Sunday, December 25, 2016

Bruce Frohnen on Walter Berns on America's Political Theology

This article from 2006 is actually about much more. But I focus on what I put in the title. Walter Berns, a Straussian, is one of the folks who turned me on to studying America's political theology in detail. Many of the key passages in Berns' book Making Patriots are discussed here.

Before I get into Frohnen's discussion, I will report what I see as the weakest part of Berns' thesis. As I quoted in this article I wrote for Liberty Magazine (that was published a number of years after I submitted it to them), Berns posits "Nature's God" was non-interventionist. Reading the works, indeed the personal letters where they were free to speak their mind, of the three heterodox thinkers responsible for writing the Declaration of Independence -- Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and John Adams -- we see each believed in an active personal God.

On the other hand, a more challenging thesis is how compatible the rights grating God of Nature is with the God of Christianity or Judaism, etc. As Berns wrote:
We were the first nation to declare its independence by appealing not to the past but to the newly discovered “Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God,” and this had (and has) consequences for patriotism. Whereas the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob imposed duties on all men (see Exodus 20:1-17), “Nature’s God” endowed all men with rights; and, whereas the God of the New Testament commanded all men to love God and their neighbors as themselves (see Matthew 22:37-40), Nature’s God created a state of nature in which everyone was expected to take care of himself and, as “America’s philosopher” said (see John Locke, Treatises II, sec. 6), take care of others only “when his own preservation comes not in competition.” And so long as he remains in the state of nature, he has the right to do what he is naturally inclined to do, and what he is naturally inclined to do is not to take care of others. To say the least, he is not naturally inclined to be a patriotic citizen.15
Indeed, again quoting Berns, "where does the Bible speak of unalienable or natural rights, or of the liberty to worship or not to worship as one pleases?"*

The notion of natural rights was discovered in "nature" through "reason," not from the texts on the Bible. And Christendom had a fairly long tradition of incorporating essences founded in nature through reason, as Aquinas incorporated Aristotle. Still, Berns' thesis is that what was now being incorporated through "reason" was not "traditional" or "old" (as Aristotle was), but rather something "new." 

Frohnen, moderately critical or Berns' thesis, agrees somewhat:
Even when Aquinas (following Augustine) stated that an unjust law seems like no law at all, he did not then recommend revolt in all instances, instead advising submission where too much unrest would flow from opposition. The fragility of social order, and the dangers of disorder, demand caution in seeking reformed institutions or policies.
*The purpose of this post is simply to highlight some of the key issues. For an extensive analysis, you will have to read Frohnen's entire article. However, I will put one of Frohnen's footnotes under the microscope and quibble with it. It's footnote 18 and it relates to Berns' assertion quoted above on the right not to worship:
I would note, here, Berns’s insertion of the “right” “not to worship as one pleases,” which is found nowhere in the Declaration or elsewhere in our tradition. 
It's true the Declaration never explicitly invokes "liberty of conscience." But it does explicitly invoke an unalienable right to "liberty." As Berns notes in the book, of all the rights that "liberty" might encompass, conscience, as it was understood,  was without question (that is, not subject to argument) the most "unalienable." So yes, "liberty of conscience" is part of the Declaration's teachings.

And Jefferson, in a public writing (indeed, one that got him in trouble with the then forces of religious correctness), "Notes on the State of Virginia," describing the radical unalienability of conscience stated:
But our rulers can have authority over such natural rights only as we have submitted to them. The rights of conscience we never submitted, we could not submit. We are answerable for them to our God. The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others. But it does me no injury for my neighbour to say there are twenty gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.
This is what Berns refers to when he noted natural rights doctrine necessarily teaches a right not to worship as one pleases. 

Merry Unitarian Christmas

A tradition continues. See here.

Merry Christmas from the Moon

Remembering the important things, as these men did, seems longer ago and even farther away with each passing year, and to some, even more silly. Merry Christmas and Happy Hanukkah to all those here gathered: May we smile today, give thanks, and be inspired in the coming year to perpetuate their silliness...

It was on Christmas Eve 1968 that the astronauts of Apollo 8, Frank Borman, Jim Lovell, and Bill Anders, became the first of mankind to see an earthrise from the orbit of the moon, and looking back on us, they spoke these words:

Anders: "We are now approaching lunar sunrise. And, for all the people back on earth, the crew of Apollo 8 have a message that we would like to send to you...

"In the beginning, God created the Heaven and the Earth. And the Earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. And God said, Let there be light; and there was light. And God saw the light, that it was good; and God divided the light from the darkness."

Lovell: "And God called the light Day, and the darkness He called Night. And the evening and the morning were the first day. And God said, Let there be a firmament in the midst of the waters, and let it divide the waters from the waters. And God made the firmament, and divided the waters which were under the firmament from the waters which were above the firmament; and it was so. And God called the firmament Heaven. And the evening and the morning were the second day."

Borman: "And God said, Let the waters under the Heaven be gathered together unto one place, and let the dry land appear; and it was so. And God called the dry land Earth; and the gathering together of the waters He called Seas: and God saw that it was good."

And from the crew of Apollo 8, we close with good night, good luck, a Merry Christmas, and God bless all of you, all of you on the good earth."

It is good. God bless us, every one.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

BBC/Ambrosino on how contact with aliens might affect theology

From Brandon Ambrosino here. A big taste, taking us back to the late 18th Century:
Thomas Paine famously tackled this question in his 1794 Age of Reason, in a discussion of multiple worlds. A belief in an infinite plurality of worlds, argued Paine, “renders the Christian system of faith at once little and ridiculous and scatters it in the mind like feathers in the air”. It isn’t possible to affirm both simultaneously, he wrote, and “he who thinks that he believes in both has thought but little of either.” Isn’t it preposterous to believe God “should quit the care of all the rest” of the worlds he’s created, to come and die in this one? On the other hand, “are we to suppose that every world in the boundless creation” had their own similar visitations from this God? If that’s true, Paine concludes, then that person would “have nothing else to do than to travel from world to world, in an endless succession of deaths, with scarcely a momentary interval of life”.

In a nutshell: if Christian salvation is only possible to creatures whose worlds have experienced an Incarnation from God, then that means God’s life is spent visiting the many worlds throughout the cosmos where he is promptly crucified and resurrected. But this seems eminently absurd to Paine, which is one of the reasons he rejects Christianity.

But there’s another way of looking at the problem, which doesn’t occur to Paine: maybe God’s incarnation within Earth’s history “works” for all creatures throughout the Universe. This is the option George Coyne, Jesuit priest and former director of the Vatican Observatory, explores in his 2010 book Many Worlds: The New Universe, Extraterrestrial Life and the Theological Implications.
“How could he be God and leave extra-terrestrials in their sin? God chose a very specific way to redeem human beings. He sent his only Son, Jesus, to them… Did God do this for extra-terrestrials? There is deeply embedded in Christian theology… the notion of the universality of God’s redemption and even the notion that all creation, even the inanimate, participates in some way in his redemption.”
There’s yet another possibility. Salvation itself might be exclusively an Earth concept. Theology doesn’t require us to believe that sin affects all intelligent life, everywhere in the Universe. Maybe humans are uniquely bad. Or, to use religious language, maybe Earth is the only place unfortunate enough to have an Adam and Eve. Who is to say our star-siblings are morally compromised and in need of spiritual redemption? Maybe they have attained a more perfect spiritual existence than we have at this point in our development.

