Monday, August 25, 2008

A Nation of Laws (and Lawyers)

Are attorneys always agents of revolution?

When Pakistan’s President Pervez Musharraf stepped down last week, there were lawyers to blame. Hundreds of counselors clad in courtroom attire, black suits, white shirts and power ties, took to the streets last winter to protest the Islamic leader’s heavy-handed dismissal of that nation’s Supreme Court Justice. What a grand sight to see the barristers clamoring at the barricades, pulling down barbed wire and chanting “Go, Musharraf, go!”

I was reminded that legally trained minds also made America’s revolution. Of the fifty-five delegates from twelve states who participated in our country’s Constitutional Convention in the summer of 1787, a solid majority were lawyers.

That explains why our nation’s framers were so enamored with the concept of “contract.” Contract is a cornerstone of legal theory–required of every first year law student.

Society, our framers held, was based on a reciprocal, legal agreement among its members. According to social contract theory, government comes into being when free agents enter into mutual compact with each other. Each individual agrees to cede a limited portion of his or her own personal freedom to the sovereign or central power in exchange for the order and stability that comes from living under a nation of laws.

There was not a clergyman among the delegates in 1787. None claimed that government originated from God, or that laws were enjoined by holy writ. Rather, just authority derived from the consent of the governed ... from “we the people,” in the immortal phrase of the Constitution’s preamble. Those were lawyers talking.

Isn’t it time Americans regained respect for the rule of law? Our current president (the latest King George) has claimed on numerous occasions that his power and judgment derive from the Almighty. He has overridden the will of Congress repeatedly with “signing statements, ” flouting legislation intended to constrain executive hubris. He has ignored international treaties that prohibit torture, including the Geneva Conventions.

Perhaps lawyers in the U.S. should follow the example of the brave barristers of Pakistan, and of our own founders. Lawyers arise! More than a verdict or jury award is at stake. Our character as a nation of laws is on trial.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Will the Real Founding Fathers Please Stand Up?

Virtually everything that can be known about America’s founding generation can now be known--virtually. The digital archives containing the writings of our first four Presidents are accessible to anyone with a modem. Despite that, their innermost thoughts about God and faith remain an enigma to most people, simply because biographers have given the subject short shrift.


John Adams, for example, was featured this March in a seven-part HBO mini-series based on David McCullough’s portrait of the figure whom Ben Franklin called “an honest man, and often a just one, but sometimes absolutely mad.” Adams was an eccentric genius. But readers of McCullough’s Pulitzer-winning bio learn only that Adams was “both a devout Christian and an independent thinker.”

The 751 page book never mentions that young John originally intended to enter the ministry, or that he grew cynical about the church when Rev. Lemuel Bryant, minister of the local parish in Braintree, was subjected to a heresy trial in the Adams family living room: “I perceived very clearly that the study of theology, and the pursuit of it as a profession, would involve me in endless altercations, and make my life miserable, without any prospect of doing any good to my fellow-men.” Readers don’t realize that Adams was studying at Harvard at the height of the schism, his attention was drawn increasingly to science, especially astronomy, where the discovery of deep space was beginning to stretch traditional notions of divinity in strange, unexpected directions.


Enlightened thinkers in the eighteenth century were starting to understand the cosmos was teeming with stars and planets, many of them presumably inhabited, some undoubtedly with civilizations superior to our own. As a student, John wondered whether it made sense to suppose that the Creator of “Newton’s universe” had really taken flesh as an earthling—or found it necessary to morph into the form of Martians, Moon Men, or other extraterrestrials—to accomplish the work of salvation? Trying to square doctrine with plain arithmetic, he questioned the Trinitarian formula that three could equal one, any more than two plus two could make five. If he was not exactly “a devout Christian,” he was certainly an idiosyncratic one.

David McCullough is a great historian, but on the subject of religion, it is important to set the record straight, precisely because the founders were so complex. Dumbed-down depictions of them as red state Bible thumpers, on the one hand, or secular humanists, on the other, harness their memory in the service of culture wars our nation’s architects would have deplored. Washington, Adams, Jefferson and Madison all believed faith should be a cohesive force in public life. Portraits that are one-sided, or oversimplified, undermine that goal.

So it is nice to know that Thomas Jefferson, the apostle of separating church from state, recommended “Death to Tyrants is Obedience to God” as a motto for the nation’s great seal. That Benjamin Franklin’s suggestion to open the Constitutional Convention each morning with prayer was countered by Alexander Hamilton’s quip that the delegates didn’t need any “foreign aid.” That George Washington, who called religion and morality the “indispensable supports” of political prosperity in his Farewell, frequently skipped Sunday worship. Men this complicated are hard to categorize on the spiritual spectrum as right or left, and that is a healthy corrective.

