... What I did know was that Berns was everything a teacher should be: engaging, opinionated but respectful of others, and a master of the material, which he obviously loved. Indeed, sometimes I think the best possible legacy of the Straussians a century hence will be that image of what a teacher should be.I would have loved to have had him as a teacher. I learned a great deal from him even as I disagree with him on various policy matters. And as much as I agree with certain of his insights on the American Founding, I think he was wrong on others.
His explication of the principles of the American Founding left a lasting impression on me, and his teaching provided a perfect counterpoint to my reading of Russell Kirk—in some ways, though not all, a thinker very different from Berns. I recall even now his lectures on why the Confederacy, rather than the Union, better embodied the dark side of progressive “science”—the South being explicitly founded on so-called racial science while the North stuck to Lockean natural rights and the British political tradition—and how Tocquevillian principles explained why there would always be more female models than male ones. As a sophomore I found him terrifying, and not much less so after three courses than when I took the first one.
Among the most vexing problems Berns addressed over his long career was that of religion in the American polity. An Episcopalian of the old school, Berns thought religion important but something that, in James Madison-like fashion, must be kept under control for fear of causing “faction.” In 1963, writing in National Review on “School Prayer and Religious Warfare,” Berns chided the Supreme Court for delving into religious controversy when it did not have to do so. The court had the year before invalidated a nonsectarian prayer in New York City public schools. Berns suggested that the court need not have decided the case, as sometimes it is more judicially appropriate not to act than it is to act, especially where questions that may cause social unrest are concerned. Here, he argued, the court could have taken refuge in the legal doctrine of “standing” to deny those bringing the case the ability to press their claim.
Berns thought that New York prayer decision was wrong as a matter not of jurisprudence but of simple prudence. The Constitution, he wrote, does not provide a definitive answer to whether such prayer should be permitted. Nor does history: here Berns referred to the Fourteenth Amendment, which imposed the strictures of the First Amendment on the states—which had in turn, from the time of the Revolution, a variety of different arrangements between church and government that provided more or less public support to religious belief. Those who would try to deny “incorporation” of the First Amendment’s rights as against the states “would need to ponder the desirability in this day of the alternative: states would still be free to disenfranchise men and women” because of their religious beliefs—a result, Berns implies, that should not be countenanced.
Saturday, February 28, 2015
TAC: "Country Before Faith"
Read this wonderful piece on Walter Berns here. A taste: