At Liberty

Vernon L. Alger May/June 1997
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At the conclusion of the Constitutional Convention, when asked whether we had a republic or a monarchy, Benjamin Franklin replied, "A republic - if you can keep it!" Thomas Jefferson once said, "Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty."

Preserving democracy does, indeed, take work. It must have an educated and active citizenry. Constructive input, not just criticism, is necessary. Monday morning quarterbacking is easy, and those who don't have the responsibility for the result of important decisions usually have all the answers. But the perspective changes when an individual, or a whole society, must make a decision and be accountable for its results. When elected or appointed officials are faced with the reality of decision-making, the solutions don't seem as clear-cut as before they took office. After completing a year as president, John Kennedy said, "The only thing that really surprised us when we got into office was that things were just as bad as we had been saying they were."

For example, the actual responsibility of setting judicial policy has changed the philosophy of more than one Supreme Court justice. Dwight Eisenhower lamented his appointment of Earl Warren to the Supreme Court. Warren, a former moderate governor of California, presided over one of the most liberal periods in the court's history. Once on the bench his perspectives changed.


American democracy provides for majority rule but minority protection. A balancing of interests and a drawing of lines must be made by judge and elected representatives - not an easy task. Good things, such as liberty, taken to extreme, can have bad results. Freedom has a natural restraint in that one person's liberty stops where another's begins. Again, not an easy line to draw, as Earl Warren soon learned when he faced the awesome task of drawing them.

Some believe that their religious freedom includes the right to compel others to adhere to the majority's sectarian beliefs, a problem that points up the tension between the non-establishment clause and the Free Exercise clauses of the First Amendment. A balance also must be found between the employee's need for a religious accommodation and the employer's business needs; between protected speech and abuses like slander and pornography; and between the amount of tax money appropriately taken to support public programs and the right of people to keep the fruit of their labor.

In many of these balancing queries no "bright-line" answers exist. Decisions must be made, lines must be drawn - and responsibilities for those judgments must be accepted. No doubt government must make some hard decisions, but in a representative government, the ultimate responsibility is with us, the people. We must hold our officials accountable for their decisions, which in effect become our decisions as well.

The failure to control the national debt is one example. For years, Congress and the administration have refused to limit spending to the amount of revenues received by the federal government. As the debt rises, so does the percentage of subsequent budgets that must be allocated to pay the interest. When the debt and the resulting interest obligation impound future budget options, economic freedom is reduced - and the potential for governmental instability exits. We must remember, too, that only a stable government can guarantee liberty on a long-term basis.

Yet the failure to elect people who will make these decisions and accept the responsibility is ours. Periodically there are attempts to take the responsibility off Congress and the administration through amending the Constitution to require a balanced budget. The U.S. Constitution, as a political roadmap and protector of individual liberties, has served the American experiment well for more than two hundred years. Just as a federal judge will not rule in cases based on a constitutional issue when another basis for a decision exists, so the Constitution should not be amended because elected government won't make hard decisions.

Almost 11,000 bills have been introduced to amend the Constitution. Only 27 (the first 10 being the Bill of Rights) have been adopted. It's a traumatic process, not meant to be taken lightly. Many proposed amendments are very parochial, such as prayer in public schools and the posting of the Ten Commandments in public places. As in these two examples, it's often the majority trying to limit the rights of the minority. When the House of Representatives votes 295 to 125 to support an Alabama judge who flaunts the non-establishment clause by posting the Ten Commandments behind the bench in his public courtroom, questions arise as to the wisdom of Congress proposing amendments to the Constitution for any reason.

Our elected officials have the responsibility to make hard decisions. If they won't, the citizens have a responsibility to replace those officials. As Charles Murray said recently, "Freedom and responsibility are as inseparable as opposite sides of the same coin." George Bernard Shaw said it another way, "Liberty means responsibility. That is why most men dread it."

Yes, our Founders gave us a Republic. It's up to us to keep it.

Vernon L. Alger, Esq., is director of public affairs and religious liberty for the Lake Union Conference of Seventh-day Adventists in Berrien Springs, Michigan.

Article Author: Vernon L. Alger