A rising conservative voice says Americans have largely grown ignorant of the principles and motivations surrounding the U.S. founding and America is in the process of fulfilling 200-year-old predictions about what could doom the republic, but he also says it’s not too late to return to the ideals that forged the greatest political experiment in human history.
Joshua Charles is head of the Discovery Project at the Public Policy Institute at William Jessup University and has an exclusive WND weekly column. He and Glenn Beck co-authored the New York Times best-seller, “The Original Argument.” Charles is author most recently of “Liberty’s Secrets: The Lost Wisdom of America’s Founders.”
Charles sees multiple reasons for Americans’ lack of knowledge about the nation’s founding and the beliefs that inspired it, from weak public education to a growing dependence upon government to an erosion of community in the U.S. As a result, he said Americans tend to lose an appreciation for what makes this nation great.
“It’s true that our roots have largely been forgotten, and I would say by people of all political persuasions,” Charles said.
Charles pored over letters, diaries and books written by the founders. He said America’s instant gratification culture is dumbing down its population and political discourse.
“You find out how much we don’t know them very well. There’s a ton of material there. Unfortunately, on left and right, it’s just become, ‘Google it and get some quote, whether it’s verified or not,'” he said. “Unfortunately, there are a lot of quotes taken utterly out of context, or they are spurious; they don’t even exist.”
In addition to believing Americans need a much better understanding of their national origins, Charles said a lot of what the founders said can be applied to present-day challenges.
“They talk about morality and religion and education and finance and money and that sort of stuff,” Charles said. “They talk about a lot of things I think are directly applicable to our political life as a nation. They so convincingly talk about fundamental truths, fundamental realities that are true in every time and every place and which are good for wise people to be acquainted with.”
Listen to the WND/Radio America interview with Joshua Charles:
Charles also writes about the conflicting notions of liberty, specifically the common modern belief that liberty means doing what Americans please versus the colonial understanding that liberties are certain rights ordained by God that government has a solemn duty to protect.
He said one reason for the confusion is Thomas Jefferson’s reference to the “pursuit of happiness” in the Declaration of Independence. Charles contends Jefferson’s understanding of happiness was far different than the definition that has emerged in the past few decades.
“Essentially, we view happiness today as self-fulfillment, the fulfillment of our desires,” he explained. “We often times equate it with a good feeling. For the founders, however, the notion of happiness was the notion of the good life.
“When Jefferson wrote ‘the pursuit of happiness,’ he was talking about an innately ordered idea of liberty, that liberty is the moral pursuit of moral ends,” Charles said. “For the founders, the idea that you could have an immoral population or an unvirtuous population be free was a contradiction in terms, which is why they so often repeated in so many times throughout their entire lives that morality, particularly inspired by some sort of religious conviction, was absolutely necessary if a society was going to be free.”
Armed with that worldview, Charles said the founders set up a system of government that limited government and placed deliberate checks and balances on power because they understood better than virtually every nation in history both the potential and dangers inherent in human nature. He said they hit the “sweet spot” in understanding how people operate.
“The American Revolution combined the truth that both propositions have, namely that human nature is very flawed,” Charles said. “Human history provides many examples of this. It’s why they set up the three branches to control the accumulation of power and make sure it didn’t end up in one person or one group. At the same time, they knew that human nature was quite capable of doing great things.”
In addition to studying the American founders, Charles is well-versed in the writings of Alexis de Tocqueville, the French scholar who famously lavished praise upon the new republic in “Democracy in America.” But for all his marveling at America, Tocqueville also envisioned a series of problems that could derail the nation.
Charles said several of those fears are lining up to come true.
“Essentially, it was all about the development of a narcissistic culture that was bent toward the pursuit of pleasure,” he explained. “There’s other facets to it, but that’s essentially it, where the individual becomes solely about themselves.”
Published in 1840, the full list of Tocqueville’s feared devolution may strike many Americans as chillingly prophetic. He said poor education and a loss of morality would eventually lead material pleasures. He further predicted the Constitution would be intentionally misinterpreted to make it easier to change, and that would lead to bigger and bigger government.
If that were to happen, Tocqueville foresaw political parties fostering divisions in society to maintain and grow power, followed by an increasing coziness between government and financial institutions. He cautioned the result of all this would be mounting debts and greater demands from the people of government money.
To turn this all around, Charles said it has to start with intentional discussions within families about what America is meant to be and why is was created that way it was. He also encourages people to read voraciously to beef up their education.
Charles also advocates a more civil political discourse without compromising principle. He said the political left needs to change for sure, but he focused his encouragement to his fellow conservatives.
“Conservatives are my people, and I’m very worried there seems to be this infatuation with the latest conspiracy theories,” he said. “We live in a big society, and we’ve got to govern ourselves with people who have very different opinions than us. We have to be able to talk with each other. It doesn’t mean we have to agree and we don’t have to give up our principles.”
He said the best example of a civil, principled communicator today is GOP presidential hopeful Dr. Ben Carson.
“I don’t agree with Carson on absolutely everything, but I like the fact he can get people who weren’t previously at the table at the table,” Charles said. “When you saw him on ‘The View’ the other day, these ladies really had nothing to say to him because their ignorance was exposed for what it is. He didn’t do it by smashing them in the face with some rhetorical bombastic bomb. He just gently, kindly did it and lived out how a Christian should engage in dialogue.”
Charles strongly believes America can return to its original moorings, but he said it won’t be quick or easy.
“I really do think we can get back on track,” he said. “I think it will take a generation. This isn’t ‘win 2016, win 2017, and everything will be OK.’ I think this is literally a project that if embarked upon would take until the end of my life, if not longer, to get us back on track.”