There are things, institutions, we belong to, gladly: family, church, community. “I Belong to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints” is a song we teach our young children at church. Belonging is something we want to feel. If we don’t feel we belong in our family, it leaves holes that we may spend a lifetime trying to fill.
|from the DNC ad, photo from C-SPAN|
The ad that came out earlier this week, shown at the DNC convention, caused something of an uproar about the idea of “belonging.”
I do belong to my family; I don’t think that means they “own” me. I believe it means they have a claim on my loyalty. I belong to my church; I am a member. I don’t think that means the Church owns me, although I would say that my turning my life over to God does mean, in a way, He owns me; I have entrusted my life to Him. I would not trust my life and soul to someone less perfect than God.
I did not immediately assume the DNC ad meant government “owned” me when it said we all “belong” to government. But as I think about it, I believe it is worth making the distinction. We don’t “belong” to government the way we belong to a church or other organization. We are not members of government. We are citizens of the United States of America; we “belong” to the country, meaning we have a claim on this community and offer our loyalty. But government is not The United States of which we are citizens. Government is a service we hire, as citizens, in our efforts to protect our God-given rights to life, liberty, and property (and how we pursue a living). The United States existed with the Articles of Confederation prior to the writing of the Constitution. The “new” government was created “in order to form a more perfect union." It is a constitutional republic, which, unlike a democracy, limits government so the power of the tyrannical majority cannot infringe on my inalienable rights.
When the DNC says we’re in this together, I’d say that is a positive idea that we all share. But when they describe that togetherness as government, they have revealed the underlying rift between their ideas and freedom ideas.
In President Obama’s nomination acceptance speech Thursday night, he used the word “together” seven times that I counted. There are probably additional expressions meaning “together” as well. For someone who has been accused, not infrequently, of being a socialist, giving a speech with the theme “this is a collective” is not good PR, but it is probably truthful.
He claimed he believed in the constitutional concept of being endowed with inalienable God-given rights. It was a paragraph that easily could have been spoken (probably was) at the RNC convention:
As Americans, we believe we are endowed by our Creator with certain inalienable rights, rights that no man or government can take away. We insist on personal responsibility, and we celebrate individual initiative. We're not entitled to success. We have to earn it. We honor the strivers, the dreamers, the risk-takers, the entrepreneurs who have always been the driving force behind our free enterprise system, the greatest engine of growth and prosperity that the world's ever known.
Then he follows with a big “but” clause:
But we also believe in something called citizenship—citizenship, a word at the very heart of our founding, a word at the very essence of our democracy, the idea that this country only works when we accept certain obligations to one another and to future generations.
What exactly does he mean by “citizenship” and belonging to government? Because the use of the “but” clause implies that this supersedes the lesser idea of inalienable rights. And he doesn’t mean personal responsibility, because the placement of the “but” clause means he’s superseding that as well.
If “belonging” refers to belonging to government, and “citizenship” doesn’t mean having responsibilities as well as rights, then what does he mean? How can we conclude that he means anything other than the transformation to socialism that he’s been accused of seeking?
Nearer the end he says, “As citizens, we understand that America is not about what can be done for us. It's about what can be done by us, together.” Actually, no, citizenship does not mean what “we, the government” can do, because the protection of inalienable rights carefully and meticulously limits government. Citizenship is about the guarantee of inalienable rights; the proper role of government is to provide that protection—and that is all! This whole idea of “trust me to gather our collective resources and decide what we should do” is more than a little troubling to someone who loves constitutional liberty.
Near the beginning of the speech, he said this true statement: “When all is said and done, when you pick up that ballot to vote, you will face the clearest choice of any time in a generation.” I agree.
He added, accurately, “And on every issue, the choice you face won't just be between two candidates or two parties. It will be a choice between two different paths for America, a choice between two fundamentally different visions for the future.”
He used the word “choice” 10 times, and the word “choose” 10 times in the speech. It was a compare/contrast piece. But when he then went on to describe what we’re choosing between, that didn’t go so well on the truthfulness scale. I think we’ll pick up that discussion next time.