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Catholic, Protestant, Partisan

“Religion,” wrote Tocqueville, “which among the Americans never directly takes part in the government of society, must be considered as the first of their political institutions; for if it does not give them the taste for liberty, it singularly facilitates their use of it.” James M. Patterson aims in his book, Religion in the Public Square: Sheen, King, Falwell, to explore whether Tocqueville’s observation held true in the 20th century and still offers guidance in the 21st. His method is to look at three cases of widely renowned Christian ministers who spoke and acted in ways that had significant political effect, who were theologically informed but who became known not as theologians but as Christian preachers and leaders. Tocqueville had argued that religion retains its importance in America precisely because it is separate from the state; staying aloof from partisan politics, religion successfully addresses the needs of the human soul while avoiding the vicissitudes of political life, its short-lived successes and inevitable set-backs.

Patterson’s thesis is that Sheen and King succeeded because they carefully eschewed partisan politics, whereas Falwell failed because he embraced it. On the basis of the evidence presented, I thought the thesis was hardly proven, but the author collects enough interesting material and provokes important enough questions to make the book worth reading.

Patterson’s choice to focus on Fulton Sheen, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Jerry Falwell is, so to speak, inspired. Each man was prominent for about a decade-and-a-half—Sheen in the late 1940s and 50s, King from the mid-50s until his assassination in 1968, Falwell from the late 1970s through the 1980s—and each was associated with a political cause that helped define his moment—Sheen with anti-communism, King with racial justice, and Falwell with moral restoration. All three achieved their prominence partly because they were adept in modern media, especially television, with Sheen and Falwell having their own shows, while King masterfully captured the attention of national news reports.

All three emerged as spokesmen for populations that had been excluded from the center of American political life. This is most obvious in the case of King, for blacks had been widely disenfranchised in the South and had been forcibly segregated from mainstream economic and social life when he began his work, but Patterson also shows that Sheen, whose ministry was launched in the aftermath of Al Smith’s defeat and extended through the election of John F. Kennedy, fought for full inclusion of Catholics in the American intellectual and political world, while Falwell was instrumental in returning Protestant Fundamentalists, who had retreated from public life in the 1920s, back into the middle of electoral politics in the 1980 election and beyond. While none of the three preached American exceptionalism, each of the three assigned to the American nation a critical role in the global meaning of his specific cause.

In writing of religion as a “political institution,” Tocqueville had in mind its role in limiting the reach of democratic politics and thereby contributing indirectly to political liberty. Religion, specifically Christianity in its several forms, provided Americans with dogmatic answers to questions about human origins and human destiny—the fundamental questions human beings readily enough ask but rarely have the resources to answer without recourse to authority—and thus brought peace of mind; in addition, it offered moral guidance, for Christians of all denominations basically agreed on what constituted a moral way of life. Although enforced by public opinion—Tocqueville hints but does not say outright that this moral consensus was an example of the tyranny of the majority over thought that he vividly explained—religion was hardly omnipotent, for it could not constrain Americans’ love of material improvement, but it was effective in allowing them a wide range for experimentation in politics and enterprise, for it ensured social stability in the midst of enormous change.

While Patterson draws his framework from Tocqueville, the America he depicts has no such settled place for religion. Instead, Christianity plays a dynamic role for all three clergymen—especially for King—in a world where social change is endemic and religion itself is not fixed. No longer the stable place for the human heart that Tocqueville describes, in a world where churches lined the public square, as it were, and provided a place and a day of rest, religion in the 20th century was swept into the maelstrom of democratic society, or rather retained the engagement with politics that the great reform movements of the 19th century, especially abolition and temperance, had begun—movements whose first stirrings Tocqueville saw but whose full force he had not imagined.

