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The Intellectuals and the Defense of a Nation

A document endorsed by several US intellectuals, conservatives and liberals alike, to stress equality and human rights reminiscent of the Declaration of Independence. A study of the sentiments that move the American culture of today.
Lorenzo Albacete

The recent statement “What We’re Fighting For,” issued by the Institute for American Values, is certainly typically American, endorsed by more than 60 intellectuals from different backgrounds. It confirms the remarkable American need to justify the nation’s behavior by appealing beyond national security to moral principles presumably recognized by the conscience of the world. It is reminiscent of the Declaration of Independence’s claim that a “decent respect to the Opinions of Mankind requires that [the revolutionaries] should declare the causes which impel them to the Separation.” These “causes” are said to be ultimately justified by the “Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God,” beginning with the famous “self-evident truths” that “all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, [such as] life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” In a sense, the declaration “What We’re Fighting For” is an updating and expansion of the Declaration of Independence. This shows the level at which most of the American people experienced the attack of September 11, 2001.

Five truths
The similarities between the two documents are clear. Compare: “At times it becomes necessary for a nation to defend itself through force of arms” (current Statement) with “When in the course of human events it becomes necessary for one People to dissolve the Political Bands which have connected them with another…” (Declaration of Independence). Or compare: “Conscience demands that those who would wage the war state clearly [to themselves and the world’s community] the moral reasoning behind their actions [and] the principles they are defending” (current Statement) with the Declaration of Independence’s statement that “decent respect for the Opinions of Mankind requires that they explain their actions and beliefs.” And just as the Declaration states solemnly, “We hold these truths to be self evident…” the current Statement says, “We affirm five fundamental truths that pertain to all people without distinction.”

The Declaration’s truths about equality and rights are re-expressed in “What We are Fighting For” in terms of the following principles: (1) all human beings are born free (notice the absence of the reference to creation) and equal in dignity and rights; (2) the basic subject of society is the human person, and the legitimate role of government is to protect and help to foster the conditions for human flourishing (compare with the Declaration’s argument that Governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the Consent of the Governed to secure the rights of the individual); (3) human beings naturally desire to seek the truth about life’s purpose and ultimate ends (there is nothing in the Declaration of Independence about this since, at that time, it was inconceivable to deny that life had purpose and an ultimate end); (4) freedom of conscience and religious freedom are inviolable rights of the human person (nothing about this explicitly in the Declaration); and (5) killing in the name of God is contrary to faith in God, and is the greatest betrayal of the universality of religious faith.

Something different
The first four principles are forcefully defended with a wealth of references to American and other sources in political philosophy. As such it offers a brilliant summary of the foundational principles of a “natural law” political thinking. The fifth principle, though, is different, and in some respects compromises the desired “universality” of this exceptional Statement. There is nothing like the fifth point in the Declaration of Independence. Jefferson’s declaration is an appeal to reason using religious language. The fifth “fundamental truth” is a statement of faith, and reflects the confusion characteristic of Protestant America between religion and faith. It explains why the President of the United States feels competent to insist that violence is inconsistent with the Islamic faith. Killing in the name of God, of course, has been part of religion and faith for much of history, as this Statement itself recognizes. Perhaps the authors of this Statement want to say that religion itself must be reasonable, and show that violence represents an idolatrous derailment of the religious sense, but they do not say this, since all the signatories would probably not accept it. As to faith, someone like the Pope can rightly claim that killing in the name of God is inconsistent with authentic faith, as he does, but this is a statement about present Catholic teaching, and not shared by all who profess faith in a revelation of God. In any case, it does not really fit in a Statement signed by believers and non-believers intended to defend American foreign policy by appealing to universally held principles.

In the second part of this Statement, the authors argue that the attack of September 11th could never be justified as a way to protest against American foreign policy, since nothing justifies the mass slaughter of innocents. This, of course, is correct and the authors are right in seeing this attack as an attack on the very heart of the American nation, defined by the on-going effort to live according to its “American values” (thus justifying self-defense.)

Influences and agreements
The Statement’s defense of these values seems like a succinct summary of Catholic social thought, showing the influence of prominent Catholics on the Bush Administration, at least as far as these abstract principles go. This also explains the various references to the need of moral reform in contemporary American society, such as in the areas of marriage and family. Still, the authors acknowledge that there are American values that actually go against these principles, rejecting them as foreign to the American founding ideals. This depends on how exactly these ideas are understood. It is not sufficient to say, for example, that the claimed American priority of the “supremacy of the human person” makes American political thought compatible with Catholic social doctrine. It would have to be shown that American thought and Catholic social teaching understand “person” in the same way. The same can be said about the other values, such as that of religious freedom, or indeed, freedom itself.

There are some who claim that, though the words and expressions may be the same in Catholic thought and the American founding ideals, their meanings differ. These observers have not signed this document. Still, the document serves as a wonderful text for further discussion, holding the promise of an agreement between different sectors of American thought.

The Statement claims that we fight to defend ourselves and to defend these universal principles, mixing, in a typical American way, the right to self-defense with a consciousness of being, somehow, the place where the future of liberty will be decided. This Statement can only strengthen the hope of those in the world that desire that this may be so.