The Story of Civilization: A One Stop Shop for Western History

In 2012, I started working my way through The Story of Civilization by Will and Ariel Durant. It’s an eleven-tome series on the history of Western civilization, going from Eastern influences on the West in volume one and Greek civilization to Napoleon in volumes two through eleven. I got through the first six volumes of this series last year, and this year I will try for the remaining five. This series is one that I have wanted to read for a long time, and I am very pleased to have read what I could. Continue reading The Story of Civilization: A One Stop Shop for Western History

When Govenment is a Bureaucratic Babel

When a man claims he can build a tower so tall that it reaches God, raise your eyebrows and ask skeptical questions. Beyond warnings against architectural hubris, the story of the Tower of Babel also says much about modern understandings of government.

Continue reading When Govenment is a Bureaucratic Babel

Life, Liberty & the Protection of Happiness

Fifth grade civics was a while ago. So, as a starting point, here’s a refresher of some important wording from the Declaration of Independence:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted

Most complaints against government concern ‘liberty’. Conservatives argue that high taxation infringes upon our liberty. Liberals argue that big business or gay marriage bans infringe our liberty. The connection between ‘liberty’ and the ‘pursuit of happiness’ is rarely talked about and, if it is, the two are frequently equated.

But what kind of liberty does the pursuit of happiness presuppose? Generally, people advance one of two notions.

The first conflates the ‘pursuit of happiness’ with ‘social liberty’. Our Founding Fathers recognized that ‘happiness’ is found in personal freedoms, it will assert. That’s why the separation of church and state, as well as the right-to-privacy is so important. If coming from the right, the conversation may lead into something like second amendment rights. If on the left, it might turn into claims that the right to pursue happiness supports the legalization of gay marriage or abortion.

The second takes a different emphasis, focusing on government involvement in our fiscal, rather than social, lives. A conservative might include a solemn reminder that government is not our breadwinner, describing the right to ‘pursue happiness’ as a basis for free-market economy. On the other hand, a liberal might take it as a ‘right’ for welfare programs or government subsidized businesses. These, in turn, conflate ‘pursuit of happiness’ with ideas of ‘economic liberty’.

Both discussions of how justice relates to happiness deserve discussion. But both approaches have a fundamental flaw: they assume the Congress of 1776 just decided to be redundant about that whole ‘liberty’ thing.

To be charitable, let’s assume they meant something unique. But what?

George Mason wrote in Virginia’s 1776 “Declaration of Rights”:

All men…have certain inherent rights… namely, the enjoyment of life and liberty, with the means of acquiring and possessing property, and pursuing and obtaining happiness and safety.

Mason relates ‘property’ to ‘life and liberty’, and in turn, separates it from ‘happiness’, which is connected to ‘safety’.  His correlation makes sense: emotions within ‘happiness’—contentment, satisfaction, joy—are negated by fear. Security is a prerequisite of happiness; safety gives us the space to ‘pursue happiness’.

In Federalist Paper No. 45, Madison is explicit about this connection:

But if the Union be essential to the security of the people of America against foreign danger…to their security against contentions and wars among the different States…to guard them against those violent and oppressive factions… if, in a word, the Union be essential to the happiness of the people of America

Be wary of projecting personal conceptions of ‘happiness’ onto government. The government does not offer happiness—it doesn’t even pretend to know what happiness is. But tonight we won’t have to worry about foreign enemies breaking down the door or another state’s militia invading our state. Peace balanced with liberty affords us the space to pursue whatever we think will give us happiness, be it social or economic. The right to pursue happiness is not an answer. It gives us space to ask the question.

Census and Race – The Conversation

Why is race on the census form?  Over half of short census is dedicated to the question of race.  The question is not without controversy, but before you can reach a decision about whether race ought to be included on the census, you ought to know the history behind the census and race inquiry.

