Those Who Pervert the Constitution

Many words have been spilled about today’s SCOTUS ruling on the Defense of Marriage Act. Along with the plethora of opinions (of which everyone has one, though I’ll be keeping mine to myself for the time being) have come the predictable quote memes on the Facebook news feeds, thanks to our collective love of appealing to authority.

One meme in particular stuck out to me today, posted to the Facebook page of Congressman Jim Bridenstine (R-OK):

I happen to applaud and agree with this quote. And it has the added virtue of being correctly attributed to our 16th president, unlike so many other Abraham Lincoln “quotes”.

These lines come from a speech Lincoln gave on September 16 & 17 in Kansas & Ohio, during his first presidential campaign. The country was in a state of increasing turmoil over the issue of slavery, with people deeply divided by strongly held convictions. In many ways, this parallels the current divide in our country over the ability for homosexuals to marry. It is somewhat ironic, then, that I have seen Lincoln quoted today by both proponents and critics of gay marriage.

So who has the better case for invoking Lincoln’s support? Let’s take a closer look at the context, shall we?

The Supreme Court’s DOMA ruling is far from its first controversial judgment. In 1857, the Court handed down the infamous Dred Scott Decision. Seven of the nine justices ruled that no slave or descendant of a slave could ever be considered a U.S. citizen. They also declared that the Missouri Compromise was unconstitutional, meaning that Congress had no authority to tell states that slavery must be illegal (because this would be violating the 5th Amendment’s prohibition of citizens being deprived of their “property” without due process of the law).

Proponents of slavery saw this as a big win, and an opportunity to see a controversial practice legalized in more states. Abolitionists cried foul, stating that the institution of slavery was wicked, and that the nation had a moral obligation to prevent its spread. This became the most heated topic of debate between the two leading candidates in the upcoming presidential election: Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas.

Douglas, citing the principle of popular sovereignty, argued that individuals should have the right to determine for themselves whether or not they would own slaves, and that no one else had the right to object. The government’s responsibility was to protect the sovereignty of the states to determine for themselves whether slavery should be allowed:

Now, I hold that Illinois had a right to abolish and prohibit slavery as she did, and I hold that Kentucky has the same right to continue and protect slavery that Illinois had to abolish it. I hold that New York had as much right to abolish slavery as Virginia has to continue it, and that each and every State of this Union is a sovereign power, with the right to do as it pleases upon this question of slavery, and upon all its domestic institutions. … And why can we not adhere to the great principle of self-government, upon which our institutions were originally based. I believe that this new doctrine preached by Mr. Lincoln and his party will dissolve the Union if it succeeds. They are trying to array all the Northern States in one body against the South, to excite a sectional war between the free States and the slave States, in order that the one or the other may be driven to the wall.

Lincoln countered that slavery was wrong, and that national policy should discourage it. He claimed that what would actually send the nation to war was trying to exist as “half Slave, half Free” (from his famous “A House Divided” speech). But, like Douglas, he affirmed the Constitutional authority granted to the states to determine their own laws. This brings us to our pertinent quote, in it’s proper context (for even more context, read the entire speech here):

We expect upon these principles to ultimately beat them. In order to do so, I think we want and must have a national policy in regard to the institution of slavery that acknowledges and deals with that institution as being wrong. Whoever desires the prevention of the spread of slavery and the nationalization of that institution yields all when he yields to any policy that either recognizes slavery as being right or as being an indifferent thing. Nothing will make you successful but setting up a policy which shall treat the thing as being wrong: When I say this, I do not mean to say that this General Government is charged with the duty of redressing or preventing all the wrongs in the world, but I do think that it is charged with preventing and redressing all wrongs which are wrongs to itself. This Government is expressly charged with the duty of providing for the general welfare. We believe that the spreading out and perpetuity of the institution of slavery impairs the general welfare. We believe–nay, we know–that that is the only thing that has ever threatened the perpetuity of the Union itself. The only thing which has ever menaced the destruction of the government under which we live is this very thing. To repress this thing, we think, is, Providing for the general welfare. Our friends in Kentucky differ from us. We need not make our argument for them, but we who think it is wrong in all its relations, or in some of them at least, must decide as to our own actions and our own course, upon our own judgment.

