Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu recently (March 21, 2019) asserted that Donald Trump’s support for Israeli annexation of the Golan-Heights has anti-Iranian biblical antecedents. The annexation would strengthen Israel’s position vis-à-vis pro-Iranian forces in Syria. Calling it a “Purim Miracle,” Netanyahu cited the Book of Esther where purportedly Jews killed Persians in what is today Iran rather than the other way around as the Persian viceroy Haman planned. This came to pass thanks to Esther’s finding favor with the Persian King named Ahasuerus, the ruler considered today by scholars to be Xerxes, the grandson of King Cyrus the Great; in need of a new queen Xerxes selected the Jewish orphan Esther as the most beautiful of all the young women in his empire. High ranking government officials like Mike Pence and Mike Pompeo rally to the idea that Trump was created by God to save the Jewish people. Indeed, BaptistNews.com reports that, when asked about it in an interview with the Christian Broadcasting Network, Secretary of State Pompeo said it is possible that God raised up President Trump, just as He had Esther, to help save the Jewish people from the menace of Iran, as Persia is known today. Pompeo added “I am confident that the Lord is at work here.”
However, the account in the Book of Esther is contested by scholars since there are there are no historical records to back up the biblical story; and the Cinderella elements in the narrative should require outside verification. Moreover, the Book of Esther itself is not considered canonical by many (Martin Luther among them) and parts of it are excluded from the Protestant Bible. These are details though – the key point is that the Feast of Purim is an important event, celebrating as it does the special relationship between God and His Chosen People; bringing Donald Trump into this is simply blasphemy.
For its part, the reign of Xerxes is well documented – he was the Persian invader of Greece whose forces prevailed at Thermopylae but were then defeated at the Battle of Salamis. According to Herodotus, Xerxes watched battles perched on a great throne and, at Thermopylae he “thrice leaped from the throne on which he sat in terror for his army.”
Moreover, there is well-documented history where the Persians came to the aid of the Jews. Some background: the First Temple in Jerusalem was built during the reign of King Solomon (970-931 BC); the Temple was destroyed by the Babylonians in 598 BC and a large portion of the population was exiled to Babylon. With the conquest of Babylon in 539 BC by the Persian King Cyrus the Great, the Babylonian Captivity came to an end, Jews returned to Jerusalem and began the construction of the Second Temple (515 BC). It was also Cyrus himself who urged the rebuilding of the Temple and, for his efforts on behalf of the Jews, Cyrus is the only non-Jew considered a Messiah in the Hebrew Bible (Isaiah 45:1). So here we have a reason for Israelis and Iranians to celebrate history they share.
The rabbinical term for the Hebrew Bible is the Tanakh; the term was introduced in the Middle Ages and is an acronym drawn from the Hebrew names for the three sections of the canonical Jewish scriptures: Torah (Teachings), Neviim (Prophets) and Ketuvim (Writings). The standard Hebrew text of the Tanakh was compiled in the Middle East in the Middle Ages and is known as the Masoretic Text (from the Hebrew word for tradition).
Since the Holy Spirit does not appear in the Tanakh as a standalone actor and is only alluded to there three times, the question arises whether the Holy Spirit plays a role in other pre-Christian Jewish sources. Mystère.
In 1947, Bedouin lads discovered the first of the Dead Sea Scrolls in a cave (which one of them had fallen into) at the site of Qumran on the West Bank of the River Jordan near the Dead Sea. These texts were compiled in the centuries just before the Christian era by a monastic Jewish group called the Essenes and they include copies of parts of the Tanakh. On the other hand, the texts of the Dead Sea Scrolls also include non-biblical documents detailing the way of life of the Essenes and their special beliefs. In the scrolls, there are multiple mentions of the Holy Spirit and the role of the Holy Spirit there has much in common with the later Christian concept: the Essenes believed themselves to be holy because the Holy Spirit dwelt within each of them; indeed, from a scroll The Community Rule, we learn that each member of the group had first to be made pure by the Holy Spirit. Another interesting intersection with early Christianity is that the Essenes celebrated the annual renewal of their covenant with God at the Jewish harvest feast of Shavuot which also commemorates the day when God gave the Torah to the Israelites establishing the Mosaic covenant. The holiday takes place fifty days after Passover; in the Greek of the New Testament, this feast is called Pentecost and it is at that celebration that the Holy Spirit establishes a covenant with the Apostles.
Wisdom, aka Holy Wisdom, emerges as a concept and guiding principle in the late Biblical period. Wisdom is identified with the Christian Holy Spirit, for example, through the Seven Pillars of Wisdom; thus, after relocating to North America and leaping ahead many centuries to 1885 and the Baltimore Catechism, it is Isaiah 11:2 that provides the answer to Question 177:
Q. Which are the gifts of the Holy Ghost?
A. The gifts of the Holy Ghost are Wisdom, Understanding, Counsel, Fortitude, Knowledge, Piety and Fear of the Lord.
Isaiah 11:3 and Proverbs 9:10 make it clear that, among these Seven Pillars of Wisdom, Fear of the Lord is the most fundamental of these gifts – for once, we can’t blame this sort of thing on Catholics and Calvinists !