The time for mythologizing is over. So what if Washington never knelt in supplication in the snows of Valley Forge? By all historical accounts, the General liked to stand erect at prayer, even warm and dry inside an Episcopal church where bending the knee is customary. Knowing the truth, we respect the Father of our Country no less, and appreciate the diverse, irreducibly messy religious identity that characterizes our country all the more. So please. Will the real Founding Fathers stand up?

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Info-Tainment Meets Inspir-Mation

Tonight’s show was predictable and a bit creepy.

Fox, CNN and most other news stations carried the dialogue as Reverend Rick Warren quizzed senators McCain and Obama on national TV. Warren wanted to know how Christianity played out in their personal lives. He wanted to make sure neither believed in gay marriage. He pushed them on abortion and embryonic stem cell research. Pastor Rick wanted to know how they would address religious persecution around the world. And he invited them to confess their biggest moral blunder in front of the cameras.

The mega-church pastor didn’t talk much about the poor, except to boast that he personally had sold 25 million copies of his guide to living a more purposeful life, and to quip that an annual income of $150,000 a year, which Obama defined as middle-class, was a poverty wage in his southern California neighborhood. Funny, I remember Jesus had a lot to say about the poor and not so much about stem cell research. Me and Rick must have gone to different seminaries.

One of his last questions to both candidates: “What would you say to folks who think it’s inappropriate for you to be talking with me here tonight?” Rev. Warren said that while it was important to keep church and state distinct, there was nothing wrong with mingling faith and politics. “Faith” was just another name for a world view, he explained, and everyone had one of those, whether Baptist or Buddhist or Bahai. Both Obama and McCain enthused about how delighted they were chatting with such a prominent religious leader.

But I had a different reaction. I thought it was another example of America’s growing problem with boundary issues. Specifically, our nation seems to be losing sight of the appropriate lines between news and entertainment, between entertainment and religion, and between religion and politics.

Tonight’s show tried to somehow be all of those things, set in a church that looked like a TV studio on steroids. Info-tainment meets Inspir-mation.

Not a pretty sight.

A Purpose Driven Debate?

Should a presidential candidate’s personal religious beliefs be fodder for a candidate forum?


Tonight Barak Obama and John McCain appear in conversation with Rev. Rick Warren, pastor of the 22,000 member Saddleback Church and author of a best-selling book, The Purpose-Driven Life. Warren is an evangelical Baptist, but known for broadening the faith-based agenda beyond hot button issues like abortion and gay marriage to include care of the environment and combating AIDS.


The event is being co-sponsored by “Faith in Public Life,” a liberal coalition whose Board President is Reverend Meg Riley, an ordained Unitarian Universalist minister who headed the denomination’s Office of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual and Transgender Concerns, and whose members include a spectrum of Jews, Muslims, Catholics and Protestants.


But despite the wide base of religious leaders involved in planning Saturday’s event, it still seems odd to have the Democratic and Republican nominee hold their first post-primary public appearance in such an explicitly religious setting.


Reverend Warren says he wants to ask the candidates questions that aren’t usually discussed, like “What’s Your View of the Constitution?” But if he’s sticking to secular and legal questions, why is a spiritual leader especially qualified to ask them? Will Warren also ask Obama and McCain about their bona fides as Christians? What they believe about Jesus and the Bible?


America’s founders seldom discussed their faith in public. Rev. William White, the Episcopal bishop of Virginia, said that he often dined with George Washington, but never heard the great man refer to his religious beliefs in any shape or manner. Thomas Jefferson wrote a syllabus on the life of Jesus, but kept it’s circulation limited strictly to friends and confidantes—not intended for publication. While James Madison expressed an interest in ministry as a young man attending Princeton, in later life he rarely mentioned his spiritual inclinations. Why not? Because like the other founders, he considered faith a private matter, and too important to be used to hustle for votes.


Perhaps the current nominees might take a cue from the founders in this regard. I am looking forward to watching tonight’s forum with Reverend Warren and the two senators. But I’d rather be watching McCain and Obama on PBS than in a sectarian place of worship.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Natural Bridges, Now and Then

A stone bridge collapsed last week at Arches National Park. According to the park’s chief interpreter, gravity and erosion, the same forces that created the photogenic formation, eventually caused it to collapse. “They all let go after a while,” he said.

