Most years now, one of the things I do for the major holidays is look at what I wrote the year before to see how it has held up.
Doing that in 2021 took me back to this post for 2020. Surprisingly, perhaps, it wasn’t about the pandemic or the lockdowns, at least not in any direct or explicit way. It was about something that was getting almost no attention at the time: the 400th anniversary of the Pilgrims’ arrival in the Mayflower at Plymouth Rock.
A Tyler O’Neil article at PJ Media was a pretext for writing about something I was already concerned with. He highlighted an exceptionally important concept from the Mayflower Compact executed by the arriving settlers: the idea of a “Civil Body Politic.” America’s connection with that concept is unique, historic, and essential, as in, going to our essence as a nation.
It’s shorthand for the concept that obligates government – and empowers it – to both respect and protect liberty of religion and conscience for the American people. It’s the historical preview of the beating heart of our Constitution: the First Amendment.
Looking at the 2020 Thanksgiving article again, I see that it has indeed held up. In fact, I think we need to revisit its thesis constantly. Not just often, but all the time, every day, remembering that government is a service, not a god, and the real goal is not to use it to transform society but to use it to block all such collective attempts.
I’ll briefly quote this passage from last year’s post:
It’s the most important theme in America’s history of life and purpose, one that assigns government a limited and pragmatic role in human arrangements. Government is a contract, not a focus of belief, a vocation, or an agent of eschatological transformation. We do not endow it with occult powers or petition it in fear and trembling. We select it and pay it to perform services for us.
Above all, it does not invade what I think of as the “God space” around each of us: the space of spirit and moral conscience meant to relate to God our Creator. Rather, it protects that space, acknowledging that what we elect to do in it is the sovereign choice of each of us. That space was always meant to be free of extortion by the influences of this earth – including the right of each person to believe in no god at all, if he or she chooses – and that is what America’s Founders meant with the very first words of the Bill of Rights: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”
There are limits to what government can and should do, and in a philosophical sense, that is the place to start. There is no other that is righteous, good, and capable of producing livable outcomes. Absolutely nothing is as important, in terms of America’s legacy of political philosophy. I believe the Second Amendment is an essential deterrent to government excess, but it is not the main one. The main one is fostering the knowledge and belief in each succeeding generation that human government is capable of nothing new, and respecting and protecting liberty of religion and conscience is properly its primary and supreme legitimate business.
We have the incredible blessing, as a nation and a people, that this heritage is ours. It was the product of centuries of hard-won wisdom: wisdom gouged from us in blood, fire, and sorrow. Instead of turning our backs on it, we should write it on the tablets of our hearts and repeat it to ourselves every day.
For all his faults, Donald Trump showed what government can do when it operates as a service. The Biden administration is busy showing what government does when it is accorded the status of a pagan “god” to the people, arbitrary and furtive and Delphic of pronouncement.
Both demonstrations have been jarring, especially in close conjunction with each other. I don’t think most people realized, before Trump took office, how far our public consciousness had strayed from the original American understanding about what a civil body politic is for. It wasn’t so much what Trump said that caused light to break; it was what he did. What he said was usually blunt and visceral, tunneling without explication through layers of obfuscating convention and horrifying more careful polemicists. But unlike the careful polemicists’ treatises, Trump flipped switches and light came on.
Eyes opened to that reality are now receiving shock after shock from the Biden administration’s over-the-edge policies. Those policies are exactly in line with what was always portended, and even prepared for, by the Obama administration, and indeed by earlier presidents and Congresses both Democratic and Republican. If Trump hadn’t been president for four years, I doubt we’d be seeing as clearly that what “Biden” represents is radically un-American, and flows inevitably from the obsessions we have allowed to take us over, starting with race and victim politics.
There’s a sense in which I hate to flog politics at Thanksgiving. But the future and fate of our country hang in the balance today as never before. So while I recommend stepping away from the politics and being thankful for other things this weekend, I also suggest spending just a moment remembering our mighty blessing as a people.
The blessing is not our prosperity or essential optimism, though prosperity and optimism flow from it. It can only be defined as “liberty” in part, because liberty itself depends on the great endowment of this blessing.
The blessing is the certainty that human government is not a god and does not have a god’s answers for us, or a god’s power to sustain or rescue us. Almighty God, Jehovah, is the only One with that power. Our mission as a nation is to acknowledge that, and keep men free to seek God without fear or favor. Everything we propose to do with government can profitably organize around that as a first principle.
Simple as it is, it took millennia of recorded history for someone among men to proclaim it. It had to be proclaimed; it had to be established. The human tendency is to see earthly power as god-like and competent. It takes principle and wisdom to overcome that tendency. Our philosophical heritage is the key to keeping the flame of such wisdom strong. What an incredible blessing. What a reason for thanksgiving.
May God bless us this Thanksgiving; every one.
Feature image: Plymouth Rock, commemorated on a vintage postcard.