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BEFUNKY Portrait of Thomas Jefferson, Declaration of Independence


Vassar Bushmills

The Transcendence of Liberty

I’ve told this story before, of the time in 1991 I attended a birthday party for a law professor at a university in USSR Ukraine. Around three tables pushed together, in a dimly lit room, in early-winter, there were twelve, mostly academicians, all standing, glasses held high, while the host’s son would go around and fill each glass with a home-brew vodka in a very traditional Russian round-robin series of toasts. When this parade finally ended at the head the table, the host asked me to speak on his behalf. Just a little in my cups, and having nothing un-foolish to say right off the top of my head, I steadied myself and reached into my inside pocket and pulled out my trusty Cato Institute edition of the Constitution, and read from it aloud, more specifically, Jefferson’s famous lines of the Declaration, one slow phrase at a time, so it could be translated. “We hold these truths to be self-evident…”

At the time I didn’t know these words by heart, but I do now.

What happened next is why.

Common words to many Americans, I swear, I don’t think any of those Soviet professors had ever heard them before, for upon finishing, I looked up to see every person assembled crying, tears pouring down their cheeks. There wasn’t a single smug been-there-heard-that look in the crowd. I’m sure the vodka helped. Then after we had eaten, three of the professors, continuing a constitutional Q & A begun before the meal, rushed up to say “Mister, Mister, now we understand Amerika Constitution. Is simple…even Ivan Ivanovich (the Russian Homer Simpson) can pursue life, liberty, happiness without permission of state.” (Emphasis mine …and theirs.)

Out of the mouth of babes, huh? But scholar-babes…who could get to the nub of a proposition in a blink of an eye…and yet be humbled by a simple truth when they discovered it for the first time. When do we ever see that in Amerika anymore?

One of the most moving events in my life, I felt like I had been witness to a visitation, only am still not sure who educated who on this visit to the law professor’s cottage in the village.

Sadly, to many Americans, those words by Jefferson are as chestnut as “Ohsaycanyouseebythedawnsearlylight”. Eyes glaze over. And now there are the young, who increasingly have never heard those words at all, in part because no one has bothered to explain the American theology of liberty to them in the first place.

In the past few months I’ve come to learn what I’ve suspected for some years now, namely that some well-educated men and women, people who have read all the books, and even proclaim themselves “conservative” haven’t any earthly clue as to what American conservatism really means, or what its purpose is.

You know the type. I recall watching late night television while in law school in the 60s, when a theologian (he professed to be a Methodist), while discussing “How Great Thou Art” (the wonderful Hines-Boberg hymn made famous by George Beverley Shea) smugly commented “it was theologically shallow”[…]


Continue Reading -American Theology Simply Stated; The Transcendence of Liberty