Cultivating civil discourse and greater mutual understanding across the political spectrum, Bernie Sanders visited Liberty University on September 14, 2015. I encourage you to watch the remarkable video of his visit.i What Bernie did in that visit was to champion America’s civil religion—the unwritten moral consensus on which our liberties rest—and begin a dialogue about where the “left” and the “right” might work together on behalf of the common good. This is something that we all need to do much more often.
America’s founding generation established a relationship between the sacred and the secular that enabled civic freedom to expand and flourish. They founded a civil religion that has grown over the centuries to include people of diverse faiths—and of no particular faith—as equal citizens and as worthy members of the body politic. If we are to deal successfully with the dystopias that now confront us, as a people and as a world, that civil religion must be reinvigorated. We need a moral revolution in this country as well as a political one—another great American religious awakening—a revival of what is best in our diverse faith traditions that renews and deepens our relations to each other and builds a new politics and a new economics on that foundation. We need to do what every previous generation of Americans has done and pass along to our children—in an improved condition—the liberty we have inherited.
America’s civil religion is under assault from religious nationalists on the “right” whose national self-worship is a form of idolatry and from radical secularists on the “left” for whom the concept of a moral order sustained by providence is allegedly a fiction that has no place in our politics. If you read no other political book this year, I urge you to read Philip Gorski’s, American Covenant: A History of Civil Religion From the Puritans to the Present, in which he eloquently makes the case that we must renew and reinvigorate the civil religion that our ancestors bequeathed us.ii Here is Gorski in his own words:
“The vital center does not purport to be a “third way” that “transcends” Left and Right. It is a political vocabulary that enables dialogue and debate between Left and Right. The point of reclaiming the vital center is not to end debate but to restart it. There is plenty of posturing in our public life right now but very little genuine engagement. There is lots of shouting but not much actual discussion…. Religious nationalism is not worthy of our allegiance. There are reasonable forms of nationalism, but religious nationalism is not one of them. At its core, religious nationalism is just national self-worship. It is political idolatry dressed up as religious orthodoxy. Any sincere believer should reject it, remembering that the line between good and evil does not run between peoples or nations; it runs through them. Radical secularism is not worthy of our allegiance either. There are reasonable forms of secularism, too, but radical secularism is not one of them. At its core, radical secularism is little more than a misguided effort at cultural ownership, political illiberalism dressed up as liberal politics. Any serious liberal should reject it on the ground that liberal citizenship should not require that religious citizens shed their deepest beliefs before entering the public square. What liberal citizenship really requires is liberality—a spirit of ecumenism, generosity, and civic friendship.”iii
In my own outlook, I have been strongly influenced by James Wilson—the most brilliant jurist among the founding fathers—who was not only a leading voice in the constitutional convention, but who served on its committee of detail and actually drafted much of the Constitution’s language.iv For Wilson, we—the American people—are “sovereigns without subjects.”v This was—and is—a succinct way of stating the most basic ideal of the American Revolution. It took a civil war, and the civil rights movement, to even begin to make this true for African-Americans. It took the suffragists, and the women’s rights movement generally, to even begin to make this true for women. And it took the organization of trade unions, and the labor movement generally, to even begin to keep this true for working people—to prevent the power of the state being used on behalf of corporations to make subjects of workers. I remember a conversation I had in the late 1990s with Lane Kirkland, a former president of the AFL-CIO, who maintained that in the decades ahead all of us would have to relearn the lessons of the late nineteenth century and refight many of the battles that we had thought long since won. He was prescient in many ways. Yet we must also fight to move forward. We must, for example, recognize that we have no right to rule over the American Indian nations as if they were our subjects. Rather we must repudiate the Supreme Court’s unconstitutional decision in Cherokee Nation v. Georgia, reestablish a treaty making process with the native peoples, and guide our conduct by our word as we have given it in these treaties.
