Every generation thinks it is having its arguments for the first time. In fact, our old friend Calvin Coolidge—is it just a coincidence that one of the presidents who most appreciated our founding principles is one of the least celebrated by the academic elite?—made this point over 80 years ago. In the same speech I cited earlier, the one celebrating the 150th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence (which is full of interesting nuggets; I highly recommend it), President Coolidge delivered a devastating rebuke to those who thought the principles of our founding were no longer relevant way back in 1926:
It is often asserted that the world has made a great deal of progress since 1776, that we have had new thoughts and new experiences which have given us great advance over the people of that day, and that we may therefore very well discard their conclusions for something more modern. But that reasoning can not be applied to this great charter [the Declaration of Independence]. If all men are created equal, that is final. If they are endowed with inalienable rights, that is final. If governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed, that is final. No advance, no progress can be made beyond these propositions. If anyone wishes to deny their truth or their soundness, the only direction in which he can proceed historically is not forward, but backward toward the time when there was no equality, no rights of the individual, no rule of the people.
Those who wish to proceed in that direction can not lay claim to progress. They are reactionary. Their ideas are not more modern, but more ancient, than those of the Revolutionary fathers.
It's worth asking: Who are the real "progressives" in America today? As President Coolidge said, to deny the principles of our founding isn't to go forward (to "progress") but to go "backward toward the time when there was no equality, no rights of the individual, no rule of the people."
Those who run down American values and think our founding principles are somehow intolerant or theocratic have it exactly backward. The words of the Declaration of Independence, brought to life in the words of the Constitution, are the most liberating, most human-rights- respecting words ever written. They assert the moral and political equality of all men and women, no matter who their parents are or how much money they have. What could be more "progressive" than that?
What's most amazing to me is that I think most Americans understand this. Most Americans don't just blindly love their country; they understand the unique gift of freedom it represents and they strive to live up to it. The men and women of our military make sacrifices to defend this freedom every day. But ordinary Americans do so as well, by resisting trading their freedom for the promise of cradle-to- grave government security the way so many countries of Western Europe have. Americans don't just cling to their liberty like spoiled children. We understand that freedom isn't free. It's one of the many things about the American people our politicians underestimate.
Take the recent health care debate as an example. The folks pushing President Obama's government health care bill seemed to think that we could be bought. But when we say we believe that our rights are God-given it means something.