Our Ten Principles
Beyond the Neutrality Mirage
We’re said to live in a more knowing and cynical age, and yet our major news media outlets go right on striking a pose of unfiltered neutrality. The reality is that no news venue considers everything, fits everything, only reports and nothing more. Each of them brings a set of governing assumptions to a thousand daily questions: Whose ideas do we engage tomorrow? Which stories do we spotlight today? How do we frame the next big story?
This doesn’t mean the news business should get a free pass for rampant bias and distortion. The better course is to strive for fairness to the facts and to competing perspectives, and to be up front about your guiding principles. Humans are made to be free, rational, responsible creatures. To mislead them with a pose of unfiltered neutrality is beneath their dignity. So, what follows is a summary of what guides us at The Stream: principles, not partisanship.
The Principles of The Stream
Our most basic conviction is the Imago Dei, the idea that every human is made in the image of God with inherent dignity and value. The idea is visible in the Declaration of Independence where the American Founders insist “that all men are created equal and are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights.”
Our commitment to this idea means that when we cover some political wrangling over a basic human right, or our responsibility to the poor, we do so guided by the understanding that governments do not grant us our unalienable rights. They merely recognize or ignore them.
Closely tied to the idea of the Imago Dei is the conviction that we can know God and discern moral truth, that we are not mere mouths, but are meant to be free, responsible discerners of truth and creators of value.
Also, we are and do all of these things as inherently social creatures. The tradition of rugged individualism is a noble one. Its caricature, radical individualism, is misguided, impoverished and dangerous. We need each other.
Another foundational assumption: We are, all of us, sinners, a condition that cannot be engineered away by political experiments or the march of progress. Part and parcel of this: Government’s core role is to constrain human evil, and yet it must itself be constrained by checks and balances, since every government is run by sinful human beings prone to corruption.
There is another reason to limit the size and reach of government. Government is a crucial social institution, but not the primary one. Marriage and the family are the basic social institutions, and where a government undermines these by overstepping its bounds, rich and poor, young and old, pay a toll.
Finally, all of these truths come before politics, and are the foundation of a cultural heritage more basic than any political system, party or platform.
That heritage, moreover, gave rise to widespread human freedom. It’s true the cause of freedom progressed slowly and imperfectly. It’s true that it regressed in the age of colonialism, most infamously in the horrible abuses of Africans and the native peoples of the Americas. But amidst all the cruelty, corruption and hypocrisy stretching from the Middle Ages to the present, it’s easy to miss a singular fact. Widespread political, economic and religious freedom was born in the Christian West rather than elsewhere.
The Stream is dedicated to the proposition that freedom sprang from this cultural soil for a reason, and is unsustainable apart from that soil.
These ten principles motivate us, define our mission, guide our thinking and shape our policy preferences.
- Every human being has equal value and dignity.
- We are inherently and specifically social.
- Marriage and the family are the fundamental social institutions.
- We can know God and moral truth.
- Judeo-Christian religious faith guards our freedom.
- We’re all sinners.
- We need a state strong enough to protect and maintain the rule of law but limited enough
not to violate it.
- We are meant to be free and responsible.
- When we’re free, we can create wealth and value.
- Culture comes before politics.
1. Every human being has equal value and dignity.
It’s right there in the Declaration of Independence, described as a self-evident truth, “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Life is the first right. Without it, you can’t enjoy any other right.
Everyone knows vaguely that man is more than a mere animal, but most ancient cultures had a much lower view of human life than we do. America emerged from a culture that had been taught for centuries the truth that each of us, male and female, is created in the image of God. We still have a hard time applying this truth consistently, and the culture of death seeks to erase it from our cultural memory. Yet the truth still haunts the minds of Americans. We know that if we devalue one, we devalue all.
Unfortunately, we don’t apply this belief consistently, in part because secularism and progressivism have eroded it. Progressive Charles Merriam once wrote, “Rights are considered to have their source not in nature, but in law.” Alas, what the government giveth, the government can taketh away, as we have learned in spades since Roe v. Wade. A culture once committed to life now risks being consumed by the culture of death.
A just and humane government recognizes, in its laws, the equal value of every human being. The first duty of government is to protect the right of innocent human beings not to be destroyed by others. Pull out that thread and eventually the whole tapestry unravels.
The right to private property, to enjoy the fruits of our labor, is closely linked to our right to life. Our property is, in a sense, an extension of ourselves. It is wrapped up in our God-given role as stewards, so a right to property also protects our right to life. This is why no coherent defense of the right to property will deny the right to life.
Because every human being has value, we should treat extreme poverty, disease and death as enemies rather than just bad karma. We can’t create heaven on earth, but we should act and support policies most likely to lift people out of extreme poverty in the long run.
