Our country is traversing a tough stretch. As of this writing, both political parties have nominated presidential candidates who are reviled by the public. One political leader has been plagued by accusations of corruption since her days as first lady of Arkansas; the other is a serial bankrupt and adulterer who demonstrates no substantive knowledge of any of the complex issues that a president must confront. Our colleges and universities appear to be graduating culturally and politically illiterate students. Our small towns are beset by drug addiction problems that would have boggled the minds of the greatest generation. Our workforce participation rate is dropping to baby boom levels. And our federal government has less legitimacy in the general public than at any time since the Civil War.
It’s hard to imagine a more opportune time to read the handy and digestible Rediscovering America: Liberty, Equality, and the Crisis of Democracy, by John Agresto. The author, former president of St. John’s College in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and former acting chancellor of the American University in Iraq, is concerned over the future of America’s 240-year-old experiment in liberal democracy. He rightly sees ignorance of the bases of this experiment as one of the main reasons it is currently imperiled—and that ignorance is surely also a main reason for the social pathologies sketched out in the previous paragraph. Agresto seeks to help remedy this ignorance by explaining, in language easily understandable to those capable of reading a daily newspaper, what the Founders thought and why they thought it.
Among the superb insights the interested reader will glean from Rediscovering America are: the difference between wealth and justice (the latter is what we should seek; the former is a by-product); the limits of democracy and the reasons why the Founders were somewhat suspicious of it; the correct meaning of “equality” in our founding documents (hint—it has little to nothing to do with material condition); the reason why the Declaration of Independence is a vital founding document to be read along with our Constitution; and the inner character of “small r” American republicanism. Agresto cogently explains how it has come to pass that almost all moral and talented Americans are turned off by the idea of becoming elected officials today, how our Supreme Court has contributed to the death of values by its current jurisprudence, and how, despite it all, there is still something exceptional about being an American.
Here’s hoping this thin volume (236 pages) is widely read by high schoolers and college students alike. The tragedy is, of course, that the corruption of our culture makes it more and more likely that these institutions will fail to prescribe John Agresto’s book. Here’s hoping, too, that Rediscovering America does not appear, one generation hence, to have been a lament for a nation.