A Defense of American Ideals starts off brilliantly but ultimately misses the mark. In the preface, Malone begins by stating: “We have betrayed our founding principles and are committing slow suicide.”
Democracies always wind up committing suicide once the general public becomes corrupt enough to believe they can vote themselves benefits from the government, instead of earning them.
The founders knew human nature. Legend has it that after the constitutional convention of 1787, when Benjamin Franklin was asked what type of government had been created, he answered, “A Republic – if you can keep it.”
It’s interesting that Malone correctly identifies the intrinsic weakness of human nature identified by the Founders. If on the one hand, human beings are fallible and imperfect, basing a system of government on human perfectibility would seem to be a contradiction. Yet this is precisely what Malone does as he progresses through his arguments in the book. However, on the way to making his case, he does a good job explaining the ideology behind the American founding.
It is the idea that the individual has an inalienable right to pursue his or her own individual happiness that is at once the motive force of America and the magnet that continues to draw people from the far-flung corners of the globe.
It is the idea that your individual life has meaning, and that it is your own. It is the idea that no matter what your background, your upbringing, your station in life, you can achieve your dreams and goals as long as you are willing to pursue them and achieve them through your own efforts. It is the idea that your destiny is in your own hands, that it is not determined by fate, nor is it prescribed to you by your parents or your community or your government.
Reading Malone’s book is at once satisfying and frustrating. Malone is like a doctor who correctly identifies the symptoms of a disease but fails to make the correct diagnosis. Or, as this reviewer’s grandfather used to say, “the operation was a success but the patient died.” Some of the symptoms detected by Malone are causal in their own right, in as much as they have their own set of attendant consequences, but in the end are still symptoms. For example, Malone postulates that the Founders concentrated on securing liberty for each and every individual and that doing so required that people accept responsibility for the liberty they claimed. He is correct when he points out that it is this American dream,”this idea of individual liberty and self-made destiny that has united millions of people since America’s founding.” Malone recognizes that the Founders were products of the Enlightenment, but fails to recognize what distinguished the American founding from that of the French Revolution, and many others. That distinguishing factor was the reliance upon reason and morality as opposed to man’s perfect reason alone in France’s revolution. The French revolutionaries were convinced that they had achieved perfect understanding, that they had all the answers.1
America was born in the age of reason, an age where men were sweeping aside the errors of the past, declaring that the universe was intelligible and happiness on earth was possible – as long as men were left free to apply their reasoning minds to the problems they confronted .
This was a profound shift. Throughout human history, man had always been under the control of either barbarians using the club of force, or mystics using the club of “divine knowledge.” Political liberty was something that had never truly existed before.
And here is where Malone begins to take his left turn. To be sure in America there were people like Jefferson and Paine, who may have felt as Malone does, that all problems can be surmounted by man’s reason alone.
Unlike politicians of today, the men we call America’s founding fathers were true intellectuals and statesmen. They were the men of the Enlightenment, thoroughly trained in the classical tradition with an integrated understanding of history, philosophy, politics, and law from the time of the Greeks up to their own time.
But, while the American Revolution was certainly a revolution of letters, made by brilliant thinkers and intellectuals like James Madison, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, Benjamin Franklin, such thinkers did not entirely dismiss the role of religious morality from the equation. They recognized that the system of government they were creating required a moral people. Where they sought to separate government from religion they did not seek to separate the religious from government. The French sought to emulate what had happened in America by espousing a slightly different set of ideals. As Malone points out, in America the ideal was liberty. In France the revolutionaries sought to establish the natural offshoots of liberty, equality and fraternity, as principles in their own right, rather than recognizing them as products of a free society.
The revolution in France demonstrates where enlightenment thinking went astray, the notion that man can create perfection. In America the Constitution strictly prohibits government from interfering with religion. In revolutionary France the government sought to extirpate the church entirely. Man had no need of God, since man’s reason is entirely sufficient. In this respect Malone is entirely in accord with the revolutionaries of France. Just as equality and fraternity cannot be mandated, neither can morality. America’s founding fathers placed their focus on ensuring liberty. In essence, they recognized that government cannot mandate religion, but that people must be free to choose their own path. This is the same choice that God provided Adam and Eve and that He still provides us today.
Malone’s book is frustrating because there is so much in it that is correct and so much in it that is a perversion of the truth. Malone views socialism and/or liberalism as logical offshoots of Christianity. In fact, they are perversions of Christianity. So much of what Malone argues for in his book is individual freedom and responsibility. These are things wholly in accord with the Judeo-Christian ethic. Malone is right when he takes “compassionate conservatism” to task. Progressives who hail from either side of the aisle are equally wrong, whatever their motivation. The principle of individual sovereignty is a biblical one. God doesn’t force anyone to follow him, but doesn’t remove the consequences for failing to do so. This is precisely what Malone argues, with liberty comes responsibility. In America you are free to succeed and enjoy the fruits of your labors, or fail and deal with the consequences.