A decennial census is mandated by Article 1, Section 2, Clause 3 of the United States constitution.  The line directly pertaining to the census reads, “the actual Enumeration shall be made within three Years after the first Meeting of the Congress of the United States and within every subsequent Term of ten Years, in such Manner as they shall by Law direct.”  In true American form, controversy broke out among the founders as to the meaning of “actual Enumeration.” Were estimates acceptable or was a full count necessary?   People on both sides of the debate agreed that accuracy was needed to avoid oppression.  As Alexander Hamilton stated in The Federalist No. 36, “an actual census or enumeration of the people must furnish the rule, a circumstance which effectively shuts the door to partiality or oppression.”  Hamilton believed an accurate census would shut the door to oppression by generating population figures not subject to political manipulation upon which Congress would base the apportioning of representatives and taxation.  Every citizen’s voice would be proportionally heard and taxation proportionally distributed.

However, with regards to the census, the “race” question plagued this noble goal from the very beginning by revealing hypocrisy within the system.  Take a moment to stop by the 2010 Census website where they have addressed the race question.  The 2010 Census website justifies the race question by citing its use in the very first census of 1790.   It’s an odd, almost eerie justification of presence of “race” on the census today.  In the 1790 census, the race question was used to make sure that slaves received only 3/5ths representation in Congress – the slave voice was disproportionately counted. The full text of Article 1, Section 2, Clause 3 reads,

“Representatives and direct Taxes shall be apportioned among the several States which may be included within this Union, according to their respective Numbers, which shall be determined by adding to the whole Number of free Persons, including those bound to Service for a Term of Years, and excluding Indians not taxed, three fifths of all other Persons.  The actual Enumeration shall be made within three Years after the first Meeting of the Congress of the United States and within every subsequent Term of ten Years, in such Manner as they shall by Law direct.  The Number of Representatives shall not exceed one for every thirty Thousand, but each State shall have at Least one Representative; and until such enumeration shall be made, the State of New Hampshire shall be entitled to chuse three, Massachusetts eight, Rhode-Island and Providence Plantations one, Connecticut five, New-York six, New Jersey four, Pennsylvania eight, Delaware one, Maryland six, Virginia ten, North Carolina five, South Caroline five, and Georgia three.”

With the passage of the 14th amendment, the 3/5ths rule was abolished, yet the race question remained.  Audrey Singer, Senior Fellow at the Metropolitan Policy Program and a scholar who defends the use of racial inquiry in the census, argued, “State and local data on age, race and ethnicity, household size and composition help communities with projections for school enrollment, housing, transportation and health care… Information from the census is used to prepare for emergency services, research changes and advocate for various causes.”  While I understand how age and household size contribute directly to projections for school enrollment, housing, transportation, and health care, race or ethnicity shouldn’t contribute meaningfully to these projections.  After all, we needn’t make special calculations for those 3/5ths persons walking around.

Critics believe the race inquiry, as its presently done, is confusing at best and politically corrupt at worst. Writing for the Manhattan Institute, Tamara Jacoby writes, “The issue is not just that the census’ approach is politically wrong-headed. Far more troubling is the gulf between the government’s standardized categories and the fluid, rapidly changing racial and ethnic reality of America. By the second generation, between a third and a half of both Hispanics and Asian Americans marry outside their groups. The number of those who prefer the multiracial designation is expected to multiply exponentially in ‘coming decades. It’s hard to see what value it has for sociologists or anyone else to label such people by their ancestors’ country of origin. Yet the Census Bureau goes on trying—and pretending it is able—to capture and codify this changeable, subjective ethnic landscape.”  If Singer is to be believed and census data on race actually provides meaningful data for government program planning, then the data will be inaccurate.  As Jacoby notes,  “Some people’s self-identification is so flexible that it changes from week to week with passing fashions: The number of people self-identifying as American Indian, for example, rose noticeably in the wake of the movie ‘Pocahontas.'”

Writing at the Huffington Post, John Whitehead parallels Jacoby’s remarks with some poignant questions of his own: “How, for example, would President Obama answer the [Census Bureau’s race] question? Is he black or white? What about Tiger Woods? Is he black or [A]sian? And what race are Tiger’s kids?”  Whitehead followed up his questions by tying together the census’ intended purpose, to apportion congressional representation, with the census’ racial inquiries and the regular practice of gerrymandering:

“As if gerrymandering was not already bad enough, will 2010 Census data be used to carve out future congressional districts? Will African-American communities be matched with sitting African-American congressmen? Will nearby Hispanic neighborhoods not currently in the same district be lumped together in hopes of increasing Hispanic representation in Congress? If the information is being used toward drawing district boundaries, then obviously some race-related parameter or objective must be in play when drawing those district lines.”