Catholic Americanism

Patterson makes passing mention of Prohibition and of the Social Gospel, but his aim is not to give a comprehensive account of religion in American public life, only case studies, so with Fulton Sheen he jumps into the middle of things. Ordained a priest in Peoria, Illinois, in 1919 and sent to Catholic University for a degree in canon law and then to Louvain for a doctorate, Fr. Sheen joined the faculty of Catholic University and taught theology, then philosophy, for twenty-five years. Already in the 1930s he earned a reputation as a powerful and charismatic speaker, appearing frequently on Catholic radio, preaching sermons, leading rallies, and writing books. With his 1948 bestseller, Communism and the Conscience of the West, Sheen came to national attention and to the attention of Pope Pius XII, who consecrated him an auxiliary bishop for New York in 1951 and made him head of the Society for the Propagation of the Faith in the United States. Launched in 1952, his weekly television show on Catholic doctrine, Life Is Worth Living, drew a huge audience during its five-year run, winning him an Emmy and eventually a place on a major network, ABC. Though Sheen returned to television in the 1960s, albeit with less audience success, and lived to see John Paul II become pope, Patterson concentrates on the height of his influence in the immediate post-war world.

Sheen’s presentation of Catholic doctrine was comprehensive, as a perusal of the titles of his dozens of books make plain, and was within the orthodox Thomism of his era, but Patterson emphasizes Sheen’s embrace of what the latter boldly called “Americanism,” boldly because a papal encyclical in the late 19th century has denounced a heresy under that name and because in the middle of that century the term had been used by the “Know-Nothings” to condemn immigrant Catholics. Sheen, quoted by Patterson, reversed the valence on both counts:

Americanism, as understood by our Founding Fathers, is the political expression of the Catholic doctrine concerning man. Firstly, his rights come from God, and therefore cannot be taken away; secondly, the State exists to preserve them…. The recognition of the inalienable rights of the human person is Americanism, or to put it another way, an affirmation of the inherent dignity and worth of man.

By contrast, for communism, as well as for the fascists and the Nazis, “the state is the source of rights; here man is the source of rights.”

Patterson shows that the contemporary call for Christians to exercise a “Benedict option” and withdraw from public life—except when seeking protection from the courts for their isolation—betrays the legacy of religious engagement with the larger culture and its democratic politics.

In short, argues Patterson, Sheen adapted the rhetoric of a foreign spiritual threat, invented by 19th century nativist Protestants to denounce papists, now to denounce European totalitarianism, seen as threatening the Judeo-Christian consensus of 20th century America and the shared commitment to religious liberty—all the while proclaiming the authority of the Catholic Church in teaching coherently the religious doctrine upon which a comprehensive account of human dignity depends. Outside his teaching and public speaking, his political involvement was limited to his personal relations and appearances with social and political leaders of his era, including several prominent figures he converted to the Catholic faith.

Patterson treats Sheen’s theology with a light touch—leaving unexplored, for example, how his thought on the relation between Thomistic natural law, American natural rights, and modern human rights developed. Moreover, he might have explored these ideas with respect to how Sheen’s contemporaries Jacques Maritain and John Courtney Murray understood these concepts. Another unexplored area is how his engagement with modern psychology in his 1949 bestseller Peace of Soul aimed to deflect the politics of self-expression that emerged in the 1960s. Even if Sheen’s gift was principally as a teacher, not an original thinker, his success in that capacity suggests the possibility, unexplored by the author, of successfully speaking to modern men and women without the sort of compromises that characterized so much of the pastoral work of the Church after Vatican II.

The Social Gospel and Fundamentalism

With Martin Luther King, by contrast, in the strongest chapter in the book, Patterson explains how King’s ideal of the “Beloved Community” emerged out of his theological education in Protestant covenant theology, Social Gospel postmillennialism (the view that Christians’ advancing social justice can usher in the promised thousand-year reign of Christ), and personalism, but King was not really defined by any one of these. Instead, King developed his ideal through his practical endeavors in the movement for civil rights, recognizing that to get Americans to live up to the principles of the Declaration required a change of heart brought on by a deeply religious motive, not just a political commitment: by the sacrificial love of Christian agape that took seriously Christ’s command to love one’s enemies and found a way to put that precept into practice in the midst of fear, distrust, resentment, and hatred across the barrier of race. In Patterson’s account, King used Gandhi’s practice of nonviolent protest and civil disobedience as a method, not a motive; the motive must be love, the will to form a true community, through a process that entailed redemptive suffering on both sides, however different the change required of each and however different the courage demanded of the protestor and the privileged. The civil rights movement was a complex endeavor, with remarkable leaders in law, labor, education, and elsewhere, but King’s religious leadership, Patterson argues, made it possible for Americans to transcend themselves.

