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Reflections on the Great Experiment: An interview with Rebecca Hagelin

By Helen and Peter Evans
web posted May 31, 2004

Rebecca Hagelin is a vice president of the Heritage Foundation, a research and educational think-tank whose mission is to formulate and promote conservative public policies based on the principles of free enterprise, limited government, individual freedom, traditional American values and a strong national defense. She is also the former vice president of communications for WorldNetDaily and her 60-second radio commentaries can be heard on the Salem Communications Network.

Peter: Tell us your understanding of the Great Experiment, stating some of the strengths and weaknesses.

Rebecca HagelinRebecca: I guess the foundation of the Great Experiment is something I don't think enough people reflect upon. The foundation is that there are truths that are self-evident in the world and in morality. There is a higher level of truth that shouldn't be open for debate. These truths were so eloquently pointed to in the Declaration of Independence. "All men are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, among them are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness". Self evident truths, not up for debate, not up for discussion. Our Founding Fathers penned those words years ago and now we jump forward to where we are today. I look at the family which has been the basic unit of every single society since the beginning of time starting with the marriage between a man and a woman. It's a self-evident truth that a man and a woman is the proper place to begin a family and to raise children. So when we talk about the weaknesses of the system, the experiment; it's not in the system that was developed by a Divine power and recognized by the Founding Fathers. The weaknesses are in the fact that our current society has lost sight of basic self-evident truths.

The right to life should be self evident. Mothers shouldn't kill their young. It's right for a society to try to protect the vulnerable. The whole aspect of God, the central aspect of God is that he gave man free will and freedom. Yet the government today has ignored that self evident truth. How can you create happiness for yourself and your family if you have a government which has so many restrictions to your freedom, restrictions on your family, on your behavior and your free will. It's just astounding that the weaknesses occur from the incredible lack of knowledge, not just a lack of understanding, but a lack of knowledge about what the Great Experiment was and about what the founding was about.

Helen: Yes, for instance, a few months ago someone suggested we debate the idea of liberating Iraq based on the idea of national sovereignty vs. the freedom of the individual. We suggested debate was not necessary because all you had to do was look to the first basic truths. Let's take liberty. It's not there for the Iraqi people so that trumps national sovereignty. Basic truths trump any governmental laws. Even if we go back to our own problems with states rights vs. racial integration such as at Old Miss in the 60's. Individual sovereignty, or rights Divinely bestowed, always trumps man made laws. Instead government rules or laws should be to protect those Divinely given rights. Therefore, there should be no big debate about it.

Rebecca: Right. the weaknesses in our system are not the system. The weaknesses are those that distorted the brilliance of the system. The documents and the processes that were put into place to protect the ideas in those documents are pure brilliance. Now in this day, we have instead of checks and balances, judicial activists who are going crazy from the bench. That's an abuse of constitutional power. Yet we're finding that most Americans don't even know that, don't even know about the separation of governmental powers. So how can you raise up the populace to demand constitutional checks and balances when they don't even know it exists.

Helen: This is why we're writing this book. Many people see some actions taken unconstitutionally and instead wonder if this isn't for the good of everyone. But what happens when you take it to the next step, who is the power that decides what's good for the individual; just one or two people?

Rebecca: Right and when you think about it the Great Experiment was new to civilization and Russell Kirk's book, The Roots of American Order, explains it best. He explains that the best concepts from the ancient civilized world were all pulled together brilliantly by our Founding Father. Our Founding Fathers were not coming in a vacuum to create a new country. They were learned people, they studied, they observed what works in great empires that existed throughout time and if they violated basic truths they also knew what would happen. All that knowledge came together through Divine Inspiration to those few dozen people and our country came to be. The Great Experiment was, I think, to find out if mankind could live by those Divine self evident truths.

Helen: So you see the Great Experiment not just for America but for civilization as a whole?

Rebecca: I see America as the culmination of alot of great ideas since the beginning of mankind. The Great Experiment asks you to study history and learn by it. Let's look back at the Boston Tea Party. It wasn't that the tax was so high because tea was actually taxed less than other products. What they were revolting against was that it would give England a monopoly on the tea trade. In other words people could not longer buy tea from wherever they wanted. Something as simple as not being able to choose who you buy your tea; that loss of freedom of choice caused them to revolt. Now look around today and realize how many restrictions we've become accustomed to.

Helen: What would you say to people who say life would be easier letting someone else make a choice for me? In fact, many may say just accepting what comes along causes less trouble. Why shouldn't I just go along with whatever "they" say.