As Davies notes, spiritual thinking requires an animal to be both self-conscious and “to have reached a level of intelligence where it can assess the consequences of its actions”. On Earth, this kind of cognition is at best a few million years old. If life exists elsewhere in the Universe, then it’s very unlikely that it’s at the exact same stage in its evolution as we are. And given the immense timeline of the existence of the Universe, it’s likely that at least some of this life is older, and therefore farther along in their evolution than we. Therefore, he concludes, “we could expect to be among the least spiritually advanced creatures in the Universe.”

Sunday, December 11, 2016

The Modern Left Rejects the Founding Principles... does much of today's Republican Party as well, to be honest [including one Donald Trump]. The "general welfare" is too ensconced in the national fabric to ever pull the rug out from those whose survival has come to depend upon it.
But once upon a time, all but widows and orphans were expected to rely upon themselves.
Article 1, Section 8, Clause 1

Thomas Jefferson to Albert Gallatin
16 June 1817

You will have learned that an act for internal improvement, after passing both Houses, was negatived by the President. [James Madison, the "Bonus Bill" of 1817.]

The act was founded, avowedly, on the principle that the phrase in the constitution which authorizes Congress "to lay taxes, to pay the debts and provide for the general welfare," was an extension of the powers specifically enumerated to whatever would promote the general welfare; and this, you know, was the federal doctrine. Whereas, our tenet ever was, and, indeed, it is almost the only landmark which now divides the federalists from the republicans, that Congress had not unlimited powers to provide for the general welfare, but were restrained to those specifically enumerated; and that, as it was never meant they should provide for that welfare but by the exercise of the enumerated powers, so it could not have been meant they should raise money for purposes which the enumeration did not place under their action; consequently, that the specification of powers is a limitation of the purposes for which they may raise money.

I think the passage and rejection of this bill a fortunate incident. Every State will certainly concede the power; and this will be a national confirmation of the grounds of appeal to them, and will settle forever the meaning of this phrase, which, by a mere grammatical quibble, has countenanced the General Government in a claim of universal power. For in the phrase, "to lay taxes, to pay the debts and provide for the general welfare," it is a mere question of syntax, whether the two last infinitives are governed by the first or are distinct and co-ordinate powers; a question unequivocally decided by the exact definition of powers immediately following. It is fortunate for another reason, as the States, in conceding the power, will modify it, either by requiring the federal ratio of expense in each State, or otherwise, so as to secure us against its partial exercise. Without this caution, intrigue, negotiation, and the barter of votes might become as habitual in Congress, as they are in those legislatures which have the appointment of officers, and which, with us, is called "logging," the term of the farmers for their exchanges of aid in rolling together the logs of their newly-cleared grounds.

Friday, December 9, 2016

It's Almost 2017

And the phony Christian Nationalist quotations are still with us.

If folks like Joe Farah don't want to get labeled "fake news," they should stop making these mistakes, even as they have been called out many times before for this particular one.

A taste:
“We have staked the whole future of American civilization, not upon the power of government, far from it. We have staked the future of all our political institutions upon the capacity of mankind for self-government, upon the capacity of each and all of us to govern ourselves, to control ourselves, to sustain ourselves according to the Ten Commandments.”

– James Madison

Now that we have a president-elect who seems to understand how government that tried to do too much ends up doing nothing but harm, wouldn’t it be nice if he learned about and talked about the very best kind of government – self-government?

America’s founders knew all about it.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Sources on Right to Pursue Happiness

Friend of American Creation Bill Fortenberry listed some philosophers who influenced the American Founding with links to their understanding of what the phrase "pursuit of happiness" meant to them. It was noted that John Locke in his Essay Concerning Human Understanding invoked "pursuit of happiness." Interestingly, the Locke's famous "life liberty and property" derived from his Second Treatise on government.

Here is a link to Locke's specific use. Here are some other philosophers' use of that phrase: 1. Bolingbroke; 2. Joseph Priestley; 3. Shaftesbury; 4. Joseph Addison.

The deck of those four or five seems to be tilted in favor of the thesis that it was certain "key" or elite figures who possessed more heterodox ideas that were in tension with those of the more orthodox powers that be.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Right to Pursue Happiness: Eudaimonia

When I teach introductory or ethical portions of various American law courses, I usually lay the foundations with broad principles law seeks to protect and promote. And I go to America's Foundations (Declaration of Independence, Constitution, Jocke Locke, etc.).

Things like: Life, Liberty, Property, Equality, Promotion of Commerce, Order, Health & Safety, Diffusion of Knowledge.

As noted above (parenthetically) we do the Declaration and John Locke. I don't put "pursuit of happiness" on the list; though I do discuss how in Locke's original it was "life, liberty and property" and Thomas Jefferson changed it from  "property" to "pursuit of happiness."

The classes I teach tend to be survey classes (that is we don't get too deep into the tall weeds). So I attempt to briefly gloss over what I am about to write. First, scholars debate why Jefferson and the Declaration's other authors made this change and what, if anything it means. Left leaning scholars, I have observed, tend to emphasize Jefferson did this to give short shrift to property rights. Others, I have observed, argue simply the right to "pursue happiness" means "property rights."

To me and others, on the face of it, the rights to "liberty" and "the pursuit of happiness" sound like a redundancy.

I suspect however, such was a bit of wisdom the authors of the Declaration attempted to impart that traces to Aristotle (Eudaimonia). For reasons I need not get into in this post, I reject the argument that the Declaration and American Founding ought to be understood that there is only a right to do what's right, or that there can be no right to do wrong.

And that's not, as far as I understand, what Eudaimonia means. Rather, what such means is ... well let's let George Washington explain:
There is no truth more thoroughly established than that there exists in the economy and course of nature an indissoluble union between virtue and happiness; ...
In other words, in order to be truly happy (or perhaps we can say happiest), you must do what's virtuous. Certain unvirtuous behaviors may, in short, make us feel good; but we will probably wake up the next day feeling worse than we did before we did the dirty deed.

So use your liberty wisely. You can use it to do what's right or perhaps not right; but if you use it to do the latter, you won't end up happiest. Perhaps not happy at all. 