According to James Wilson, the American people ourselves are ultimately answerable to God for our conduct.vi That is what our self-government means. This is a view of what it means to be sovereign that is profoundly at odds with the conception of sovereignty as a capacity to lord it over those who are somehow deemed not sovereign, who are somehow deemed inferior. The struggle between these two views of sovereignty has informed much of American and much of world history. As sovereigns—answerable to God for our conduct—Wilson maintained that we have to be cognizant of our duties as well as our rights. The first and most necessary duty of nations, as well as of individuals, he argued, is to do no harm. But nations are also commanded to do good to one another. Sociability is part of the law of nature for nations as well as for individuals.vii
“It may, perhaps, be uncommon, but it is certainly just, to say that nations ought to love one another. The offices of humanity ought to flow from this pure source. When this happily is the case, then the principles of affection and friendship prevail among states as among individuals: then nations will mutually support and assist each other with zeal and ardour; lasting peace will be the result of unshaken confidence; and kind and generous principles, of a nature far opposite to mean jealously, crooked policy, or cold prudence, will govern and prosper the affairs of men…. The love of mankind is an important duty and an exalted virtue. Much has been written, much has been said concerning the power of intellectual abstraction, which man possesses, and which distinguishes him so eminently from the inferior order of animals. But little has been said, and little has been written, concerning another power of the human mind, still more dignified, and, beyond all comparison, more amiable—I may call it the power of moral abstraction.”viii
Wilson’s name for this living capacity for benevolence and sociability—“the power of moral abstraction”—did not catch on. In our own day, the social theorist Edward Shils has proposed the term civility, by which he means the virtue of the citizen—the virtue of concern for the common good—and not merely good manners.ix For Wilson, this alternative would have been acceptable only if it was understood that the citizen in question was a citizen of the world as well as of the United States. The power of moral abstraction was “not confined to one sect or to one state, but ranges excursive through the whole expanded theater of men and nations.”x It was as necessary to the progress of exalted virtue, as the power of intellectual abstraction was to the progress of extensive knowledge. By this power, the commonwealth of a state, the empire of the United States, the civilized and commercial part of the world, and the inhabitants of the whole earth become the objects of the warmest spirit of benevolence. By this power, even a minute, unknown and distant group of individuals may become a complex object that will warm and dilate the soul. For Wilson, love of neighbor and love of God were part of the foundation on which the promise of the American Revolution was raised.xi
Among the forms of secularism that are worthy of respect is one that seeks to find moral common ground between people of goodwill who are believers and people of goodwill with no particular faith. The global Charter for Compassion is a worthwhile interfaith effort in this regard that includes among its signatories Christians, Muslims, Confucians, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, and secular folk all seeking “to restore compassion to the centre of morality and religion ~ to return to the ancient principle that any interpretation of scripture that breeds violence, hatred or disdain is illegitimate ~ to ensure that youth are given accurate and respectful information about other traditions, religions and cultures ~ to encourage a positive appreciation of cultural and religious diversity ~ to cultivate an informed empathy with the suffering of all human beings—even those regarded as enemies.”xii I commend the Charter for Compassion to you as an expression of convictions that should be, at least as a matter of principles, completely agreeable and acceptable to both religious and secular folk. “Compassion,” the Charter declares, “impels us to work tirelessly to alleviate the suffering of our fellow creatures, to dethrone ourselves from the centre of our world and put another there, and to honour the inviolable sanctity of every single human being, treating everybody, without exception, with absolute justice, equity and respect.”xiii
We are now in the midst of a political struggle that turns on the question of whether the United States will uphold the vision of the most progressive framers of the Constitution—that the American people as a whole are sovereign under an international moral and legal order that also guarantees other peoples, and ultimately every individual, their rights—or whether we will slip further back into something more like the Articles of Confederation (and the vision that the states are sovereign to lord it over those they deem inferior) or, worse yet, into a new vision of a sovereign federal government in which that government is answerable not to the American people but to the whims of a demagogue or to what Bernie Sanders refers to as “a handful of billionaires, their Super-PACs and their lobbyists.”xiv
My commitment to pursue a politics informed by compassion and civility in no way diminishes the militancy of my commitment to work for social democracy. But successes in advancing a social democratic agenda will largely depend on how much organizational strength we, its advocates, can muster and, above all, on what the American electorate as a whole decides over a series of elections. The “gridlock” that has been a feature of American politics in recent years, and the swings of administration between “conservatives” and “liberals,” are rooted in divisions of opinion among the American people that will take time and effort—and dialogue and organization—to resolve into a new majority consensus. In the meanwhile, we need to find ways of embracing all of the members of this nation as fellow citizens and as fellow children of God. We need to restore generosity, honesty, and goodwill in our relations with each other as Democrats, Republicans, and Independents alike. This does not mean starting with lukewarm compromises that satisfy no one, though compromise is an essential part of politics. It means starting with the recognition that many of our most important problems cannot be solved by politics. It requires cultivating a civility and a compassion that transcends politics, seeks to serve the common good, and recognizes that those we disagree with are capable of doing the same.
As Congressman for the Illinois 5th district, I would seek to champion this cause in everything I did. I would seek to personally get to know all of the other members of the House of Representatives, and particularly the Illinois delegation. Not in the hopes of persuading any of the Republicans to adopt my social democratic views—as that seems to me rather unlikely—but in the hope of finding common ground outside of politics on which to establish cordial relations, if not actual friendships, so as to remove some of the poisonous vitriol from our nation’s political life. It is essential to complement the political revolution that Bernie has launched with a moral revolution to renew and reinvigorate our civil religion. Such a revolution should be open to all—Republicans and Independents as well as Democrats—provided only that all involved are willing to embrace civility and compassion and build on the most progressive ideals of America’s founding generation.