I say that we must not interfere with the institution of slavery in the States where it exists, because the Constitution forbids it, and the general welfare does not require us to do so. We must not withhold an efficient Fugitive Slave law, because the Constitution requires us, as I understand it, not to withhold such a law. But we must prevent the outspreading of the institution, because neither the Constitution nor general welfare requires us to extend it. We must prevent the revival of the African slave trade, and the enacting by Congress of a Territorial slave code. We must prevent each of these things being done by either Congresses or courts. The people of these United States are the rightful masters of both Congresses and courts, not to overthrow the Constitution, but to overthrow the men who pervert the Constitution.

With all of the obvious parallels, why might both sides of the gay marriage debate see Lincoln as being in their corner? Well, that depends on how you see slavery in relation to gay marriage.

Are homosexuals the equivalent of slaves, being deprived of their rights by a waning majority who see them as second-rate citizens, waiting for their liberation by a President who finally affirms their equal standing under the law? Or is gay marriage an immoral institution that threatens the general welfare of America, leaving the government with the duty to prevent its spread?

Chances are, no matter where you stand on the issue, you can probably make a pretty compelling case for Lincoln’s support. This is why I’m so hesitant to rely on quotes from historical figures as a primary means of building a case for contemporary ethical and Constitutional problems. I just don’t think Abraham Lincoln is all that helpful on the issue of gay marriage.

Incidentally, I find it interesting that the one area in which Lincoln and Douglas at least appeared to agree was on the affirmation of the Constitution’s delegation to the States or the people the authority to decide on matters not delegated to the federal government. Which is why perhaps the greatest irony of all is that, fewer than four years after the Lincoln-Douglas debates ended, President Lincoln issued an Executive Order which emancipated slaves in the “rebellious states”, a clear violation of both his campaign promises and the 10th Amendment.

Considering how slavery is now universally (and rightly) abhorred by Americans, and how Lincoln has been perpetually venerated as a hero for “doing the right thing”, it should probably come as no surprise that all parties in the gay marriage debate seem to be content with nothing less than a national solution. And why not? Lincoln’s our guy, right?

A Darwinian Theory of Beauty?

As I was driving home from a gig on Saturday, I tuned into the “TED Radio Hour” on NPR, and was pleasantly surprised to find that the topic du jour was aesthetics. The program included excerpts from several different TED Talks, all centered around the question “What Is Beauty?”

Each of the segments was thought-provoking (you can listen to the entire program here), but the one that most piqued my interest was the first: “Are some things universally beautiful?” (Direct link to the audio and transcript here). The segment includes input from violinist Robert Gupta, painter/anthropologist Alexander Melamid, and philosopher Denis Dutton. The basic conclusion was that people everywhere share many of the same artistic sensibilities, and have a common notion of what beauty is. This, of course, challenges the popular (though by no means universal) claim that “beauty” is a cultural construct.

Dutton suggests that this apparently universal conception of beauty is best explained by everyone’s favorite ornithologist, Charles Darwin. I was fascinated by what I heard in the NPR segment, so I looked up Dutton’s 2010 TED Talk for more. Here it is in its entirety:

As a thoroughly convinced believer of the creation account from the Bible, I was curious to see how an evolutionist would account for the striking similarities in the things found beautiful by those all over the world. After all, this is not a problem for the Christian; in fact, it’s exactly what God’s Word leads us to expect. We believe that beauty is part of God’s nature, something that has been made plain to us. All men are created in the image of God, and so we find beautiful what God finds beautiful.

But how can Darwin’s theory of natural selection account for this uniformity and appearance of purpose? Why do people groups who “evolved” in different regions, with totally different cultural and environmental conditions for “millions of years”, understand beauty in largely the same way? What is it about beautiful music that made our primitive ancestors better suited to pass on their genes? Here’s what Dutton says:

Beauty is nature’s way of acting at a distance. I mean, you can’t expect to eat an adaptively beneficial landscape, and it would hardly do to eat your baby or your lover. Evolution’s trick is to make them beautiful… to have them exert on you a kind of magnetism to give you pleasure simply by looking at them.

Okay, so evolution “tricks” us by making things which are otherwise necessary for our survival (e.g., offspring, shelter, mates, etc.) pleasurable for our eyes? Perhaps I’m merely seeing his words through my gospel-colored glasses, but it sure sounds to me like he’s building a case for design in nature. The Designer? Evolution personified, naturally!