Monday, November 21, 2016

Dr. Robert P. Kraynak on Strauss, Voegelin, and Burke

Check it out here. A taste:
Following the logic of their positions, Strauss and Voegelin agree on crucial points in the development of Western thought but diverge on the role of Christianity. For Strauss, Western thought is a philosophical drama in which the classical philosophers and their medieval developers made virtue the standard for politics; this approach provoked the accusation of modern thinkers that the ancients “aimed too high” and that one should lower the goal of politics to the satisfaction of selfish human passions in a regime of freedom and material prosperity. While the modern revolt against any authority above man at first glorified scientific reason in the conquest of nature, it eventually led to the destruction of reason and produced the crisis of moral relativism or nihilism—the denial of any objective standard of right and wrong and the complete forgetting of eternity. Faced with this situation, Strauss sought to recover the classical rationalism of Socrates, which he understood to be a kind of zetetic (or searching) skepticism that allowed for rational standards of morality in natural right.
For Voegelin, the development of Western thought is mostly a religious drama (“history is Christ writ large”) in which Christianity changed human consciousness in ways that make it impossible to return to classical philosophy. While Christianity advanced the consciousness of the West by elevating the dignity of all persons, it also created a problem for political authority by dividing the spiritual and temporal into two realms and by radically secularizing or “de-divinizing” the political realm. This division eventually provoked a reaction among medieval thinkers like Joachim of Flora who sought to re-connect the two realms by giving politics an eschatological dimension. Their efforts produced a deformed kind of spiritual knowledge that Voegelin calls Gnosticism—the attempt to realize heaven on earth through secularized political religions, such as radical Puritanism, progressive liberalism, Comte’s “religion of humanity,” socialism, communism, and fascism. The history of the West is thus a Christianized history of consciousness that leads to misguided efforts to bring about worldly salvation through utopian ideologies, resulting in the totalitarian tyrannies of the modern age. Faced with this situation, Voegelin sought to recover the primary experience of openness to transcendence in the “mystic-philosophers” of earlier ages in the hope of restoring the authentic basis of order.
Both Strauss and Voegelin thought John Locke was "modern." Hat tip: Tom Van Dyke

Saturday, November 19, 2016

VoegelinView: "Redefining Rebellion: John Locke’s Slight of Hand"

By Scott Robinson here. A taste:
Voegelin was indeed quite critical of Locke on those occasions when he wrote about him, labeling Locke among “the most repugnant, dirty, morally corrupt appearances in the history of humanity”1 because Voegelin saw Locke as “an ideological constructor, who brutally destroys every philosophical problem in order to justify the political status quo.”2
Leo Strauss and Eric Voegelin, and their respective followers, disagree on much. One thing in which they were agreed is that John Locke was up to something.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

"Historians Against Trump" vs. Dart-Throwing Monkeys

[Reposted from July 24.  Since the usual suspects are at it again post-November 8, so too the rebuttal.]

“The facts are really not at all like fish on the fishmonger’s slab. They are like fish swimming about in a vast and sometimes inaccessible ocean; and what the historian catches will depend partly on chance but mainly on what part of the ocean he chooses to fish in and what tackle he chooses to use – these two factors being of course determined by the kind of fish he wants to catch. By and large, the historian will get the kind of facts he wants.”--E. H. Carr

You may have heard from our friend John Fea about a group of academics calling themselves "Historians Against Trump."  Philosopher Stanley Fish took to The New York Times to question the validity of such an enterprise in an essay called "Professors, Stop Opining About Trump." and I think historian/historiographer E.C. Carr would quite agree.

From the liner notes: 

Historiography consists partly of the study of historians and partly of the study of historical method, the study of the study of history. Many eminent historians have turned their hand to it, reflecting on the nature of the work they undertake and its relationship both to the reader and to the past. Carr was a well-known authority on the history of Soviet Russia, with which he was in ideological sympathy. Invited to deliver the 1961 George Macaulay Trevelyan lectures, Carr chose as his theme the question ‘What is History?’ and sought to undermine the idea, then very much current, that historians enjoy a sort of objectivity and authority over the history they study. At one point he pictured the past as a long procession of people and events, twisting and turning so that different ages might look at each other with greater or lesser clarity.

He warned, however, against the idea that the historian was in any sort of commanding position, like a general taking the salute; instead the historian is in the procession with everyone else, commenting on events as they appear from there, with no detachment from them nor, of course, any idea of what events might lie in the future.

In short, historians are entitled to their opinion, but it's not necessarily any better than normal people's. And although some individuals are quite brilliant in forecasting the future, social psychologist Phillip Tetlock's famous study proved that when grouped together [say, as "Historians Against Trump"], experts' predictions were worse than those of dart-throwing monkeys!

In the end, there's really no difference between a consensus and a mob; the wise individual speaks only for himself.

Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau (The British Republicans) & Modernity

One of these days I'm going to write a piece examining how current Western liberal democracies reflect the different ideas of Thomas Hobbes, John Locke and Jean Jacques Rousseau (and the British republicans as a proxy for Rousseau or vice versa). The current system of bureaucracy, including military bureaucracy is Hobbsean. That he, unlike Locke was unpopular among America's Founders is irrelevant: His vision of huge government prevailed.

To speak of a "republican" tradition in contradistinction to Locke's "liberalism" is important because many scholars after most notably Bernard Bailyn argued republicanism prevailed over liberalism. I am suspicious of this claim and have concluded there were simply viable streams of thought that were in tension with one another (harmonized as unified by the "Whigs").

Likewise with egalitarian republican Rousseau. He wasn't popular in America. But both present day America and Europe have similar safety nets, redistribution of wealth and income, and regulations on businesses, with Europe tending to be slightly more progressive. A difference in degree, not kind.

Late 18th Century England and America may not have cared for Rousseau, but they did have their own stream of "republicans" who argued for economic leveling on very similar grounds. They tended to do so using biblical language. However, Rousseau was, at least exoterically, a theist who claimed to be a Christian.

So we can swap Harrington for Rousseau, and it doesn't make much of a difference.

Sunday, November 6, 2016

EJ Spode: "The Calvinist Roots of American Anti-Intellectualism"

Check it out here. A taste:
The sanitized story about Protestantism that has been passed down to us is that it represented a revolt against corruption in the Church and brought a focus on Biblical writing rather than Church traditions as a source of authority. And it was indeed about those things. Partly. But more than that it was a revolt against an idea, espoused by Saint Aquinas, that we can come to know nature without the aid of religion (in the insider terminology, we can understand nature without the help of grace). The idea that part of the world that could be known and understood without aid of religion helped ignite the Renaissance but was an idea that Calvin in particular could not tolerate. In his view, separation of grace and nature would lead to no end of troubles; every aspect of our lives (science, culture, etc.) needed to be brought under religious control.
I think this certainly accurately describes some Calvinists. I for one have come across many American Calvinist fideists.  I wonder though, whether this accurately describes the big picture.

Hat tip: The Barefoot Bum.

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Does Christianity Really Authorize Slavery?

Leading unitarian William Ellery Channing, in his own highly influential 1835 polemic "Slavery," quotes the well-known Christian ethicist Francis Wayland's "Elements of Moral Science" in one of the more elegant religious arguments of the era.

One criticism of "fideism" is that it calls for the abandonment of reason and common sense, but as we see, that critique is spurious:

I close this section with a few extracts from a recent work of one of our most distinguished writers; not that I think additional arguments necessary, but because the authority of Scripture is more successfully used than any thing else to reconcile good minds to slavery.

"This very course, which the Gospel takes on this subject, seems to have been the only one that could have been taken in order to effect the universal abolition of slavery. The Gospel was designed, not for one race or for one time, but for all races and for all times. It looked, not at the abolition of this form of evil for that age alone, but for its universal abolition. Hence the important object of its author was to gain it a lodgment in every part of the known world; so that, by its universal diffusion among all classes of society, it might quietly and peacefully modify and subdue the evil passions of men; and thus, without violence, work a revolution in the whole mass of mankind. In this manner alone could its object, a universal moral revolution, have been accomplished. 