That Jerry Falwell is not usually accorded the stature of figures like Sheen and King is of course something Patterson acknowledges. He neither had their university education, nor did he convey the gravitas they achieved or win the admiration of cultural leaders. Still, his influence on American politics—or at least the influence of the religious right, whose growth he helped to spur—is critical to the rise of modern American conservatism and is wrongly neglected by scholars who study contemporary politics. Patterson pays Falwell the compliment of seeking to understand and then make understood his theology, explaining his Fundamentalist Baptist commitment to Biblical inerrancy and his firm premillennialism, that is, his sense that human efforts cannot help along Christ’s second coming, which will happen in God’s good time.

Though Falwell occasionally preached in the style of the Puritan jeremiad—that the nation’s sufferings were brought on by its sins—Patterson emphasizes instead Falwell’s “nehemiad,” that is, his recourse to the story of the prophet Nehemiah, who returned the Israelites to Jerusalem and oversaw the rebuilding of the Temple, teaching them to ignore the ridicule of the wealthy and powerful. Falwell’s aim was to return Fundamentalist Christians to the center of political life, in order to secure for themselves the liberty for preaching the Gospel, his first concern. Having built an alternative media empire of sorts for his religious message, Falwell then became the principal religious figure in the more ecumenical Moral Majority organization, which cemented into Republican politics opposition to abortion, homosexual rights, and other behaviors. Curiously, while criticizing Falwell for his partisan attachments, which indeed depart from the tradition of American clergy that Tocqueville depicted, Patterson does not point out that Falwell’s professed aim was to restore the world that Tocqueville praised, where a moral consensus based on the Ten Commandments and the Golden Rule gave society a common point of reference. Surely the Catholic Democrat Ted Kennedy’s embrace of abortion rights in 1980 was as significant for partisan polarization on the questions of the “culture wars” as Falwell’s embrace of conservative Republicans.

I wrote above that Patterson’s conclusion that Falwell failed because he allied his followers with a political party while Sheen and King succeeded because they didn’t is unwarranted by the evidence he presents. This is partly because he stops the story too soon and then jumps to the present. Is it really so clear that Christian efforts to rebuild traditional morality fail before, say, the incorporation of gay rights into the Constitution by Republican-appointed judges in the 21st century? How could Christians accept the sexual revolution without surrendering the Christian teaching on chastity by which, in a previous sexual revolution, the pagan practices of the ancient world had been overcome? And then, is it so clear that Sheen succeeded, when his own career and the confident authority of the Catholic Church he conveyed were broken by the effects in America of Vatican II? King himself, although he was successful in securing effective federal legislation against segregation and the denial of voting rights, and although his martyrdom earned him iconic status in American memory, seems today a figure from another era precisely as a religious leader, for most of the civil rights preachers who claimed his mantle in the next generation lacked his bearing, and today’s movement for “antiracism” altogether eschews religious grounding.

Whatever his explicit thesis, Patterson shows that the contemporary call for Christians to exercise a “Benedict option” and withdraw from public life—except when seeking protection from the courts for their isolation—betrays the legacy of religious engagement with the larger culture and its democratic politics. In its moments of grace and of tragedy, that engagement remains an inspiring project and a reason for hope.

Reader Discussion

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on February 03, 2021 at 08:45:12 am

A thoughtful, exploratory review of what seems to be a book in the same vein. I've appreciated both Stoner and Patterson for their clarifying commentary that also eschews the pretense of over-explication, pretending to know more than we can in fact know, in the proper and strong and limiting sense of that term. (It is a sign of the over-boiling ideologically infused and permeated times we live in that so much commentary does in fact indulge so much pretense.) Refreshing, and all the more so given the presumptive and overbearing age we live in, are caught up within, all too often in a disorienting and disconcerting fashion. Stoner, and apparently Patterson as well, leave off, leave us off, in a better clarified position, a better clarified sensibility within the ideological torments we are daily subjected to: who are we, who do we choose to be, where do we muster and go from here? That is a qualitative good that can easily be underappreciated.