Rebecca: It's easier to force someone to do your work for you too. It's easier to enslave another human being. The easy way is often the wrong way. When you get down to the simple truths and add things like personal responsibility and personal accountability you get the idea of liberty. Of course, in our country we have ordered liberty. It's like a train which can go wherever it does as long as there are tracks for it to travel. Even God who gave us free will also allows that there are consequences for our actions. Everyone is accountable at the end of the day.

Peter: The law of cause and effect in a way. It seems to me that the Founding Fathers wrote down what they understood to be God's will. An ambitious project to be sure.

Rebecca: Not only ambitious but when you think about brilliant minds of those who participated in the Founding; men from varied backgrounds, men very accomplished in many fields; it's astounding that so many came together at that particular time in history. There had to be a Divine order and inspiration there. At the constitutional convention during a critical point when they were frustrated and about to disband without accomplishing their goal, Benjamin Franklin stood up and said "we've got to pray. if God knows about every sparrow that falls from the air, is it possible that a country could rise without HIs aid?"

Helen: Our society has become secularized. People have a misconception about the separation of church and state.

Rebecca: It never existed as it is interpreted today. The First Amendment was to protect churches from the government.

Helen: I'll try to segue way into the idea of freedom and liberty. The idea of self government has also been distorted. It's not license to do anything, but the opportunity to "self-govern" yourself and that means responsibility and restraints self imposed. What does self-governing mean to people?

Rebecca: That's what I tried to teach my children. I home schooled my children for 5 years because I wanted them to really understand some basic principles about history and about life. The mantra we said was over and over again and which was chalked on the blackboard of our little home school room was, "remember the principle of self government". If you are responsible for yourself and if you accomplish those things which have been laid before you, if you learn how to do your homework on time, if you learn to do excellence in your work, then I don't have to be the policeman to stand over you. But if you violate that, if you violate basic principles, then you have to have the police. Laws are not created for the good people, they are created for those that don't respect liberty.

Helen: What's your definition of freedom and liberty?

Rebecca: The term that comes to mind is ordered liberty. Freedom without order is chaos and the only way to have complete freedom and liberty is to have order associated with it.

Peter: It's a paradox then.

Rebecca: It's a paradox, but I think it's just something that our poor feeble minds are unable to understand. We have certain words that we've created that define certain items, but there are also elements of life that don't fit perfectly into that vocabulary. Just look at the classifications of animals or fruits and vegetables, someone came up with names to classify them, but something will be discovered which doesn't fit exactly into the classifications. So because our brains are limited we do the best we can, most times, but there are higher laws and principles such as liberty, order that we're still trying to fully understand. Total freedom would be chaos.

Helen: We think of it as freedom of choice. I can't be in 2 places at the same time. If I could that would be total freedom, but we have limitations of physical existence.

Peter: In order to live in the world practically we have to take the practical knowledge and definition of those words. So it doesn't really matter what the essence of the definition of liberty or freedom is since it must be expressed through our physical reality.

Helen: Isn't this perfect. Too many people have a snap answer for the definition of freedom. However, if we contemplate the meaning, if we study and do some work or even pray; we begin to know it rather than repeat what we've heard.

Rebecca: Absolutely, because consequences are a fact of a free life too. That is something that becomes self evident. Whether it's the law that's the consequence or whether you die after you go screaming down the street in sub zero weather while naked. Because there are consequences for every choice, order is part of freedom.

Helen: Yet, none of these ideas are incomprehensible. But we do have to be engaged in our own lives, we have to think for ourselves.

Rebecca: No concept or truth lives in a vacuum.

Peter: It seems to me the systematic weaknesses we're discussing is a consequence of success. Without history without the foundational ideas many people think the purpose of government is to insulate them from the consequences of their actions. In other words, they don't want government to interfere with the pursuit of happiness, but they do want government to interfere with the occurrence of sadness. This is partly because the Experiment has been so successful. For instance, many people have not had the experience of say a trivial example, of bed bugs. We can't even imagine what it would be like to not be able to own a car, our own home.

Rebecca: Also, some feel that if they haven't chosen to work for it themselves, someone should give it to them.

Peter: I blame the government squarely for that particular attitude. That's how folks are bought with taxpayers money.

Helen: So when government comes in and helps people for more than the momentary ups and downs in life, we forget not only the purpose of government but what the purpose of life is. Our accountability and creativity are thrown out the window. We sometimes feel that we don't have to work for any higher purpose than ourselves, our own happiness. Do you feel that's one of the misconceptions other people in the world have about Americans?

Rebecca; Yes, there is a conception that we're selfish and self-indulgent. I must admit there is a segment of our society where, "It's my job, my career, my body, my right, my, my, my and more my. I'm going to do it my way, you owe me and if nothing else you've got to give it to me". Plus just about everything we export in the media overseas doesn't represent what are principles are.