For if it had forbidden the EVIL, instead of subverting the PRINCIPLE, if it had proclaimed the unlawfulness of slavery, and taught slaves to RESIST the oppression of their masters, it would instantly have arrayed the two parties in deadly hostility throughout the civilized world; its announcement would have been the signal of servile war; and the very name of the Christian religion would have been forgotten amidst the agitations of universal bloodshed. The fact, under these circumstances, that the Gospel does not forbid slavery, affords no reason to suppose that it does not mean to prohibit it; much less does it afford ground for belief that Jesus Christ intended TO AUTHORIZE IT.

"It is important to remember, that two grounds of moral obligation are distinctly recognised in the Gospel. The first is our duty to man as man; that is, on the ground of the relation which men sustain to each other; the second is our duty to man as a creature of God; that is, on the ground of the relation which we all sustain to God. --Now it is to be observed, that it is precisely upon this latter ground that the slave is commanded to obey his master. It is never urged, like the duty of obedience to parents, because it is right, but because the cultivation of meekness and forbearance under injury will be well-pleasing unto God. --The manner in which the duty of servants or slaves is inculcated, therefore, affords no ground for the assertion, that the Gospel authorizes one man to hold another in bondage, any more than the command to honor the king, when that king was Nero, authorized the tyranny of the emperor; or than the command to turn the other cheek, when one is smitten, justifies the infliction of violence by an injurious man."*

*Wayland's "Elements of Moral Science," pages 225 and 226. The discussion of Slavery, in the chapter from which these extracts are made, is well worthy attention.

Arnhart on Natural Law, Darwin and Weakness of Fideism

See here from Larry Arnhart. A taste:
As some of the panelists indicated, one of [J.] Budziszewski's main ideas is to oppose what he calls "the Second Table Project."  It is said that Moses brought down from Mount Sinai Ten Commandments on two tablets of stone.  Traditionally, the first four commandments are identified as the first tablet or table, and they concern the worship of God; the last six commandments (beginning with honoring father and mother) are identified as the second table, and they concern moral laws.  Some Christians (Roger Williams, for example) have seen here a separation of Church and State, in that the Church enforces the first table of theological law, while the State enforces only the second table of moral law.  The first table requires religious faith.  But the second table can be known by natural reason.  The first table corresponds to divine law that can be known only by those who are believers in the Bible as divine revelation.  The second table corresponds to natural law that can be known by all human beings, even those who are not biblical believers, because it depends on natural human experience.  The second table can stand on its own natural ground without any necessary dependence on the supernatural.  But this is exactly what Budziszewski denies, because, he insists, there cannot be a natural law if there is no divine lawgiver.


 A third example of natural law correcting the Bible is recognizing the wrongness of the Bible's endorsement of slavery.  While the Bible sanctions slavery (see my post here, which includes links to other posts), Budziszewski knows by natural law that this is wrong, and therefore he looks for some way to correct the Bible to conform to his natural moral knowledge that slavery is wrong.  He writes: "Consider how many centuries it took natural law thinkers even in the Christian tradition to work out the implications of the brotherhood of master and slave.  At least they did eventually.  Outside of the biblical orbit, no one ever did--not spontaneously" (The Line Through the Heart, 36).  The explicit teaching of the Bible is that the "brotherhood of master and slave" is consistent with preserving slavery as a moral good, and this was the understanding of many Christians in the American South before the Civil War.  But Budziszewski rightly judges that Christians had to correct the Bible by seeing that human brotherhood demands the abolition of slavery as a great moral wrong.
In the title of my post I used the term "weakness of fideism." Admittedly, it's only a weakness if we understand the Bible's apparent sanction of slavery to be problematic.

Thursday, October 27, 2016

New Article & the Straussian Appeal

I like the work of Leo Strauss and his followers more for their method of analysis as opposed to their conclusions. Say what you want about them, they have tremendously influenced "conversations" in academic and intellectual circles.

Take, for instance, this new article written by professor of law and Donald Trump speechwriter F.H. Buckley in The American Conservative. I generally don't agree with the tenor of the article. Though, I think the article is interesting, makes some good points and is therefore worth reading (which is what I think in general of T.A.C.).

This quotation below relates to the mission of American Creation:
[M]ost intellectuals on the right draw their inspiration not from the Judeo-Christian tradition but from abstract theories of natural rights that have little need of God. They revere Jefferson, but as Walter Berns once asked me, just what kind of a god is “Nature and Nature’s God” anyway? At most, He’s Descartes’s god, as seen by Pascal, where he appears in Act I of the drama to give the system a “little push” and then departs the scene. But if that’s all He is, why do we need Him?


... By resting their political beliefs on abstract axioms of natural rights they have subscribed to theories of learned heartlessness; and it is a testament to their personal goodness that they’re better than their theories.
One doesn’t learn empathy or kindness from John Locke. Perhaps it’s not something one learns at all. The natural lawyer says it’s written on one’s heart; the evolutionary biologist says it’s coded in our genes, which perhaps comes down to the same thing. But it’s not to be derived from abstract theories. At best it’s a philosopher’s premise, not his conclusion, as it was for Adam Smith in The Theory of Moral Sentiments. We might get it from our families, or be reminded of it by novelists such as Dickens, Hugo, or E.M. Forster. Mostly, however, we get it from religious education and belief. 


... Even devout Christians will prefer to speak the language of natural law and natural rights, conceding to the secular left the principle that moral and political arguments can be framed only in terms that might appeal to people of other or no faiths. But in so doing they abandon the firmest and most encompassing foundations of our moral language.
... The natural-rights theorist can tell you what others owe him, but not what he owes to others save for the thinnest of duties: don’t harm others, don’t steal from them or defraud them. Does that sound like a complete moral code? ....
This is East Coast Straussianism, something the author learned from at the very least Walter Berns whom he cites. This isn't West Coast Straussianism. (Though, I've heard Berns, along with Michael Zuckert categorized as "mid-Western," something in between East and West Coast Straussianism.)

Berns may have been wrong on the "Nature's God" part of the Declaration of Independence. The personal writings of Thomas Jefferson, John Adams and Benjamin Franklin demonstrate they believed in a warmer deity. Or perhaps there is some chain of reasoning that demonstrates this "Nature's God" is more deistic than even those authors understood Him to be.

The East Coast Straussians thought natural rights were a "solid" place to rest a political order, but also a "low" place, and therefore should be supported but with a corrective. The explicit politics of revelation (what Buckley argues for) is one such corrective.

The Straussians are often termed "neoconservatives." I think many are; and some are not. But Mr. Buckley is the furthest thing from a non-religious Straussian neoconservative.

But he learned from them.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

How John Locke Influenced Christian-Deism, etc.

I think we are destined to debate about what John Locke really meant. Straussian claims that he was a secret Hobbesian imbibed atheist or something along those lines are too controversial to be asserted (as opposed to wondered about).

He was a secret something, probably theological unitarian of the Arian bent. He had a lowest common denominator understanding of Christianity that was so generously ecumenical that it got him accused of secret Socianianism.

