I know it is in my files somewhere — a letter from George Will to me in which he declined my services as an assistant or researcher. Once he wrote to me, complete with his address, I could find where he lived and one night in a somewhat creepy instance of stalking while my wife and I were leaving D.C. for Baltimore we turned down Will’s street in Bethesda. I found his house, parked across the street, and actually saw the man walk from one room to another. I did not go to the door or dig up a piece of turf.
I am reminded of this instance for two reasons. First, yesterday, thanks to a lighter load between semesters, I rediscovered the top of my desk (not to mention several interesting articles and essays that had been heaped on top). I wish I could say finding Will’s letter was that easy.
Second, (thank to one of our correspondents) I recently read a talk that Will gave at the John C. Danforth Center on Religion and Politics. I do not read Will regularly. Nor do we see him on the Sunday shows since our sabbath observance has improved (but oh the motives lurking). But Will continues to sound smart, witty, self-deprecating — and he has been doing this for as long as U2 has been making recordings. Long before Rush, Sean, Fox News and other outlets in the conservative media, George Will was a sane, responsible, learned, and accessible voice for conservatism.
I’d still work for him (as long as he could pay me until retirement).
Here is an excerpt from his talk, Religion and Politics in the First Modern Nation, in which he contrasted James Madison and Woodrow Wilson and implicitly cautioned against politicians who stray too far from human nature in hopes of changing the cosmos (I wonder if Kuyper would have liked Wilson):
This is the Creator who endows us with natural rights that are inevitable, inalienable and universal — and hence the foundation of democratic equality. And these rights are the foundation of limited government — government defined by the limited goal of securing those rights so that individuals may flourish in their free and responsible exercise of those rights.
A government thus limited is not in the business of imposing its opinions about what happiness or excellence the citizens should choose to pursue. Having such opinions is the business of other institutions — private and voluntary ones, especially religious ones — that supply the conditions for liberty.
Thus the Founders did not consider natural rights reasonable because religion affirmed them; rather, the Founders considered religion reasonable because it secured those rights. There may, however, be a cultural contradiction of modernity. The contradiction is that while religion can sustain liberty, liberty does not necessarily sustain religion. This is of paramount importance because of the seminal importance of the Declaration of Independence.
America’s public philosophy is distilled in the Declaration’s second paragraph: “We hold these truths to be self-evident.” Notice, our nation was born with an epistemological assertion: The important political truths are not merely knowable, they are self-evident — meaning, they can be known by any mind not clouded by ignorance or superstition.
It is, the Declaration says, self-evidently true that “all men are created equal.” Equal not only in their access to the important political truths, but also in being endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights, including life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
Next comes perhaps the most important word in the Declaration, the word “secure”: To secure these rights, government are instituted among men.” Government’s primary purpose is to secure pre-existing rights. Government does not create rights, it does not dispense them.
Here, concerning the opening paragraphs of the Declaration, is where Woodrow Wilson and progressivism enter the American story.
Wilson urged people not to read what he called the preface to the Declaration, and what everyone else calls its essence. He did for the same reason that he became the first president to criticize the American Founding. And he did not criticize it about minor matters; he criticized it root and branch, beginning with the doctrine of natural rights.
I would likely quibble with Will over lunch (if I worked for him) over some of his points, not to mention the irony of a president who conducted a War for Righteousness criticizing politicians who were not as devout as he was. But among the options in American politics, not to mention world history, the American founding is pretty darned terrific. It merits at least as many cheers as George Will.