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Michael Bond
on February 03, 2021 at 10:42:42 am

“Patterson shows that the contemporary call for Christians to exercise a “Benedict option” and withdraw from public life—except when seeking protection from the courts for their isolation—betrays the legacy of religious engagement with the larger culture and its democratic politics.”

The Benedict option for all who desire to come to know, Love, and serve The True God in this world, so that, hopefully, we can be with God and our beloved forever, in Heaven, denies Christ’s New Commandment that we Love one another as Christ Loves us and that we “go and make disciples of all Nations”.

Christ Has Revealed, Through His Life, His Passion, And His Death On The Cross, That No Greater Love Is There Than This- To Desire Salvation For One’s Beloved.

Christ did not Desire our Salvation as a means to retreat from the law, He Desired our Salvation to Fulfill The Law Of Perfect Life-affirming, and Life-sustaining Authentic Love, which comes from God, The Most Holy And Undivided Blessed Trinity, Through The Unity Of The Holy Ghost.

Sexual immorality is a sin against The Sanctity of the Human Person, which is why sexual immorality, which demeans and denies the Sanctity of all human life, is a threat to the Sanctity of every family. The desire to engage in or affirm sexual immorality, does not change the demeaning essence of a sexually immoral act. To tolerate acts that demean the inherent Dignity of the human person, who is not, in essence, an object of sexual desire/inclination is not and can never be an act of authentic Love. We can know this is true, through both our Catholic Faith and reason, just as we can know that the atheist materialist overpopulation alarmist globalists know that the best way to fulfill their atheist materialist totalitarian dream is to “Strike The Shepherd”, in order to scatter the sheep, and most likely why it was necessary to censor Pope Benedict XVI, but I suppose if we wanted to know for certain how Pope Benedict is doing, we would need to move him to a safe haven and ask him.

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N.
on February 03, 2021 at 17:35:43 pm

I'm glad to hear about this interesting book. Religion plays an exceptionally large role in American society and politics, yet the religious ground and impetus behind many politically important figures is often neglected. It's worth underscoring the issue Stoner points to in Patterson's book. If a religious leader become associated exclusively with one party, that can be dangerous to both. If Republicans want to carry their message to the whole country, they will need to appeal beyond evangelical Christians. And if evangelical Christians want to bring the gospel to all, they will have to speak to more than Republicans. And likewise, it must not become the case that one cannot be a Republican without being an Evangelical Christian and one can't be an Evangelical Christian without being a Republican.

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Donald Marshall
on February 04, 2021 at 13:58:06 pm

I believe that Christ welcomes all the friends of truth He can inspire, so I am grateful for this new, positive book about American Christian leaders of the 2d half of the 20th century. Yet, I share Professor Stoner's doubt as to whether Professor Patterson proves his point, that Falwell failed because he entered the fray of politics, while Sheen and King succeeded because they stayed out of it. I may have deferred to Patterson's research on the matter if he had offered any. But, since he offered none, since I am a living witness to the public lives and ministries of all three men, I will believe my lying eyes, which tell me that Patterson is wrong on two counts, first that Falwell failed and second that, whatever one may think of the politics and theology of Falwell's ministry, his was not substantively different from those of Sheen and King in thoughtfully mixing theology and politics. King was more eloquent, by far, than his two peers, and Sheen more learned, entertaining and communicative than King and Falwell, but each was essentially driven by God and a desire for earthly success to engage actively in a ministry chock full of politics, with Falwell proving to be every bit a successful as King in his politics. Indeed, if one considers that King's Biblical, theological heritage was hijacked by the secular left and is now dead, in all but rhetoric, to the civil rights movement in which it was once so important, while Falwell's right to life and pro-Israel stances, which can be said to be Falwell's great legacies,Unity Biden is off to a great start on Obama's third term.
The risk is most dire with respect to DOJ failure to defend the US against destructive lawsuits and then entering into friendly "consent decrees" with bad actors which bind the nation to fund bad actors and support bad policies and set new law that binds those not a party to the 'settled" litigation. It's a primary modus operandi of the Enviro-Nazis, and will be used to establish and entrench their Climate Change" dirigisme.
are now more powerful than ever, then one would conclude that Falwell succeeded bigly, while King ultimately failed, and that Falwell's positions and legacy on both abortion and Israel Unity Biden is off to a great start on Obama's third term.
The risk is most dire with respect to DOJ failure to defend the US against destructive lawsuits and then entering into friendly "consent decrees" with bad actors which bind the nation to fund bad actors and support bad policies and set new law that binds those not a party to the 'settled" litigation. It's a primary modus operandi of the Enviro-Nazis, and will be used to establish and entrench their Climate Change" dirigisme.