I write this because I don't think an article by one Timothy Gordon (that Tom Van Dyke at American Creation linked to) quite gets John Locke anymore than the renowned Jeremy Waldron (insofar as Mr. Gordon properly articulates his argument) does. Gordon writes:
Locke was as Protestant as he was empiricist. As Jeremy Waldron notes, “Locke was intensely interested in Christian doctrine, and in the Reasonableness he insisted that most men could not hope to understand the detailed requirements of the law of nature without the assistance of the teachings and example of Jesus [i.e. the Bible].” This is a repudiation, not an affirmation, of natural law—the abiding epistemological expression of the Protestant one, at least until Immanuel Kant came along. Only revelation is meaningful. By implication then, Locke’s metaphysics was the perfect expression of Anglo-Protestant Christianity, notwithstanding his very un-Protestant “tabula rasa,” which was only a small setback. Such a setback is quite negligible in light of the more predominating Lockean concomitance between a meaningless empiricist nature and a meaningless Protestant nature—both of which thrive in Locke’s philosophy. And this means that the concept of “natural law” should be utterly anathema to Locke or the Lockean.

This is why, Waldron continues, “like the two other very influential natural law philosophers [being read by the Founders], Hugo Grotius and Samuel Pufendorf, Locke equated natural law with the biblical revelation.” Natural law equals Biblical revelation? What an intentional misconstruing of opposites!

Natural law is what we know about reality from nature, not from revelation. Locke, however had to proceed like that because he wanted to overthrow the (ironically Catholic) tyrant in 1688. And he wanted to do so even though natural law and revelation are conceptually distinct. Indeed, such a distinction between Natural Law (inherent in the two out of three of Catholicism’s teaching voices the Reformation excised) and Revelation informed the sine qua non of the Reformation, which repudiated the Catholic view of their concomitance.
If Gordon accurately represents Waldron, I agree with Gordon and not Waldron's Locke. Natural law is not biblical revelation. But I don't think either Locke or those other natural law thinkers equated them as such. In fact, in his Second Treatise on Government, Locke noted that the "state of nature" -- foundational to his political theory -- needs a law to govern it, and "reason ... is that law."

Rather the argument is that reason and revelation are separate channels that when properly put together will arrive at the same conclusion. I saw, at Princeton, Waldron debate Michael Zuckert, who posits the esoteric Hobbesian atheistic Locke theory. The debate was moderated by the late great Locke scholar, Princeton professor Paul Sigmund. Sigmund told me personally, off the record, he saw Locke as a "liberal Thomist."

Locke may well have repudiated natural law; but if that's true, it's an esoteric conclusion. Locke's exoteric texts don't do such. Rather, one could argue Locke changed or weakened the classical understanding of natural law by providing a metaphysically thin basis for it.

But ultimately I think Locke made a good point when he, as summarized in the above quotation, "insisted that most men could not hope to understand the detailed requirements of the law of nature without the assistance of the teachings and example of Jesus."

Locke also, if I properly understand his teachings on Christianity and the limits of human understanding, thought the average person -- certainly the people with below average intelligence -- (i.e., the "ignorant fishermen" who were Jesus' original followers) might not be able to understand all of the verses and chapters of the Bible and complex doctrines that have developed in Christendom over the ages.

Yes. With three graduate degrees and having passed the bar exam in two states, I've gotten through Aristotle and the natural law thinkers. And I've read the Bible and so on. All of this can be very difficult to understand. Parts of the Bible are as difficult to understand as the intricacies of Aristotle and Aquinas.

Locke was NOT saying that whereas natural law can be difficult, the Bible is easy. Rather he was saying that Jesus' moral teachings were much easier for people of average or below average intelligence to understand than what you get through the long chain of reasoning required to understand the natural law and other complicated matters.

In essence, Jesus here provides a shortcut to get to the same conclusions a very refined mind can get to through reason alone, examining nature. If a more simple mind can't grasp the complicated intricacies of the Nicene Trinity and other complex theological doctrines, and instead ends up believing in something not orthodox, such shouldn't disqualify the person from "Christianity" provided he believes Jesus a unique Messiah.

This is a point that the Christian-Deists, Unitarians, and other expositors of "Primitive Christianity" would later run with. And I don't see it as a repudiation of natural law or equating natural law with biblical revelation.

Though it does strongly reinforce the point later made by Christian-Deists that Christianity essentially was a republication of the law of nature. As it were the "essential" parts of Christianity tended to be the simple parts, Jesus' words, and moral teachings and example. Everything else was either superfluous or up for grabs.

This includes what the canon of the Bible was. Especially whether some of the harder to understand books of the Bible like Revelation (Apocalypse) properly belonged. Whether St. Paul was inspired or an original corrupter of Jesus' words. I'm not saying Locke took such unorthodox positions on these matters. But the Christian-Deists he inspired, using his method, did.

Saturday, October 22, 2016

America's Founding Principle: Even before the Enlightenment, Catholic Liberty

0487 tp

Before there were Whigs, there was Algernon Sidney.

Before there was Sidney, there were the "Schoolmen," the Scholastics, the philosophical descendants of Thomas Aquinas such as the Jesuit priest Francisco Suárez, whose work informed Dutchman Hugo Grotius's seminal work on natural law.

The notion of liberty as a natural right predates the Enlightenment, the Whigs, and modern "rationalism."

SECT. II. The common Notions of Liberty are not from School-Divines, but from Nature.
Tho the Schoolmen were corrupt, they were neither stupid nor unlearned: They could not but see that which all Men saw, nor lay more approv'd Foundations, than, That Man is naturally free; That he cannot justly be depriv'd of that Liberty without cause, and that he dos not resign it, or any part of it, unless it be in consideration of a greater good, which he proposes to himself.
But if he unjustly imputes the Invention of this to School-Divines, he in some measure repairs his Fault in saying, This has bin foster'd by all succeeding Papists for good Divinity: The Divines of the reformed Churches have entertain'd it, and the Common People every where tenderly embrace it.That is to say, all Christian Divines, whether reform'd or unreform'd, do approve it, and the People every where magnify it, as the height of human Felicity. But Filmer and such as are like to him, being neither reform'd nor unreform'd Christians, nor of the People, can have no Title to Christianity; and, in as much as they set themselves against that which is the height of human Felicity, they declare themselves Enemys to all that are concern'd in it, that is, to all Mankind.
 —Sidney, Discourses concerning Government, c. 1683

Like any good 17th century English Protestant, Sidney disparages and minimizes the role of Catholicism in creating the emerging political philosophy that would be known as "liberalism," but then again it still goes on today with the 21st century secularists.

Plus ça change.  


[See also Timothy Gordon's  Plagiarizing Catholicism: Algernon Sidney and the Whigs:
In the end, the only stretch of “intellectual reality” inheres in the American hagiography suggesting that Whig theory was a new American innovation in the late 18th Century…or even a new British one during the prior century…or even a new Northern European Protestant one during the century prior to that.
Whiggism is simply Anglified Catholic political theory imported by sola scriptura Protestants (many of whom were also Enlightenment empiricists) and turned directly against the Catholics in 17th century England—and somewhat less directly against the Catholics in 18th century America. Now how simple is that? Probably not simple enough to plagiarize effectively!]

Friday, October 21, 2016

All American Whigs Thought Alike on these Subjects

This letter from Thomas Jefferson to Henry Lee, May 8, 1825 brings to mind a recent article by historian Alan Taylor in the New York Times entitled Our Feuding Founding Fathers. Below is a larger quotation from Jefferson's letter to Lee:
[W]ith respect to our rights, and the acts of the British government contravening those rights, there was but one opinion on this side of the water. All American whigs thought alike on these subjects.