His specific example is the idyllic landscape preferred by people all over the planet, even in climates that have no such landscape (referring to the “art science” experiment by Alexander Melamid mentioned in the NPR segment linked above). Studies showed that paintings perceived to be most beautiful by nearly all who were surveyed contained a water source, trees, animals, and blue skies. Everything the “protohumans” needed to survive! His reasoning was that this scene is reminiscent of the “Pleistocene savannas where we evolved.” People find it beautiful because deep down inside us we remember that only those who were able to find food and shelter lived long enough to add their contribution to the gene pool.

Of course, one might also see this same landscape as similar to the Garden of Eden, which was the perfect (and perfectly beautiful) environment into which God placed our earliest ancestors. Revelation also describes the New Jerusalem as a place of stunning beauty, fed and sustained by the tree and river of life. The city from which God shines forth is “the perfection of beauty,” as Asaph wrote in Psalm 50:2.

So as it stands so far, Dutton appears to agree with Scripture in at least two ways. First, in his conclusion that “Human beings everywhere find beauty in similar visual experience.” Second, in his supposition that all human life descended from common ancestors in a garden.

His attention then moves from natural beauty to the beauty we find in man-made works of art. What might have been adaptively advantageous about a sculpture or a melody? Once again, Evolution has an answer!

Dutton’s supposition is that the earliest works of art were ancient hand axes. These were put on display, and their attractive appearance was visual evidence of the ability of the craftsman to develop tools, making him more attractive (thanks to what he calls “fitness signals”) to potential mates.

Competently made hand axes indicated desirable personal qualities: intelligence, fine motor control, planning ability, conscientiousness, and, sometimes, access to rare materials. Over tens of thousands of generations, such skills increased the status of those who displayed them, and gained a reproductive advantage over the less capable.

Eventually, this very pragmatic consideration of females looking for a resourceful mate evolved into a general appreciation of skillfulness. Thus, “We find beauty in something done well.”

Plausible? Perhaps, but this doesn’t account for the fact that some things require a great deal of skill yet are not generally regarded as being “beautiful”. For example, a virtuoso pianist might perform a recital featuring works by Schoenberg and Chopin. Listeners may well appreciate the skill necessary to play (and compose) both, but I’m guessing most of them aren’t rushing to add Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire to their iPods… not even the “Chopin Waltz” movement.

So is it merely cultural conditioning or personal preference to identify one piece of music as more beautiful than another, or is the beauty of Chopin something that is objectively true? While the wisdom of our age often argues the former, our own experiences confirm the words of God, who tells us that there IS a standard of beauty, and it is He. When Paul told the Philippians to fill their minds with whatever is lovely, he wasn’t recommending their subjective preferences. He didn’t say, “whatever is lovely to you…”

In his final analysis, then, Dutton is right in agreeing with Plato that beauty is NOT in the eye of the beholder—contrary to the wisdom of the relativistic Sophists of his day—but I don’t find his theory of beauty’s origin the least bit compelling:

Is beauty in the eye of the beholder? No. It’s deep in our minds. It’s a deep gift handed down from the intelligent skills and rich emotional lives of our most ancient ancestors. Our powerful reaction to images, to the expression of emotion in art, to the beauty of music, to the night sky, will be with us and our descendants for as long as the human race exists.

A “Darwinian” theory of beauty—whether claiming that beauty is purely subjective or a “trick” played on us by Mother Nature—ultimately says that there can be no such thing as real beauty. This is a lie which no human heart can fully accept, though there are certainly many who suppress the truth that has been made plain to them. It’s why I believe that beauty remains one of the strongest arguments for the existence of God, and one of the greatest problems for those who deny Him.

[Image Credit]

Liberty Under Attack

On this day in 1967, Israeli air and naval forces attacked and destroyed an American warship in international waters without warning or provocation. In retaliation, the United States was minutes from launching a nuclear attack against Cairo, believing initially that it had been Egyptian forces which had launched the attack.

Whether you believe the Israeli account that this was simply the result of a series of tragic errors during the Six Day War, or believe those (including the USS Liberty sailors who survived the attack) who believe this was the result of a conspiracy between US and Israeli intelligence forces to blame Egypt and give America an excuse to enter the war, this is a pretty fascinating piece of recent military history that is rarely reported and not widely known. This 2002 BBC documentary tells the story well:

You can also visit the USS Liberty Memorial page to read an account from members of the Liberty’s crew.