Wisdom as a personification plays an important role in the Wisdom Literature, a role that also links pre-Christian Jewish writings to the Christian Holy Spirit. The Book of Proverbs, itself in the Tanakh, is part of this literature. But there is something surprising going on: in Hebrew grammar, the gender of the word for Wisdom, Chokmâh, is feminine; in the Wisdom Literature, Wisdom has feminine gender, not only grammatically but sexually as well. Indeed, in Chapter 8 of Proverbs, Wisdom puts “forth her voice”
1 Doth not wisdom cry? And understanding put forth her voice?
2 She standeth in the top of high places, by the way in the places of the paths.
3 She crieth at the gates, at the entry of the city, at the coming in at the doors.
4 Unto you, O men, I call; and my voice is to the sons of man.
and declaims that she was there before the Creation
22 The LORD possessed me in the beginning of his way, before his works of old.
23 I was set up from everlasting, from the beginning, or ever the earth was.
24 When there were no depths, I was brought forth; when there were no fountains abounding with water.
25 Before the mountains were settled, before the hills was I brought forth.
So the author of this part of the Book of Proverbs (4th century BC) clearly sees Wisdom as a kind of goddess.
The Tanakh, which corresponds basically to the Protestant Old Testament, excludes Wisdom books that are included in the Catholic Bible such as the Book of Sirach (aka Book of Ecclesiasticus) and the Wisdom of Solomon (aka Book of Wisdom). These texts, however, develop this “goddess” theme further.
The Book of Sirach, which dates from the late 2nd century BC, has these verses in the very first chapter where this preternatural female note is struck cleanly:
5 To whom has wisdom’s root been revealed? Who knows her subtleties?
6 There is but one, wise and truly awe-inspiring, seated upon his throne:
7 It is the LORD; he created her, has seen her and taken note of her.
The meme of Wisdom as a feminine goddess-like being also occurs in Psalm 155 one of the Five Aprocryphal Psalms of David, texts which date from the pre-Christian era:
5 For it is to make known the glory of Yahweh that wisdom has been given;
6 and it is for recounting his many deeds, that she has been revealed to humans:
12 From the gates of the righteous her voice is heard, and her song from the assembly of the pious.
13 When they eat until they are full, she is mentioned, and when they drink in community
What is more, this theme also appears in the Essene Wisdom texts of the Dead Sea Scrolls, e.g. the Great Psalms Scroll and Scroll 4Q425. In fact, the latter begins with a poem to Wisdom in the idiom of the Beatitudes
“Blessed are those who hold to Wisdom’s precepts
and do not hold to the ways of iniquity….
Blessed are those who rejoice in her…
Blessed are those who seek her …. “
Then too the word for “Wisdom” in the Greek of the Wisdom of Solomon is “Sophia”, the name for a mythological female figure and a central female concept in Stoicism and in Greek philosophy more generally. Indeed, “philosophy” itself means “love of Sophia.” For a 2nd century statue of Sophia, click HERE . For a painting by Veronese, click HERE .
Most dramatically, Chapter 8 of the Wisdom of Solomon begins
1 Wisdom reacheth from one end to another mightily: and sweetly doth she order all things.
2 I loved her, and sought her out from my youth, I desired to make her my spouse, and I was a lover of her beauty.
3 In that she is conversant with God, she magnifieth her nobility: yea, the Lord of all things himself loved her.
4 For she is privy to the mysteries of the knowledge of God, and a lover of his works.
So these sources all imply that the Holy Spirit derives from a female precedent.
What is more, in Christian Gnosticism, Sophia becomes both the Bride of Christ and the Holy Spirit of the Holy Trinity. This movement denied the virgin-birth on the one hand and taught that the Holy Spirit was female on the other. The Gnostic Gospel of St. Phillip is one of the texts found in 1945 at Nag Hammadi in Egypt and the manuscript itself dates from the 2nd century; in this Gospel the statement of the Angel of the Lord to Joseph in Matthew 1:20
“the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit”
is turned on its head by the argument that this is impossible because the Holy Spirit is female:
“Some said Mary became pregnant by the holy spirit. They are wrong and do not know what they are saying. When did a woman ever get pregnant by a woman?”
Not unsurprisingly, Gnosticism was branded as heretical by stalwart defenders of orthodoxy such as Tertullian and Irenaeus. Tertullian, “the Father of Western Theology,” was the first Christian author known to use the Latin term “Trinitas” for the Triune Christian God – naturally, the thought of a female Third Person was anathema to him, leading as it would to a blasphemous mėnage à trois.
In the Hebrew language literature, Wisdom/Sophia as a personification enters the Tanakh relatively late in the game in the Book of Proverbs and then somewhat later in the Aprocrypha and in the Dead Sea Scrolls. She appears as Sophia in the Greek language Wisdom of Solomon of the late 1st century BC; so Wisdom/Sophia appears to be an influence from the Hellenistic world and its Greek language, religion and philosophy. But why does this begin to happen at the end of the Biblical period? Is Wisdom/Sophia filling a vacuum that was somehow created in Jewish religious life? But the literature search does not end here. In the pre-Christian period there also emerged rabbinical practices such as Midrash and writings such as the Jerusalem Talmud and the Targums. Are further threads leading to the Holy Spirit of Christianity to be found there? Further examples of links to a female diety? Links to Wisdom/Sophia herself? Mystères. More to come.
To Christians, the Holy Spirit (once known as the Holy Ghost in the English speaking world) is the Third Person of the Holy Trinity, along with God the Father and God the Son.
Indeed for Protestants and Catholics, the Nicene Creed reads
“We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life,
who proceeds from the Father and the Son,
who with the Father and the Son is worshiped and glorified,
who has spoken through the prophets.”
