Three Cheers for Idealism

If you have not seen Justice Thomas’ recent speech at the Manhattan Institute, it is worth the hour or so it takes to watch it (video) (Real Player required).

Justice Thomas speaks eloquently about being raised to cherish freedom, liberty, and independence and how those principles influence his judicial decision-making. Thomas says that the answ
er to our modern debates about the role of government in our lives was already answered over two centuries ago in the text of the Constitution. The founders established a form of government that would best preserve liberty and also allow people to prosper. While there were major flaws–slavery, for one–and while the Constitution has been amended, the structure and core meaning of the document have not changed.
That core meaning, for Thomas, is informed by the idealistic language of the Declaration. Government is meant to protect rights given by our Creator, and does so through the various structures of the Constitution: federalism, accountability to the people, etc. The Constitution allows people to act freely within a government that is strong enough to protect them, but weak enough not to tyrannize them. These structural safeguards allow people’s idealism to take shape in the exercise of their rights and their pursuit of happiness.
Thomas thinks that many people have lost this idealism and speaks of two instances where we can see a failed idealism. First is in modern society’s general sense of entitlement. Second is in the area of constitutional interpretation.
Thomas notes that “[t]hese days there appears to be little focus on responsibility, sacrifice, and self-denial.” No longer do children hear from their parents the wisdom of generations past: “Learn to do without.” “Prepare for a rainy day.” “No one owes you a living.” Today, we are so used to prosperity (defined by wealth or fame) that we forget the idealism of times gone by. When JFK famously said, “Ask not what your country can do for you,” we had “ears conditioned to receive this message and hearts that did not resist it,” Justice Thomas said. That generation’s ears and hearts were trained through an appr
eciation of freedom. A generation after World War II, the sign of prosperity was living in a free country.
Now, Thomas says, we have a far-different environment: the “self-indulgent, ‘me’ generation.” This generation does not even hear the message that there is something larger and more important than itself. Indeed, I’m not sure anyone is preaching this message. And as Thomas says, JFK’s words have now turned into “Ask not what you can do for yourselves or your country, ask what your country MUST do for you.” A loss of idealism has left many dependent on the State and has stifled our ingenuity and enthusiasm. Many people are content to live off the largesse of the government and not take an active role in their own pursuit of happiness. (Or the happiness that liberty brings has become so passe that people no longer fight for it.)
The second area harmed by a loss of idealism is constitutional interpretation. When judges lose sight of the idealism in the very language of the Constitution, undergirded by the Declaration, they more easily fall into deciding cases along the lines of their own personal feelings. As Thomas says, there are two ways to interpret the Constitution: “Try to discern as best we can what the framers intended, or make it up.”
“Unless decisions are based in what the framers thought, they are only as relevant as the latest football scores.” Originalism, as a form of interpretation, recalls the idealism of the founders and looks at the original meaning of those words. Originalism is “legitimate and impartial” Thomas says. It is founded on the text of the Constitution and gives the judge a framework in which he can make an impartial decision.

Thomas noted that at the end of each term, he takes his law clerks to Gettysburg. He wants them to remember that no matter how difficult a term it was, they are only playing a bit part in a much larger undertaking–the preservation of liberty. Thomas hopes that the trip makes them more optimistic and idealistic about the liberties in the Constitution and in our country.
Perhaps conservatives today need to recall these fundamental and timeless–indeed, self-evident–truths. The youth in America want something to believe in, something beyond themselves. And when someone offers it–even through platitudes about “Change”–they will grasp on. We need to offer the original vision of America, repackaged for today’s generation. Obama’s packaging looked great, but there was no content inside. Our content was better, but no one wanted to pick the drab package off the shelf. If we are going to succeed in communicating conservative ideals to a new generation, we need to reform our presentation more than our ideas. Looking back to the idealism of the founders seems like a great start.
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2 thoughts on “Three Cheers for Idealism

  1. Aaron,Great to hear from you. I am glad to know that you are persevering in the Lord’s service so profitably.I am glad to be back in touch, even if it is through the Internet. Yours, Fr. Mark White

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