Self-evident truths now require ‘air quotes’ senator warns

Washington D.C., Apr 27, 2019 / 11:00 am (CNA).- The founding principles of American politics are at risk, Utah’s Senator Mike Lee told CNA April 26.

“There’s the problem of people’s reluctance these days to recognize truth–when it’s not accompanied by air quotes,” the senator told CNA.

“There really are some truths that are self-evident, and they exist not because any government declares them to exist, but because God made them that way,” he added.

Speaking to CNA about the launch of his new book on the Declaration of Independence, the senator said he is concerned that public respect for objective truth and basic freedoms has been lost in the face of an expanded role of government in American society.

Lee said that an erosion of freedom in American society is fueled by a growing ignorance of the nation’s founding documents, as well as a cultural shift away from the meaning of truth, including those which the Declaration held as self-evident: the equality of all people under God, and the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

He told CNA part of the inspiration behind his new book, “Our Lost Declaration,” was his desire to recover the self-evident truths laid out in the Declaration, and what they mean for civil society.

Lee said that individual liberties require space to be exercised, a space he claims expanding government structures are beginning to monopolize. To fix this, the senator proposed a cultural reset focused on a closer study and adherence to the country’s founding documents, especially the Declaration of Independence, which he described as the “older sister” of the U.S. Constitution.

The loss of a common recognition of objective truth, according to Lee, has led to an over-reliance of government to take its place – expanding to absorb what were once non-political areas of society. This expansion, he argues, will have the unintended consequence of crowding out the exercise of individual rights.

Stephen White, Fellow in the Catholic Studies Program at the Ethics and Public policy Center in Washington, said that Lee’s vision has some similarities to the Catholic understanding of political thought.

“Catholic social teaching is full of stern warnings about what happens when government and the civil law are not bound to higher truths,” White told CNA.

“Pope John Paul II, for example, warned that, unless democracy was rooted in the right understanding of the human person, it could easily turn into open or thinly disguised totalitarianism. He knew this from history and from his own experience.”

Lee cautioned that losing an objective understanding truth and freedom to a subjective definition through government action could become “the high road to tyranny.” “That worries me,” Lee said.

“Whenever government acts, they do so at the expense of the liberty and the dignity of individual human beings–and of families, of neighborhoods, of synagogues and churches, and other communities,” said the senator.

“When we allow government to get too big, this is the kind of thing that gets harmed–our most fundamental rights, including our religious freedom — they get trampled,” he said.

The senator said oversized government influence does accidental harm even when it seeks to act positively. “I sometimes explain it as when the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man steps on your house, it’s not because the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man necessarily hates you or singled out you for an attack,” said Lee.

“It’s because he’s huge. He’s the size of Godzilla, and your house happens to be in the way.”

The senator said that valuing the self-evident truths of the Declaration of Independence means respecting the freedom of individuals to live according to their beliefs and the dictates of the conscience, something constricted by a political culture which prioritizes the government’s right to intervene.

“We assume that government has the first right to act, rather than have to justify their actions,” explained Lee.

“If we reconnect with these founding documents, as my book helps people to do, I think culturally, we can get to the point where we can reclaim the rights and get back the kind of government that we need, that we want, that we deserve, and that will respect our religious and our other freedoms.”

While government can be harmful when it detaches from a proper understanding of human dignity and freedom, White told CNA that there was a risk of viewing government as necessarily opposed to the common good and individual liberty.

“The Catholic Church—even long before there was such a thing as ‘Catholic social teaching’—has always insisted that political authority has a natural and necessary role in ordering and governing human society for the common good,” White said.

“Government exists to be a guarantor of precisely that space in which true human freedom—freedom in solidarity, freedom for the good—can flourish.”

“Like all good things, government can be made to serve wicked ends. But government itself isn’t an obstacle to a healthy human society; it’s a necessary prerequisite of it.”

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