Neb.) is correct that America’s basic problem is a failure of “cultural catechesis,” which he described as the task of “reaffirming our core values.” He is also correct that such values are not acquired by osmosis. Moses had the right idea when he told the Israelites to teach the law constantly “to your children and your children’s children” (Deut. 5:8).

Unfortunately, Sasse offered a cultural catechism only indirectly, by posing rhetorical questions about Donald Trump: “Do you believe the beating heart of Mr. Trump’s candidacy has been a defense of the Constitution?” he asked. “Do you believe it’s been an impassioned defense of the First Amendment — or an attack on it?”

While I agree that it is necessary to know what we are against, our more fundamental need right now is to state clearly what we are for. In short, we need an American cultural catechism. To that end, I offer the following.

 

Q. What are America’s “core values”?

A. America’s core values are “the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God.” Comment: Here we look not to the Constitution but to the nation’s founding document, the Declaration of Independence. We know the Laws of Nature by reasoning from commonly accessible experience. We can know the Laws of Nature’s God only through God’s revelation of himself. Both avenues to the truth exclude coercion.

 

Q. What is the natural law?

A. The natural law is what we can know by reasoning from commonly accessible experience. Comment: “Nature” refers not to the mythical Roman goddess Natura but rather to God’s nature, on the one hand, and, on the other, to human nature; only secondarily does it refer to knowledge of other animals, plants, and inanimate objects such as stones. The natural law goes back much earlier than 1776. It was defined in the Middle Ages by religiously orthodox Catholic, Jewish, and Muslim scholars building on Aristotle’s foundations. Protestants and Catholics revived it after the Thirty Years’ War, about a century before the American Founding, to discuss their profound differences about revealed religion without killing one another.

 

Q. What does it mean that “all men are created equal?”

A. Literally what it says. First, that we humans are creatures, who live in a universe created by God from nothing. Comment: This we know through reason, as even Thomas Paine saw, though he maintained that “the story of Christ is of human invention, and not of divine origin,” and inveighed against “the stupid Bible of the church.” Paine’s incontrovertible proof that we are created by God: “Everything we behold carries in itself the internal evidence that it did not make itself. . . . And it is the conviction arising from this evidence, that carries us on, as it were, by necessity, to the belief of a first cause eternally existing, of a nature totally different to any mate­rial existence we know of, and by the power of which all things exist, and this first cause man calls God.” (Thomas Aquinas had posited this, among other proofs of God, five centuries earlier.)

 

Q. What is God?

A. God simply Is. Put another way: Creatures have existence from God, but only God is existence. Comment: Reason tells us with certainty not what God is but what He is not: God is im-material (not material) and in-finite (not finite). Because we ourselves are material and finite, we cannot experience God directly by our own unaided power — so to our minds he is not in fact “self-evident,” though he is very evident: We know from our own existence and the existence of other things that he must be the Creator, a person infinitely greater than ourselves, who is able to bring things into being from nothing. Beyond this, our positive knowledge of God depends on our acceptance of his self-revelation (e.g., Ex. 3:14 and John 8:48).

 

Q. What is man?

A. Man is a “rational,” “conjugal,” and “political animal,” as Aristotle says in his threefold definition. Comment: Animal: We are born, live, and die. Rational: We understand the nature of things by abstracting their immaterial forms, or essences, which means that we ourselves must have an immaterial dimension, or “soul.” Our equality among ourselves cannot derive from our exercise of our intelligence but from the very capacity of our intelligence, independent of its physical performance or of any defects in it. (Otherwise we would fall into sub-humanity whenever sleeping or unconscious.) Conjugal: Every human comes into being through the sexual union of one man and one woman, which is why marriage is the first natural bond of human society. Political: As naturally social creatures, we form governments for our common good, “deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed,” “to secure [the] rights” to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” (of which the Bill of Rights is only a partial enumeration).

 

Q. Who was our greatest president, and why?

A. Abraham Lincoln was our greatest president (though George Washington, our first president, has a strong claim). Lincoln recognized that our nation’s original sin was slavery, which contradicted the Declaration’s lofty preamble, and that the Constitution, which permitted slavery, had to be corrected by constitutional means. Comment: Lincoln also recognized that abolishing slavery required an appeal to what we all know through the natural law. For example: “Although volume upon volume is written to prove slavery a very good thing, we never hear of the man who wishes to take the good of it, by being a slave himself.”

 

Q. Should Donald Trump be rejected because he is vulgar?

A. Donald Trump should be rejected but not because he is vulgar. As Lincoln understood, while “vulgar” can mean both “common” and “indecent,” “common” and “indecent” are opposites, not synonyms — as the phrase “common decency” illustrates. Comment: Trump is neither the first nor last to make vulgarity his “brand,” and should be rejected for his uncommon indecency. Those who dismiss Trump as vulgar typically come out the worse, either by stooping to vulgarity themselves (like Senator Marco Rubio) or because, like Julius Caesar, Trump is adept at manipulating mobs.

 

Q. Is Donald Trump right that working families have been victimized by free trade?

A. No. Trump rightly decries “currency manipulation” but omits to mention that the current monetary system was conceived by John Maynard Keynes as nothing but currency manipulation, and rejects the only effective solution: monetary reform. Comment: As Lewis E. Lehrman and I have demonstrated, America’s main economic problems — a Congress unable to control borrowing, the hollowing out of the middle class, and a financial system prone to crises such as those of 1929–32 and 2007–09 — have a common root: using  U.S. public debt, now worth trillions of dollars, as ”official reserves,” a system Trump does not propose to change. His “solution” of trade protectionism is like “curing” someone run over by an auto by backing up over the victim. It disastrously failed in the 1920s and ’30s.

 

Q. Should Donald Trump be rejected as a fascist?

A. No. Fascism fortunately never took root in America. Trump should be rejected instead as a present-day “Know-Nothing,” both literally and as a throwback to the secret nativist society active in the 19th century. Comment: “As a nation, we began by declaring that ‘all men are created equal,’” Lincoln wrote in 1855. “We now practically read it ‘all men are created equal, except negroes.’ When the Know-Nothings get control, it will read ‘all men are created equal, except negroes, and foreigners, and Catholics.’ When it comes to this I should prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretense of loving liberty — to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be taken pure, and without the base alloy of hypocrisy.”

— John D. Mueller is the Lehrman Institute Fellow in Economics at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and author of Redeeming Economics: Rediscovering the Missing Element.

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