Separate from the criticisms leveled above, I believe that the government’s present concern with race vis-a-vis the census is dehumanizing and divisive.  In his most famous speech, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”  In his dream, Dr. King longed for a nation where law and justice were colorblind.  If Dr. King’s dream is to be realized and law and justice are to be colorblind, then what use is racial data for makers of our laws?  If law and justice are not colorblind, then they cannot help but favor one race over another and are thus dehumanizing and oppressive to the disfavored race.

Some people are refusing to fill out the census because they are suspicious of the government and of agendas behind the inquiries like the race inquiry.  You should fill out the census. It’s against the law to refuse and you’d be behaving unconstitutionally.  Additionally, over $400 billion federal dollars are at stake – some of that money should rightly go to projects in your neighborhood.  However, the current census reveals biases and mindsets in Washington that deserve re-examination.  Personally, I’m going to fill “American” in the race line because its the most truthful reflection of my ethnic self-identity that I can give.   It’s also sufficient data for government work.  Regarding future use of the race question in government censuses, there does not seem to be a good argument for keeping it.  I’ll admit that while I’ve not read every possible argument for preserving the race question, I’ve noticed that those who defend it’s use in government work typically assert the point without offering evidence for its usefulness and, as mentioned earlier, that point is contentious.   Furthermore, the arguments against the current practice of racial inquiry on the census are compelling enough that the practice ought to be dramatically reformed or ended altogether. ‘

Rural Studies and the Death of Main Street

The small towns of America’s heartland are becoming an endangered species, argue researchers Patrick J. Carr and Maria J. Kefalas in Hollowing Out the Middle: The Rural Brain Drain and What It Means for America—a lengthy title for a slim and troubling ethnography. In a nation where urban studies and development are hot topics, Carr and Kefalas turn their attention to the rapid depopulation and economic crises facing Main Street. The family farm has all but vanished into corporate agribusiness, and the industrial jobs rural workers take instead pay poorly and have an uncertain future in the current economy. Carr and Kefalas note that some rural researchers have gone so far as to suggest that the answer to such inevitable decline—economically and ecologically—is “to return much of the Great Plains to its original state”—a Buffalo Commons.

What distresses the authors most is that the rural, Midwestern towns containing the “real Americans” politicians try to comprehend every four years have been steadily losing their best and brightest young people to more metropolitan locales over the past few decades. This exodus has caused the median age in these towns to skyrocket, caused schools to close, and created a dearth in civic leadership, economic growth, and medical facilities. As the Heartland’s “creative class” invest their human capital in cities such as Austin and Phoenix, the “regional losers—the laggard, blue-collar red states […] find themselves fighting to keep their communities and counties viable.”

Carr and Kefalas moved to a northern Iowa town to investigate this phenomenon for themselves. They discovered that students whom they aptly termed “Achievers” left not only because of unappealing employment prospects but because the town expects them to leave, attend college, and accomplish great things—despite the fact that these towns are shooting themselves in their proverbial feet. “Stayers” are towns’ underinvested in, low test scorers, those of lower-middle class status who marry right out of high school and find work locally. They enter the workforce little comprehending that they will make the same paycheck at 40 as they did at 18.

While states are scrambling to build campaigns to attract “Achievers” to return to Iowa or Kansas, Carr and Kefalas would urge small rural towns to nurture and invest in the “Stayers”—to equip and update them with technical skill sets utilizing the community college system, to emphasize computer skills, and to generally “raise the human capital of those who stay.” They also recommend that there be a “national call to move to sustainable agriculture and green energy technology” to the heartland, and that immigrants be given the opportunity to gain legal status and work in well-regulated industries.

