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Friday, January 21, 2005

Thoughts on the Innauguration: Is the American Millenium At Hand?

Normally the topics addressed in this space relate directly or indirectly to the impact of the new media being generated by the Internet upon traditional media and government. But I'm going a bit "off-topic" today with some thoughts occasioned by yesterday's events on the west front of the Capitol, specifically the President's second innaugural address.

Let me say first that I consider myself a strong Bush supporter, even though he often pursues courses in regard to the public's right to know about the actions of their leaders that I find extremely troubling. That said, Bush's leadership in the war on terrorism has been magnificent and that issue trumps all else, at least for the immediate future.

Still, an unneasy thought has been in my mind since the early days of the aftermath of 9/11 and understanding it requires linking several distinct dots among the events that have dominated the previous four years.

First, there is an unstated but clear assumption to Bush's approach to domestic policy that Big Government cannot be rolled back, confronted and dissassembled or otherwise reduced by frontal assault. Even if it could be, the GOP bungled its historic opportunity to do so by failing to put real meat on the bones of the Contract with America. Not eliminating bureaucratic monstrosities like the departments of energy and education meant Big Government would be left essentially undisturbed. Letting term limits fall by the wayside assured a paucity of new blood and energy to mount fresh assaults.

In the aftermath of the failure at the core of the Contract with America, Bush's strategy appears to be not to confront it directly but rather to sow the seeds of Big Government's undermining by establishing within its major programs today principles of choice that tomorrow will eliminate the historic rationale for the current federal establishment. Presumably then the liberal state will wither away.

In healthcare, there are Health Savings Accounts. In Social Security, there are private investment accounts. In education, there is the measure of academic achievement, which sooner or later will pave the way for some form of vouchers. Bush seems to believe that whatever is required now in the way of practical political compromises to establish these approaches is justified because in the long run they will inevitably undermine the pillars of Big Government.

Put another way, today's conservative demonstration project is tomorrow's pillar of the more limited government required for the Ownership Society. The problem here is that in the meantime, Big Government goes on consuming endless resources and compromising individual liberty in every corner of our society.

Second, the Global War on Terrorism is obviously a necessary war and it is in some respects even more a struggle for our national survival than were the great crusades of World War II. This is because at least we knew where Hitler and Tojo put their forces and we could thus confront and kill them. Ditto with the Communist Empire headquartered in Moscow. As long as the Fulda Gap was secure and our Reagan-inspired resolve to win the endgame of the Cold War did not falter, America the Republic would survive.

But the GWOT is different and not simply because its distinguishing characteristic is the unmassed nature of the enemy force we confront. Whatever happens in Iraq (and I supported the invasion and continue to believe democracy is in fact possible there), we must never forget that our open borders and terrorism's ability to infiltrate our great cities poses a lethal danger with an immediacy that could never be matched no matter how many V2s Hitler might have launched against London.

I don't doubt that a military victory over the Osama bin Ladens of the world is possible, though it will require decades of expense, casualties and sacrifice. What I fear is that one of those sacrifices will in the final analysis be Republican liberty. Which brings us to the third point - the GWOT requires the temporary sacrifice of some portion of our liberties, especially in the realm of knowing what we must know to hold our governors accountable in the traditional ways. The problem is we don't know, indeed cannot know how long such sacrifices will be necessary and we thus run the risk of the temporary sacrifice becoming more or less permanent. The result of that process can only be the undermining of the Republican principle of the accountability of the governors to the governed.

This is not a new thing in history. Our founders knew full well the history of republics and how foreign wars so frequently undermined them. They read especially Thucydides and Plutarch, Seutonius and Livy, and knew the terrible toll of Athens' invasion of Sicily and Rome's victory over Carthage. Other factors were surely involved but the liberties that marked Athenian democracy and the Republic of Rome did not survive their wars of imperial conquest.

And so the question becomes are we now confronting our own Hannibal in Osama bin Laden and his legions of evil minions? Bush's clarion call yesterday that America's historic burden is to spread freedom to every corner of the earth makes that question unavoidable. Peggy Noonan's column in today's WSJ speaks of her unease with this notion. Whether she realizes or not, Noonan expresses an unease we should all be mindful of because it has deep roots in our history.

If you know the Puritans and their theology, you know they were post-millenarians. That is, they believed the Millenium would come about as God worked through righteous men in history to establish His Kingdom on Earth. Christ would return in His Second Coming at the end of the Millenium. Think Cromwell and the Protectorate of the English Civil War, with the expectation that it would endure 1,000 years and be capped by Christ's return.

It's important here to understand that the Scots-Irish Calvinists so wonderfully described by James Webb's "Born Fighting" gave us our contemporary evangelical culture, which is intrinsically pre-millenarian. That is, Christ comes back and establishes His kingdom at the outset of the Millenium, not at the end. He doesn't need men in history to do so and indeed, because of Original Sin, men cannot do it. And by the way, we evangelical descendants of our independent, hard-headed Scots-Irish ancestors don't need Big Government to tell us how to live in the meantime.

Inevitably, the Puritans' City on a Hill millenarism decayed over the years intellectually and theologically, becoming secularized by stages. What remains among our Northeastern/Blue State elites who inherited the Puritan mantle is the urge to create the beacon society. In the process, a direct line was traced from Cotton Mather through Lincoln and Wilson to FDR, the New Deal and the Great Society. Wise and virtuous men establishing the Millenium on earth. Jesus can come back, if indeed He even exists, once we have perfected the United Nations abroad and the entitlement culture at home.

Now comes Bush with a vision of democracy triumphing across the globe. I believe Bush is sincere and honest in his belief and would be aghast if he saw the potential for a triumph that required the end of the Republic and the beginning of an American Imperium. But we cannot and should not be so trusting of his successors.

Click on the headline above this posting and read Noonan's column in its entirety. She puts concrete words on the vaguely felt unease that troubles so many on the Right. Then think on these things and if you believe in the power of prayer, as I do, spend some serious time in conversation with Him about what is to be done. We are blessed and we live in perilous times.