Wednesday, December 08, 2010

America by Heart Review

Sarah Palin's America by Heart is an unusual political book. It’s enjoyable and easy to read, but it deals with some important philosophical issues.

It reminds me of a Ronald Reagan speech. President Reagan’s speeches were different than most presidential speeches. They were neither standard political discourse nor great oratory. Reagan’s speeches were easy on the ear and attention span and yet touched on significant philosophical issues. (example)

In America by Heart Governor Palin points out the centrality of two fundamental truths for American democracy.

The first is that the United States is built on the belief that basic human rights come from God. (“all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”) The second is that American government is created by power given from the people and does not carry power in itself. (“We the people . . . do ordain and establish this Constitution”) These two ideas are the foundations of American political and social life. (p. 10-11)
“It is to keep faith with these words that our Constitution begins ‘We the people.’ In America, the people are sovereign, not just as a group, but individually. We are endowed by our Creator with this sovereignty. That means no person, no king and no government, can rule us without our consent. We all have a right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness that wasn’t given to us by government; it was given to us by God. Therefore, it can’t rightly be taken away by government.” (p. 11)
Palin compacts unalienable rights into one word: freedom.
“We are the only country in the history of the world that was founded not on a particular territory or culture or people, but on an idea. That idea is that all human beings have a God-given right to be free.” (p. 37)
This is the foundation of Palin’s belief that the United States is exceptional. In that she echoes Lincoln (“last best hope of earth”) and Reagan: “shining city upon a hill” and other great American political thinkers.

Palin goes on to delineate some of the important ways the American understanding that freedom is God-given affects government and society.

1. It requires limited government and federalism (Tenth Amendment). (p. xv, 7, 72)
2. It promotes a sense of optimism, lack of class envy, and a belief that individuals control their own destiny. (p. 66)
3. It supports the free market and individual economic freedom. It denies that government has the right to pick winners and losers. (Here Palin mentions the importance of Adam Smith’s invisible hand theory–which apparently many economics majors aren’t even taught now.) (p. 80, 84, 89)

The flip side of rights is responsibilities. What sort of people are needed for a government and society based on this kind of wide-open personal freedom? If government force or tyranny aren't there to quell human passions and require virtue from citizens, where does the needed character come from?

This is a question of paramount importance for Palin. She demonstrates that the political philosophy of key Founders required family and religion to fill that void. Palin quotes John Adams: “The foundation of national morality must be laid in private families.” (p. 112) And George Washington:
“Whatever may be conceded to the influence of refined education on minds of peculiar structure, reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.” (p. 194-195)
Perhaps the most significant section of America by Heart deals with the issue of how religion relates to a government which is based on individual freedom. (pp. 181-232)

The political theory of American democracy required some means to instill morality and tame strong human passions that under other governmental forms were kept in check by top down governmental power or tyranny. Our Founders saw the necessary discipline and character development coming from a people with deep religious commitment. The Founders “created a country that . . . relies on faith as an indispensable support.” (p. 183)

Thus, Palin rejects the position of current “secular elites” that religion must be kept private and separate from influencing government policy decisions. (p. 184-188, 216) To the contrary, she makes the case that religious commitment must flow over into public life for the nation to continue to stand.

But, wouldn’t that cause religious intolerance and divisions in a nation with various strong religious traditions?

Palin points out that the Founders built in safeguards so that government wouldn’t take sides with one religion over another (First Amendment). But they still set up a nurturing structure for strong religious belief that had an impact on daily governmental life. Official Congressional chaplains, days of prayer (FDR led the nation in prayer for the D-Day invasion, pp. 226-228), prayer opening Supreme Court and Congressional sessions, and “in God we trust” on our coins are just a few of the clear practical examples of our political leaders' belief that individual religious commitment is an essential part of official American governance. (pp. 197-198 quoting Justice Scalia)

At times deep religious commitment has resulted in divisions and even bloodshed. The clearly divisive movements for the abolition of slavery as well as for women’s rights and civil rights were rooted in religious conviction. (pp. 218-221) But, in the usual course of national political life the outcome of religious commitment is quite different.

Religious commitment tends to bring Americans together to uphold the poor and helpless and do good to one another.
“Our culture . . . takes fundamentally religious values such as the sanctity of life and secularizes them without surrendering their morality. America has a special ability to take the truths and moral lessons of religion and put them to work in ways that benefit everyone, regardless of their faith.” (p. 235)
America by Heart also gives insights into Sarah Palin’s personal character. She illustrates often from her own life and her family’s life. One thing that particularly interested me was that Governor Palin quotes two of her primary political competitors approvingly and at length. (Governor Mitt Romney and Speaker Newt Gingrich) (pp. 185-188, 209-210) There’s no felt need to be the “star” and ignore competing Republican political heavyweights.

America by Heart is easy and enjoyable to read all the while leading the reader into important, and at times deep, philosophical issues. Nice.

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