Thursday, May 26, 2005
Petitioner or Prophet, cont'd
I appreciate Michael's link to the Domke and Coe piece, "President Bush: Petitioner or Prophet." Two quick thoughts. This sentence in the piece is unfortunate: "[The recent Calvin College address] marked the latest attempt by the Republican Party to use talk about God for political gain." As lawyers we might object that this "argumentative" claim "assumes facts not in evidence." Second, Domke and Coe raise a fascinating point -- i.e., the distinction between "petitioning" and "prophetic" "God-talk" by public figures. While we should all (as Domke and Coe counsel) be humble and not-too-quick when it comes to assuming the prophetic mantle (n.b., the Calvin protesters' statement that Domke and Coe appear to endorse seems no less sure of God's will than does President Bush), it is not obvious to me why it is a bad thing for a public figure to speak "prophetically" now and again.
More generally, though, I worry that Domke and Coe were so eager to make their polemical point -- "Bush mis-uses God-talk yet again" -- that they didn't actually read, or listen to, the Calvin speech that the President actually delivered. The speech is about Tocqueville, community, and the common good. It is not about God, it is not arrogant, it makes no bold prophetic claims, it is devoid of partisanship. Instead, it talks about a freedom that is richer than the version sometimes touted by the collectivist left or the individualist right, and about an equally rich vision of citizenship, that implies obligation to one's neighbor. Here is a link to the actual speech, which I'd strongly encourage folks to read; and here are some clips:
. . . I congratulate the Class of 2005. Soon you will collect your degrees and say goodbyes to a school that has been your home -- and you will take your rightful place in a country that offers you the greatest freedom and opportunity on Earth. I ask that you use what you've learned to make your own contributions to the story of American freedom.
The immigrants who founded Calvin College came to America for the freedom to worship, and they built this great school on the sturdy ground of liberty. They saw in the American "experiment" the world's best hope for freedom -- and they weren't the only ones excited by what they saw. In 1835, a young civil servant and aristocrat from France, named Alexis de Tocqueville, would publish a book about America that still resonates today.
The book is called "Democracy in America," and in it this young Frenchman said that the secret to America's success was our talent for bringing people together for the common good. De Tocqueville wrote that tyrants maintained their power by "isolating" their citizens -- and that Americans guaranteed their freedom by their remarkable ability to band together without any direction from government. The America he described offered the world something it had never seen before: a working model of a thriving democracy where opportunity was unbounded, where virtue was strong, and where citizens took responsibility for their neighbors.
Tocqueville's account is not just the observations of one man -- it is the story of our founding. It is not just a description of America at a point in time -- it is an agenda for our time. Our Founders rejected both a radical individualism that makes no room for others, and the dreary collectivism that crushes the individual. They gave us instead a society where individual freedom is anchored in communities. And in this hopeful new century, we have a great goal: to renew this spirit of community and thereby renew the character and compassion of our nation.
First, we must understand that the character of our citizens is essential to society. In a free and compassionate society, the public good depends on private character. That character is formed and shaped in institutions like family, faith, and the many civil and -- social and civic organizations, from the Boy Scouts to the local Rotary Clubs. . . .
Second, we must understand the importance of keeping power close to the people. Local people know local problems, they know the names and faces of their neighbors. The heart and soul of America is in our local communities; it is in the citizen school boards that determine how our children are educated; it's in city councils and state legislators that reflect the unique needs and priorities of the people they serve; it's in the volunteer groups that transform towns and cities into caring communities and neighborhoods. In the years to come, I hope that you'll consider joining these associations or serving in government -- because when you come together to serve a cause greater than yourself, you will energize your communities and help build a more just and compassionate America.
Finally, we must understand that it is by becoming active in our communities that we move beyond our narrow interests. In today's complex world, there are a lot of things that pull us apart. We need to support and encourage the institutions and pursuits that bring us together. .. . .
All these organizations promote the spirit of community and help us acquire the "habits of heart" that are so vital to a free society. And because one of the deepest values of our country is compassion, we must never turn away from any citizen who feels isolated from the opportunities of America. . . .
The history of forming associations dedicated to serving others is as old as America itself. From abolition societies and suffrage movements to immigrant aid groups and prison reform ministries, America's social entrepreneurs have often been far ahead of our government in identifying and meeting the needs of our fellow countrymen. Because they are closer to the people they serve, our faith-based and community organizations deliver better results than government. And they have a human touch: When a person in need knocks on the door of a faith-based or community organization, he or she is welcomed as a brother or a sister. . . .
This isn't a Democratic idea. This isn't a Republican idea. This is an American idea. . . . It has sustained our nation's liberty for more than 200 years. The Founders knew that too much government leads to oppression, but that too little government can leave us helpless and alone. So they built a free society with many roots in community. And to keep the tree of liberty standing tall in the century before us, you must nourish those roots.
Today, the Calvin Class of 2005 looks out on an America that continues to be defined by the promise of our Declaration of Independence. We're still the nation our Founders imagined, where individual freedom and opportunity is unbounded, where community is vibrant, where compassion keeps us from resting until all our citizens take their place at the banquet of freedom and equality. And with your help, we'll all do our part to transform our great land one person and one community at a time.
Thank you for having me and may God bless you, and may God continue to bless our country.