Or more simply in the Apostles’ Creed
” I believe in the Holy Spirit.”
The phrase “and the Son” does not appear in all versions of the Nicene Creed and it was a key factor in the Great Schism of 1054 A.D that separated the Greek Orthodox Church from the Roman Catholic Church. A mere twenty years later in another break with the Orthodox Church, Pope Gregory VII instituted the requirement of celibacy for Catholic priests. It makes one think that, had the schism not taken place, the Catholic Church would not have made that move from an all male priesthood to the celibate all male priesthood which is plaguing it today.
The earliest Christian texts are the Epistles of St. Paul: his first Epistle dates from AD 50, while the earliest gospel (that of St. Mark) dates from AD 66-70. However, since the epistles were written after the events described in the gospels, they come later in editions of the New Testament.
Paul wrote that first epistle, known as 1 Thessalonians, in Greek to converted Jews of the diaspora and the other new Christians in the Macedonian city of Thessaloniki (Salonica) on the Aegean Sea. Boldly, at the very beginning of the letter, Paul lays out the doctrine of the Holy Trinity: in the New Revised Standard Version, we have
1 To the church of the Thessalonians in God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ: Grace to you and peace.
2 We always give thanks to God for all of you and mention you in our prayers, constantly
3 remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.
4 For we know, brothers and sisters beloved by God, that he has chosen you,
5 because our message of the gospel came to you not in word only, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction; just as you know what kind of persons we proved to be among you for your sake.
6 And you became imitators of us and of the Lord, for in spite of persecution you received the word with joy inspired by the Holy Spirit.
Judaism is famously monotheistic and we understand that when Paul refers to “God” in his epistle, he is referring to Yahweh, the God of Judaism – “God the Father” to Christians. Likewise, the reference to “Jesus Christ” is clear – Jesus was a historical figure. But Paul also expected people in these congregations to understand his reference to the Holy Spirit and to the power associated with the Holy Spirit.
So who were in these congregations that Paul was writing to who would understand what Paul was trying to say? Mystère.
By the time of Christ, Jews had long established enclaves in many cities around the Mediterranean including, famously, Alexandria, Corinth, Athens, Tarsus, Antioch and Rome itself. Under Julius Caesar, Judaism was declared to be a recognized religion, religio licita, which formalized its status in the Empire. Many Jews like Paul himself were Roman citizens. In Augustus’ time, the Jews of Rome even made it into the writings of Horace, one of the leading lights of the Golden Age of Latin Literature: for one thing, he chides the Jews of Rome for being insistent in their attempts at converting pagans – something that sounds unusual today, but the case has been made that proselytism is a natural characteristic of monotheism, which makes sense when you think about it.
Estimates for the Jewish share of the population of the Roman Empire at the time of Christ range from 5% to 10% – which is most impressive. (For a cliometric analysis of this diaspora and of early Christianity, see Cities of God by Rodney Stark.) These Hellenized, Greek speaking Jews used Hebrew for religious services and readings. Their presence across the Roman Empire was to prove critical to the spread of Christianity during the Pax Romana, a spread so rapid that already in 64 A.D. Nero blamed the Christians for the fire that destroyed much of Rome, the fire that he himself had commanded.
During the Hellenistic Period, the three centuries preceding the Christian era, Alexandria, in particular, became a great center of Jewish culture and learning – there the first five books of the Hebrew Bible were translated into Greek (independently and identically by 70 different scholars according to the Babylonian Talmud) yielding the Septuagint and creating en passant the Greek neologism diaspora as the term for the dispersion of the Jewish people. Throughout the Mediterranean world, the Jewish people’s place of worship became the synagogue (a Greek word meaning assembly).
In fact, Greek became the lingua franca of the Roman Empire itself. St. Paul even wrote his Epistle to the Romans in Greek. The emperor Marcus Aurelius wrote the twelve books of his Meditations in Greek; Julius Caesar and Mark Anthony wooed Cleopatra in Greek. In Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, the Senator and conspirator Casca reports that Cicero addressed the crowd in Greek adding that he himself did not understand the great orator because “It was Greek to me” – here Shakespeare is putting us on because Plutarch reports that Casca did indeed speak Greek. As for Cicero, for once neither defending a political thug (e.g. Milo) nor attacking one (e.g. Cataline), he delivered his great oration on behalf of a liberal education, the Pro Archaia, to gain Roman citizenship for his tutor, Archias a Greek from Antioch.
The spread of Christianity in the Greek speaking world was spearheaded by St. Paul as attested to by his Epistles and by the Acts of the Apostles. Indeed, Paul’s strategy in a new city was first to preach in synagogues. Although St Paul referred to himself as the Apostle to the Gentiles, he could still better be called the Apostle to the Urban Hellenized Jews, Jews like himself. Where he did prove himself an apostle to the Gentiles was when Paul, in opposition to some of the original apostles, declared that Christians did not have to follow Jewish dietary laws and that Christians need not practice the Semitic tribal practice of male circumcision; Islam, which also originated in the Semitic world, enforces both dietary laws and male circumcision.
The theology of the Holy Spirit is called pneumatology from pneuma the Greek word for spirit (or breath or wind) and the Septuagint’s translation of the Hebrew ruach. Scholars consider his pneumatology as central to Paul’s thinking.
