Thursday, August 17, 2006

Madison or Marx?

Intentional Balance
Though ill considered attempts to mix faith and politics are enough to warrant serious embarrassment (not to mention histrionic reactions well summarized here), it's a good thing the man long proclaimed "Father of the Constitution" wasn't averse to the idea.
"The education that James Madison and his friends received at the College of New Jersey [i.e. Princeton] stimulated deep thinking... and encouraged - but never demanded - a personal commitment of the student to Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord... the curriculum was not narrow, but was taught from the Christian perspective which meant that learning was developed within a framework of absolutes... the Sovereignty of God.. His providence... the sinful nature of man which needs salvation, yet the great possibilities for good that man possesses when he is guided by his maker" (15).
When formation like that goes unrepudiated, it is inevitable that the instilled principles will find their way into one's work, and the U.S. Constitution was rather influential work. But the principles were not - and this is a very important point - explicit. I once watched with pity a (in this case it's fair to say) fundamentalist Christian broadcast where a frazzled preacher tried to make the case for a Christian Constitution by citing the phrase, "the year of our Lord 1887."

Disappointing as it may be to some, the mark of Christian faith in the Constitution is not literally spelled out, nor is the mark I'm referring to an exclusively Christian one. But it is systemic to the document, and it can be found in the idea that a balance of power that is necessary because of human inability to handle power well.

The idea is a practical corollary of the doctrine of sin. To repeat, human imperfection is (thankfully) not a doctrine exclusive to Christianity, but in Madison's case Christianity was what both preserved and successfully transmitted this essential truth. Mining deeper into Madison's education gives clues as to how the relay occurred.
"Since James Madison became one of the chief architects of our political democracy... his sojourn at Nassau Hall under the tutelage of the learned Dr. John Witherspoon was of incalculable importance to the destiny of the United States" (99).
And on government, Witherspoon had this to say:
"It must be complex, so that the one principle may check the other. It is of consequence to have as much virtue among the particular members of a community as possible; but it is folly to expect that a state should be upheld by integrity in all who have a share in managing it. They must be so balanced, that when everyone draws to his own interest or inclination there must be an even poise upon the whole."
Remarking on this passage, Roger Kimball explains that
"Here we have in ovo Madison's famous prescription for controlling or neutralizing the effect of conflicting 'factions' or interests in society by balancing them one against the other."
That Witherspoon's influence was more than ephemeral is documented in the fact that Madison continually consulted with his former professor up through the Constitutional Convention itself.

Unintentional Imbalance
But the fact that, via Witherspoon's Calvinism, the doctrine of sin found its way into one of, if not the most successful state-comprising document in history is more fully appreciated when one observes what happens when such necessary balances are removed.

Explains Daniel Mahoney in an exceptionally illuminating passage,
"Marx was so preoccupied with the economic question, with uprooting all forms of economic exploitation, that he forgot the crucial importance of restricting political power. He dogmatically treated political authority as a simple byproduct of economic relations and thus summarily dismissed the protections against despotism that were the glories of the West. He lived in a civilized Europe that respected basic human liberties - liberties he took more or less for granted" (170).
Thus the unjustly neglected political theorist Bertrand de Jouvenel would write,
"'Some will say Marx had not wished this [totalitarian state]; and without doubt they are right. Others will say Marx's works lead there logically and I believe they are not wrong. It opens the road to despotic regimes, involuntarily but logically'"(ibid).
Marx was well intended, but he had no Dr. Witherspoon to inculcate into him a healthy suspicion of human nature. Thus when Marx's ideas were acted upon, we got a Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot. When Madison's were, we get, it is true, a mess. But one organized in such a way that power cannot so easily flare to the level of mass murder; Churchill's "worst form of government there is, except for all the others."

"If men were angels, no government would be necessary," Madison famously wrote in Federalist 51. And we who are not angels need our checks. Conversely, by ignoring such restraints, those who claimed the heritage of Marxism fulfilled Pascal's dictum that "He who would act the angel, becomes the beast."