But why should Americans care about the future of small towns in our heartland? After all, in a capitalist system, are there not going to be winners and losers? Carr and Kefalas argue that it isn’t that simple: the country, they claim, couldn’t properly function without these small Midwestern towns. Our food and other natural resources come from these areas, they say. Do we really want to see the continued propagation of cheap and unhealthy food grown by large corporations? The Midwest is ground zero for sustainable agriculture, as well as green energy. It is one of the best places to develop wind and solar power. The region is also historically central to the health of the nation, they argue, and America is best when unified. We should care about all parts of our country; as we care for struggling urban areas, we should also invest in struggling rural ones. ‘

Restoring the Nation

Taking a break from our ongoing discussion of the first principles of government, I wanted to reflect on the goals that we should have as the citizens, and more specifically the church, within this nation.

Regardless of your politics, it is important to recognize this truth: no earthly government will solve all of your problems.  Conservatives like myself often take this to justify our argument that, in fact, no government will solve even most of our problems, and therefore we’re better of with less government.  Liberals maintain that, while our government is flawed, it is a powerful tool and might as well be usefully employed; therefore, we should use it as effectively as possible.  However, we will both agree that a necessary component towards seeing the government accomplish our goals is our own involvement. 

We have a role to play in our nation; the question is, what?

Conservative Christians in America today often get labeled as being fans of Armageddon; as if we are rooting for the end of the world in war and pain.  Unfortunately, I cannot deny that there are voices in the church that do seem to call out for the total destruction of our nation and the world, justifying this postion with the argument that such a cataclysm will bring on the Kingdom of God.  This stance puzzles and frightens those not in the church (and some within the church, to be honest); how can any group of people claim to love their neighbors, while cheering on the brutal end of the world?

I am not going to get into a eschatological debate here (as if defining and arguing about government weren’t difficult enough!) but the way we think about how this world will end does seem to color the way we live in it.  The majority of the church in America is in danger, it seems to me, of living as if tomorrow will be the last day, so we need not care how we live today.  This may be true in many areas, but in the realm of our civic duties it seems particularly prevalent. 

Our stated goal is often to merely save souls, rather than to redeem our culture.  I have recently begun to think that we cannot be effective at one if we do not participate in the other. 

Perhaps I sound like an alarmist.  We live in the United States of America, and regardless of the different surveys that Newsweek or Gallop or CNN take, for the most part this nation identifies itself as a Christian, religious nation.  What’s the worry, right?

On the other hand, much that was once the natural province of the church has been ceded to the realm of social justice.  Whereas in ages past the church was the forefront of education & charity, and would be one of the natural counsellors to those in power, today more and more the state and secular institutions are the sole providers of education & charity, and there are increased efforts to prevent any trappings of Christianity from being present in the government, or encouraged in the main-stream of the culture.

We should not be shocked that we are opposed when it comes to influencing the powerful; even if we were a neutral voice, those positions of influence are few and are always up from grabs.  Everyone wants their voice to be heard; when we fail to be convincing and impact our community, we can hardly expect to keep the same ammount of influence on the affairs of state.  Compound that with the fact that Christianity is not a morally ambivalent system of belief, and should result in a change to business as usual, which will naturally prompt opponents to actively seek to undermine us…can we really be surprised that we’re opposed in government at times?  Weren’t we assured of that very thing?  The opposition we face reflects the stakes; we fight for the soul of our nation, and it is actually our task as American Christians to work to see the nation redeemed and restored.  No one party has the monopoly on the solution; I have my preferences and arguments in favor of one over the other, but we should not limit ourselves to the same party politics that the secularists around us promote.  Our goal is more than any one politician’s agenda or political party’s platform.  Our goal is to see the Kingdom of God on earth.

Now…I am not a utopian, and I have no delusions that we can make the world perfect.  My argument is simply this; we, the Church of Christ, have this commission: to go and make disciples of all men.   Our primary interaction with our fellow man is through our own community, our neighborhoods, our governments, local and federal.  If you read this blog, I’d assume that government is something you enjoy thinking and talking about; I’d encourage you to reflect further on how the interactions you have with your community further the cause of Christ in our Nation.  Remember that a culture saturated with Christians who live lives aimed at establishing Christendom cannot remain secular for long. 

Good Christians are the foremost patriots; not because our state is the same as the church, but because the Church intends to change the nature of the state. ‘