In fact, Paul refers to the Holy Spirit time and again in his writings and in Paul’s Epistles the Holy Spirit is an independent force; the same applies to the Gospels: the Holy Spirit is a participant at the Annunciation, at the baptism of Christ, at the Temptation of Christ. In the Acts of the Apostles, it is the Holy Spirit who descends on the Apostles in the form of tongues of fire when they are gathered in Jerusalem for the Jewish harvest feast of Shavuot which takes places fifty days after Passover; in the Greek of the New Testament, this feast is called Pentecost and it is at this celebration that the Holy Spirit gives the Apostles the Gift of Tongues (meaning languages) and launches them on their careers as fishers of men.
For a Renaissance painting of the baptism of Jesus with the Holy Spirit present in the form of a dove, a work of Andrea del Verrocchio and his student Leonardo da Vinci, click HERE . According to the father of art history Giorgio Vasari, after this composition Verrocchio resolved never to paint again for his pupil had far surpassed him! While we’re dropping names, click HERE .for Caravaggio’s depiction of Paul fallen from his horse after Jesus revealed Himself to him on the Road to Damascus.
Although important in the New Testament, reference to the “Holy Spirit” only occurs three times in the Old Testament and it is never used as a standalone noun phrase as it is in the New Testament; instead, it is used with possessive pronouns that refer to Yahweh such as “His Holy Spirit” (Isaiah 63:10,11) and “Thy Holy Spirit” (Psalms 51:11); for example, in the King James Bible, this last verse reads
Cast me not away from thy presence; and take not thy holy spirit from me.
This is key – from the outset, in Christianity, the Holy Spirit is autonomous, part of the Godhead, not just a messenger of God such as an angel would be. And Paul and the evangelists assume that their readers know what they are writing about; they don’t go into long explanations to explain who the Holy Spirit is or where the Holy Spirit is coming from.
The monotheism of Judaism has a place only for Yahweh, the God of the chosen people. But Christianity and its theology started in the Jewish world of the first century A.D.; so the concept of the Holy Spirit must have its roots in that world even though it is not there in Biblical Judaism. The last books of the Hebrew Bible date to the Fifth Century B.C. Jewish religious culture was as dynamic as ever in the post-Biblical period leading up to the birth of Christianity and beyond. New texts were written in Aramaic as well as in Greek and in Hebrew, creating a significant body of work.
So the place to start to look for the origin of the Holy Spirit is in the post-Biblical literature of Judaism. More to come.
The word “liberal” originated in Latin, then made its way into French and from there into English. The Oxford English Dictionary gives this as its primary definition
“Willing to respect or accept behaviour or opinions different from one’s own; open to new ideas.”
However, it also has a political usage as in “the liberal senator from Massachusetts.” This meaning and usage must be relatively new: for one thing, we know that “liberal” was not given a political connotation by Dr. Samuel Johnson in his celebrated dictionary of 1755:
Liberal, adj. [liberalis, Latin, libėral, French]
1. Not mean; not low in birth; not low in mind.
2. Becoming a gentleman.
3. Munificent; generous; bountiful; not parcimonious.
So when did the good word take on that political connotation? Mystère.
We owe the attribution of a political meaning to the word to the Scottish Enlightenment and two of its leading lights, the historian William Robertson and the political economist Adam Smith. Robertson and Smith were friends and correspondents as well as colleagues at the University of Edinburgh; they used “liberal” to refer to a society with safeguards for private property and an economy based on market capitalism and free-trade. Roberts is given priority today for using it this way in his 1769 book The History of the Reign of the Emperor Charles V. On the other hand, many in the US follow the lead of conservative icon Friedrich Hayek who credited Smith based on the fact that the term appears in The Wealth of Nations (1776); Hayek wrote The Road to Serfdom (1944), a seminal work arguing that economic freedom is a prerequisite for individual liberty.
Today, the related term “classical liberalism” is applied to the philosophy of John Locke (1632-1704) and he is often referred to as the “father of liberalism.” His defense of individual liberty, his opposition to absolute monarchy, his insistence on separation of church and state, and his analysis of the role of “the social contract” provided the U.S. founding fathers with philosophical tools crucial for the Declaration of Independence, the Articles of Confederation and ultimately the Constitution. It is this classical liberalism that also inspired Simon Bolivar, Bernardo O’Higgins and other liberators of Latin America.
In the early 19th century, the Whig and Tory parties were dominant in the English parliament. Something revolutionary happened when the Whigs engineered the passage of the Reform Act of 1832 which was an important step toward making the U.K. a democracy in the modern sense of the term. According to historians, this began the peaceful transfer of power from the landed aristocracy to the emergent bourgeois class of merchants and industrialists. It also coincided with the end of the Romantic Movement, the era of the magical poetry of Keats and Shelley, and led into the Victorian Period and the well intentioned poetry of Arnold and Tennyson.
Since no good deed goes unpunished (especially in politics), passage of the Reform Act of 1832 also led to the demise of the Whig Party: the admission of the propertied middle class into the electorate and into the House of Commons itself split the Whigs and the new Liberal Party emerged. The Liberal Party was a powerful force in English political life into the 20th century. Throughout, the party’s hallmark was its stance on individual liberties, free-markets and free-trade.
Accordingly, in the latter part of the 19th century in Europe and the US, the term “liberalism” came to mean commitment to individual freedoms (in the spirit of Locke) together with support of free-market capitalism mixed in with social Darwinism. Small government became a goal: “That government is best that governs least” to steal a line from Henry David Thoreau.
