Acting National

We live in a federal republic, or so the Federalist Papers tried to persuade those Americans on the fence about adopting the Constitution. Trying to tell the difference between a nation and a federation can be tough. In fact, the Anti-Federalists, those who opposed the slightest hint of political centralization, thought the federalists should really be called “nationalists” because the government they proposed was more national than federal. (A federation recognizes the sovereignty of member states, a nation places the state governments in some subjection to the national government.)

When President Obama issued a executive order recently about bathrooms, you could plausibly argue that the president was acting national. Acting federal might have required working with Congress (with its representatives from the states). Or perhaps the president could have called a governors’ conference.

Because of the confusion surrounding “national” and “federal,” it was heartening to see the NCAA put the national in National Collegiate Athletic Association:

The National Collegiate Athletic Association announced Monday evening that it is moving seven championship events that had been scheduled to take place in North Carolina to other states. The NCAA cited North Carolina’s antigay law, which bars all local laws that protect people from discrimination based on sexual orientation, and the ban on transgender people using state organizations’ bathrooms that reflect their identities.

No ambiguity there. The national body rules what the local bodies may or may not do.

Washington D.C. still wrestles with the ambiguity. After all, it is the United States of America not United State of America (that would be redundant).

Two Districts, One Nation

Maggie Jordan, one of the characters in Newsroom, says in one episode during Season Two that “The country is divided into people who like sex and people who are utterly creeped out by it. I’m one of the sex people.” As creepy as that description might be for those celebrity pastors who write books about how enjoyable sex is (read TKNY), the statement seems pretty accurate. Chances are most Americans agree about economic matters. Differences might emerge about tax rates but hardly anyone (except Pope Francis) is questioning consumerism and the benefits of buying. Most Americans agree on foreign policy. They might question a foreign war here or there. But a hegemonic United States is desirable across the aisle as is applause for American soldiers. No one disagrees about English as the nation’s language. No one questions the Constitution, though interpretations vary. No one seriously objects to the NFL.

But on sex we differ. In fact, the most contested aspects of political life surround either giving more freedom to sex (and reducing its consequences) or trying to put restraints on it. Make the left grant unlimited access to guns the way they seem to think about sex and make the right apply its logic about guns to sex and you might have a united country.

By the way, America’s sexual exceptionalism is not the most flattering aspect of national history. Until the 1960s pretty much every important thinker recognized that restraint in sexual matters was important. Whether Aristotle was telling Greeks not to imitate animals (who do enjoy unrestrained access to sex and its consequences), or Romans were advocating restraint of the baser passions, or Christians were arguing for chastity, pretty much all the major civilizational food groups disapproved of easy access to sex. Not so post sexual-revolution America.

Aren’t we great pretty good?

But here’s the solution. Why don’t we create two districts in the United States, one where people who like sex live and one where people who are creeped out about live. Let’s let (easier for me now that I’m in the Great Pretty Good Lakes region the sexy people have the Northeast and the West Coast, and we’ll give them Illinois and Minnesota for those afraid of hurricanes and tsunamis. The rest of the country will live and move and have their being in the unsexy district. In the latter, states will be free to pass laws against abortion, adultery, same-sex marriage, and pornography (which doesn’t include HBO). Both districts will still participate in the federal government. But the national government will recognize this fundamental divide in American character and respect the boundaries of the Sexy and Unsexy Districts.

Of course, the pro-unionists in the nation won’t hear of this because such a proposal the sort of thing that the South proposed with the creation of the Confederacy. And if you make an idol out of national union — please don’t weigh in on Northern Ireland or Israel, then — then I understand this proposal makes no sense. There goes the meaning of Abraham Lincoln. EEE GADS!

But if you are a federalist, then this idea should have some appeal. At the basis of federalism was the idea of granting real power to local authorities while participating in certain common endeavors for the good of the larger whole. This is what Protestants even tried to achieve with the — wait for it — Federal Council of Churches; a federation that granted powers to the member denominations while finding ways to cooperate on common projects, like transforming the United States into a Christian nation. Federalism is a great way to allow for serious differences in a country. If you only have nationalism, then winner takes all. DOUBLE EEE GADS!!

