Some pundits say that at this near-midnight hour in the healthcare debate we need a Jefferson Smith, the fictional filibusterer played by Jimmy Stewart in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Right movie, wrong character, since Senate rules do not allow such filibusters anymore.
No, we may need one of the 60 senators in Harry Reid's corrupt coalition to have a rebellion of the conscience that would lead him to race onto the Senate floor just before the final vote. There he would declare, as did Senator Joseph Paine in the film, "I'm not fit to be a senator. Every word about Taylor and me and graft and the rotten political corruption of our state. Every word of it is true. I'm not fit for office! I'm not fit for any place of honor or trust. Expel me!"
On what basis might this happen? Will one of the 60 suddenly recalculate the political consequences or reanalyze the bill's thousands of pages? Unlikely. We need some spiritual or emotional shock. Why won't pure reason work? Because 18th-century Scottish philosopher David Hume, agnostic but growing up in a Christ-influenced culture, understood human nature in a way that Aristotle didn't.
Let me explain.
The New York Times last month profiled one of America's great conservatives, Princeton political philosopher Robert George. He battles the left with a Roman Catholic philosophy based in Aristotle, who posited the existence of an objective moral order graspable by human reason and obtainable through free will. As George puts it, "In a well-ordered soul, reason's got the whip hand over emotion."
One philosophical counter to Aristotle came from 18th-century Scottish agnostic David Hume, who scoffed at the idea of "objective reason": In Hume's view, the universe naturally contains facts, not values and moral conclusions. Hume argued that "reason is and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them." Souls, naturally, are not well-ordered.
Times writer David Kirkpatrick reasonably summarized George's Aristotelian objection to Hume: "If I have no rational basis for picking one goal over another, then I have no free choice, only predetermined 'passions.' . . . We have reason and free choice, [George] teaches, or we have amorality and determinism."
But who is "we"? Augustine wrote 1,600 years ago, "Man's original capacities included both the power not to sin and the power to sin (posse non peccare et posse peccare). In Adam's original sin, man lost the posse non peccare (the power not to sin) and retained the posse peccare (the power to sin)."
Translation: Before the fall described in chapter 3 of Genesis, humans could choose between sinning and not sinning. Since the fall we are unable not to sin, until we are born again through God's grace—and even then, we often still sin. (Our goal is heaven, where we will not be able to sin.) In 1720, when Hume was 9 years old, Scotland's Thomas Boston popularized this concept with his book Human Nature in Its Fourfold State. (The four states: primitive integrity, entire depravity, begun recovery, and "Consummate Happiness or Misery.")
This doesn't mean that in our natural state, devoid of the power not to sin, we are as bad as we possibly could be: The collective predetermination that is culture (often sprinkled with God's common grace) mitigates our individual predetermination. But the main route to free choice is being born again through Christ: Reason by itself, diseased as it is, will not get us there.
That evangelical understanding differs from the Roman Catholic view ably voiced by George, and it may also suggest why Catholics readily embrace the "natural law" tradition. By doing so they, like Jewish natural law believers, gain more secular academic (and Supreme Court) appointments than evangelicals, who are skeptical of human ability, apart from grace, to apprehend the way things ought to be.
This understanding may also lead to a different kind of hope regarding the possibility of one of the Senate 60 doing a Senator Paine. Differences between the Senate and House bills may prove insurmountable, but politicians are adept at finding reasons to compromise. Reasoned argument has had its day with the 60. We need in one a change of heart.
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