All its authority rests then on the harmonizing sentiments of the day, whether expressed in conversation, in letters, printed essays, or in the elementary books of public right, as Aristotle, Cicero, Locke, Sidney, &c. …
The bottom line of the New York Times' article is that whereas people today tend to think "the Founders of America" agreed in one voice, the fact is that they disagreed.

The impression that they were so united in opinion, though, is arguably their fault (or desire). We see the above quotation by Jefferson stating, "All American whigs thought alike" and of course George Washington hoped they would when he cautioned against the political factions that were breaking out before his eyes, much to his chagrin.

And in Federalist 2, John Jay wrote eloquently about America's supposed homogeneity.

Renowned historian Bernard Bailyn has written the standard bearer work on the different ideological sources that drove the American Founding (his thesis is technically on America's Revolution, though it can be enlarged to include the entire "Founding").

Below are the 5 principle sources Bailyn identifies:

1. Ancient Greco-Roman; 2. Biblical, with a focus on Protestantism; 3. English Common Law; 4. Enlightenment rationalism; and 5. Whig, with a focus on the British "Commonwealth" thinkers.

I used to argue -- and it's possibly a correct argument -- that 4. Enlightenment rationalism was the lens through which America's Founders viewed the competing sources. But that's not Bailyn's argument. Rather, his is that 5. the Whigs were responsible for "harmonizing" all of the different sources.

And, indeed, speaking as Whigs, with the above quotation by Jefferson as proof, America's Founders presented the different ideologies as harmonized. (Whether the final result of the ideological pot America's Founders stewed perfectly parallels that of the British Commonwealth Whigs is questionable, see below.)

But was it so harmonious? Apparently not.

Of Jefferson's sources (and using the above numbers), Aristotle and Cicero were 1; Locke was 4; and Sidney was 5. Because they were both professed Christians, Locke and Sidney could also qualify as 2 (and there were plenty of patriot preachers and notable divines of that era whose names we could plug in). Source 3, English Common Law, didn't have a figure represented in Jefferson's quotation. But there is one figure who unquestionably stands as the authority for such and that is Blackstone.

So how does Blackstone "fit" with the American Revolution in particular and founding in general? He was a Tory who didn't think anyone -- including the Americans -- could overrule Parliament's last word on what the rights of Englishmen were, the antithesis of what America's Revolution stood for.

Likewise my studies of "republicanism" and Agrarian laws -- basically me reading Eric Nelson's work -- demonstrate a tension, on economic policy, between the 1. Ancient Roman view, which was more individualistic; and 2. British Commonwealth Whig view, which was more egalitarian. And the Enlightenment liberal view, i.e., Madison's, rejected British Whig egalitarianism in favor of a more individualistic view closer to the Ancient Roman position.

As I've noted before, arguably Madison's view prevailed during the American Founding which suggests that modern scholars, like Bailyn (and Gordon Wood) who stress "republicanism" over "liberalism" may have it wrong. Or we can say that the "liberal" and "republican" strains of Founding era thought were both important and competed with one another, and what prevailed is debatable. 

On a related note, I like the work the followers of Leo Strauss (with whom I often disagree) have done putting the record of the American Founding under the microscope. It's not so much their conclusions, but analysis which I most appreciate.
I think the Straussians paid a little more attention to Bailyn than he did to them, but the East Coasters (Allan Bloom, Harvey Mansfield, the Kristol family) came to a similar conclusion in that the different ideological underpinnings of the American Founding were in tension with one another. They particularly focus on how the "modern" Lockean view was not consistent with either traditional orthodox Christian teachings or of the noble pagans (Aristotle, Cicero).

On the other hand the West Coasters -- followers of the late Harry V. Jaffa -- tend to act as good modern Whigs and "harmonize."

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Ben Franklin Quotation that Typifies the Zeitgeist that Caused the Great Enrichment

Back in 2009, Cato Unbound published a series on how the world got modern. The amount of details there is massive and something I care not to address. I want to look at more "forest" issues, than "trees."

This question is worth revisiting because it hasn't been answered definitively. It's indeed one of those things over which we will continue to argue.

Peter Thiel is fond of noting the incredible technological progress the modern world experienced starting around 1800 and ending, in his opinion, 1969 (with the moon landing, and the field of information technology excepted). Niall Ferguson recently gave a Ted Talk on what he views as "6 Apps" that caused modernity's material progress. And most recently Deirdre McCloskey has written about this "great enrichment" that didn't start to take off until around 1800 and arguably continues to this day (even if Thiel and others argue we stopped progressing as we should in 1969).

The possibilities as to what caused such to happen when and where it did are endless. For instance, it could be that Providence simply willed it to start taking off around 1800. Or, that advanced aliens who seeded life on Earth decided that was the time to start filtering down to humanity more knowledge that would lead to such dramatic advances. The evidence for both of such cannot, alas, be falsified. So we need to look somewhere else.

My explanation is that it was the Enlightenment zeitgeist perfectly captured in the quotation below by Ben Franklin in a letter written to John Lathrop, May 31, 1788:
I have been long impress’d with the same Sentiments you so well express, of the growing Felicity of Mankind from the Improvements in Philosophy, Morals, Politicks, and even the Conveniencies of common Living by the Invention and Acquisition of new and useful Utensils and Instruments, that I have sometimes almost wish’d it had been my Destiny to be born two or three Centuries hence. For Inventions of Improvement are prolific, and beget more of their Kind. The present Progress is rapid. Many of great Importance, now unthought of, will before that Period be procur’d; and then I might not only enjoy their Advantages, but have my Curiosity satisfy’d in knowing what they are to be. I see a little Absurdity in what I have just written, but it is to a Friend who will wink and let it pass, while I mention one Reason more for such a Wish, which is that if the Art of Physic shall be improv’d in proportion with other Arts, we may then be able to avoid Diseases, and live as long as the Patriarchs in Genesis, to which I suppose we should make little Objection.
This is for lack of a better term -- and I'm sure we can come up with better than this -- classically liberal, Enlightenment progressivism.

Yes, it's something scientifically based. But there's more to the story. These thinkers like Ben Franklin had a holistic view that every field of knowledge including politics and theology were sciences.

The problem I have with Jack Goldstone's essay, as it were, is that he's too particular in specifying and crediting engineering. Yes, of course engineering is important. But so too are the insights of economist Adam Smith and those who followed him. Economics is not engineering. As Niall Ferguson notes, it's not just one thing; it's a number of things. Thus, it's something more holistic than specific.

Look at how such thinkers as Franklin viewed the "science" of political theology. It's not necessarily traditional orthodox Christianity which had been established since 325 AD. But it's also not necessarily the strictly deist God of Spinoza. (One could argue, as Jason Kuznicki did in the original Cato series that the modern Enlightenment view would eventually grow into such, and perhaps then further towards agnosticism and atheism.)

And much of what they wrote was consistent with what's written in the Bible. Indeed, we see Franklin using biblical examples as inspiration for scientific advancements. But this approach is more free and forward thinking.

Many of these "scientists of everything" were like Franklin (electricity), Joseph Priestley (chemistry),  Richard Price (finance), members of The Club of Honest Whigs. That's to whom I give chief credit for modernity's advances.