Resistance to laissez-faire capitalism developed and led to movements like socialism and labor unions. In the US social inequality also fueled populist movements such as that led by William Jennings Bryan, the champion of Free Silver and other causes. Bryant, a brilliant orator, was celebrated for his “Cross of Gold” speech, an attack of the gold standard, in which he intoned
“you shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold.”
He was a national figure for many years and ran for President on the Democratic ticket three times; he earned multiple nicknames such as The Fundamentalist Pope, the Boy Orator of the Platte, The Silver Knight of the West and the Great Commoner.
At the turn of the century, in the US public intellectuals like John Dewey began to criticize the basis of laissez-faire liberalism as too individualistic and too threatening to an egalitarian society. President Theodore Roosevelt joined the fray, led the “progressive” movement, initiated “trust-busting” and began regulatory constraints to rein big business in. The Sixteenth Amendment which authorized a progressive income tax made it through Congress and the state legislatures during this presidency.
At this time, the meaning of the word “liberal” took on its modern political meaning: “liberal” and “liberalism” came to refer to the non-socialist, non-communist political left – a position that both defends market capitalism and supports infrastructure investment and social programs that benefit large swaths of the population; in Europe the corresponding phenomenon is Social Democracy, though the Social Democrats tend to be more to the left and stronger supporters of the social safety net, not far from the people who call themselves “democratic socialists” in the US today.
On the other hand, the 19th century meaning of “liberalism” has been taken on by the term “neo-liberalism” which is used to designate aggressive free-market capitalism in the age of globalization.
In the first term of Woodrow Wilson’s presidency, Congress passed the Clayton Anti-Trust Act as well as legislation establishing the Federal Reserve System and the progressive income tax. Wilson is thus credited with being the founder of the modern Democratic Party’s liberalism – this despite his anti-immigrant stance, his anti-Catholic stance and his notoriously racist anti-African-American stance.
The great political achievement of the era was the 19th Amendment which established the right of women to vote. The movement had to overcome entrenched resistance, finally securing the support of Woodrow Wilson and getting the necessary votes in Congress in 1919. Perhaps, it is this that has earned Wilson his standing in the ranks of Democratic Party liberals.
Bryan, for his part a strong supporter of Wilson and his liberal agenda in the 1912 election, then served as Wilson’s first Secretary of State, resigning over the handling of the Lusitania sinking. His reputation has suffered over the years because of his humiliating battle with Clarence Darrow in the Scopes “Monkey” Trial of 1925 (Fredric March and Spencer Tracy resp. in “Inherit the Wind”); at the trial, religious fundamentalist Bryan argued against teaching human evolution in public schools. It is likely this has kept him off the list of heroes of liberal politics in the US, especially given that this motion picture, a Stanley Kramer “message film,” was an allegory about the McCarthy era witch-hunts. Speaking of allegories, a good case can be made that the Wizard of Oz is an allegory about the populist movement and the Cowardly Lion represents Bryan himself – note, for one thing, that in L. Frank Baum’s book Dorothy wears Silver Shoes and not Ruby Slippers!
The truly great American liberal was FDR whose mission it was to save capitalism from itself by enacting social programs called for by socialist and labor groups and by setting up regulations and guard rails for business and markets. The New Deal programs provided jobs and funded projects that seeded future economic growth; the regulations forced capitalism to deal with its problem of cyclical crises, panics and depressions. He called for a “bank holiday,” kept the country more or less on the gold standard by issuing an executive order to buy up nearly all the privately held the gold in the country (hard to believe today), began Social Security and unemployment insurance, instituted centralized controls for industry, launched major public works projects (from the Lincoln Tunnel to the Grand Coulee Dam), brought electricity to farms, archived the nation’s folk music and folklore, sponsored projects which brought live theater to millions (launching the careers of Arthur Miller, Orson Welles, Eliza Kazan and many others) and more. This was certainly not a time of government shutdowns.
In the post WWII period and into the 1960s, there were even “liberal Republicans” such as Jacob Javits and Nelson Rockefeller; today “liberal Republican” is an oxymoron. The most daring of the liberal Republicans was Earl Warren, the one-time Governor of California who in 1953 became Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. In that role, Warren created the modern activist court, stepping in to achieve justice for minorities, an imperative which the President and the Congress were too cowardly to take on. But his legacy of judicial activism has led to a politicized Supreme Court with liberals on the losing side in today’s run of 5-4 decisions.
Modern day liberalism in the U.S. is also exemplified by LBJ’s Great Society which instituted Medicare and Medicaid and which turned goals of the Civil Rights Movement into law with the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
JFK and LBJ were slow to rally to the cause of the Civil Rights Movement (Eleanor Roosevelt was the great liberal champion of civil rights) but in the end they did. Richard Nixon and the Republicans then exploited anti-African-American resentment in the once Democratic “solid South” and implemented their “Southern strategy” which, as LBJ feared, has turned those states solidly Republican ever since. The liberals’ political clout was also gravely wounded by the ebbing of the power of once mighty labor unions across the heartland of the country. Further, the conservative movement was energized by the involvement of ideologues with deep pockets like the Koch brothers and by the emergence of charismatic candidates like Ronald Reagan. The end result has been that only the West Coast and the Northeast can be counted on to elect liberal candidates consistently, places like San Francisco and Brooklyn
What is more, liberal politicians have lost their sense of mission and have failed America in many ways since that time as they have moved further and further to the right in the wake of electoral defeats, cozying up to Wall Street along the way. For example, it was Bill Clinton who signed the bill repealing the Glass-Steagall Act undoing one of the cornerstones of the New Deal; he signed the bill annulling the Aid to Families With Dependent Children Act which also went back to the New Deal; he signed the bill that has made the US the incarceration capital of the world, the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act.