None of this is to say that we all have, or even should have, the same skills or motivation, or that the economic value of our labor is equal. Bitter experience teaches that trying to establish an “equality of outcome” among diverse individuals actually increases poverty while violating justice and our dignity as individuals.
2. We are inherently and specifically social.
Each of us has value by virtue of being human, but, as God said of Adam, it is not good for man to be alone. No man is an island. Our many, diverse relationships also define us. The ideal of Robinson Crusoe is not only unattainable. It’s not the ideal.
Our relationships are specific and particular. Our relationship with God is the most fundamental one. God created each of us, He loves us, and He sustains us at every moment. “For you formed my inward parts/ you knitted me together in my mother’s womb,” the Psalmist writes. God is closer to the unborn child than that child is to his mother.
After our relationship with God come our relationships with other people. We enter the world naked and utterly dependent. As children, we depend on our parents. Our relationship with our father is not the same as our relationship with our mother. As parents, we’re responsible for our children; we love them, sacrifice for them, and can’t imagine life without them. As spouses, we give ourselves to another person uniquely.
We seek communion with others and develop natural ties among our co-religionists and countrymen. We pray, live and learn from and with others. We work with others, trade goods and services with others and, when we are free, create value for ourselves and others.
Just as we have rights that others are bound to recognize, we also have obligations to our fellow human beings, especially to those closest to us and to those in need—the poor, the orphaned, the widowed, the outcast. We can best help the hurting when we practice well thought out acts of charity, not random acts of kindness. And when charity is replaced by political coercion, it tends to hurt rather than help.
Some view individuals as isolated atoms and miss this principle altogether. Socialists make a near-opposite mistake: they confuse society with the state. Socialism often appeals to well-meaning people who seek community; but it destroys real community. Under socialism, the quirky variety of real relationships — spouses, parents, children, friends, co-workers, civic organizations, trading partners — is eroded by an all-servicing state. This isn’t a theoretical prediction, but a matter of historical record.
Policies that do not respect the natural diversity of our relationships end up violating our rights as individuals. Just policies respect the natural diversity of our relationships. So, for instance, the way the federal government ought to relate to individual citizens is not the same as the way a mother relates to her children.
Today’s “mainstream” culture makes a hash of our relationships because it is a confused hybrid of libertine individualism and statist collectivism. On matters of sexuality, it’s every human animal for itself. If it feels good, do it. Yet the coercive state intrudes into pretty much everything else, and there are now hints of international governance. As a result, ordinary patriotism is commonly treated, not as a healthy, natural expression of our social natures, but as a dangerous and jingoistic nationalism.
Another confusion about our social nature concerns our relationship with the wider creation. Man is often viewed as, by his very nature, an all-consuming alien within nature, a malevolent virus to be minimized and contained. Certainly, humans have behaved like pillaging invaders, but that isn’t the whole story. The Earth is the Lord’s, rather than ours, and we are an integral part of creation, made from its dust. More than this, the Lord has appointed us stewards over it. So we should relate to the creation and its creatures responsibly while never mistaking it for the Creator. We are called neither to worship nor pillage the natural world, but to care for and cultivate it, while enjoying its bounty and beauty.
3. Marriage and the family are the fundamental institutions.
Conjugal marriage and the family are the two most basic human institutions. They exist in every time and place. Marriage and family pre-exist the state. The state does not determine what marriage and family are, but it must recognize them. We should oppose political attempts to redefine marriage, which are wars against the creation itself. This is not a call to inject the state “into people’s bedrooms.” Just the opposite. It’s a call for the state to recognize its limits. The state has neither the right nor the capacity to redefine pre-political realities.
We should also support policies that encourage healthy families. This requires discernment, since many supposedly “pro-family” policies create incentives that harm the family. Divorce rates, out-of-wedlock births and fatherless homes have risen in every class in the United States in the last fifty years, but the decay has been catastrophic in poor communities where the welfare state has mostly replaced the traditional roles of the father and the church. This tragic unintended consequence suggests a rule of thumb: If a policy surrenders territory to the state that ought to be part of civil society, that policy will harm rather than help families in the long run.
4. We can know God and moral truth.
Contrary to today’s fashion, the American Founders understood that everyone has a general knowledge of the natural moral law and the Lawgiver. That’s why even atheists know that murder is wrong, experience feelings of gratitude and guilt, bristle at injustice, and censure any God who would allow a world with so many injustices. Society need not resolve the mystery of divine sovereignty and widespread suffering in order to recognize that humans can discern enough of the moral law “from the things that have been made,” as the apostle Paul put it, to be held accountable for what we do.
