A closer walk with the godless right

Max Borders Editor, The Freeman
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Christians. Jews. All faithful of the right. I’d like to continue to extend my hand in brotherhood. We made our November 2010 pilgrimage together. We can do it again in 2012. I am an atheist. Yes, we may quibble about certain things, but we have much in common. Our patriotism binds us.

That patriotism is neither jingoism nor worship of blood and soil. It is a veneration for those sacred institutions the founding documents set out. So as we walk, hand in hand, to do what must be done, let’s look away from those who say we shouldn’t make this walk together. We need each other. Suffrage is the only game in town short of revolution.

A truce?

Mitch Daniels is right about a truce. Well, sort of:

[T]he next president, whoever he is, “would have to call a truce on the so-called social issues. We’re going to just have to agree to get along for a little while,” until the economic issues are resolved.

The truce he should be talking about first is the one that will get a fiscal conservative elected president. If we fight the culture wars all over again, Team Obama will divide and conquer us.

So, on your side, we’ll ignore the would-be theocrats, nativists and anyone else who might be ignorant about what’s written in the First Amendment. On my side, we’ll ignore all those smug, beltway intellectuals who exude disdain for patriotism and even the most reflective faithful.

You, with your Buckley and your Burke — I, with my Hayek and my Hume — let us lock arms for the sake of an American Renaissance. That City on the Hill can still be built. It’s just going to take some time.

Who is the godless right?

Before we take this walk together, you might be wondering just who we are.

Believe it or not, there is a rich tradition of the godless right. Some in that tradition might be considered agnostics (close enough). Some might be considered more libertarian than right wing (also close enough.) The tradition goes back hundreds of years — probably starting with Hobbes who was, at least, a “materialist.” Today the tradition has been passed on to public lights as various as P. J. O’Rourke and Steven Pinker. But we can claim some interesting characters from the past, too.

You may know:

  • John Stuart Mill
  • Milton Friedman (agnostic)
  • Friedrich Hayek (agnostic)
  • Adam Smith
  • David Hume
  • Adam Ferguson
  • The Marquis de Condorcet
  • Herbert Spencer
  • T. H. Huxley (agnostic)
  • H. L. Mencken (agnostic)
  • Ludwig von Mises (agnostic)

Some other rather important figures have debatable religious commitments, so we may have equal claims to them:

  • Thomas Jefferson, founding father and deist, sliced up his Bible with a razor to remove passages he considered unenlightened.
  • Benjamin Franklin, founding father, may have been an agnostic before the term was coined, but is known for saying “lighthouses are more useful than churches.”
  • James Madison, founding father, in a letter to William Bradford wrote: “Religious bondage shackles and debilitates the mind and unfits it for every noble enterprise, every expanded prospect.”

These men were products of the Enlightenment. And though they may have left the fold, they took great pains to preserve religious freedoms in their new republic, for you and me. So using labels in an effort to lay claim to them is perhaps unwise.

Instead, we should focus on the ideas they set forth in our founding documents. And in that regard, one thing is clear: there is a lot less room for interpretation than the progressive left would have people believe. In other words, if it’s a “living Constitution,” it’s moribund. Together, we can breathe life back into it. That should be our focus and our goal. Though we may not be able to turn back the clock, hopefully we can restore the lost Constitution.

Informed patriotism

A lot of liberty-loving people shun patriotism. They view it as gauche or empty. But they are throwing out the baby with what they mistake for bathwater. Patriotism can be a virtue. And I have good reasons to think so.

Nobel laureate Douglass North speaks of “complementary institutions” — that is, formal and informal rules that mutually reinforce each other. Not to get too wonky, but think of institutions as the rules of the game. If the rules of the game make it easier for people to cooperate and exchange — they are more or less good institutions because they remove social frictions that impair growth. In other words formal institutions, like those the Constitution encode, tend to bring about prosperity, social order and peace. Good institutions will prevent factions and special interests from corrupting the rules — leaving people as free as possible to truck, barter, exchange, associate, coordinate, cooperate, give and love. If those are the formal institutions, what are the informal institutions that complement them?

Well one, as I have intimated, is patriotism. Informed patriotism is virtue in venerating the founders’ wisdom. It’s not chanting USA! USA! at a pub in London. Nor is it saying “buy American.” It is rather a disposition towards learning about and cherishing those rules which have made Americans among the most fortunate people to be born on this earth. In short, institutions matter — formal and informal. Smug libertarians now have good reasons to be patriotic.

Reasoned toleration

Are there other virtues (informal institutions) that complement our founding rules? Yes. Indeed, conservatives usually have patriotism in spades, but they sometimes forget the virtue of toleration. The founders got things done together precisely because they didn’t let religious differences get in the way of statecraft. Not only were all the founders vociferous advocates of religious toleration, the live-and-let-live ideal infused almost everything they did. Where do you think such notions originated from? From a godly man — one who many consider the intellectual father of our country:

The toleration of those that differ from others in matters of religion is so agreeable to the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and to the genuine reason of mankind, that it seems monstrous for men to be so blind as not to perceive the necessity and advantage of it in so clear a light … I esteem it above all things necessary to distinguish exactly the business of civil government from that of religion and to settle the just bounds that lie between the one and the other. If this be not done, there can be no end put to the controversies that will be always arising between those that have, or at least pretend to have, on the one side, a concernment for the interest of men’s souls, and, on the other side, a care of the commonwealth.

Those are the words of John Locke. It is in such a spirit that the First Amendment to the Constitution was written. And it is via such wider toleration (not approval, but toleration — even of things that may seem unsavory) that social order and freedom can be balanced.

Toleration can’t be formalized. So we have to embrace it as part of our cultural heritage. Freedom cannot persist in a condition of intolerance. And, of course, when people are unfree, that’s merely intolerance institutionalized. It’s on that latter point that the progressives have built a dubious legacy — notwithstanding all their “diversity” claptrap.

On this we can agree

I don’t know whether or not Thomas Sowell is a believer, but he said: “The most basic question is not what is best, but who shall decide what is best.” Right now, that’s exactly why we have to walk, hand in hand, towards 2012.

Max Borders is a broke writer living in Austin, Texas. He blogs at Ideas Matter and MaxBorders.com.