“Securing the Blessings of Liberty”
16 July 2017
i See https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fDpyEUS-cRw
ii Philip Gorski, American Covenant: A History of Civil Religion From the Puritans to the Present (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2017).
iii Gorski, American Covenant, pp. 2-3.
iv See Kermit L. Hall and Mark David Hall, editors, The Collected Works of James Wilson in two volumes (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2007). See also Hugh J. Schwartzberg, “One Founding Father, Invisible, with Liberty and Justice for All,” presented to the Chicago Literary Club, 28 April 1997, available for download in the club’s online archives at http://www.chilit.org/content.aspx?page_id=86&club_id=11539&item_id=25713 (accessed 18 December 2016). See also Nicholas Pederson, “The Lost Founder: James Wilson in American Memory,” Yale Journal of Law & the Humanities, Vol. 22: No. 2, Article 3 (2010). Available at: http://digitalcommons.law.yale.edu/yjlh/vol22/iss2/3 (accessed 8 August 2016). And Charles Page Smith, James Wilson: Founding Father, 1742-1798 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1956).
v Chisholm v. Georgia 2 U.S. (2 Dall.) 419, 471 (1793). The case turned on whether a South Carolina merchant could bring suit against the state of Georgia for its failure to pay for clothing supplied during the Revolutionary War. Wilson’s language in his ruling for the Supreme Court in this case provoked the advocates of “states’ rights” by explicitly holding that “Georgia is NOT a sovereign State,” and by ordering Georgia to show cause to the contrary or face judgment by default. This helped provoke the Eleventh Amendment to the Constitution denying the citizens of another state, or the citizens of a foreign state, the right to sue a state of the United States. This was a major step away from the intentions of the framers of the Constitution and down the path to the fanatic version of “states’ rights” that fused with support for slavery to generate the Civil War. Wilson had spoken against such fanaticism in the Constitutional Convention itself on 8 June 1787: “Among the first sentiments expressed in the first Congs one was that Virga is no more, that Masts is no [more]. That Pa is no more &c. We are now one nation of brethren. We must bury all local interests & distinctions. This language continued for some time. The tables at length began to turn. No sooner were the State Govts formed than their jealousy and ambition began to display themselves. Each endeavored to slice from the common loaf, to add to its own morsel, till at length the confederation became frittered down to the impotent condition in which it now stands. Review the progress of the articles of Confederation thro’ Congress & compare the first and last draught of it. To correct its vices is the business of this convention. One of its vices is the want of an effectual controul in the whole over its parts. What danger is there that the whole will unnecessarily sacrifice a part? But reverse the case, and leave the whole at the mercy of each part, and will not the general interest be continually sacrificed to local interests?” Quoted in Hall and Hall, editors, The Collected Works of James Wilson, Vol. 1, pp. 92-93.
vi “[When] I say that, in free states, the law of nations is the law of the people; I mean that, as the law of nature, in other words, as the will of nature’s God, it is indispensably binding upon the people, in whom the sovereign power resides; and who are, consequently, under the most sacred obligations to exercise that power, or to delegate it to such as will exercise it, in a manner agreeable to those rules and maxims, which the law of nature prescribes to every state, for the happiness of each, and for the happiness of all. How vast—how important—how interesting are these truths! They announce to a free people how exalted their rights; but at the same time, they announce to a free people how solemn their duties are.” James Wilson, “Chapter IV. Of the Law of Nations,” in Kermit L. Hall and Mark David Hall, editors, The Collected Works of James Wilson in two volumes (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2007), Vol. 1, p. 532.
vii James Wilson, “Chapter IV. Of the Law of Nations,” in Hall and Hall, editors, The Collected Works of James Wilson, Vol. 1, pp. 532, 539-545.
viii Ibid, pp. 541-542.
ix Edward Shils, The Virtue of Civility: Selected Essays on Liberalism, Tradition, and Civil Society (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1997)
x James Wilson, “Chapter IV. Of the Law of Nations,” in Hall and Hall, editors, The Collected Works of James Wilson, Vol. 1, p. 543.
xi James Wilson believed not only in the equality of citizens under the law but also in the equality of all mankind under the author of nature: “At last, however, the voice of nature, intelligible and persuasive, has been heard by nations that are civilized: at last it is acknowledged that mankind are all brothers: the happy time is, we hope, approaching, when the acknowledgment will be substantiated by a uniform corresponding conduct.” Nevertheless, Wilson was willing to fashion a compromise over slavery in the constitutional convention. He may have thought that the Constitution’s implicit grant of authority to the Congress to end the importation of slaves in 1808 (Article 1, Section 9, Clause 1) would bring slavery in the United States to a gradual end. His failures in this regard, like many of our own failures in our own day, should not be seen as an indictment of either democracy or of love, but rather as grounds to seek a more complete realization of the promise of the American Revolution in the lives of all of the inhabitants of this land. See James Wilson, “Chapter IV. Of the Law of Nations,” in Hall and Hall, editors, The Collected Works of James Wilson, Vol. 1, p. 545.
xii See: http://charterforcompassion.org/ (accessed 18 December 2016). Signatories include Karen Armstrong, the Dalai Lama, Desmond Tutu, Ali Gomaa, Sadhvi Chaitanya, Tu Weiming, and tens of thousands of others.
xiv Bernie Sanders, “Announcement,” 25 May 2015, https://berniesanders.com/bernies-announcement/ (accessed 24 April 2017).