On Doing Good for the Poor

In the mid-18th century, the British Parliament was tampering with the price of various commodities, imposing tariffs and duties on the importing and exporting of these commodities in the American colonies and elsewhere in the Empire. Then, as today, this type of government meddling was ostensibly meant to help the poor. Thankfully, many American patriots realized that these centralizing policies helped no one but the State, and only served to perpetuate the dependency of the poor on their masters.

Check out this scathing commentary from a letter penned by Benjamin Franklin, published in The London Chronicle in 1766, titled “On the Price of Corn and Management of the Poor”:

I am for doing good to the poor, but I differ in opinion of the means. I think the best way of doing good to the poor, is not making them easy in poverty, but leading or driving them out of it. In my youth I travelled much, and I observed in different countries, that the more public provisions were made for the poor, the less they provided for themselves, and of course became poorer. And, on the contrary, the less was done for them, the more they did for themselves, and became richer.

There is no country in the world where so many provisions are established for them; so many hospitals to receive them when they are sick or lame, founded and maintained by voluntary charities; so many alms-houses for the aged of both sexes, together with a solemn general law made by the rich to subject their estates to a heavy tax for the support of the poor. Under all these obligations, are our poor modest, humble, and thankful; and do they use their best endeavors to maintain themselves, and lighten our shoulders of this burden? On the contrary, I affirm that there is no country in the world in which the poor are more idle, dissolute, drunken, and insolent. The day you passed that act, you took away from before their eyes the greatest of all inducements to industry, frugality, and sobriety, by giving them a dependence on somewhat else than a careful accumulation during youth and health, for support in age or sickness. In short, you offered a premium for the encouragement of idleness, and you should not now wonder that it has had its effect in the increase of poverty.

[Read the full letter here. It's great!]

Capitalists and libertarians are often accused of being apathetic toward the condition of the poor. In reality, capitalism remains the best and most effective means of alleviating poverty ever devised. For more on why Christians who are concerned for the poor (and, really, this ought to be a redundant phrase) should be capitalists, I highly recommend Jay Richards’ book Money, Greed, and God (my review).

“I Cannot Tell A Lie”

We’ve all heard the story demonstrating George Washington’s impeccable honesty when, as a boy, he confessed to his father that he had chopped down a cherry tree. You’ve probably also heard that this story is a complete fabrication, though it has become firmly cemented into American mythology through sheer repetition.

Similarly, there are a plethora of pseudo-quotes attributed to our first President which have nothing supporting them but hundreds of “quote” websites which eagerly repeat the same lines without any form of citation. My “bogus quote detector” began tingling (it works sort of like Spidey-sense) when I saw the following meme show up multiple times on my Facebook feed yesterday:

A free people ought not only to be armed and disciplined but they should have sufficient arms and ammunition to maintain a status of independence from any who might attempt to abuse them, which would include their own government

Upon investigation (which took all of about 3 minutes), my suspicion was confirmed: Washington never said this.

As I’ve tried to show this week, there is ample support in the historical record to demonstrate that many of our Founding Fathers did insist on the right of private citizens to bear arms, and that they were concerned with the ability to keep the government in check as a defense against tyranny. So there is absolutely no reason to resort to fake quotes to “prove” the point!

For the record, here is the actual quote (taken from Washington’s First Annual Message to Congress in 1790) which was mutilated into the form seen above (source):

A free people ought not only to be armed but disciplined; to which end, a uniform and well digested plan is requisite: and their safety and interest require that they should promote such manufactories, as tend to render them independent on others for essential, particularly for military supplies.

If you get a chance, you really ought to read the entire address. I love reading Washington’s speeches; he truly had a way with words! If you read closely, you’ll notice some foreshadowing of the raising of an army to fight the “hostile tribes of Indians”, which I mentioned in my post from a week ago…

It is also important to note that this Address was intended to promote “the general and increasing good will toward the Government of the Union.” Washington’s task as our first President was to unite the formerly independent (and sometimes fiercely so) States under a Federal government, and to instill confidence in that government. Therefore the tone of the bogus quote is completely contrary to the purpose of the original, though the sentiment may be less far off.

This concludes another installment of “Meme-Busters”. Thanks for reading and remember: When using social media, please “share” responsibly. Friends don’t let friends abuse history!

To be prepared for war, is one of the most effectual means of preserving peace.”
~ One of the better (genuine) quotes from Washington’s “First Address”