Over the years, the venerable term “liberal” itself has been subjected to constant abuse from detractors. The list of mocking gibes includes tax-and-spend liberal, bleeding heart liberal, hopey-changey liberal, limousine liberal, Chardonnay sipping liberal, Massachusetts liberal, Hollywood liberal, … . There is even a book of such insults and a web site for coming up with new ones. And there was the humiliating defeat of the liberal standard bearer Hillary Clinton in 2016.
So battered is it today that “liberal” is giving way to “progressive,” the label of choice for so many of the men and women of the class of 2018 of the House of Representatives. Perhaps, one hundred years is the limit to the shelf life of a major American political label which would mean “liberal” has reached the end of the line – time to give it a rest and go back to Samuel Johnson’s definition?
Conservatism as a political philosophy traces its roots to the late 18th century: its intellectual leaders were the Anglo-Irish Member of Parliament Edmund Burke and the Scottish economist and philosopher Adam Smith.
In his speeches and writings, Burke extolled tradition, the “natural law” and “natural rights”; he championed social hierarchy, an established church, gradual social change and free markets; he excoriated the French Revolution in his influential pamphlet Reflections on the Revolution in France, a defense of monarchy and the institutions that protect good social order.
Burke is also well known in the U.S. for his support for the colonists in the period before the American Revolution notably in his Speech on Conciliation with the Colonies (1775) where he alerts Parliament to the “fierce spirit of liberty” that characterizes Americans.
Adam Smith, a giant figure of the Scottish Enlightenment, was the first great intellectual champion of laissez-faire capitalism and author of the classic The Wealth of Nations (1776).
Burke and Smith formed a mutual admiration society. According to a biographer of Burke, Smith thought that “on subjects of political economy, [Burke] was the only man who, without communication, thought on these subjects exactly as he did”; Burke, for his part, called Smith’s opus “perhaps the most important book ever written.” Their view of things became the standard one for conservatives throughout the 19th century and well into the 20th.
However, there is an internal inconsistency in traditional conservatism. The problem is that, in the end, laissez-faire capitalism upends the very social structures that traditional conservatism seeks to maintain. The catch-phrase of the day among pundits has become “creative destruction”; this formula, coined by the Austrian-American economist Joseph Schumpeter, captures the churning of capitalism which systematically creates new industries and new social institutions that replace the old – e.g. Sears by Amazon, an America of farmers by an America of city dwellers. Marx argued that capitalism’s failures would lead to its demise; Schumpeter argued that capitalism has more to fear from its triumphs: ineluctably the colossal success of capitalism hollows out the social institutions and mores which nurture capitalism such as church-going and the Protestant Ethic itself. Look at Western Europe today where capitalism is triumphant but where church attendance is reduced to three events: “hatch, match and dispatch,” to put it the playful way Anglicans do.
The Midas touch is still very much with us: U.S. capitalism tends to transform every activity it comes upon into a money-making version of itself. Thus something once innocent and playful like college athletics has been turned into a lucrative monopoly: the NCAA rules over a network of plantations staffed by indentured workers and signs billion dollar television contracts. Health care, too, has been transformed into a money-making machine with lamentable results: Americans pay twice as much for doctors’ care and prescription drugs as those in other advanced industrialized countries and the outcomes are grim in comparison: infant mortality and death in childbirth are off the charts in the U.S. and life expectancy is low compared to those other countries.
On the other hand, a modern capitalist economy can work well for its citizens. We have the examples of Scandanavia and of countries like Japan and Germany. Economists like Thomas Piketty write about the “thirty glorious” years after 1945 when post WWII capitalism built up a solid, prosperous middle class in Western Europe. Add to this what is known as the “French paradox” – the French drink more than Americans, smoke more, have sex more and still live some years longer. To make things worse, their cuisine is better, their work week is shorter and they take much longer vacations – one more example of how a nation can make capitalism work in the interest of its citizenry.
In American political life, in the 1930s, the label “conservative” was grabbed by forces opposed to FDR and the New Deal. Led by Senator Josiah W. Bailey of North Carolina, democrats with some Republican support published “The Conservative Manifesto,” a document which extolled the virtues of free enterprise, limited government and the balance of power among the branches of government.
In the post-war period the standard bearer of conservatism in the U.S. was Republican Senator Robert Taft of Ohio who was anti-New-Deal, anti-union, pro-business and who, as a “fiscal conservative,” stood for reduced government spending and low taxes; he also stood for a non-interventionist foreign policy. His conservatism harked back to Burke’s ideals of community: he supported Social Security, a minimum wage, public housing and federal aid to public education.
However, the philosophy of the current “conservative” political leadership in the U.S. supports all the destructive social Darwinism of laissez-faire capitalism, reflecting the 17th century English philosopher Thomas Hobbes and his dystopian vision much more than either Burke or Smith. Contemporary “conservatism” in the U.S. is hardly traditional conservatism. What happened? Mystère.
