Wednesday, July 9, 2014


Many of my weekly essays arise from the confluence of fortuitous circumstances.  Three and a half have come together this week.  They are (1) the celebration of the national holiday on July 4; (2) the political ruckus triggered among the punditocracy by the decision of the Supreme Court in the case of Burwell vs Hobby Lobby Stores; and (3) the publication of Our Declaration by Danielle Allen of the Institute for Advanced Study.  The half circumstance—the catalyst that supervised the interaction of the three came from a brief sermon I heard on Sunday at All Saints’ Church in Princeton.

            What I was taught in school is that our country had been founded by Europeans who came to North America in search of “a better life.”   That statement was, I think, unexceptional and true; and as a child I didn’t think too deeply about it, not even to the extent of asking myself “better than what”?  Throughout the nineteenth century there was a fairly constant flow of European immigration to this country, at times a mighty river.  The earlier European immigrants to North America were roughly divided between religious refugees and economic adventurers, but it is not always easy to distinguish between the two.   The migrants’ motivations were generally related to complex local conditions in which religious profession and economic possibility were inextricably mixed.  If you look at such groups as Huguenot artisans, Eastern European Jewry, or the Irish peasantry you can see some of the different formulas in which religious and economic oppression could be blended.

            One of the incidental pleasures of teaching at a distinguished institution is that you inevitably meet distinguished students.  Around 1990 one of the student leaders of Wilson College, of which I was then the Master, was a young woman named Danielle Allen.   She went on to become eminent as a classical scholar, a political theorist, a leading advocate for humanistic study, and now a professor at the Institute for Advanced Study.  A few days ago on the “PBS New Hour” I watched Jeffrey Brown interview Danielle Allen concerning her new book about the Declaration of Independence.  Ms. Allen was exhorting her fellow citizens to “claim ownership” of the document, to recognize it as ours, and exploit its “empowering” potential.  I immediately took her advice by re-reading the document.  What a masterpiece!

            I may be one of few people in the country who had never heard of the Hobby Lobby stores before the last two weeks, but like everybody else I’ve heard plenty recently.  Depending upon your pundit the Supreme Court’s decision is either a great blow for limited government or an invitation to theocracy.  I do not always agree with the Court’s closely divided decisions, but the very fact of them does not scandalize me.  Were the meaning of the Constitution as “clear” or “obvious” as pundits insist, there would be no need for it.

            As the Fourth of July is a religious holiday in the calendar of the Episcopal Church, it is not surprising that it should be the subject of a priest’s sermon.  What was surprising, at least to me, was her principal ancillary text: The Little Town on the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder.  Most Americans who have children or who were ever children themselves know her series of books about her pioneer childhood.  I myself had actually written a little about Laura’s remarkable daughter Rose in The Anti-Communist Manifestos.   In Little Town Laura Wilder describes her experience, at about the age of fifteen in 1881, of the civic celebration of the Fourth in the brand-new hamlet of De Smet, Dakota Territory, which included the reading of the Declaration.  Laura and Carrie knew the Declaration by heart, of course…”  Think about that sentence for a minute as you ponder the present state of American public education.  My own school-marm grandmother had made memorizing the Declaration a requirement for admission to the high school in Salida, Colorado.

            Swelling with patriotism young Laura Ingalls reports the following meditation on the Declaration of Independence:  “She thought: Americans won’t obey any king on earth.  Americans are free.  That means they have to obey their own consciences.  No king bosses Pa; he has to boss himself…Her whole mind seemed to be lighted up by that thought.  This is what it means to be free.  It means, you have to be good.  ‘Our fathers’ God, author of liberty—’ The laws of Nature and of Nature’s God endow you with a right to life and liberty.  Then you have to keep the laws of God, for God’s law is the only thing that gives you a right to be free.”

            That is what religious liberty meant to one particularly intelligent and sensitive American girl in 1881.  There are, of course other points of view.  If you lived and worked in an academic setting a hundred years later you might have a different perspective.  The first thought concerning religious liberty that many of today’s intellectual elites would seem to have is one of self-congratulation upon having liberated themselves from religion, closely followed by a second—a bemused or impatient realization that some other people haven’t.

            But both as a citizen and a literature professor I myself have to credit that young girl of 1881 with a very accurate understanding of an historical document written according to the canons of classical eighteenth-century rhetorical doctrine.  No part of the Declaration can be more important than its emphatic conclusion in which the entire project of independence is justified by religious principle: “…appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions…  with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.”

            I don’t much care whether or not our coins bear the motto “IN GOD WE TRUST.”  But I wonder whether those clamoring for its removal on the grounds of a strange and novel interpretation of a phrase in the First Amendment (“establishment of religion”) will be consistent enough to argue for the bowdlerization of the Declaration of Independence as well.