by Quin Hillyer
America has faced crossroads before. Its citizens (or directly chosen representatives) have faced stark choices going all the way back to the debate over ratifying the new Constitution drafted in 1787. But entirely level-headed people in large numbers are saying they have rarely even imagined an election as fraught with meaning as the one next week.
One need not name the candidates. One need not tell readers which positions are more advisable than others. One need only list, as fairly and accurately as possible, the indices of the two broadly divergent approaches to governance, and then let the readers, as dutiful citizens, make up their own minds – and perhaps not just vote, but work to convince like-minded acquaintances to vote as well.
Approach number one: One side of the debate advocates a large, energetic, active, powerful national government. It believes central planners can use their “expertise” to direct many aspects of economic affairs, and that stern regulators are needed to protect Americans from numerous ills both natural and man-made. Capitalism is seen as fraught with danger, and while its energies are appreciated, its “excesses” must be severely harnessed and sometimes redirected in order both to avoid recessions and to make sure nobody grabs too big a “slice of the pie.”
The Constitution, according to this outlook, is antiquated, almost hopelessly so – except insofar as its “spirit” can be discerned and applied to meet changing circumstances. In that way, the Constitution is “alive” – ever evolving under the beneficent care of learned and appropriately progressive judges. It doesn’t protect rights that pre-exist government; instead, judges use the Constitution’s spirit to ascertain which rights should be “doled out” (in the words of one Supreme Court justice) by the government. In other words, the government, not a Creator, grants rights, insofar (and only insofar) as those rights are seen to be conducive to the betterment of society.
In matters military and diplomatic, the posture from this side is humble. The United States of America might generally have good intentions, but it bears copious guilt as well, and its projections of power can be just as dangerous and destabilizing as anybody else’s. The U.S. armed services must therefore be restrained, and their size limited, because peace is best secured when foreign nations do not see us as a threat. And peace must indeed always be our watchword, peace above all.
Finally, in matters cultural, civic life must be strenuously protected from the ravages of faith run amuck; faith is fine in the private realm, but it is a threat to people’s feelings if allowed to invade the public square. Freedom of “worship” must be protected, of course, but except with regard to direct and formal prayer, churches have no more, or no more special, rights to shirk government’s dictates than do any other associations. And, of course, faith especially should not interfere with a woman’s right to control her body, or with “humane” decisions about when life becomes a burden either at its beginning or at its end. Or, for that matter, with anybody practicing whatever conception of marriage they so desire.
Approach number two: The other side of the debate believes that government, especially the national government, must be strictly limited to powers and duties assigned to it by the Constitution ratified by the people. Freedom is paramount, in the form of “ordered liberty” – the “order” being maintained through laws firm and clear, but not numerous. Individual citizens, not the government, are usually the best judges of their own best interests. And free enterprise and capitalism are seen as a bit messy but overwhelmingly productive and constructive. Capitalism might require a safety net, but not a harness.
The Constitution is revered, not just because wise Founders created it (which they did), but also because its structure is sound and its principles are noble in and of themselves. Its meaning remains fixed, unless and until the people themselves change it via the formal amendment process. And it does not grant rights, but merely recognizes universal human rights that are ours by the grace of God.
In diplomacy and military matters, this side views the United States as indisputably a force for good in the world. While armed forces should be used sparingly and only with clear objectives, the American military should be, far and away, the strongest in the world – because honorable peace in maintained through strength.
In matters cultural, traditional values are seen as the bedrock of society, and faith must be allowed wide latitude for public expression. And the entirety of enlightened civilization rests on two foundations: the recognition that human life is a sacred gift from God; and the celebration of the traditional family unit, grounded in the age-old ideal of marriage between man and woman. On the former point, life begins at conception, and innocent life must be protected in all its stages.
Conclusion: There are, of course, other differences between these two approaches, but these are the main ones. The scope and nature of the choice is clear. The substance of the choice is for each individual to decide.