A more formal manifesto of Burkean conservatism, The Conservative Mind, was published in 1953 by Russell Kirk, then a professor at Michigan State. But conservative thought was soon co-opted and transformed by a wealthy young Texan whose family money came from oil prospecting – in Mexico and Venezuela! William F. Buckley, like Kirk a Roman Catholic, was founder and long time editor-in-chief of the seminal conservative weekly The National Review. Buckley is credited with (or accused of) transforming traditional Burkean conservatism into what goes by the name of “conservatism” in the U.S. today; he replaced the traditional emphasis on community with his libertarian view point “individualism” and replaced Taft’s non-interventionism with an aggressive Cold War political philosophy – the struggle against godless communism became the great moral cause of the “conservative movement.” For a portrait of the man, click HERE .
To his credit, Buckley kept his distance from fringe groups such as the John Birch Society; Buckley also eschewed Ayn Rand and her hyper-individualistic, atheistic philosophy of Objectivism; a man of letters himself, Buckley was likely appalled by her wooden prose – admittedly Russian and not English was her first language, but still she was no Vladimir Nabokov. On the other hand, Buckley had a long friendship with Norman Mailer, the literary icon from Brooklyn, the opposite of Buckley in almost every way.
Buckley as a cold war warrior was very different from libertarians Ron Paul and Rand Paul who both have an isolationist philosophy that opposes military intervention. On the other hand, all three have expressed similarly eccentric views on race presumably justified by their shared libertarian concept of the right of individuals to do whatever they choose to do even if it includes discrimination against others. For example, Rand Paul has stated that he would have voted against the Civil Rights Act of 1964 which outlawed the Jim Crow Laws of the segregationist states “because of the property rights element … .”
In the 1960s, 70s and 80s, Buckley’s influence spread. The future president Ronald Reagan was weaned off New Deal Liberalism through reading The National Review; in turn Buckley became a supporter of Reagan and they appeared together on Buckley’s TV program The Firing Line. The “conservative movement” was also propelled by ideologues with deep pockets and long term vision like the Koch brothers – for a interesting history of all this, see Nancy MacLean’s Democracy in Chains.
To the Buckley conservatives today, destruction of social institutions, “creative” or otherwise, is somehow not a problem and militarism is somehow virtuous.
As for destruction, among the social structures that have fallen victim recently to creative destruction is the American middle class itself, as income inequality has grown apace. This process began at the tail end of the 1960s and has been accelerating since Ronald Reagan’s presidency as Keynesian economics has given way to “supply side” economics; moreover, the guardrails for capitalism imposed by the New Deal have come undone: the Glass-Steagall Act has been repealed, the labor movement has been marginalized, and high taxes on the wealthy have become a thing of the past – contrast this with the fact that Colonel Tom Parker, the manager of Elvis Presley, considered it his patriotic duty to keep The King in the 90% tax bracket back in the day.
As for militarism, despite VE Day and VJ Day, since the 1950s, the U.S. has been engaged in an endless sequence of wars – big (Korea) and small (Grenada), long (Vietnam) and short (the First Gulf War), visible (Afghanistan) and invisible (Niger), loud (Iraq) and quiet (Somalia), … . All of which has created a situation much like the permanent state of war of Orwell’s 1984.
Moreover, since Buckley’s time, the American “conservatives” have even moved further right: reading Ayn Rand (firmly atheist and pro-choice though she was) in high-school or college has become a rite of passage, e.g. ex-Speaker Paul Ryan. An interventionist, even war-mongering, wing of the “conservative movement” has emerged, the “neo-conservatives” or “neo-cons.” Led by Dick Cheney, they were the champions of George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq and they applaud all troop “surges” and new military interventions.
As David Brooks recently pointed out in his New York Times column (Nov. 16, 2018), the end of the Cold War deprived the “conservative movement” of its great moral cause, the struggle against godless communist collectivism. And what was a cause has morphed into expensive military adventurism. Indeed, the end of the Cold War failed to yield a “peace dividend” and the military budget today threatens the economic survival of the nation – the histories of France, Spain and many other countries bear witness to how this works itself out, alas! In days of yore, it would have been the fiscal restraint of people known as conservatives that kept government spending in check; today “conservative” members of Congress continue to sound like Robert Taft on the subject of government spending when attacking programs sponsored by their opponents, but they do not hesitate to drive the national debt higher by over-funding the military and pursuing tax cuts for corporations and the wealthy. Supply-side economics cleaves an ever widening income gap, the least conservative social policy imaginable. Then too these champions of the free market and opponents of government intervention rushed to bail out the big banks (but not the citizens whose homes were foreclosed on) during the Great Recession of 2008. All this leads one to think that this class of politicians is serving its donor class and not the working class, the middle class, the upper middle class or even much of the upper class.
Perhaps semantic rock bottom is reached when “conservative” members of Congress vote vociferously against any measure for environmental conservation. But this is predictable given the lobbying power of the fossil fuel industry, a power so impressive that even the current head of the Environmental Protection Agency is a veteran lobbyist for Big Coal. Actually for these conservatives, climate change denial is consistent with their core beliefs: fighting the effects of global warming effectively will require large-scale government intervention, significantly increased regulation of industry and agriculture as well as binding international agreements – all of which are anathema to conservatives in the U.S. today.
Still there where the word “conservative” is most misapplied is in matters judicial. One speaks today of “conservative majorities” on the Supreme Court but these majorities have proved themselves all too ready to rewrite laws and overturn precedent in 5-4 decisions in an aggressive phase of judicial activism.