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Paladin
on February 04, 2021 at 15:11:40 pm

The last 17 lines of this comment, just after the words "Falwell's great legacies" do not belong here. They are part of a cut and paste from another comment about Biden's right to change DOJ litigation policy. I intended to edit my comment on the Sheen, King, Falwell article and inadvertently pasted onto it a section of my prior comment about Biden.

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Paladin
on February 04, 2021 at 16:33:57 pm

Agree 100% with your comment, Paladin. In fact my own comment above was not terribly focused, meant to apply much more to Stoner than the author under review. Regarding Sheen, King and Falwell, it likewise, and consonant with your own observations, has to be emphasized they were each acting during very different periods of our social/cultural/political history. Much detail to fill in there, obviously, but perhaps most notably, they were each facing very different forms (parties, factions, interests) and modes (tactics/strategies) of opposition.

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Michael Bond
on February 04, 2021 at 17:55:24 pm

Both you and paladin are correct regarding Sheen. First, he was political, albeit in the toned down manner that was appropriate to the 1950's. Sheen was quite often called upon / consulted by local politicos on issues of the day and he did not hesitate to offer policy advice. ( My mother actually met with him and was quite impressed with his literate and cultured bearing).

And King, to all of our everlasting dismay was not ultimately successful in the Christian message he offered. One need only observe the dissolution of King's message, or as Paladin says - the hijacking of that message as exemplified by Black Lives Matters and the entire anti-racism / equity rhetoric of the bien pensants that propagate our airwaves, print and social media. In the long run, Kings message has been lost - and we, sadly, are much the poorer for that fact.

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gabe
on February 04, 2021 at 18:19:13 pm

Bond gets it! The three great Christian spokesmen served Christ in very different periods and cultures of US history, which would, in itself, explain their varying approaches to partisan politics, but all three were quite political in their ministries. One cannot appreciate Bishop Sheen's withering attacks on godless communism without understanding that he spoke during the height of the Cold War to a highly politicized audience which feared destruction from without in a nuclear war and from within by communist subversion. One cannot have witnessed Dr. King's address at the Lincoln Memorial without realizing that his theology was the foundation of what was a deeply political speech. He would go onto to become a leading spokesman against the Vietnam War and for LBJ's War on Poverty, both politics to the hilt. Further, King met with JFK, LBJ and Nixon to advance his mission. Sheen was close to Eisenhower throughout his presidency. Falwell supported Reagan when Reagan men embraced Israel, at the height of Palestinian political popularity on the left, and when Reagan embraced the right to life, when abortion was at an all-time high. Opposition to abortion and support for Israel were central to his ministry and important elements of Reagan's presidency. Falwell's legacy on both is moral and Biblical legacy and exceeds those of King if only because they are lasting. The heirs to Dr. King's ministry (after the outstanding Ralph Abernathy was pushed aside) from Jesse Jackson in 1968 to Al Sharpton today, first sullied their inheritance, then commercialized it, and then destroyed it. Their is no King legacy today; only a warm and loving memory of a deeply complicated, profoundly talented, politically-sophisticated man.

Patterson is simply wrong to say that Sheen and King were apolitical and Falwell was partisan.
It just ain't so!

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Paladin
on February 21, 2021 at 23:00:44 pm

With Alinsky-Marxist organizations (AMO) cancelling opposition to U.S. chaos, the religious leaders covered in this scholarship can only be recognized as failures: Sheen’s anti-communism, King’s racial justice, and Falwell’s moral restoration. Today’s chaos can be attributed to the religion-Congress-partnership unconstitutionally imposed by Congress in 1791 and codified as tradition by the Supreme Court since then.