The period in which they operated was "the Enlightenment" of the late 18th Century. Ironically, the advances of modernity didn't start to take off until 1800, which marks the end of that period. So we can say that the late 18th Century Enlightenment is when the seeds were planted. To the extent that pre-Enlightenment periods caused the Great Enrichment, we would have to argue that they created the fertile soil for the fruits of which the seeds of the Enlightenment rightly take credit.

Sunday, October 9, 2016

John Adams on Republican Government

John Adams, Thoughts on Government, Apr. 1776, Papers 4:86--93

A taste:
We ought to consider, what is the end of government, before we determine which is the best form. Upon this point all speculative politicians will agree, that the happiness of society is the end of government, as all Divines and moral Philosophers will agree that the happiness of the individual is the end of man. From this principle it will follow, that the form of government, which communicates ease, comfort, security, or in one word happiness to the greatest number of persons, and in the greatest degree, is the best.

All sober enquiries after truth, ancient and modern, Pagan and Christian, have declared that the happiness of man, as well as his dignity consists in virtue. Confucius, Zoroaster, Socrates, Mahomet, not to mention authorities really sacred, have agreed in this.


A man must be indifferent to the sneers of modern Englishmen to mention in their company the names of Sidney, Harrington, Locke, Milton, Nedham, Neville, Burnet, and Hoadley. No small fortitude is necessary to confess that one has read them. The wretched condition of this country, however, for ten or fifteen years past, has frequently reminded me of their principles and reasonings. They will convince any candid mind, that there is no good government but what is Republican. That the only valuable part of the British constitution is so; because the very definition of a Republic, is "an Empire of Laws, and not of men." That, as a Republic is the best of governments, so that particular arrangement of the powers of society, or in other words that form of government, which is best contrived to secure an impartial and exact execution of the laws, is the best of Republics.

Of Republics, there is an inexhaustable variety, because the possible combinations of the powers of society, are capable of innumerable variations.

Friday, October 7, 2016

Did the Ancient Jews in fact have a Republic?

Below is an email I sent to a libertarian friend of mine (for the record, I am a libertarian, but am open minded on making exceptions that many libertarians would not) for whom I have tremendous respect and admiration. I sent him an email which he didn't respond to. It's below.
I know that John Milton was good on a lot of liberty issues. But I wonder what you make of his thoughts on economic liberty. Eric Nelson of Harvard has done a lot of interesting research that transcends ideological boundaries.
The way I see it, Madison's vision, which is close to the laissez-faire that libertarians would endorse, prevailed (in no small part because of the hard work he and others did for that to happen). This is the "liberal" stream of thought of the Founding era.
However, the "republican" or we could say "commonwealth" view was something arguably more economically egalitarian. This is a reason why some notable left of center scholars -- the ones who aren't busy trying to "deconstruct" the American Founding -- may stress "republicanism" over "liberalism."
Nelson's thesis is, regardless of Madison's vision prevailing at the American Founding, the world we have today -- the "mixed" system of capitalism that currently predominates geopolitics, where we have simultaneously inequality of outcomes and private holdings, but also a government that steps in and decides how much is too much and taxes affluence more in order to redistribute -- is the vision of Milton and some other British commonwealthsmen.
It's also an explicitly religious vision. I could go on.
Yes on page 56 of The Hebrew Republic, Nelson claims that we are living in the age of Milton as opposed to that of Thomas Hobbes (I will have a subsequent post where I argue that we are actually living in the age of Hobbes, Locke and Rousseau and the hebraic republicans represent a more authentically Anglo example of the egalitarianism that the continental Rousseau would later champion).

Did you get that? Nelson isn't arguing that Milton prevailed during the time of the American Founding. Rather, that the system that predominates TODAY in 1st world nations -- not just the United States, but Western Europe, Australia, Canada, the developed Asian nations, etc. -- traces to Milton and the other hebraic republicans.

A question that interests me is, did the Ancient Hebrews in fact have a "republic"? As I read the text of the Bible, I don't see it. But I'm just some dude. And on faith matters, I am radically individualistic. I will decide for myself how to interpret the Bible, the context, not limited to but including, matters of doctrine, which texts are inspired, what the errors are (if any) and which books belong in the canon. And my faith beliefs change from day to day.

But on theological matters, I am a nobody.  So I wonder what the prevailing theologians make of the idea that the Ancient Hebrews had a "republic." I may be ignorant here but I can't think of any current "leading" Christian theologian of whatever ideological stripe endorsing the notion that the Ancient Jews had a "republic." Not Pope Benedict, not R.C. Sproul, not Russell Moore, not N.T. Wright, not (the relatively recently departed) Jaroslav Pelikan, not Miroslav Volf, not Bishop Spong, not Rachael Held Evans, etc. They may have made these arguments or addressed the issue; I'm just not aware of them.

In the past, yes, very notable thinkers did make this argument which had, according to Dr. Nelson, profound consequences. They took the notion of "republicanism" that was entirely a matter of pagan Greco-Roman origin, and grafted it onto the Old Testament. But in so doing, drafted what they saw as the economic egalitarianism of Ancient Jews into the concept of "republicanism."

The Ancient Greco-Roman republicans on the other hand were, like James Madison, not economic egalitarians. They weren't concerned with inequality of outcomes.

Milton et al. did borrow from Jewish sources -- rabbis who were his contemporaries or preceded him. But I too wonder about where prevailing Jewish thought among the different strains -- conservative, reformed, Orthodox, etc. -- is on this matter.

For that, I will ask my friend, the estimable Seth Barrett Tillman.

Friday, September 30, 2016

John Adams Rejects the Concept of the Hebrew Republic

One of the challenges in trying to articulate what "the Founders" believed is that they often differed. In fact, as I've often noted, there were different strains of thought that made up a "synthesis." And those strains were in tensions with one another. Whig thought though presented the synthesis as a unified whole. As in "all American Whigs thought alike, etc."

One sentiment which united the Whigs was "republicanism" was the best if not only viable form of government. Certainly it was preferable to monarchy.  The notion of republicanism traces to Western Civilization's Greco-Roman heritage. And the Founders who wrote the Federalist Papers, adopting the surname Publius, imagined themselves as revived Roman republicans. Noble pagans, if you will.

There was another stream of thought which argued that the Ancient Hebrews had a "republic." Eric Nelson's magnificent work traces the intellectual lineage of such sentiment. We see this sentiment represented in sermons such as Rev. Samuel Langdon's The Republic of The Israelites An Example To The American States, (June 5, 1788) and even in Thomas Paine's Common Sense.

I remember reading John Adams' rejection of Paine's argument that the Ancient Hebrews had a "republic." American Creation commenter Lex Lata reminded me. As Adams wrote in his autobiography:
"I told him further, that his Reasoning from the Old Testament was ridiculous, and I could hardly think him sincere. At this he laughed, and said he had taken his Ideas in that part from Milton: and then expressed a Contempt of the Old Testament and indeed of the Bible at large, which surprized me."
Yes, as Eric Nelson discovered, John Milton was one of those figures who posited the concept of a Hebraic republic.