So for those who fear that corruption of its language is dangerous for the U.S. population, this is the worst of times: “liberal” which once designated a proponent of Gilded Age laissez-faire capitalism is now claimed by the heirs of the New Deal and the Great Society; “conservative” which once designated a traditionalist is now the label for radical activists both political and judicial. “Liberal” is yielding to “progressive” now. However, the word “conservative” has a certain gravitas to it and “conservatism” has taken on the trappings of a religious movement complete with patron saints like Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher; “conservative” is likely to endure, self-contradictory though it has become.
In 2005, with the retirement of Justice Rehnquist, John Roberts was named to the position of Chief Justice by Republican president George W. Bush. Another change in Court personnel occurred in 2008 when Sandra Day O’Connor retired and was replaced by Justice Samuel Alito. With Roberts and Alito, the Court had an even more solid “conservative” majority than before – the result being that more than ever in a 5-4 decision a justice’ vote would be determined by the party of the president who appointed him or her.
It was Ronald Reagan who named the first woman justice to the Supreme Court with the appointment of Sandra Day O’Connor in 1981. It was also Ronald Reagan who began the practice of Republican presidents’ naming ideological, conservative Roman Catholics to the Supreme Court with the appointment of Antonin Scalia in 1986. This practice on the part of Republican presidents has indeed been followed faithfully as we have to include Neil Gorsuch in this group of seven – though an Episcopalian today, Gorsuch was raised Catholic, went to parochial school and even attended the now notorious Georgetown Prep. Just think: with Thomas and Gorsuch already seated, the Brett Kavanaugh appointment brings the number of Jesuit trained justices on the Court up to three; this numerologically magic number of men trained by an organization famous for having its own adjective, plus the absence of true WASPs from the Supreme Court since 2010, plus the fact that all five of the current “conservative” justices have strong ties to the cabalistic Federalist Society could all make for an interesting conspiracy theory – or at least the elements of a Dan Brown novel.
It is said that Chief Justice Roberts is concerned about his legacy and does not want his Court to go down in history as ideological and “right wing.” However, this “conservative” majority has proven radical in their 5-4 decisions, decisions for which they then have full responsibility.
They have put gun manufacturers before people by replacing the standard interpretation of the 2nd Amendment that went back to Madison’s time with a dangerous one by cynically appealing to “originalism” and claiming the authority to speak for Madison and his contemporaries (District of Columbia v. Heller 2008)
Indeed, with Heller there was no compelling legal reason to play games with the meaning of the 2nd Amendment – if the over 200 years of interpretation of the wording of the amendment isn’t enough, if the term “militia” isn’t enough, if the term “bear arms” isn’t enough to link the amendment to matters military in the minds of the framers, one can consult James Madison’s original text:
“The right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed; a well armed, and well regulated militia being the best security of a free country: but no person religiously scrupulous of bearing arms, shall be compelled to render military service in person.” [Italics added].
The italicized clause was written to reassure Quakers and other pacifist religious groups that the amendment was not forcing them to serve in the military, but it was ultimately excluded from the final version for reasons of separation of church and state. This clause certainly indicates that the entirety of the amendment, in Madison’s view, was for the purpose of maintaining militias: Quakers are not vegetarians and do use firearms for hunting. Note too that Madison implies in this text and in the shorter final text as well that “the right to bear arms” is a collective “right of the people” rather than an individual right to own firearms.
The radical ruling in Heller by the five “conservative” justices has stopped all attempts at gun control, enriched gun manufacturers, elevated the National Rifle Association to the status of a cult and made the Court complicit in the wanton killings of so many.
The “conservative” majority of justices has overturned campaign finance laws passed by Congress and signed by the President by summoning up an astonishing, ontologically challenged version of the legal fiction that corporations are “persons” and imbuing them with new First Amendment rights (Citizens United v. FEC 2008).
Corporations are treated as legal “persons” in some court matters, basically so that they can pay taxes and so that the officers of the corporation are not personally liable for a corporation’s debts. But, there was no compelling legal reason to play Frankenstein in Citizens United and create a new race of corporate “persons” by endowing corporations with a human-like right to free speech that allows them to spend their unlimited money on U.S. political campaigns; this decision is the first of the Roberts Court’s rulings to make this list of all-time worst Supreme Court decisions, a list (https://blogs.findlaw.com/supreme_court/2015/10/13-worst-supreme-court-decisions-of-all-time.html ) compiled for legal professionals. It has also made TIME magazine’s list of the two worst decisions in the last 60 years and likely many other such rankings. The immediate impact of this decision has been a further gap between representatives and the people they are supposed to represent; the political class was at least somewhat responsive to the voters, now they are only responsive to the donor class. This likely works well for the libertarians and conservatives who boast “this is a Republic, not a Democracy.”
These same five justices have continued their work by
usurping Congress’ authority and undoing hard-fought for minority protections from the Voting Rights Act by adventuring into areas of history and politics that they clearly do not grasp and basing the decision on a disingenuous view of contemporary American race relations (Shelby County v. Holder 2013),
doubling down on quashing the Voting Rights Act five years later in a decision that overturned a lower court ruling that Texas’ gerrymandered redistricting map undercut the voting power of black and Hispanic voters (Texas Redistricting Case 2018)
breaching the separation of Church and State by ascribing “religious interests” to companies in a libertarian judgment that can justify discrimination in the name of person’s individual freedoms, the “person” in this case being a corporation no less (Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores 2014)
gravely wounding the labor movement by overturning the Court’s own ruling in a 1977 case, Abood v. Detroit Board of Education, thus undoing years of established Labor Law practice (Janus v. AFSCME 2018) – a move counter to the common law principle of following precedent.