We jealously guard every human’s right to freedom of religion while, at the same time, emphasizing that the existence of a Creator and a natural law are public truths. This is why the American Founders appealed to the “Laws of Nature and Nature’s God” while taking pains not to establish a national religion. Even the Supreme Court, which hasn’t always respected this part of our history, reiterated these points as recently as 1984, noting that our “institutions presuppose a Supreme Being.”
Secular progressivism, however, denies that we can know God and morality. It seeks to quarantine both to a ghetto of private religious belief. This has created a religiously hostile and relativistic public square, exactly the opposite of what the Founders intended. We must reverse this trend and defend the truth that man has real moral knowledge, the foundation of just government.
5. Judeo-Christian faith guards our freedom.
Though everyone has some knowledge of God and moral truth, that knowledge is darkened by sin. It tends to wither away without vibrant faith to reinforce it. We should stand with the American Founders, who supported robust expressions of religious faith in the public square even as they opposed the establishment of a national religion. That’s not a contradiction. It is simply the free exercise of religion guaranteed by the First Amendment.
Religious freedom in the public square need not imperil our freedom. In the past, some Christians have persecuted others, including Jews and fellow Christians. But they were violating the spirit and content of their faith in doing so. While not every religious belief is friendly to freedom, the basic tenets of the Judeo-Christian tradition reinforce political, economic and religious freedom. We owe our freedoms, in large part, to this tradition. It’s where we get our belief that individuals have equal value. It’s also where we get the idea that human sinfulness cannot be cleverly engineered away, an understanding that inspired the Founders to establish a limited government and a separation of powers.
This theological tradition encourages the virtues that help sustain the free society. It gives us hope in the future, which is under the providence of God, while preventing us from falling for utopian fantasies like the communist illusions that killed scores of millions of people in pursuit of the “new man.”
We must correct the false stereotype that faith feeds theocracy, and defend the freedom of believers to apply their faith to the concerns of the day.
6. We’re all sinners.
Evil is not just in our imaginations. We can’t eradicate it with the right amount of social engineering or positive thinking. We sin. Though we can know God exists, we forget. Though we can know the truth we fail to uphold it. We do the very things we don’t want to do. We are tempted by wealth, power, prestige, lust, gluttony and greed, and often surrender to those temptations.
We not only fail to do what we know we ought to do, but we also get confused about what we ought to do. Politically, this puts us in an awkward position. On the one hand, we need a government to punish evil and bear the sword. On the other hand, the very sin that needs to be restrained can only be restrained by other sinners. J.R.R. Tolkien said, “The most improper job of any man … is bossing other men. Not one in a million is fit for it, and least of all those who seek the opportunity.”
That’s why we need a government strong enough to restrain those who would kill, batter, steal, defraud and otherwise violate the basic rights of others, but that is strictly limited in scope.
7. We need a state strong enough to maintain the rule of law but limited enough not to violate it.
The American Founders understood this paradox of power. That’s why they established checks and balances in the Constitution. Between the Founders and us, unfortunately, came the misnamed progressives. They sought to expand government without limit, so they viewed the Constitution not as a guide but an impediment. Progressivism came to dominate all branches of government and most elite institutions in the twentieth century. This has devastated the checks-and-balances established by the Constitution. The federal government is now a Leviathan without shores. We should support policies and candidates committed to restoring the wisdom of limited government. This means that we must be willing to see unsustainable programs reformed, even programs that we like and depend on.
Government helps provide the conditions for prosperity and the creation of wealth, but government isn’t the source of wealth creation. When government tries to substitute itself for the proper functions of business, enterprise and the market, it distorts natural incentives, encourages cycles of dependency, replaces the happiness of earned success with the subtle indignity of a handout, hinders the creativity of entrepreneurs and turns the win-win game of a free exchange into a win-lose game of coercion and redistribution.
Some think that because of sin, the federal government should have even more power over the economy and our lives, as if the way to disperse power is to give more power to the most powerful entity. In truth, a limited government and a free economy each check and enhance the other. In a free economy, people aren’t beholden to the state for all the many goods and services of daily life, as they are in the total state. At the same time, a free economy benefits from a limited state that consistently enforces the rule of law and private property rights for rich and poor alike. In this way, business institutions are discouraged from pursuing criminal gain, and encouraged to channel their creativity, legitimate self-interest and even vices such as greed into ventures that meet the needs of others.
Since everyone in a market is sinful, laws and economic policies should, as much as possible, be set up to channel sinful motives into actions that benefit others. We know from experience that a free economy does this better than the alternatives. That’s why we should defend policies that advance economic freedom rather than extend the reach of political control ever further into the economic realm.