Helen: As we talk about this misconception of self indulgence, there is a certain segment of our society that is like that. However, you've also been exposed to people who live by other principles. Can you tell us about them?

Rebecca: My life has been filled with examples of personal sacrifice, starting with the examples of my parents and people in church. My father was a pediatrician and he would go on medical mission trips to Nicaragua just because it was important to him personally to help other people. He also held kidney clinics and various other clinics on his Thursday afternoons which should have been his time off. So I grew up living with examples of my parents who gave out of their good graces and abundance. Their examples were a good life and hard work. It was second nature in my life. The church I went to gave to the unfortunate. It was an alien concept that people didn't behave like that. We can also see examples all around us. The volunteer military, government leaders who have to give up personal fortunes when they take office. My husband is also military and self sacrifice is a part of my life.

Helen: Can you even understand those who say no one does anything good without some payback?

Rebecca: Well both worlds do exist. It's just that we have become such an affluent society and so many generations take it for granted. I think there have been 2 basic types of people throughout history; those that do and those that won't do; those that give and those that take. People who pursue happiness and are willing to work for it and those who demand to be made happy. It's just part of human nature. But what's different about America is that the people who came here to begin it by far knew they would have to work for their happiness. It was a new idea in mankind and that idea drew the people who believed in it. There is still that wonderful remnant of that attitude and we have to grow it.

Peter: It seems to me the people who still come here are looking for the opportunities, but there are alot who have grown up here who are more complacent.

Rebecca: It's interesting to draw some parallels from the establishment of Israel back in 1949. The younger generations don't realize that it wasn't there always. To them it's always been a nation. So there is a grave concern among some older Israeli's that the younger generation doesn't understand, even though they are embattled every day. Jump now over to the United States and realize there is the same attitude from much of the younger generation. This country has been around for 200 years, but every single day a price has to be paid for our freedom. Some don't even realize why we are fighting in Iraq.

Helen: 12 years is a long time in a life only 20 years old. Many of them aren't even aware of the first Gulf War.

Rebecca: I can remember a defining moment in my life when as a young adult when I saw a movie and if I struggle hard enough I might be able to remember it. But it was about Communists coming through Mexico and taking over the southern and western parts of the US. I remember thinking it was such a silly movie, after all we're the United States. However, as the years went on I realized something like that could happen. I also see a strange behavior of many people over here who want absolute freedom and yet think we're imposing our will on Iraq. They don't realize we're helping an oppressed population and that the people who oppress them could come over here and cause trouble for us and our freedom. The disconnect is amazing to me. They enjoy and even demand their rights but they don't want other human beings to have the same rights.

Helen: There seems to be something that happened to our society within the past 40 years. Instead of the individual doing something themselves they hook up with a group or an organization that does something. Then the individual takes credit for it. For instance, someone's church may give to the poor and the individual may take credit for the generosity even though they themselves don't even contribute to the church. It's almost virtue by association. Or the government should provide benefits and as long as I agree with that sentiment therefore I am compassionate. All one needs to do is agree rather than do. It wipes away personal responsibility or accountability.

Rebecca: So much has been lost for the individual. And although we talk about the kids today, I wrote a column about this, it's the adults today that are the real problem; not the kids. The media, the pornography, the dumbing down in education, the garbage that's thrown at our children everyday is the responsibility of the adults. You don't have 5 or 10 year olds producing trash movies. You don't have a 6 year old deciding what should be taught to him in his history class. The adults have failed.

Peter: So does that shift the responsibility back just one generation?

Rebecca: I think it's creep. It's a slow process just as the frog in the pot of water that eventually boils him alive. A little bit more affluence, a little bit more expectations and a little bit more government answering our problems and what you see is the hand of government everywhere.

Peter: Why do you think the creep is creeping. Is it something that's built into the system.

Rebecca: I hate to make it so simplistic, but it's the very same problem that existed since mankind was created in the garden of Eden. It's the voice saying "you can do what you want, you can be all knowing and all powerful, you can demand anything, you want to eat the apple, eat it. It goes all the way back to the first idea of free will. Go gave us the most powerful thing that exists: free will. We were given the opportunity to determine our destiny, but consequences were clearly outlined. So when mankind doesn't submit to a higher authority, we don't have ordered freedom.

Peter: That has certainly been emphasized by the success and authority of the physical sciences. You even see bumper stickers that say "question authority". To some that bumper sticker means listen to the snake, listen to the material world.

Helen: How did you teach your children about authority, freedom and patriotism?