Saturday, September 24, 2016

An Observation on Bill Federer's Recent Article

So I linked to Ed Brayton's criticisms of Bill Federer's recent Christian nationalist article. I read Federer's article. This part struck me:
After being president of Harvard, Samuel Langdon was a delegate to New Hampshire’s ratifying convention in 1788. The Portsmouth Daily Evening Times, Jan. 1, 1891, accredited to Samuel Langdon: “by his voice and example he contributed more perhaps, than any other man to the favorable action of that body” which resulted in New Hampshire becoming the 9th State to ratify the U.S. Constitution, thus putting it into effect. There Rev. Samuel Langdon gave a speech titled ‘The Republic of the Israelites An Example to the American States, June 5, 1788, which was instrumental in convincing delegates to ratify the U.S. Constitution:
Instead of the twelve tribes of Israel, we may substitute the thirteen states of the American union, and see this application plainly offering itself, viz. – That as God in the course of his kind providence hath given you an excellent Constitution of government, founded on the most rational, equitable, and liberal principles, by which all that liberty is secured … and you are impowered to make righteous laws for promoting public order and good morals; and as he has moreover given you by his Son Jesus Christ…a complete revelation of his will … it will be your wisdom … to … adhere faithfully to the doctrines and commands of the gospel, and practice every public and private virtue.”
I understand why a Mormon would believe in the theology of Langdon's address, precisely because of when and where Mormonism was founded. Mormonism incorporates various eccentric late 18th Century Americanist historical dynamics into its theology. For instance, they believe as a matter of doctrine that America’s Constitution was a divinely inspired document.

Because orthodox Christianity was founded one thousand and some hundred odd years before America and thus teaches nothing special about America as a particular country, serious scholars of political theology, many of whom devoutly believe in orthodox Christianity and try to get the faith right, understand these sermons and their premises differently.

I’m thinking of among others Drs. Mark Noll, Nathan Hatch, George Marsden, Robert Kraynak, Gregg Frazer and John Fea.

The notion that Ancient Israel had a “republic” that could serve as an example to the newly established “United States” is as much a creation of Whig and Enlightenment thought as it is “biblical.” And since the concept of a “republic” actually derives from the Ancient Greco-Roman tradition (for whom America’s Founders had an affinity) arguably that ideological strand gets dragged in too here.

As Dr. Frazer observes on the content of this and related sermons:
[They] seem to depict God’s role as something similar to Rousseau’s legislator; He disinterestedly established the foundational law for the benefit of society, but did not live under it. In their version and consistent with democratic theory, God established it all [quoting Langdon’s sermon] “for their happiness” rather than to achieve the fulfillment of a sovereignly determined plan. By their account, God submitted the laws to the people for their approval and acceptance (as per Rousseau’s legislator).
— Frazer, PhD thesis, pp. 393-94.
If I remember correctly, Dr. Frazer claims Samuel Langdon was a "theistic rationalist" not a "Christian." This may not be correct insofar as the "theistic rationalists" were not orthodox on matters like Trinity and other traditional doctrines of the faith. Langdon may well have been an orthodox Trinitarian Christian.

One thing Dr. Frazer claims about the "theistic rationalists" is that their God (unlike the "Christian" God) was man made; the key Founders and those who influenced them remade God in their image. So Rev. Langdon may have been an orthodox Christian. But it seems he's still revising the biblical record.

I don't think there's any question that Elias Boudinat was an orthodox Christian.  But he did something very similar when he claimed that Native Americans were the lost tribes of Israel. And as with the notion that the Ancient Israelis had a "republic," this notion too was originally posited by European Rabbis.

Friday, September 23, 2016

Brayton on Federer's Recent Article on the Lutz Study

Check out Ed Brayton's piece here. A taste:
... The Lutz study, you may recall, looked at the relative influence of various Enlightenment philosophers on American politics before, during and after the founding (from 1760-1805). Lutz, a history professor at the University of Houston, and his co-author took a large number of samples of political writings from that period and counted up the number of references in those documents to people like John Locke, Montesquieu, Sidney and others.

There are two different versions of the lie about this study. Some claim that this study looked at documents from the founding generation, for instance. But Federer goes all the way and claims that the documents being studied were not just from the founding fathers, but specifically from the 55 men who signed the Constitution.


... This study started with 15,000 documents, then pared that down to about 2200, then finally to 916 documents that were actually included in the sample. The vast majority of them were not from any of the men who signed the Constitution, or anyone who is rightly considered a founding father at all. They were newspaper articles, pamphlets (which was the dominant means of communication in those days) and such. A full 10% of those pamphlets were actually reprinted sermons, which was very common then, and the overwhelming majority of the Biblical citations found in those documents came from those sermons.

But that’s just the start. The study also broke down those citations by specific time period, including 1787-1788, the two years when the Constitution was being written and ratified. During that time, there is not a single reference to the Bible from the Federalists, those who were advocating the passage of the Constitution. The only ones during that time period who referenced the Bible were the anti-Federalists, who used the Bible to argue against the passage of the Constitution.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Den Hartog on Noll (& More)

Here is a post from Jonathan Den Hartog on Mark Noll's analysis use of the Bible during during the revolutionary debates.
Noll's significant contribution is to be able to step back from all of the documentation of the Bible in Revolutionary debates--and it was massive--to be able to systematize the scholarship and make sense of the welter of biblical uses. Some uses are simply rhetorical flourishes, biblical language as artistic embroidery for a political point. On a much stronger level, many Revolutionaries drew parallels between the cause of the colonies and ancient Israel. Noll thus demonstrates how "Hebraic" political thought could make in-roads into a biblicist America. Still others made sustained arguments through biblical exposition for one side or another.

Noll demonstrates extremely wide-ranging knowledge of the sources from the Revolution, but he also offers incisive close readings of important sermons and Biblical exchanges. I especially appreciated Noll's attention to a sermon by David Griffith, a patriot Anglican in Virginia, a sermon which comes as close as possible to earning Noll's approval of its biblical usage. Noll is also extremely perceptive on the debate between Tom Paine in Common Sense and the biblical rejoinders offered by loyalists. By tracking their arguments minutely, Noll demonstrates multiple interpretive strategies that were being used in the colonies.
This reminds me of the exhaustive studies I've done on George Washington's faith, trying to make sense of what he believed. On the one hand, some scholars have said GW didn't reference the Bible. That's false.

I have found some evidence that GW believed objective truth can be found in both "reason" and "revelation." But how he put them together remains a bit of a mystery.

One thing GW never or almost never (I hesitate to write in absolute terms) did was proof text verses and chapters of scripture in an authoritative sense. Rather his uses were almost always "rhetorical flourishes, biblical language as artistic embroidery for a political" or some other kind of  point.

This is something secular people do all the time. The Bible like Shakespeare greatly impacted the way we express ourselves. And this is applicable BOTH to the time of America's Founding AND in today's modern world.

Anyway here is an example from GW, taken from Mark D. writing at The New Reform Club. Addressing the Jewish community in Newport, Rhode Island, GW said:
May the children of the stock of Abraham who dwell in this land continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other inhabitants—while every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree and there shall be none to make him afraid.
The reference to the vine and fig tree is found a number of places in the Bible and was a phrase that GW often used.

And I write this post peacefully sitting in the comfort of my vine and fig tree.