A free economy can channel sin, but it cannot exist unless a people are at least minimally virtuous. “Liberty,” said Lord Acton, “is the delicate fruit of a mature civilization.” Our economic freedom won’t last long unless certain institutions, especially churches and families — are free to instill virtue.
As important as government is for preserving the rule of law, history teaches us that it can also be the worst violator of the rule of law. We must oppose attempts to expand the role of government beyond its constitutionally enumerated duties. Thus, for instance, if a nation is careening toward a debt crisis, it is right and prudent to check and even shrink unsustainably large entitlement programs. These programs entice citizens to vote for more and more services for themselves with borrowed money that must be repaid by our children, grandchildren and, as is becoming increasingly apparent, ourselves. As people become more and more dependent on these programs, it becomes harder and harder for elected officials to reform them, even in the face of fiscal ruin. That’s why we must support policies and politicians that deal with this looming disaster honestly, and do whatever we can to impress upon our fellow Americans the urgency of the problem.
We should have a strong defense as part of a limited government. Defense, like all other expenses, tends to grow if unchecked and should be subject to budget constraints. At the same time, we should oppose attempts to weaken our defense capabilities, and reject claims that supporting the military amounts to nationalism and militarism. In a fallen world, protecting life and liberty requires that, at times, we take up arms against aggressors. Pretending otherwise is naïve, utopian and, ultimately, unjust. There is a difference between a just war and an unjust war, and there is a robust philosophical and religious tradition in the West to help us discern the difference. We must resist giving aid to an unjust military cause, while at the same time maintaining our right and capacity to wage a just war when necessary.
8. We are meant to be free and responsible.
We are created to be free. God values our freedom so much that He even gave us the power to reject Him. And we did. This put us under the bondage of sin. Still, God in His common grace has revealed ways for societies to restrain evil and achieve some measure of mundane freedom.
In free societies the government both protects and submits to the rule of law. It conforms to those realities outside it, including to the roles of individual persons, families, the Church and other institutions of civil society. Free societies protect private property. They allow their citizens to participate in the political process, to make basic economic choices, to exercise virtue and charity and to freely exercise their religious faith. These freedoms are indivisible: in the long run, political, economic and religious freedoms stand or fall together.
With freedom comes responsibility — for our choices, children and actions; for our neighbors, for the talents entrusted to us; for our faith. We have a responsibility to use our faculties of reason, imagination and empathy in the cultivation of the good, the true and the beautiful, a responsibility that extends to the natural environment God has given us to steward. If we hope to preserve and enrich our freedom in the twenty-first century, we must embrace these responsibilities.
9. When we’re free, we can create wealth and value.
We are creators made in the image of the Creator. We can create value, economic and otherwise. We do so by inventing new technologies and better ways of organizing businesses, by transforming once unusable matter into valuable resources, by specializing and building communities of exchange to provide goods and service to each other. In the many prudent and un-coerced exchanges that arise in such economies, additional value is generated and enjoyed by both parties — even though no new material has been added to the system. To doubt this is to imagine that the wheat farmer possesses just as much real value sitting naked in his field as he would if he exchanged most of the wheat for farming tools, clothing, shelter, furniture, kitchen appliances and a variety of other foods. Yes, he could make some of these things himself, but not all, and in many cases, not very well or efficiently.
To create new wealth and value depends not only on how hard we work, but also on where we are. The same hard-working person is likely to create far more wealth in an advanced, law-abiding society filled with creative entrepreneurs than in a lawless and oppressive society filled with despair. As a result, one of the best and time-tested ways to predict economic growth in a country is to look at the economic freedom its citizens enjoy.
Because human beings are value creators, we reject the false idea that the prosperity of some must come from the poverty of others. The best anti-poverty programs allow and encourage wealth to be created rather than forcibly redistributed.
At the same time, we should oppose the creeping cronyism in which powerful businesses collude with politicians and regulators to prevent others from competing in the marketplace. Cronyism, like socialism, is the enemy of economic freedom.
10. Culture comes before politics.
Elections matter. Politics shapes the culture. But ultimately, politics is a part of the culture. People of faith can still vote. Indeed we have a duty to vote thoughtfully both in the primaries and general elections; but we have been assimilated, marginalized and compromised, and that has had a devastating effect. We have surrendered culture- shaping institutions in media, academia and entertainment, a decline that no political election by itself can remedy.
At the same time, the political realm has largely absorbed that part of our culture known as civil society — from schools to voluntary aid societies. Even many of our religious bodies, rather than shaping and informing our politics, have become captive to politics and political institutions. We need to leaven and inform the political culture, not the other way around, and that effort cannot be pursued narrowly with any hope of sustained success. Any serious effort to renew our political and economic life must be rooted in a much broader cultural renewal, one that champions freedom for excellence and restores the institutions of civil society to their rightful place.