I know a thing or two about the presidency and U.S. presidents. This next election in November 2016 is a critical and historic crossroads for our country. We desperately need new leadership. Historically, America is a center-right polity and the modern exemplar of the Judeo-Christian heritage of "spiritual capital." Let me present two theses in this regard and demonstrate what they mean for presidential selection.
The first thesis concerns the logic of modernity. What distinguishes modernity is the Technological Project, the transformation of nature for human betterment as opposed to fatalistic conformity. This project requires inner-directed individuals and free-market economies that maximize competition and innovation. Free-market economies operate best with limited government (Montesquieu's "Commercial Republic" and Madison's Federalist No. 10). Limited government can only be maintained under the rule of law. The rule of law can only be sustained if there is a larger cultural context that celebrates responsible individual autonomy. Finally, responsible individual autonomy presupposes a larger ontological claim about human freedom or free will that requires a theological argument. Moreover, personal autonomy avoids self-destruction and adds a spiritual content to our development when the responsible use of freedom leads to helping to fulfill God's plan – by eliminating suffering and promoting freedom in and for others.
Recognizing, pursuing and sustaining such autonomy are the spiritual quests of modernity, and this Project is best evidenced in the American experiment. The ultimate rationale for the Technological Project is not simply material comfort or consumer satisfaction, important as these are, but the production of the means of accomplishment. To discover that our greatest sense of fulfillment comes from freely imposing order on ourselves in order to impose a creative order on the world is perhaps the closest way of coming to know God.
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Three considerations lead to the conclusion that America must maintain responsible personal autonomy. But all require deep support. First, personal autonomy presupposes free will. This amounts to saying that there is no naturalistic (and scientific) explanation of the ultimate truths about who we are. Second, we understand ourselves as historical beings, but history does not form a self-explanatory system. Our interpretation of the whole human drama depends on an intimately personal decision concerning the part we mean to play in it. In the end, this is a religious decision, not a scientific or academic one. Finally, sustaining our autonomy under trying circumstances requires spiritual stamina. Since naturalism and scientism fail, spirituality in some important sense emerges as the only discipline that can provide ultimate comprehension. Americans have long known and practiced this kind of faith.
The second thesis is the documented history of how settlers, seeking religious freedom in the United States, brought precisely this larger view to America, nourished it and sustained it. This is our legacy and destiny as a nation.
The most important historical development in the last 400 years has been the rise of the Technological Project. This Project, not just the market, is the starting point for our American narrative, because, although there have always been markets, it is only since the latter 17th century that markets have come to play such a dominant role in our lives. It is the presence of the Technological Project that explains the very centrality of those markets. America is first and foremost a land of opportunity, innovation and of growth.
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This Project sees the control of nature for human benefit. It radically changed the way people in the West, and especially in America, viewed the world and their relationship to the world and led to fundamental changes in the major institutions of the West (economic, political, legal and social); this led to the expansion of the West and its relationship to the non-Western world, and finally to globalization – the internationalization of those Western institutions, including free markets and all they embody.
The following claims can be made:
- Technology is an irreversible historical fact. Abandonment of the Technological Project would have catastrophic consequences for humanity and threaten its very existence.
- To the extent that this Project creates environmental and other kinds of problems, we are now irrevocably committed to using future developments to address and hopefully solve those problems.
- Those cultures that have most fully embraced the Project (including military technology) have come to dominate the world and to spread its vision. This has not been a matter of the powerful imposing on the weak; the weak have largely (except for radical Islam) come to embrace the Project on their own.
This leads to the following tension and paradox: Domestically, government is to maintain a low profile and passive supporting role for commerce and order, but in the international context the government is to promote actively the entire panoply of the Technological Project, free-market economies, limited government and the rule of law. To act in foreign affairs to bring about this result is incumbent upon free governments. It is no use pretending that the implications could be otherwise.
The next president of the United States must abide by and within the established heritage of America's long-established spiritual capital. He or she cannot deny it, reject it, or pretend it away, as has been the case for Barack Obama. The democratic ideal of "interventionist socialism" and anti-Americanism we have toyed with over the last eight years surely must come to an end, as it is totally at odds with the essence of America's true spiritual capital.
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Which of the Republican candidates on offer, then, best articulates America's spiritual capital in all the senses here described? This is the real question for voters.
Dismissing those who cannot be elected or do not have the funding or backing to lead or be elected, we are left with but a few choices. In my opinion, Donald Trump is the leader to endorse and choose. All of us, not just conservatives, need to rally behind him now – as America's national candidate. He alone has the business acumen; he alone has the executive experience; he alone is not polluted by Washington insider games; he alone articulates all of the necessary ingredients here spelled out. He best understands the Technological Project, the free economy of markets, the rule of law and the limits to government. He wants to bring America back to its spiritual moorings and in his own words, make it great again!
Is his quiet religious faith an impediment? I think not. According to the leading sociologist of religion, when a religious habit continues for hundreds years it becomes an established fact. Trump embodies this uniquely American phenomenon. The U.S. Constitution forbids any religious test for office holders. But a personal Christian faith is as American as apple pie. Protestants, Evangelicals, Catholics and Jews, all who have themselves often been persecuted for living their faith, should realize this more than any others. Under Donald Trump, there will no longer be any fear for loving God and worshiping in the open way Americans have long enjoyed. There will certainly be no theocracy, but America's spiritual capital will be renewed.
We desperately need a new leader, one in America's best spiritual tradition, to get us through the current malaise, a long battle with radical Islamism and economic chaos. We should choose well and use the framework here laid out to inform that choice.