The notion that people as individuals have value is also biblical. It is most definitely not a statist principle. Progressives like Woodrow Wilson, Teddy Roosevelt, Margaret Sanger, and their ilk, espoused collectivist principles which made the theories of eugenics logical and palatable.
America has enjoyed the success that it has for many reasons. It would be an oversimplification to point to one thing. America was unique in its situation. Its geography, the political world of the time, and numerous other factors, not the least of which were the philosopher-revolutionaries we refer to as our founding fathers, all contributed to the success of the American experiment. America enjoyed an unprecedented string of statesmen-intellectuals in the years after the founding of the country. Many of these men were deeply religious like John Quincy Adams. Intellectually, he had few equals, yet Malone would have us believe him a fool.
Malone correctly argues that government’s role is not to be a nanny. Government is not supposed to provide charity at gunpoint. Charity is not charity if mandated. Providing for others is a moral imperative dictated by one’s religion or philosophy. It is a voluntary act. When government supplants religion, like when it supplants individual responsibility, people stop being charitable just as they stop being responsible. No one forces donations in church. The same cannot be said for taxation. Our system of government is predicated on having a moral people. While founders like Madison did their best to create a system not reliant on continuous morality, they recognized the indispensable value of a citizenry with shared ideals. In Madison’s case, he recognized that men are not angels, and sought to ameliorate the inevitable consequences of human imperfection, by designing checks and balances into the Constitution.
There is much to recommend in A Defense of American Ideals just as there is much to recommend in Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged. However, there is also much of which to be critical. Malone is relentless in his attack on Christianity and increases his level of vitriol as the book progresses. At first it’s just the occasional snide remark. About midway through the book Malone devotes an entire chapter to the topic and never really leaves it.
By some unaccountable infatuation, religious faith has been and is considered to be of immense importance by many modern Americans. The idea of living and dying without the aid of superstitious belief horrifies some. All religions are based on the idea that God will eternally reward the true believer, and eternally damn anyone who doubts – so most people are “god fearing” believers.
However, to a growing number of Americans, religion is nothing more than primitive superstition, combined with a transparent attempt by some men to control others by wielding eternal carrots and sticks and making claims to “divine knowledge.”
Malone’s critique of Christianity includes a misinterpretation of the story of Ananias and Sapphira in the book of Acts. In Malone’s version these two early Christians were killed by God because they failed to give all they made from selling their property. This reviewer’s interpretation of the reason they were struck dead is because they were attempting to lie about their generosity and they thought they could lie to God. They were trying to appear as something they were not. There is no indication that they were forced to join the church or to dispose of all their property. But it is outside the scope of this review to argue over biblical interpretation. The point is that Malone applies the same judgment to Christian ethics as he does to socialism, communism, or liberalism. For that matter, in his mind, Christianity is no different than any other religion. This is his prerogative. However, it is this reviewer’s prerogative to disagree with Malone’s interpretation of what made America different and the only way it can be restored.
Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other. John Adams
Religion and morality are the essential pillars of civil society. George Washington
[O]nly a virtuous people are capable of freedom. As nations become corrupt and vicious, they have more need of masters. Benjamin Franklin
This reviewer is not advocating for a theocracy. This does not mean that the founding fathers advocated for a theocracy. It merely acknowledges something that the Founders knew which was, to paraphrase John Adams, that our government cannot function unless the majority of people share the same moral values. Ironically, this was the same conclusion reached by Gorbachev when he tried to reform the Soviet Union – (see this reviewer’s review of Roads to the Temple.) There are no easy answers. We have corrupted our culture by systematically inculcating successive generations with the philosophy of moral relativism while at the same time eradicating reverence for our founding principles. People are inherently self-interested as Ayn Rand recognized. They are also imperfect. It is only by adhering to moral principles that the worst impulses of human nature can be mastered. But morality is a choice. It cannot be imposed. Malone apparently believes all Christians are out to impose their religion by force. He is wrong.
1. This section from First in Peace by Conor Cruise O’Brien, demonstrates French thinking of the time:
According to the peculiar terminology of the French Revolution, Washington and Jefferson were – as long as they behaved themselves – patriotes belonging to public saeurs. Both were terms of art. Patriotes, in French revolutionary usage, is a much more precise term than patriots in English. The patriote in any country is a person who puts the interests of the French Revolution first, absolutely in and all circumstances. It is not a question of putting the interests of France ahead of one’s own country (as a Federalist might see it). The reality is that no country has any legitimate interest of its own distinct from those of the French Revolution. It is the French Revolution that defines the legitimate interests of all countries, and lays down the lines on which those interests are to be pursued. The patriote, in any country was a person who understood and accepted this relationship.
Similarly, a republique saeur was a country that unreservedly submitted to the French Revolution, the saeur ainee la grande nation. In Europe all the Republic saeur were deemed to have been liberated by the French revolutionary armies and governed by local patriotes who had establish their credentials as such to the satisfaction of the French revolutionary officers. The most prized characteristics of a local patriot was gratitude the French for having liberated him.This gratitude was expected to be expressed with differential fervor.