Rebecca: Mostly by example, I wake up every morning as a Mom thinking, "How I'm going to protect my kids?" I do that by instilling in them the values I have. I know good kids and good families who will go to the video store and because of what I called the garden syndrome, when the kids ask to rent a movie they shouldn't see, they get it. It's rationalized by "Just this one time", or "They're going to see it anyway". Mom's give into it all the time. However, I think, "Hello, I'm Mamma, not you. You are my child and I'm responsible for you and your life choices, at least at this time in your life. I'm responsible for putting my values in front of you every single day and every single moment. The price of liberty is eternal vigilance and it's necessary in family life also.

Helen: So you're not trying to be a friend?

Rebecca: I don't think one is exclusive of the other. If I'm their best friend, I'm going to protect them, I'll tell them "garbage in, garbage out." If you consume too much garbage one day you'll act like garbage, do you really want to be that way? That's a friend. A friend reminds you if you learn a good work ethic you can be successful and you could even take care of other people. If you think of other people too you can have a sense of what's important and realize it's not just materialistic. I'm not a good friend if I don't tell them those things!

So I think alot of our problems start with real parenting and also for all of us to get back to the real basics. We don't have to get complex in the way we live our lives. Basics such as manners, sharing, caring, being honest. It's not difficult or complex. There sure are complex situations, where you need wisdom to make the right choice. However, if your decisions are based on firm, basic values you will make the right choice. Principles first.

Helen: I grew up with people saying my word is my bond.

Rebecca: Yes, our society allows us to "change our mind", if it's not in writing we don't have to be responsible for our word. But for people who live by principles first contracts aren't necessary and we don't change our mind like the wind. Life is much more simple when we live by first principles.

Helen: We don't have to be complex, but we do have to be engaged in our lives, we have to find those first principles and know them in our hearts. If we take time to contemplate and reflect we find that we do know the right thing to do, we know when something is wrong. It's innate within us. Sure it's good to study, to know what the Founding Fathers did and why, but ultimately that's not really necessary.

Rebecca: What study does is to help you build your arguments, but the basics are in the heart of all people. The basics can be distorted and we have to be careful of that. Frances Shaeffer and C. S. Lewis wrote alot about the basic truths that exist within all mankind, all cultures. For instance, in every culture it's wrong to betray someone. If we compromise on the basic foundations, all else will crumble eventually.

Helen: So what would you tell the average person about how to become more involved in the Great Experiment?

Rebecca: I think a light bulb goes off in alot of people's minds when we talk about the Founding Fathers and reflect about what they did. There are actually Biblical principles in our Founding documents. Study those founding documents and understand how great they are. That's long term. More simply, let's just go to the Golden Rule. For instance, you encounter someone on the street and ask them what they want someone to do for them. After they give you the list, ask them what they are doing for someone else.

Plus most of us everyday are in constant denial of our own mortality. How many people live this day, this moment as though they are going to meet their Creator in 5 minutes. One of the basics is, "you were born and you will die". How many people think about that? How many people try to do their best every single moment? How many wonder why they are here?

Peter: Why questions are the tough ones, physical science can tell us all the how's but not the why's. That's up to us.

Rebecca: Political correctness has stifled some of our answers. Answers to these questions require judgment and discrimination. PC wants to outlaw judgments. Also, by never getting to the answer, it absolves us of actually taking action.

Helen: We were very impressed by your article, The Sobering Cost of War. We'll quote just the first line here: "Guys, chances are, someday you will go to war."

These were the sobering words my husband, Andy, spoke to our sons within days after that fateful September morning now known as 9-11. Our family was seated around the kitchen table where we so often laugh, argue and discuss both the mundane and memorable events of daily life.

My family, including both of our sons who are now ages 16 and 14, are ready to defend America and freedom at all costs. It is a sickening feeling for a mother to watch the days go by and know that the time is ever closer when her baby may have to go to war.

Mothers and fathers all across the country are grieving the deaths of their brave sons and daughters who continue the war against terrorism, now being fought largely in Iraq. But as in every war for freedom, the ultimate prize is worth fighting, and even dying for.

Helen: Can you tell us more about your feelings of sending your sons to war?

Rebecca: It's been said before, if something is worth living for, it's worth dying for. Let's go back to our denial of our own mortality. We're all going to die and dying for a noble cause, such as liberating the people of Iraq and protecting our homeland is a noble cause. I'm reminded of a story of a 99 year old man dying alone without having achieved much in his life. Wouldn't it be better to die a noble death than to die of nothing at all.

Peter and Helen: Thank you very much, Rebecca. We're sure many will be inspired by your words and by your family's example.

Peter and Helen Evans is a husband and wife team who are freelance writers and speakers and teach a philosophical approach to conservatism. They are also real estate agents in the Washington, DC area.

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