The Clare Spark Blog

March 17, 2016

What does “liberty” signify?

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freedom_by_hnde“…You know how I feel
Scent of the pine
You know how I feel
Oh freedom is mine
And I know how I feel….” (Volvo freedom commercial: complete lyrics here:

In this background lyric for a recent Volvo commercial, “freedom” is not a gesture or an attractive state of being, but an emotion, a possession, a perfume, or a sensation that presumably links the driver with wild Nature, which the car, the singer, and presumably a friend comprehend.

Many persons link the word “liberty” with freedom: it could be “free will” or liberation from oppression (as in the American Revolution—a statement critical of the former British boot), but in today’s irrationalist political argot, it may mean “religious liberty.”

But such “liberty” may not signify the separation of church and state (see but rather a view that the USA is a Christian Commonwealth that represents the most conservative wing of the Republican Party. To Cornell historian Isaac Kramnick, such a conception exists in tension with the secular state, the latter an innovation of Thomas Jefferson and the (rationalist) Enlightenment views that inspired him.

If there was ever an irreconcilable conflict between factions, this clashing notion of “liberty” is it. Yet few pundits ever identify it as such. In its stark opposition, it reminds me of a similar conflict: free will versus determinism. ( At least in the free will debate, a thoughtful person will do her best to recognize limited (moral) choices, given the state of our ignorance about all the forces that mold our “will.”

Not so in the super-safe Volvo that links safety with the “scent of pine.” And don’t we all pine for that sense of security and composure in our search for “liberty”?

“Liberty relies upon itself, invites no one, promises nothing,
sits in
calmness and light, is positive and composed,
and knows no discouragement.” – Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass

Illustration credit: Freedom by HNDE (Deviant Art)


January 25, 2016

Is the US Constitution “godless”?

flag-cross-elephantI had always assumed that economist and social theorist Friedrich Hayek was interchangeable in his philosophy with Milton Friedman, until I reread Hayek’s The Constitution of Liberty (1969) in which he gave all honor to the English antecedents of the Founders, consigning the French philosophe input to the disreputable rationalist tradition and the horrid French Revolution that it spawned.

It was not until I read a trade book The Godless Revolution: A Moral Defense of the Secular State (by Isaac Kramnick and R. Laurence Moore, Norton, 2005) that I understood the longstanding gap between defenders of the Christian Commonwealth idea (exemplified by Hayek and his admired predecessors Edmund Burke and Lord Acton) and those Jeffersonians who defended religious pluralism/the secular state.

Kramnick and Moore’s book is a full throated attack on the “religious Right” from the New Deal left-liberal side of the political spectrum, and takes its place as a major tool in the culture wars. To be fair, the authors take care not to be confused with atheists; religion should take its place in public policy debates, as long as theocracy is not advocated, but it is clear where their morality lies: in Big Government programs, including environmentalism and other compassionate legislation, such as feminist abortion rights, and the single payer health plan. They acknowledge that Jefferson’s minimalist state was suited for an agrarian society, but assume that the Industrial Revolution initiated a new system of morality. (They might have mentioned those who transformed Jefferson’s negative state to a positive state, a.k.a. Big Government, historian Carl Becker’s input is MIA.)

Their book is a boilerplate left liberal argument: dropping the name of Milton Friedman, the advocate of free markets, but ignoring his theme of upward mobility made possible by laissez-faire economics. (See

Their heroes include John Locke, Jefferson, FDR, JFK, and the Clintons; their villains are such as James Dobson, Ralph Reed, Lyndon Johnson (!, who went too far? or was it Viet Nam?) and George W. Bush who ostensibly made his conversion from scapegrace to piety the major theme of his 2004 campaign. (Which is odd, because the authors clearly want to convert the readers from laissez-faire economics to the positive, hyper-moral state.)

As proper pluralists, they frown on public displays of the Ten Commandments, for the first four laws are too Jewish; i.e., not inclusive.


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