Tocqueville, in 1835 wrote French contradictions of 1776’s “the good People”. For example, “Religion, which among the Americans never directly takes part in the government of society, must be considered as the first of their political institutions; for if it does not give them the taste for liberty, it singularly facilitates their use of it.” Liberty proves government-license to abuse fellow-citizens. The 1776 war was for independence according to Genesis 1:27-28.
The good People of 1776 took it upon themselves to kill invasive fellow-subjects in red coats in order to practice responsible-human-independence where colonists had settled. Some Americans read the Bible to avoid mistakes of the past and some read it in order to uphold royal opinion they knew. Citizens divided themselves on acceptance of necessity on the one side and loyalty to diverse European kingdoms on the other. At that time, inhabitants of my state, Louisiana, were influenced by France in particular. In Florida, Spain dominated. In the west, it was Mexico, Spain, and indigenous tribes.

The French were both England’s enemy and rebellious against the Church, as they proved in 1789’s reign of terror. Both then and now, it is unlikely for a Frenchman to imagine the mind of the living, U.S. “ourselves and our Posterity”. An American considers existing literature and may comprehend that the 1787 U.S. proposition offers the necessary freedom-from oppression so that each individual may responsibly pursue the safety and happiness they desire rather than compete for the liberty-to abuse fellow-citizens.

Fulton Sheen, who helped influence President Eisenhower’s egregious imposition of religion into American civics (see How Dwight Eisenhower Found God in the White House - HISTORY), erroneously said, “Americanism, as understood by our Founding Fathers, is the political expression of the Catholic doctrine concerning man. Firstly, his rights come from God, and therefore cannot be taken away; secondly, the State exists to preserve them…. The recognition of the inalienable rights of the human person is Americanism, or to put it another way, an affirmation of the inherent dignity and worth of man”. The 1776 declaration of war separated church and state in conformity to Genesis 1:27-28.

“Egregious” because Eisenhower motivated both the revision of the 1782 motto “E Pluribus Unum” to “In God We Trust” and the addition of “under God” to the pledge of allegiance to the flag. The above mentioned Eisenhower article cites religious-tyrants (my opinion since no person can represent Jesus) Billy Graham, Fulton Sheen, Norman Vincent Peale, and Mamie Eisenhower, whose church baptized Ike at age 62. Also, note Rev. Docherty; https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/George_MacPherson_Docherty.

Eventually, MLK, Jr. dreamed of a “beloved community”. Grace Lee Boggs in 2004 described a utopia with “the courage to love and care for the peoples of the world as we love and care for our own families”. “Ourselves and our Posterity” dare not try to spread love to the world when we do not establish responsible-human-independence in our homes, in our cities, in our states, and in our nation.

As for Jerry Falwell, show me the person who can witness for a mystery: Jesus Christ. Who can show the civic integrity of reports about Jesus? St. Luke used "hate" toward family and self as the cost of discipleship (14:26). St. John used "hate" 5 times to express the attitude of people who God did not elect to believe Jesus (15:18-23). I'm un-elect, and I reject John's accusation of hate. Matthew wrote that Jesus said the individual human being who intends-to can perfect their person before dying (5:48). Maybe so. St. John wrote that Jesus said “before Abraham was born I am” (8:58). Does that imply that Jesus authored the political philosophy in Genesis 1:27-28? If so, why doesn’t Christian female&male human-being (in the image of Jesus) constrain chaos in life so as to develop family-monogamy for life instead of tolerating infidelity to self? And why does Congress accept members witnessing for Jesus Christ rather than for the U.S. Constitution? Why does the U.S. Supreme Court condone such arrogant pride?

Books that condone the imposition of religion on the entity We the People of the United States support Congressional-tyranny. We, the “ourselves and our Posterity” of 2021 can each require our Congressperson and two Senators to reform the First Amendment from “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof . . . “ to “No elected or appointed official in the U.S. will act to constrain individual/collective development of civic integrity . . . “ or better, for example, “responsible-human-independence” instead of “civic integrity”, before 2022 arrives.

Together, the 1776 Declaration and the 1787 U.S. Constitution proffer a culture of 6 public disciplines: integrity, justice, peace, strength, prosperity, and responsible-human-independence “in order to” develop humble-integrity “to ourselves and our Posterity.”

I cannot think of a civil power more effective than the writers in this forum to accomplish this essential U.S. reform before it is too late.

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Phillip R Beaver
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