The real defect in this proposal is that the unsexy Americans who live in the Northeast and the West Coast (and Lake Wobegone) will have to move to unsexy territories. But that’s a heck of a lot better than becoming a refugee — think Syria. The same goes for the sexy people who live in South Carolina and Utah. They will have to relocate. But they will be able to keep their portfolio, won’t need to learn a new language, and can use the same currency. The also won’t have to convert to metric or Celsius.

The advantage in such a scheme is that over the course of a generation or two, we might actually see which is a better way to organize a society. Maybe sexy America will prove itself better in the long run, but where they will get new generations to replace the old is anyone’s guess. And maybe unsexy America will prove itself incapable of anything culturally or financially interesting. But the history of the human race until 1965 suggests otherwise. If unsexy America could produce H. L. Mencken, how bad can being creeped out by sex be?

When Dutch Calvinism was 2k — even Republican

Bruce Fronen explains why Reformed Protestants oppose absolute monarchy both in the state and the church:

Calvinism generally is identified with the Swiss city state of Geneva. But that city existed, politically, as a kind of hothouse flower, protected for years by the presence of Calvin himself (though that did not prevent significant problems) and, more important, the strength and isolation of the Swiss confederation. The Netherlands, on the other hand, was a nation born in the crucible of sustained conflict. The Dutch people over generations developed a pluralist society and a kind of federal government sufficient to win independence from the Spanish monarch while retaining local freedoms and significantly divergent, traditional ways of life.

The Dutch republic had only a relatively short time as a major power and example of good government, before descending for some time into a rather petty empire seemingly motivated only by greed. But beginning in the 16th and going into the early 18th century, the Netherlands provided examples of ordered liberty, as well as practically-grounded theories underlying good government. Here a people numerous and organized enough to constitute a nation gave perhaps the first viable alternative to the centralizing monarchies then solidifying power throughout Europe. Here an early modern people came to grips with the intrinsically plural structure of society in such a way as to win their independence as a nation without losing their religious identities or local rights of self-government.

The great theorist of this time and place was Johannes Althusius. Born in what is now Germany, Althusius identified closely with his fellow Calvinists in the Netherlands. He understood, in part from simple observation of lived examples all around him that people do not exist as individuals. We all are, in our essence, members of various communities. Where in most early modern states monarchs had set about destroying most of the communities in which people become fully human and live out their lives, the Dutch never fully succumbed to the power of any single monarch. Their “petty” republics and principalities hung on tenaciously to their particular liberties and ways of life. Split by religious differences, the Dutch developed somewhat (note the lack of emphasis, here) more toleration of religious dissent than most other countries. But where they truly showed their strength was in their recognition and practice of what Calvinists in the New World would term “federal liberty.”

This piece of Dutch Calvinist history often goes overlooked by transformers of every square inch, even though Abraham Kuyper himself capitalized on Dutch pluralism to recognize a variety of groups in Dutch life in ways that would drive American Protestants of Anglo backgrounds batty. The odd thing about Dutch Calvinism is that it was far more tolerant than those whom today it inspires. I can’t help but blame w-w, which drives a wedge between believers and unbelievers in totalizing ways and animates the bejeebies about secularization.

How A Biblical W-w Conflicts with American Conservatism

This may explain further how the so-called Religious Right is an untrustworthy ally to political conservatives, an interview with Jonathan Compton, the author of The Evangelical Origins of the Living Constitution:

JC: I was intrigued by the fact that many nineteenth-century evangelicals were openly critical of certain aspects of the constitutional system. The example of the antislavery movement is well known, but one finds the same sorts of criticisms within the temperance and anti-lottery movements, among others. After further investigation, I discovered the underlying source of this discontent: evangelical activists wanted to eradicate various forms of “sinful” property, and this goal put them at odds with a constitutional order that was designed, in large part, to protect vested property rights and to insulate national markets from state and local regulation.

JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of The Evangelical Origins of the Living Constitution?

JC: By the late nineteenth century, the prohibition and anti-lottery movements had grown so powerful that judges and lawmakers were forced to accommodate their demands, even if this meant weakening property rights and federalism constraints across the board. The triumph of the evangelical reform movements convinced many Progressive-era Americans that key constitutional categories like “property” and “commerce” were simply social constructs that could be modified to reflect the views of the present generation.