At thirty-three feet tall, the Arches sandstone bridge was considerably smaller than Virginia’s limestone wonder, an archway that towers 215 feet above the ground, spanning over 90 feet. Thomas Jefferson, who lived in the neighborhood, described it rapturously. “It is impossible for the emotions arising from the sublime, to be felt beyond what they are here,” he wrote, praising the bridge as “so beautiful an arch, so elevated, so light” that it was well worth a trip across the Atlantic for any European visitors who might wish to gaze upon it.

Jefferson often speculated on the geological forces that conspired to create such a marvel. Could it have been an ancient cataclysm? Or the slow work of eons as water trickled over stone, as Cedar Creek (located at the bottom of the bridge) wore down the solid rock? Jefferson eventually embraced the latter hypothesis–one modern geologists would share.

He didn’t think of the Bible as a textbook on geology that would explain the age or history of such mineral formations. He looked for scientific explanations of how mountains were formed, rocks laid down, and fossils generated. But his embrace of science never diminished his capacity for awe and wonder or his curiosity about the earth’s origins.

In 1774, Thomas Jefferson finally bought the land that contained Virginia’s natural bridge. He often thought of building “a little hermitage” on the property: a place to retreat and meditate on the ancient, elemental forces of nature.

And although many in his day accused him of being an “infidel,” he was in this sense a deeply spiritual man.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Non-Trivial Pursuits

Despite the important role they played in history, the founding fathers remain little known or appreciated by ordinary Americans. For example:

Which of the founders grew marijuana? That would be George Washington, who cultivated hemp at his Mount Vernon estate, to be used in making rope rather than to smoke. We shouldn't confuse him with Thomas Jefferson, who grew opium poppies for more medicinal purposes.

Which of the founders had the biggest feet? Again, George Washington wore size thirteen shoes. That's why John Adams, his successor, was elected to just one term in office. Adams had such big shoes to fill!

Who called John Adams "an honest man, and often a just one, but sometimes absolutely mad?" Ben Franklin said that. And why? Because Adams suggested that the office of the presidency have a title capable of inspiring suitable awe. He proposed "His Highness, President of the United States and Protector of the Liberties of the Same." For that bit of ridiculousness, the portly Adams was jeered as "His Rotundity" by his enemies in Congress. James Madison sensibly suggested the title "Mister President" would do just fine, and that's what we've called our chief exec ever since.

But the reason for learning about our nation's founders isn't just to accumulate trivia. It's to value and cherish the freedoms that go along with self-government. You know, we often tell children that anyone in this country might grow up to be president. And we tell kids that because we really believe it. It's truer today than ever in our history. This November when we go to the polls, we'll have the first opportunity ever to cast a ballot for a black man. A woman very nearly captured the Democratic party nomination. What a shift in consciousness and culture in the last forty years.

But not so great a shift as the one instituted in 1787. Before then, the prevailing wisdom held that kings and autocrats reigned over their subjects by divine right. Monarchs were appointed by God to be obeyed. The framers of our Constitution, on the other hand, asserted that rightful governance is grounded in the consent of the governed. Not a self-appointed aristocracy or priesthood, but the people should decide.

So whoever we vote for, Republican or Democrat, male or female, black or white, we are united in our belief that "we the people" should choose our own rulers. It's our government and our right and responsibility to keep it accountable. That's a legacy we've inherited from our founders, and it's no trivial pursuit.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

How Old Is Too Old?

How old is too old? And when it comes to the presidency, how young is too young? Both candidates this season have taken flak on the question.

The Constitution sets the chronological bar for the office at thirty-five, and that may be a reflection of the document’s authors. James Madison, who devised the “Virginia Plan” for three separate branches of government, restrained by checks and balances, was himself just thirty-six when he earned the sobriquet “Father of the Constitution.” Alexander Hamilton was six years younger. Jonathan Dayton of the New Jersey delegation was only twenty-six years old. The overall average for the delegates who gathered in Philadelphia in the summer of 1787 was never over forty-three years-of-age. Perhaps people grew up faster in the eighteenth century, but even accounting for cultural differences, the framers who wrote our country’s charter make Barak Obama seem like a geezer.

On the other hand, Benjamin Franklin was still able to participate and lend an air of gravitas to the proceedings at age eighty. And the man people rightly assumed would ascend to the office of the presidency, General Washington, was old enough to be a card-carrying member of the AARP. A champion wrestler in his youth, Washington could still pin men half his age when commanding the armies of the republic. But neither he nor Franklin, as far as I know, was familiar with how to use a personal computer. So John McCain shouldn’t be ruled out just because he is (in his own words) “older than dirt.”

The issue in November shouldn’t be age, but each candidate’s policies, his leadership qualities and vision for the nation. That’s the way the framers would have wanted it. And you can call me old-fashioned or geriatric on that score.

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