[Note to Readers: This is part two of a three-part essay dealing with the issues of Constitution principle brought to mind as I read about the armed group occupying the Federal facility in Oregon. In part one I reflect on the possible consequences of the media’s use or abuse of the word “militia” in stories reporting the event, given the fact that it’s the term the U.S. Constitution’s Second Amendment uses in establishing the context for protecting “the right of the people to keep and bear arms.” I ponder how the Amendment’s reference to “a well-regulated militia” reflects the connection between right and obligation in the America’s republican creed. I note the contrast between the First and Second Amendments in his respect. The following article develops that contrast as it relates to the nature and aim of the exercise of sovereignty by which the people ordain and establish the Constitution.]
At the time of the founding most Americans believed that a certain brand of Christianity was the true religion. But the First Amendment’s language encompassed the free exercise of religion for Catholics, Jews, and even free thinkers like Thomas Paine, whose religion was and remains to this day, a subject of reasonable doubt. Even though many of them belittled and rejected its substance, for the most part the prevalent Founders did not refuse to include the practice of Islam by “infidels and Turks” within the meaning of the First Amendment’s use of the term ‘religion.’
Even though many of them thought its practices wrong (i.e., contrary to God’s understanding of right), these advocates of the Constitution’s language thought it right to include them within the purview of the freedom the First Amendment has in mind. People who find it hard to understand this likely forget that, even though every right entails an individual obligation, all right is not individual right. Indeed, when exercising the sovereign power of government, the right that must always be kept in mind has to do with the common good, which every sovereign action must somehow have in view.
Thanks to their acquaintance (first-hand and otherwise) with the religious wars in Europe, many of America’s founding generation were impressed with the virulently destructive nature of religious violence. Though it is alien to the Christian understanding, which the Founders mostly professed, vengeful, hateful anger is the second-cousin of the truly righteous indignation that is the only morally valid motive for warlike violence. Unlike its righteous counterpart, hateful anger does not involve communion with the benevolent will of God. It sups upon itself, pretending for the duration that anger sufficiently satisfies the appetite of the demanding passions that give rise to it. On account of that pretense, people are inclined to dispense with the requirements of reason which, like God Himself, transcend the blinding purview of self-willed human passion.
With this in mind, the First Amendment seeks to forbid the abuse of government power as an instrument of religious enforcement, persuasion or persecution. By freeing government action from the imputation of offensive violence such abuse naturally occasions, the Founders sought to avoid the escalating cycle of self-breeding injury and hatred it almost inevitably kindles. This they rightly regarded a service to the common good, especially in light of the example and teachings of their guide to moral truth, Jesus Christ. Nothing in his Gospel justifies or encourages fatal violence as a medium of evangelization. As Jesus himself explicitly makes clear, He came “to bring life, and that more abundantly”, rightly dividing the word of truth, not as the death-dealing Avenger of blood. Indeed, far from pouring out the blood of others, he submitted to others as they unjustly spilled his blood.
As a strategist, Christ did not recommend that people fight evil with evil. Rather he commanded them to overcome evil with good. This does not exclude all violence, but it certainly admits it only as necessary in order to secure the good of all, in the course of which each partakes of good, whether they admit it or not. The language of the Second Amendment conforms to this strategic approach. Even as it forbids government action that infringes the right of the people to keep and bear arms, it makes clear that those arms are to be disciplined by respect for right, rightly understood.
The Amendment encourages and relies upon this reasoning when it commences: “A well-regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state.” These days we use the word “regulation” with reference to a restriction of action, without regard to the standard involved. But at its root it refers to such a standard. The word grew from a proto-Indo-European stem that refers to a straight line. The word right, grew from the same root. Regulation, right, and rectitude form part of a set with this genealogy.
The business of regulation thus has to do with keeping an action or activity in line, but with the implication that by doing so we direct it toward the right end. But what is the end America’s Founders envisaged for government? In the Declaration of Independence, they first uphold the self-evident truth of unalienable rights, endowed by the Creator; then they uphold the truth that all human governments are instituted to secure these rights. By this logic, the Second Amendment is not simply about the freedom to arm. It’s about the discipline required to exercise that freedom rightly — which is to say, in accordance with the standard of right substantiated (endowed) by God’s will for humanity, individually and on the whole.
Did the men who took over the U.S. government facility in Oregon act with respect for this discipline? Some proponents of the Second Amendment, and of the principles of unalienable right, understand that they failed to do so, and are saying as much. But that understanding naturally leads us to ask “What explains their failure?” Our discussion suggests that the answer lies in the false conflation of right and freedom. The freedom to do what is right is misrepresented as the “right” to freedom, no matter what we do.
But even beyond this is the misconception that the liberty of the American people is simply a matter of individual freedom. But at the individual level, it is impossible to conceive of freedom, humanly understood, once the wholesome prospect of humanity as such has been cut off. Once that happens, one may still be conscious, and even conscious of oneself, but human consciousness, which perforce includes being conscious of humanity as such — is lost. But without self-conscious action, from deliberate choice, what distinguishes human beings from brute beasts?
Once we efface the line that distinguishes humanity from the rest, what order remains for us? Isn’t this chaos come again, from whence only the Creator, God, can reconstitute the whole? We have the luxury of speculating about it only because His will holds chaos in abeyance. Because He does so, we enjoy the appearance of standing upon firm ground. But once we presume to stand on our own without His will, the ground gives way. Our “function is smothered in surmise … And nothing is but what is not.”
To anyone with the will and imagination to ponder them, events in Oregon conjure up consequences that have just this implication with respect to the function of the U.S. Constitution. For now, it still gives us reason to assume that our national union remains intact. But Oregon is a premonition of armed strife. Such strife will cut away at organic forms that have allowed our body politic to function. It will do so with no surgeon’s respect for the contours that ought to be our guide in maintaining and/or healing our Constitution. Add to this the general abandonment of respect that has led the elitist faction to connive at extending the reach of foreign foes into the very heart of our local communities. How can we deny the premonition that, as a people conceived in liberty, we stand on the brink of dissolution?
If only we could find some way to restore to useful life the understanding, wise and prudent, that Providence allowed that first generation of Americans to bring to bear. Even now we would find, quite near at hand, the warlike but righteous strategy needed to pull our nation away from the abyss. That strategy would rely on “well-regulated militia,” such as the Second Amendment exists in aid of. It would do so, first of all, by refurbishing the true basis for political regulation, which lies in the moral faculties of heart and soul that inform and inwardly instruct the people, as a whole. It lies, as well, in reclaiming the character and sense of responsibility for the whole individuals must sustain if our union and liberty are to survive in concert.
[Note to readers: Part III, exploring this promising alternative, will be available at WND.com any time after 8 PM on Thursday.]