David Brooks, the most conservative columnist for the New York Times, increasingly styles himself a statesmanlike referee between the claims of our evangelicals and our secular humanists. He can’t be accused of aiming low: He models his statesmanship on Lincoln’s. In his May 5 column, he presents our greatest president as “our guide and navigator. Lincoln had enough firm conviction to lead a great moral crusade, but his zeal was tempered by doubt, and his governing style was dispassionate.” Lincoln in his time–like Brooks in his–”knew that the country needed the evangelicals’ moral rigor to counteract the forces of selfishness and subjectivism, but he could never actually be an evangelical himself.” The mean between evangelical enthusiasm and amoral secularist relativism is the prudence of Lincoln and Brooks. And the only truths those statesmen know to be reliable are “those contained in the Declaration of Independence: that human beings are endowed with inalienable rights.” This American creed is the only creed that should guide us.
Lincoln, Brooks observes, “was always trying to slow down his evangelical allies.” Lincoln and the evangelicals believed fervently in the same “cause,” but the sneaky Brooks makes the cause seem both multifaceted and vague. Their cause, most of all, was the eradication of slavery from America. Many of the evangelicals were abolitionists, and Lincoln was not. Lincoln opposed abolitionism before the Civil War because he believed it was unconstitutional; the Constitution only opposed the expansion of slavery into new territories. Abolitionism was a revolutionary principle, and it could finally only be justified by Lincoln after civil war had begun. Brooks doesn’t let us see clearly or dwell upon the fact that while the abolitionist evangelicals may well have been imprudent, they were clearly to the left of Lincoln and on the right side of history on the slavery issue. Brooks only alludes to this best example for his otherwise vague conclusion that “the evangelical tradition is deeply consistent with the American creed.” The abolitionist evangelicals, in their enthusiasm, thought the principles of the Declaration should trump even the Constitution.
That example also shows us that Lincoln and Brooks are right to add that “evangelical causes can overflow the banks defined by our constitutional documents.” The abolitionist evangelicals were at war with what our Constitutional actually said.
Brooks then goes on to compare their abolitionist enthusiasm with “the social conservatives’ attempt to end the judicial filibuster.” But doing away with the filibuster won’t produce a civil war. The filibuster isn’t in the Constitution or any of our constitutional documents. It is merely part of the way the Senate regulates itself and has no constitutional or founding status at all.
Clearly the constitutional principle that governs the two houses of Congress is majority rule. The two houses are supposed to check each other, and in turn be checked by the other two branches of government. There’s no constitutional foundation for the Senate’s perversely building yet another counter-majoritarian check into its internal structure. In truth, there’s always been something vaguely but insistently unconstitutional about the filibuster. Liberals used to know this quite well back in the days when it was understood to be a perverse mechanism used by Southern racists to block civil-rights legislation favored by most members of Congress and most Americans. What did Martin Luther King Jr., another authority appealed to by Brooks, think about the filibuster?
I’m not taking a stand on whether or when Senate Republicans should compromise on the filibuster issue. I’m merely saying that their threat to end it is not an example of unbridled evangelical enthusiasm comparable to abolitionism. Think about how the clever Brooks is trying to structure “mainstream” American opinion here. Don’t be seduced!
–Peter Augustine Lawler is Dana Professor of Government at Berry College. He is author of Aliens in America: The Strange Truth About Our Souls.