SUSI as key: random reflections on US political thought

my Trade Tripper column in the 13-14 August 2016 issue of BusinessWorld:

Just finished a US State Department sponsored “Study of US Institutions” (SUSI) program, with mine focusing on the Constitution and US Political Thought. The former was quite interesting for me, inasmuch as our constitutional system has inherent similarities with the US. But the latter was even more intriguing, considering the US (except perhaps for “pragmatism”) doesn’t really have an originally developed political thought.

Instead, what the US did was to adopt existing and emerging political philosophies and molded them as its own. And as an “experiment,” for even Americans today hold on to the belief that its country is an ongoing one, could only be honestly admitted as more successful than not. It’s a success we all should hope continues.

For the US was built not on racial or tribal lines but on an idea. Trite as it may seem (with Hollywood movies harping on it without necessarily understanding the implications), the notion that “all men are created equal” entitled to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” is fundamental. More on this later.

As with all good programs, SUSI encourages one learn more outside the classroom than in it. And it gave a human face to the international events one reads in the news. So I smile at the memory of this delightfully mischievous devout Muslim Algerian, a most optimistically elegant Thai, an enviously urbane Rwandan, and a passionately conservative Bulgarian.

But it was a Chilean lawyer who, like me, also works on natural law that I had one of my more personally cherished insights. One Sunday mass with him, I was struck that a person I’ve never met before, from a country thousands of miles from mine, with barely a word exchanged between us, would utter the same exact prayers, kneel when I kneel, stand when I stand. Some ridicule doctrines and rituals. But I found myself deeply moved knowing that when I intone “I believe ...” of the Creed or say the Lord’s prayer, I am joined by, actually uniting myself, with so many others, including those I have yet to meet, those long dead, and those yet to be born. From there, I dare say, we get a glimpse of the universality and timelessness of the Church.

If there’s at least one reason why Filipino Catholic bishops should unanimously insist in strict uniformity with Rome on the rubrics, it is that.

Sticking with religion: being consistently bludgeoned at home -- from media and the academe -- of the misleadingly Jeffersonian notion of “separation of Church and State,” one gets surprised at the underlying religiosity in the language of US politics.

Liberal Americans would deny this, of course. But from John Winthrop’s “city on the hill, which later Reagan would make “shining,” the Declaration of Independence’s “Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God,” to Lincoln’s “nation under God,” to today’s political speeches comes the point, as John Adams once remarked, that the US “Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people. It is wholly inadequate to the government of any other.”

By the way, to those who still insist that the US Constitution never mentioned God, the fact is that the same closes with the words: done “in the Year of our Lord one thousand seven hundred and Eighty seven.”

The unfortunate thing is that many US academics attempt to deny or ignore this, all in the name of political correctness or inclusivity. Or simple antipathy towards religion. But doing so creates particular problems, leaving the US political system looking strangely unmoored, without a coherent context, or like a product of unnecessary randomness.

In any event, speaking of the US Constitution, quite telling is that the oaths of public officers (specifically the US president), as well as for US naturalized citizens, contain the duty to “preserve, defend, and protect” -- not the United States but -- the US Constitution. It is an incredibly profound difference and something (considering the similarity of our oaths) many here miss.

For the US definitely has its faults. A fact the academics I met made a point of highlighting. Which was completely unnecessary. Only a socialist fool would expect utopia here on earth. For the US system (founded, amongst others, by Thomas Jefferson and current Broadway star Alexander Hamilton) never promised happiness for all but simply the right to pursue it.

That it carries out its promise admittedly imperfectly but still better than anyone is what anchors US exceptionalism. And the hypocrisy lies not with the US but those expressing hatred for it while desirous of its possibilities.

Space constraints compel me to leave other observations for future articles. For now, I exaltingly commend the Donahue Institute, led by Mike Hannahan and Lonce Bailey, for a superbly organized program. And quite specially the exhilaratingly wonderful Becky Howland, who I egregiously left out in my farewell speech but the one I gratefully will always remember as having led me, fittingly enough, to Walden Pond.