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Posted 09 January 2019 - 09:56 AM

2018 President's Essay: Returning to our Principles
Dec 25th, 2018
Foreword by Kay Coles James
Heritage.org

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As George Nash has written, "Perhaps the most important fact to assimilate about modern American conservatism is that it is not, and has never been, univocal. It is a coalition with many points of origin and diverse tendencies, not always easy to reconcile: a river of thought and activism fed by many tributaries."

Paleoconservatives, neoconservatives, fiscal hawks, social conservatives, libertarians, and more are principal members of the conservative movement, and together we are a force that cannot be ignored or dismissed. Like those who founded this great nation, we too are willing to risk everything for freedom. Together, we as a movement can provide the intellect and courage to deliver real answers for the pressing issues of our day. Together, we can ensure that we will continue to be a nation that holds true to our founding principles.

The men and women who fought to create our nation fought because they had a clear idea about timeless principles that would sustain us from one generation to the next. Moreover, our founders fought for a country that prized freedom: freedom from dictatorship and arbitrary rule, freedom to exercise their God-given rights, and freedom to create the laws by which they would govern themselves.

Dr. Robert George, the author of this year's Christmas Essay, is a leading light of the conservative movement. He holds Princeton's celebrated McCormick Chair in Jurisprudence and is the founding director of the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions.

Professor George continues to promote conservatism and the founding principles in one of the most hostile environments imaginable: an Ivy League campus. There are campuses today that require incoming freshmen to attend classes on the dangers of "toxic masculinity" but no longer require their students to take even one course in civics. There are now universities that graduate history majors who have never studied American history or what makes this country unique.

Every year, Dr. George welcomes to his classroom members of a generation who have never heard of Russell Kirk, much less read him. All they know about our founding principles and conservatism is what the indefatigably progressive media and academy have told them.

We cannot afford to let the Left define conservatives any more than we can afford to leave lessons of our great founding to those who have redefined the true meaning of freedom. Rather than cede the rising generation to the Left, we must reach out to them, introduce them to the bedrock of freedom and conservative principles, and interpret those principles in terms that young people can relate to, emotionally as well as intellectually. No one is better equipped to tell us how to return to our principles than Dr. George. His essay is a Christmas gift filled with valuable lessons on how to transfer to the next generation a free nation that honors and benefits from our founding principles.

All of us have a duty to do this. As Ronald Reagan said:

Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction. We didn't pass it to our children in the bloodstream. It must be fought for, protected, and handed on for them to do the same, or one day we will spend our sunset years telling our children and our children's children what it was once like in the United States where men were free.


This is our sacred obligation. We all have a part to play, and every one of us has a compelling story to share. The only fight that matters is the fight for freedom, and we will win as long as we fight together.

Returning to Our Principles by Robert P. George

The United States of America is a great country. It has achieved remarkable things. It has proven that republican government—government not only of the people (which all government is) and for the people (which all decent government is, even that of a benign despot) but by the people—can indeed "long endure."

Our nation's record is not perfect and should not be whitewashed. Slavery and racial and other injustices are, alas, part of our story. But they are not the whole story. The efforts of our people—acting in deeper fidelity to our founding principles—to right historical wrongs and secure "liberty and justice for all" are also part of the story. And there is more.

The United States has created hitherto unimaginable prosperity and provided millions upon millions of people with unprecedented opportunities for economic and social advancement. It has welcomed immigrants—in astonishing numbers—and enabled them to become Americans—as truly and fully American as the descendants of those who came to North America on The Mayflower. It has defeated tyrants and tyrannies that have credibly sought nothing short of world domination.

And yet Americans are uneasy, unhappy, worried. Many are disaffected. At the extremes, small radicalized factions embrace violence against political opponents. Some stop short of endorsing violence but deploy a rhetoric of demonization that if unchecked will surely corrode the civic friendship—what Lincoln in his first inaugural address called "the bonds of affection"—on which the success of republican democracy vitally depends. Incivility in politics is scarcely something new, but some today regard it as a virtue. That is new. Even some who claim the mantle of conservatism seem to have been lured into an attitude of tribalism and identity politics. How should true conservatives understand our problems, and what should we propose to do about them?

As a conservative, I believe that at the heart of our woes is what has so often been at the heart of our woes whenever we have had woes, going all the way back to the original sin of slavery: infidelity to our nation's founding principles. Those principles include our formal constitutional commitments as well as the moral and cultural norms, practices, and understandings upon which those commitments depend. America is great. And the promise of America remains great. But in many crucial areas we have indeed gone astray. If America is to be true to herself, and if she is to fulfill her promise, things must be turned around.

Because our founding principles are true and good, they are demanding. It is not easy to live up to them, and we will never do so perfectly. Temptations to infidelity will always be with us. All the unsavory qualities of human nature that James Madison identified in the 10th Federalist Paper—and more—make it a challenge for us frail, fallen, fallible human beings to "hold fast to the right," in the words of the old hymn. We must summon the best in ourselves to overcome the weakest and worst in us if we are to resist temptations to sacrifice justice, virtue, honorable liberties, and the authentic demands of the common good for the sake of this or that shiny object: security, comfort, ease, being looked after, being protected from the possibility of failure, having special or dominant status—you name it.

If we are to overcome our woes, if we are to renew our great nation in the only way that our nation ever can be renewed—by returning to our first principles—then labor and sacrifice will be required of all of us.

We must restore our national commitment to limited government and the rule of law. This will include the restoration of the constitutional separation of powers and the recovery of the principles of federalism. In particular, our national government must be returned to its constitutional status—to which even liberal jurists and constitutional scholars pay lip-service, even today—as a government of delegated and enumerated (and thus limited) powers.

More broadly, we must demand respect for what political philosophers call "the principle of subsidiarity." This principle of justice demands that government and other higher associations avoid taking over tasks that can be performed well by individuals and small associations, beginning with families, religious communities, and other institutions of civil society. If liberty and justice are to prevail, if the common good is to be realized, it is these "mediating" associations—Edmund Burke's "little platoons," which Alexis de Tocqueville celebrated for their crucial role in undergirding American democracy—that must bear primary responsibility for the health, education, and welfare of our people and for transmitting to each new generation the values, virtues, and skills necessary for individuals to lead successful lives and function as citizens in a free, democratic political order.

Government, especially central government, must stop usurping the authority, violating the autonomy, and damaging the integrity of these mediating structures. For example, government needs to respect the right of parents to direct the upbringing and education of their children, including their education on matters of sexuality and sexual morality. We cannot tolerate sex education programs— especially ones from which parents are forbidden to withdraw their children—that expressly or implicitly promote secular progressive dogmas about sexuality, morality, and marriage in defiance of the beliefs of parents and families. It is similarly intolerable when government—in hiring, licensing, contracting, or accreditation— discriminates against religious or other individuals and institutions because of their "traditional" beliefs about, for example, marriage, sexual morality, and the sanctity of human life.

Of course, there are legitimate roles for government to play.

(snip)

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